An undergrad story: life as a ship-based geologist

Our UCC scientist team from left to right: Marian (PhD), Prof. Andy, Antoinette (BSc Earth science), Brennus (myself: BSc Int. Field Geology), Mark (PhD) and Aaron (PhD)

Our UCC scientist team from left to right:
Marian (PhD), Prof. Andy, Antoinette (BSc Earth science), Brennus (myself: BSc Int. Field Geology), Mark (PhD) and Aaron (PhD)

My name is Brennus and I’m a fourth year BSc International Field Geosciences student at UCC. As part of my curriculum, I took a marine geology module which is jointly offered by UCC and NUI Galway. This course is intended to introduce core concepts such as geoscience operations at sea and benthic ecology which are applied during a two day cruise on the Research Vessel Celtic Voyager.

I found the cruise so interesting and instructive that after docking back in Cork Harbour I was already thinking of heading to sea again. When I heard that the School of Biological, Earth & Environmental Sciences (BEES) was getting ready for a research survey in January I immediately asked Professor Andy Wheeler (Geology – BEES) if there was a spot available for me.

A few weeks later I was in Dublin embarking on the Research Vessel Celtic Explorer for 5 days with 6 German scientists from University of Bremen and 5 scientists from BEES. This was the real deal. The RV Celtic Explorer is the Voyager’s big sister. She is 65.5 meters long full ocean going vessel and has an endurance of 30 days and can cross the Atlantic.

The main objective of our survey was to investigate the sub-seabed properties of the substrate at potential wind farm localities off the coast of Dublin and also to understand more about seabed composition and development. On board was the 8 tonne Geotechnical Offshore Seabed Tool or GOST. The GOST system was shipped from the University of Bremen. It is lowered to the seabed and uses a cone penetration testing (CPT) tool to record resistance and other parameters of soft sediments down to a depth of 40 metres below seabed. These parameters can then be processed for assessing foundation designs of wind turbines and understanding more about the fundamental properties of the sediments. The big risk when using the CTP was hitting large rocks or bedrock which would break the sensitive cone or rupture the rods…

The crew deploying the 8 tonne GOST sub-seabed property testing rig.

The crew deploying the 8 tonne GOST sub-seabed property testing rig.

At 08.00pm on Friday 10th January we set sail to our first locality. Four hours later we were on station and ready to start deploying the GOST. It was the beginning of a very long night but I was assigned to day shifts so I decided to go to bed. The next morning, I was woken up to help assemble new rods. During the night, after successfully probing 30m into the seabed, the rods had snapped and we needed all hands on deck to prepare for the next deployment. It was amazing to see how efficient both the scientific team and the crew were at handling the device after only a few deployments.

We then had 3 successful deployments but on Sunday morning at 3.00am, the cone and a few rods had detached from GOST during transit and were lost, another setback. We had to bring the GOST back on deck for maintenance and unfortunately by the time it was ready for deployment the weather had really picked up and it was too dangerous to deploy.

“11.00am 12/01/14 – Weather update Wind speed: 28.0m/s and gusting at 38 m/s, Wind direction: 160°, Swell height: 2.7m, Gale force 8, Weather should improve after 20.00. Cannot deploy GOST until then.”

“11.00am 12/01/14 – Weather update
Wind speed: 28.0m/s and gusting at 38 m/s, Wind direction: 160°, Swell height: 2.7m, Gale force 8, Weather should improve after 20.00. Cannot deploy GOST until then.”

During my shift on Sunday, the ensuing Force 8 gale was pretty bad and all operations were on halt. Everything got really quiet on the vessel and only the sound of the waves crashing on the hull and the vibrations of the engines could be heard. The activity on the vessel only came back to life in the evening however as the swell decreased and preparations were made for the redeployment of GOST. The next two days of deployments went well and we gained a unique understanding of seabed sediments down to bedrock at 30m. A job well done despite a few dramas.

Being on a scientific cruise was for me was a milestone experience in my studies and I consider myself very lucky. During the 5 days, I spent on the Celtic Explorer I realized how difficult it can be working on a research vessel at sea. Technical difficulties can arise and escalate very rapidly if not dealt with correctly. A ship-based scientist needs to be able to adapt rapidly and modify the plan to suit the weather and technical difficulties and this means sometimes waking up in the middle of your off-duty time.

Sunrise on the Irish Sea

Sunrise on the Irish Sea

I have experienced a real sense of camaraderie among the crew and scientists and difficult situations only made the easier times more enjoyable. The cruise was very successful in assessing the sub-seabed conditions and I feel like I have gained a lot of knowledge about geoscience operations at sea. I had an amazing time on the RV Celtic Explorer and I would like to thank Professor Andy Wheeler and the rest of the School for giving me this opportunity and the crew for their hospitality.

 Brennus Voarino

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