THURSDAY, DECEMBER 20, 2018
Scientists voyage into Antarctic unknown
A group of intrepid scientists leaves Wellington for Antarctica tomorrow on board NIWA’s research vessel Tangaroa for
what their leader calls “a voyage of discovery”.
The 21 scientists, supported by 19 crew members, will be studying ocean, atmosphere and ecosystem processes in the
Southern Ocean with the focus on establishing monitoring programmes for the newly created Ross Sea Marine Protected Area
(MPA). Scientists from China, Italy and France are also on board.
Tangaroa in the Southern Ocean on a previous Antarctic voyage. Photo: Helen Bostock.
At more than 1.55 million km2 in size, the MPA is the world’s largest and just a year old. It comprises a range of zones
from fully protected to special research zones, as well as areas left open to fishing.
Voyage leader Dr Richard O’Driscoll says the main aim of the trip is to increase knowledge about key processes in the
Ross Sea and to provide baseline information about the MPA so scientists can start to evaluate its effectiveness.
“During the voyage we will be making a range of observations from the atmosphere and water column. We will also
undertake some biological sampling of small fish and fish living close to the seabed that are potentially impacted by
the toothfish fishery,” Dr O’Driscoll says.
“It’s not about trying to predict a response but knowing how many are there so we can continue to monitor them over
Seven moorings will be retrieved and redeployed. The moorings have scientific instruments attached to them and were
originally dropped overboard during a similar voyage a year ago. The instruments will be brought back to Wellington to
see what they have recorded during their year in the ocean.
Three moorings carry oceanographic instruments to better understand the outflow of cold, deep Antarctic water important
for ocean circulation from Cape Adare.
Three others are whale listening posts spread over a wide area to record whale vocalisations. “Everyone is very excited
to see what the acoustic listening posts will have picked up” Dr Matt Pinkerton says.
The Ross Sea continental slope was probably a hotspot for sperm whales at one time, but they are rarely seen there now.
The acoustic data will tell us if sperm whales are still visiting the Ross Sea”.
There is also an echosounder mooring that will look at the seasonal cycle of krill and small fish - the main prey for
the Adelie penguins that live at Cape Adare. The redeployed moorings will stay in place for the next two years.
NIWA principal scientist Dr Matt Pinkerton is leading the complex Ross Sea Research and Monitoring Programme, known as
Ross-RAMP, which is tracking change and evaluating the conservation values of the MPA. This project also supported
recent fieldwork on Weddell seals near Scott Base led by Dr Kim Goetz.
It is the first programme in the world to bring together information from satellite, earth-system models, fishing
vessels, Antarctic field stations and research voyages like this one, to assess the conservation value of the MPA.
Dr Pinkerton says the proposed research to set up a monitoring programme for the MPA involves complex, innovative
science to address crucial knowledge gaps. “We believe that only by creating such an ambitiously multidisciplinary
project can we disentangle the effects of human exploitation from environmental variability.”
Ross-RAMP is laying the foundation for research on the cumulative effects of climate change and fishing that will be
internationally significant. “The project will provide New Zealand with a world-leading and cost-effective approach for
assessing environmental and ecosystem change over the next 35 years,” Dr Pinkerton says.
Meanwhile, Dr O’Driscoll says the biggest challenge of any voyage to Antarctica is the conditions.
“Any seagoing voyage has the weather to deal with and you’re never going to be able to work every day. But this one also
has the challenge of sea ice and we have been keeping an eye on the ice predictions to try and work out where to go
Dr O’Driscoll last led an Antarctic voyage in 2015 where sea ice prevented Tangaroa from accessing several areas, but
last year’s Antarctic voyage was almost devoid of sea ice.
“The ice can change daily with the winds and currents and can have a huge impact on what you do. This year we have
undertaken some preliminary ice analysis and will also receive daily weather forecasts and satellite images to help us
determine the order of our research.”
With eight science objectives to carry out, plus other work for international organisations, Dr O’Driscoll says the
multi-disciplinary nature of the voyage will mean a lot going on.
“Everyone thinks their objective is the number one priority so as voyage leader I have to manage expectations and come
up with a plan that keeps everyone happy. If we come back with everybody on board happy with what they’ve achieved, from
my point of view that’s a successful trip.”
The logistics involved in an Antarctic voyage are enormous. Permits, biosecurity checks and other approvals must be
sought and then there’s the safety considerations for everyone on board.
Two survival containers have been installed on the ship containing rations, clothing and tents and all passengers must
undertake survival training. Heating, ice matting and emergency generators have also been added.
“There is a lot of risk analysis to try and minimise the risk associated with going into such a hostile environment. We
are going to places we have never gone before and putting cameras down onto areas of the seabed where no one has looked
before. It really feels like a voyage of discovery. The Ross Sea still has large areas which are unknown,” Dr O’Driscoll
The voyage is jointly funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment through the Ross-RAMP programme,
NIWA, and the University of Auckland.
Tangaroa leaves Wellington tomorrow for its 13th voyage to Antarctica. It will return in mid-February.