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12 Aug - Drilling, Wildlife and a Rescue !

RRS James Clark Ross Diary

Position at 1200: 57 02.6° North, 010 31.2° West
Distance Travelled since Leith : 647.3 Nautical Miles
Air temperature: 13.2°C; Sea temperature: 14.7°C

"Every time I felt a movement I woke up........."

Gerry the 4th engineer who has either spent too much time in port with the ship not moving or has something he is not telling us!

So yes, at last we are actually moving, although some days not very far, as at the moment we are busy rock drilling, vibro-coring and gravity-coring. After we left Leith last week we steamed up and around the top of Scotland through Pentland Firth to the first of our drill sites which was just to the northwest of the Outer Hebrides. We then continued down towards the south staying fairly close in to the islands before finally turning west just off Barra Head. Today we are doing some stations on the Anton Dohrn Seamount (an underwater volcano!) that is about half way between the Hebrides and Rockall, which is where we are eventually going to end up.

Looking North towards the Orkney Islands. Click to enlarge In this picture of Pentland Firth (which separates the Orkney Islands from the Scottish mainland) you can see the beginnings of the very strong current - up to 16 knots - that flows through there causing lots of eddies and races, especially when the wind is opposing the tide. You can see some small ones in the picture. These can be very dangerous to shipping. We had to time our arrival there to make sure the tide was not against us as we would probably end up going backwards! (see Ian's piece on passage planning from last week). Luckily for us the weather was perfect, so it was not a problem.

The start of science........

We started our science stations not long after passing through Pentland Firth, and have been dashing from station to station ever since. This involves driving the ship onto the required position and using the electronic chart display to monitor progress. Once stopped on the correct position we activate the Dynamic Positioning System (DPS) to keep the ship in that place to a fine degree of accuracy. The DPS is a fancy computer tuned to the characteristics of the JCR, which controls the ships thrusters, propeller and rudder to keep her exactly (to within a couple of metres) over the required position. The process is a little more involved than that but basically that's it!

The aft console where we drive from, on station at night. Click to enlarge This is what the aft conning station looks like at night: ,from left to right, the radar, electronic chart and DPS console. You cannot hear the alarms here, though!

Once the ship is stopped and sitting quietly, the drill rig is launched over the stern and lowered to the sea bed. Once there it can sometimes take several hours before we see it again, depending on how hard the rock is and whether the drill gets stuck in the hole!
There will be more on the British Geological Survey side of things next week, when they have promised to write something for you.

This is our view from the bridge at night. Click to enlarge Recovering the drill rig at night. Click to enlarge

View from the bridge, and recovering the drill at night

Click to enlarge

It's not all drilling.......

Also on board we have our resident bird/fish/whale/dolphin/seal......etc etc. spotters, who have taken up residency on the monkey island. No matter what the weather, they are there with binoculars glued to their eyes. They still found some time, however, to write something about what they have been up to........

Whale and seabird hitchhikers on RRS James Clark Ross by Oliver Ó Cadhla and Mick Mackey.

As part of a major offshore survey of seabirds, whales and dolphins (otherwise known as cetaceans), two researchers from the Coastal Resources Centre of University College Cork have hitched a lift aboard the JCR for a two-week survey off Western Ireland and Britain.

The study is part of a three-year project undertaken on behalf of the Rockall Studies Group and Porcupine Studies Group of the Petroleum Infrastructure Programme - a programme set up by Ireland's Department of the Marine and Natural Resources in 1997. Since it is the first study of its kind in these waters, the main aims of the research are:

  • (1) To establish reliable baseline information on the distribution and abundance of seabirds and cetaceans off western Ireland throughout the year
  • (2) To identify critical habitats for these species
  • (3) To provide independent scientific information essential for conservation and management purposes

To collect the necessary information, Coastal Resources Centre scientists Oliver Ó Cadhla, Mick Mackey and Natasha Aguilar have been hitchhiking to sea on a wide range of ships since 2000 and performing their own seabird and cetacean surveys alongside a myriad of host research teams from various European countries. Both Oliver and Mick joined RRS James Clark Ross in Leith on 6 August 6 for a British Geological Survey cruise off Western Scotland and Rockall. Since departing for the open Atlantic less than one week ago they have recorded four dolphin species and a single minke whale, as well as a wide range of seabirds from small swallow-like storm petrels to the ubiquitous diving specialist gannets.

A Gannet 'hovering' over the ship. Click to enlarge A White sided dolphin. Click to enlarge

A Gannet and a White-sided Dolphin

A Minke whale, Click to enlarge
A Minke whale

Click to enlarge

As the ship heads west across the Rockall Trough to the tiny island of Rockall itself, the researchers hope to see some of the larger whales and rarer species known to inhabit these waters. Over the last couple of years both Oliver and Mick have recorded lots of interesting species in the Rockall region, including many migratory bird species as well as sperm whales, beaked whales and even one blue whale, the largest living animal on the planet. If the notorious Rockall weather is kind, who knows what they may discover (in the fog)?

The gannet, dolphin and whale photos by, and with thanks to, Oliver and Mick.

A diversion from the drilling.....

At around 2330 on Sunday night just as we were finishing a science station, we received a distress message on the bridge. This was from fishing boat Aurelia that was sinking only 29 miles NNE from us. In our area was also the Scottish Fisheries Protection Vessel Norna, who only minutes before had been talking with JCR over the radio.

As soon our drilling equipment was recovered and secured on deck, we made our way at full speed to the last known position of the fishing boat. The Norna arrived at the scene only 30 minutes before us and we stood by close-in to her, ready to assist if required. There were five fishermen on the boat who had to take to their liferaft as their boat sank just 10 minutes before the Norna arrived. The Norna launched her rescue boat, picked them all up quickly and safely, and took them on board.

By this time the Rescue Helicopter (Mike Uniform) from Stornaway was overhead. The men were winched up from the Norna, and taken off to Stornaway where they arrived shortly after 0300. All of this was undertaken in poor visibility with little wind, and we are pleased to say the rescue was a complete success. Our Congratulations to the Norna and commiserations to the fishermen.

Once we were released by Norna and the Stornaway Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC), we resumed our science program.
As a matter of coincidence, the Norna will also be at the International Festival of the Sea in Portsmouth for two days.

Passer's by, even here!

Just a quick hello to the two Irishmen who sailed past the other day and called up for a chat and weather forecast. They were bouncing around in their homemade 40' yacht, sailing from Barra back to Ireland after their holidays, we hope you had a safe trip home.

Also to Phil Wickens in the yacht Skycatcher he was a field assistant down at Rothera Base for two years (from 1997), and just happened to be sailing across the Anton Dohrn Seamount coming back from Rockall. He also called up for a chat......its a small world!

Coming up next week......

We will have more drilling and more looking for wildlife around Rockall, preparing the ship for the International Festival of the Sea in Portsmouth, and hopefully a comparison of the two current British Antarctic Survey ships: RRS James Clark Ross and RRS Ernest Shackleton as well as the Bransfield which was 'retired' in 1999.