Shelf Sea Biogeochemistry blog

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Call of Duty - Receiving a distress call

This week we were all reminded that RRS Discovery is more than just a research ship. On the open ocean, every vessel has a responsibility to play their part in the safety of the rest of the sea-going community.

Sampling activities at our first process station; Central Celtic Sea (CCS), were drawing to a close. All on board were starting to get into the swing of things. Most operations had run smoothly so far, including two pre-dawn sampling points, which at this time of year begin at 02.00 am!

At approximately 13.00 pm many scientists and technicians were on deck sampling seawater from the midday CTD; the piece of equipment which is deployed over the side of the ship to collect water from many different depths. Although sampling at CCS was not yet complete we noticed the ships engines rumble to life and the ship beginning to move. Soon after, Captain Jo appeared on deck with some somewhat startling news, at least for those of us who are not seasoned seamen.

RRS Discovery had received a distress call. The hull of an upturned vessel had been sighted from an aircraft, and we were in close vicinity and were required to respond immediately. The steam west to the site of the incident took approximately 3 hours, and it was all eyes on deck to keep a look out for anything unusual. Needless to say the atmosphere was tense, but the crew were incredibly calm and professional.

Cargo Ship and spotter plane look on as the boat from Discovery investigates
upturned hull.

When recovered Goose Barnacles indicate that the rusty old open boat has
clearly been at sea for a considerable time!

At around 16.00 we spotted a tiny brownish speck bobbing in the swell; the hull of a very small upturned boat. A light aircraft from the Irish coast guard was surveying from above, and a large container ship had reached the scene first, but neither had the means to move in for a closer look. 

With a readily deployable rib, RRS Discovery is better prepared than most vessels for the situation. Three brave crew members rose to the challenge of boarding the rib; 2nd Officer Vanessa, 3rd Engineer Angus and Petty Officer Willie. Watched anxiously by the rest of us they motored out to make an inspection, where to everyone’s great relief they found that the boat had clearly been adrift for quite some time, and was not a recent capsize. It was reddish-orange with rust, spattered with white bird poo, and hundreds of barnacles clung to its submerged surfaces. Some skilful manoeuvring by both the crew on the rib and on board the Discovery brought the old wreck alongside, and it was carefully winched aboard, in order that it would not cause an alarm to be raised in the future. The biologists among us ogled the stalked goose barnacles; beautiful yet slightly repulsive as their fleshy parts struggled and groped in vain for cool seawater. Meanwhile, the trace metal group shuddered at the amount of rust on the deck, and gave it a wide berth. 

The boat has been carefully stowed atop Alex and Chris’s container lab. They look forward to the stench of rot that will inevitably ensue if the sun decides to make an appearance.

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