Monday, February 22, 2016

Change of route

I love being here! (You can see how happy I am from the photo below ;-) )

Tom Holmes (UTAS/IMAS/ACE CRC) and I enjoying a sunset at the bow (photo credit: Pete Harmsen)

Working on a research vessel is never the same. We work in labs, in front of a computer, we sample waters or operate winches (not on this one, though). We are never still, constantly balancing our weight, carrying heavy stuff around, smashing wooden boxes with big hammers or karate-like kicks (lots of fun!), operating under rain or freezing wind. Working in the Southern Ocean means also breathtaking Auroras, majestic sunsets (like the one below), funny penguins, silent icebergs and great fun. But it's not just that (although it definitely is for a large part). Sailing on a boat, in general, is risky (remember what happened to my shipmates during the big roll of Jan 27? check it out on my blog if you missed it out) and tough, and one has to pay much more attention than usual when doing normal things, such as walking or carrying things. But here in the Southern Ocean we must take even more special care of ourselves, due to the distance from any land, any help (several days divided us from the closest city, while on the plateau). That means that if something happens.. well.. it can be really really dangerous. 

Stormy sunset

On some cruises (like this one) there might be a doctor, but despite their expertise and skills, there's only much they can do on a ship. Unfortunately, on this voyage a medical emergency occurred, and 10 days ago we had to depart from the plateau and started to make our way to the closest port (Fremantle, WA), which we would have reached in more than 1 week, while steaming at full speed. Fortunately, our shipmate's conditions stabilized since then, and consequently we changed our course first to Hobart, then decided to take the patient to the closest port (and hospital), in order to avoid any medical complications.

The patient is being transported to Albany (WA) on one of the lifeboats

I'm happy to say that the patient is now in good care and recovering well (my thoughts are with you, friend!!!!). We are now on our route to Hobart, which we should reach in 6 days or so (depending on the weather). For the moment, we are processing data, discussing future publications and collaborations and writing reports of the cruise. But also enjoying a bit of break outside on the foredeck, with some music, relaxing on a hammock, sunbathing (we're very close to the Australian coast, so it's very warm.. more than 35 deg C!).. or having a gym session (led by me, of course ;-) ). 

May this return be smooth and enjoyable for everyone!


We couldn't complete our research projects, so no more of my planned SOCCOM floats will be deployed this time (but don't worry: we're already working on a future plan, and these floats won't miss their opportunity to dive in the Southern Ocean!! stay tuned for future updates ;-) ). But, my thought is that no matter how vital our job is, Life has always the priority.


A storm is building up in Western Australia. This (and others that are expected in the next days) might delay our return to Hobart..

Monday, February 15, 2016

Art in science.. science in art

A voyage like this wouldn't be so special if it wasn't for the people aboard. Today, my words are for the 3 amazing artists that I had the privilege to get to know, and who are teaching me how to create new perspectives to look at the world..

Annalise Rees is an Australian visual artist currently undertaking a PhD at the Tasmanian College of the Arts, University of Tasmania. She has joined the Investigator as a voyage artist, opening up a dialogue between scientific and artistic research. Specifically, Annalise's research is exploring the use of drawing based methodologies used to describe and translate human interactions with and within unknown and unfamiliar maritime environments. She is also collaborating with fellow voyager, dancer/choreographer James Batchelor, working towards presenting a dance installation work in March 2017.

Annalise outside on the deck to capture the details of Mcdonald Island on paper

I find myself staring at her drawing.. she has this incredible skill in capturing THE moment, the bubbles streaming out from a wave, the bond between a glacier and a volcano, the motion of the crew working on the deck, the intense look of the first mate sitting on a chair.. If you wanna know Annalise's work, please visit her website and her blog

This is also the first experience at sea for James Batchelor. He is a choreographer, dancer and filmmaker based in Canberra and Melbourne. He makes installations and performances using contemporary dance and other visual mediums as primary tools. He thinks about contemporary dance as a vast realm of physical and emotional possibility, a dance of the now, an awareness of the present and moving body (beautiful!!). He says that working with the contemporary is inherently an ever changing and evolving practice, which demands both a remarkable level of skill and patience. Over time, he says that particular curiosities emerge, leading to questions ("What am I looking at? What is the physical process? How does it work?…"), which he responds to through a physical process, developing movement and image. Through his performance, he aims to drive the curiosity of the audience and inspire others to ask the same questions. On this voyage, he thinks that the role of art is crucial in helping to express, translate and visualize in a  way that can be understood the scientific readings that through technology we can achieve. 

He looks very inspired by the environment.. sometimes you can see him dancing under the sun, on the bow, despite the freezing wind.. or flying like an albatross on the second level deck.. He happily agreed to give us stretching lessons these days, as working on a boat has the amazing skill of killing your back and legs.. Thank you James!!! For more info on this young talented artist, have a look at his website:

James Batchelor dancing on the deck (photo credit: Pete Harmsen)

With his smile and an always happy and enthusiastic personality, Pete Harmsen has never missed to diligently and passionately record the life aboard the RV Investigator. 

Me: "how are u Pete?". 
Pete: "I'm like a box of fluffy ducks"

:-) With his contagious happy spirit, I let him talk about his goals on the RV Investigator:

"When the MNF asked me if I would like to go to Heard island it took me a microsecond to say YES!! The chance to see Australia's highest mountain, two active volcanoes and the most remote place on the planet, deep in the Southern Ocean all sounded like a once in a lifetime adventure. The fact that we wouldn't actually step onto any land only slightly dampened my enthusiasm. The good ship RV Investigator, and its excellent crew have made for a very comfortable and efficient home away from home for all 60 of us. It is actually a little village, without a park or a pub. My task has been to document the science and supply media with imagery, both video and stills. There have been many blogs published, several newspaper articles, television stories and even the first ever television live cross from RV Investigator to ABC News24, broadcast nationwide. Our story about the eruption of Big Ben on Heard island attracted worldwide coverage and over 150,000 youtube views. We are also providing Discovery Channel in the USA with material for a feature story on their Daily Planet science program. All scientists have been very accommodating about having cameras on board documenting what they see as their day to day lives, but which to most of us is fascinating climate research in an unique and spectacular environment. The work they are doing here is vital to understanding and mitigating climate change. We need them and we need this work to continue, so the awareness I am providing through my images is a very worthwhile and rewarding assignment for me."
Wow!! 150,000 youtube views!! GO SCIENCE and GO PETE!!!! :-D If you're interested in Pete's work and contact, check his website out:

 Chief Scientist Prof. Mike Coffin (left), IT support Hugh Barker (middle) and Pete Harmsen (right) during the "first ever television live cross from RV Investigator to ABC News24" (photo credit: Brett Muir)


The other day I had my second lesson of art, where I got to draw a portrait of Annalise. I'm pretty impressed of how it went.. and how fast I drew. I think that, with the right guidance (and a good dose of stubbornness) one can learn to do basically anything. Maybe, we won't all be Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo.. or Einstein. But surely we can learn how to express ourselves in many different forms, learn how to create something, interrogate nature and analyze its millions of different faces. Creativity apart, art is made of analytical observation and ability. And like anything else, it can be trained. Annalise and I had a very interesting conversation about how to represent something that we can observe, by first making it ours, inside us, and then convey it in a final product on a piece of paper or plaster or wood or whatever else. It was one of those conversations that can really open new doors of perception of the reality around us. I recognized that I often don't look carefully at the world around me. I mean, I'm deeply aware of whatever is around me and how it can affect me or the people sharing the same space (kind of training I got from living in a "troubled" suburb of Turin). But often I cannot describe an object or a person in details, once they are not in my visual. I just move on, to the next frame.

That made me think. 

I came up with the resolution that my work (and my personal life) would benefit if I could be more attent to the details of the space around me, at a more conscious level. For example, would I be able to describe the shape, the corners, the change of colors of the chair next to me? how shadow and light play a game to hide and reveal particulars? is the surface smooth? lucid? is there any particular smell I can smell? can I describe it? how does the object relate to the environment? to myself? ...These kind of thoughts. 

I guess that, as a scientist and an amateur photographer, the art of observing is already in me. But I think it resides at a deeper level, where the instinct reigns. Now I'd like to bring this on a more conscious level. I'm curious to see what will happen if I succeed on this exercise..

For the moment, I keep working, taking photos, drawing.. and exploring a new way to look at things:

Me, on my way to turn into a bat.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Of all the things I always wished to witness..

Sometimes, the best memory is what we keep in our heart.

This is one of those.

I must say that this voyage has offered a never-ending series of emotions and discoveries. Yes, sometimes the work gets very slow, as with the furious fifties that do their best to shake the boat and make any attempt to hold the position pretty useless, we cannot always sample water or rocks, but map the ocean floor and wait for a window of calmer weather.

But, this is also part of the beauty.. a reminder that we are just privileged guests, in an environment that takes any opportunity to show its power and explosive magnificence. 

So, today, as I was saying, is one of those moments for which no camera would do any justice to what I just witnessed. For the first time of my life, I saw an Aurora Australis! 

I think that in the rush to the bridge, I've waken up all the already asleep shipmates and the resting albatrosses and penguins.. till Antarctica!! 

At the bridge, there's no light at night, as it will interfere with the visibility outside. And coming from a bright room, it's always a bit of a challenge not to stumble on something or smash the face against one of the windows.. But as the eyes get used to the darkness, well.. that's the moment when the curtains of the theatre opens.. And like at the theatre (one of those super elegant, such as the Teatro Regio in Turin, for example), it's silent all around, and dark and still. People are breathless, waiting for that very first note, the very first light from the stage, their eyes searching in the infinite darkness..

Smoothly and in an elegant slow motion, the green lights from the Aurora defines the horizon in front of my eyes. 

And I stop with my mouth open and no breath left in my lungs.
Beneath, the waves rumble against the steel of the ship, splashing till level 2, while the wind roars furious outside. Some black clouds confound the shape of the Aurora and timid stars wait patiently behind, for their moment to shine.

The imagination cannot fully describe what I saw. And neither the words, I'm afraid..

I have no digital record of this, as I said.. but an unforgettable one nonetheless..


It's 3:15AM now.. and I think I need some ice-cream before going to bed ;-)


Friday, February 5, 2016

"Under pressure"

I think it's time to talk a bit more about how we collect water samples, which we then analyze to reveal different properties of the water masses. We use what is called a "Conductivity Temperature Depth" rosette, or just CTD, like the one you see in the pictures below. The CTD carries a series of instruments and bottles mounted on a cylindric frame, and is attached to a wire, which enables us to receive data on real time and to deploy the instrument in the water.. and get it back. 

One of the CTD rosettes in the CTD room.

The bottles are deployed open in the water and closed at defined depths (wherever we think there's an interesting structure to sample). In the lab, which here is called "Operations room", we receive data of temperature, salinity (computed from the conductivity), depth (actually, it's pressure) and many other data, as many as the instruments we mount on the frame are (such as velocity, fluorescence, oxygen, etc.). As the CTD is lowered towards the ocean floor, we can create depth profiles for each type of data. Then, by looking at these data, we can define the depths at which we wanna collect the waters (and hence close the bottles) and guide the shipmate working as winch operator throughout the cast. 

During one of the CTD cast, Robin (on the right) and I (left) are checking the profiles, communicating with the winch operator to guide the activity and closing the bottles at desired depths.

During my shift I am responsible of the CTD operations. Honestly, I have a lot of fun, especially with the guys that drive the winch: they are very professional and very careful, but super funny and they never lack of making fun of my accent on the radio (apparently, it constantly shifts from sounding like french, italian or mexican..). There's just one moment that I find very stressful all the times, but fortunately I can share my stress with one of the engineers, who is responsible of all the instruments. The closer we are to the bottom of the ocean, the tenser we get. We have several instruments on board that can tell us what the expected maximum depth is at the location of the cast, but no such instruments are on the CTD. We only have a measure of the pressure at which the CTD is and we have an altimeter, which tells us how close we are to the bottom.. but it only starts to work when the CTD is at no more than 50 m from the bottom. Which is really really close. On the last 100 m, Nicole (the engineer) and I stare at the altimeter, waiting for it to kick in. This is when I wear my lucky ewok-beanie and I'm super concentrated. The thing is that we don't really wanna hit the bottom: things can crash and break, plus: it can also be dangerous. But we are a good team, and things are going really smooth. 


Anna and Jodi collecting samples from the CTD bottles

Jodi and me in the CTD room, to draw samples.

Once we finish the cast, more action begins! Some of us go into the CTD room to collect samples of water from the bottles, which will then be analysed for different properties: some samples will give us an indication of how much oxygen is dissolved at the different depths, some will inform us about the content of salt, or nutrients, bacteria, chlorophyll, helium (this has the longest and the most curious sampling method!), pH, carbon, etc.. Some analyses can be done on board, some have to wait to be back on land: for those which have to wait, we make sure to store the samples in some safe place on the ship.

Kendall's working on the analysis of some water samples, in the Hydrochemistry Lab.

Unfortunately we are not always able to do a CTD cast, as the weather doesn't allow it. But when we can, we basically have the chance to get data from the interior of the ocean!! If you think about it, each cast represents a tiny point in the whole vaste ocean, such as the profiles that the floats send us. But with more and more casts, we can map a larger portion of the ocean, we can have vertical sections of the ocean, that keeps us informed of what's happening not only close to the surface, but at depth as well, and track water masses in different parts of the ocean.

Uh!! And then you get to decorate and send polystyrene foam cups down with the CTD.. which, because of the pressure they are brought to, come up all super cute and tiny.. how cool is that?! :-)

A couple of my creations.. :) A Dalek (on the left) and an octopus wrapped around a float (right). For a comparison: the penguin on the background is about 10 cm tall.