The journey to the deepest part of the ocean

Making the nearly 11-kilometer descent to the deepest place on Earth, exploring the ocean floor, conducting scientific experiments, collecting samples, and returning safely to the surface requires a very sophisticated craft. It needs to be capable of withstanding tremendous pressures, if it is to explore the place less understood than the farthest reaches of space.

In 2012 James Cameron, in a sub like no other, conducted a dive to the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench. Unfortunately I was one of the last people to see the sub, prior to its damage in a fire during transportation. I was so incredibly impressed to see the vessel, investigate it and realize how small the sphere where the pilot sits is. I did not want to leave the place and asked the scientists thousands of questions. Here I was, touching something that reminded me of how amazing humanity can be, of how we can use technology, our ingenuity and hard work to explore, learn and act. I felt shivers down my spine. Maybe, one day, a woman will also dive to the deepest part of the ocean, I thought.

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Standing next to the submersible DEEPSEA CHALLENGER

This journey has only once been made prior to Cameron’s dive, by Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh. On 23 January 1960, the bathyscaphe Trieste reached the ocean floor in the Challenger Deep (the deepest southern part of the Mariana Trench). This was the first time a vessel, manned or unmanned, had reached the deepest known point of the Earth’s oceans. The two pioneers spent about 20 minutes on the ocean floor, but unfortunately the landing caused stirring up of the sediments and for the entire time the clouds of silt were everything that could be seen from the portholes.

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Marine Education -Giving back to my community

Everyone makes New Year resolutions. I wanted to make an ‘End of the Year resolution’ and actually do it, with the quickly approaching deadline as a motivation. I have set up to visit at least one of all the types of schools in a Polish education system, to talk about the oceans and share with the students some of what I have learned at the University. I managed to visit a pre-school, primary school, a ‘gymnasium’ (secondary school) and a high school. It was an intense, but also a very gratifying experience. I had to adjust the content and plan each lesson individually, to account for different age groups. I borrowed some interesting marine specimens and carried all of them across the city, going from school to school. People did actually look at me funny on the bus when I came in with a massive giant clam shell or something equally weird and heavy.

I went to the British International School in Gdansk and run an art workshop where we created ‘Oceans in Jars’. After a brief talk and an introduction to what marine biology is and why divers are so useful in exploring the oceans, each kid created their own jar by putting sand, stones, shells and sand dollars into it. They made little starfish from clay and stuck them on the inner side of of the glass. Then there were foam fish and even spring onion kelp! Sourcing all the necessary stuff the night before and travelling with 16 large glass jars without a car was a challenge, but it surely was an awesome day.

The lessons in a secondary school and the No 1 High School in Gdansk were  structured more like lectures, but I did once again bring all the shells and corals to show what sort of creatures live on the coral reefs. I also talked about ocean exploration, the deep-seas and the bioluminescence. Everyone asked so many questions that I guess I haven’t bored them to death. If I inspired at least one person to read more about the oceans, go out and explore and perhaps even consider a career of a marine scientist – it surely has been a huge success.

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Teaching Marine Biology in a primary school in Gdansk, Poland.

Today I had two lessons in a primary school with children aged 10-12. The first one was about coral reefs and the second one about exploration of the deep sea. I brought a compass with me and let the children decide where we go first. They had a choice of what we talked about and I was happy to let them decide where the lesson goes. They were indeed very interested and asked many questions.

I managed to borrow several beautiful specimens of shells and corals and show them to the children. Although we live by the Baltic sea, the kids have little knowledge of what wonders lie beneath the waves of the world’s oceans. Maybe one kid has seen a coral reef before, that’s all!

We embarked on a journey of imagination that took us far across the seas and into the deepest parts of the ocean. We learned about different ecosystems, from tropical reefs to polar regions and even hydrothermal vents in the deep-sea.

*No pics of children, since I had no time to ask their parents for permission. Believe me, they were there:)

I genuinely love doing this and enjoy sharing my knowledge about oceans with the next generation. Hopefully my passion will infect some of them and they will care for the oceans as much as I do!

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Summer Schools at the National Oceanography Centre

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These past few weeks have been very intense. I like living life intensely, even if it is at a cost of sleep. I have been involved with three Summer Schools at the National Oceanography Centre UK once again. For the first school we had 30 young (15-16 years old) girls and we wanted to inspire them to pursue STEM related higher education. Basically it was about having more females going for careers in engineering, technology and science.

The second Summer School was run by the EDT (Engineering development Trust) and offered a Headstart course for future university applicants. Our job as Science Staff was to demonstrate to and teach 60 teenagers about marine biology and oceanography. We got out on the R/V Callista and did some sampling in the local river Itchen Estuary and the Solent. We looked at the benthic and plankton communities and investigated with use of microscopes.

The third Summer School was sponsored by the BG and involved 120 young adults. We as the Science Staff were once again demonstrating, giving tours and lectures on both the research vessel and on the shore. I had a great time talking about the deep sea and bioluminescence, about applications of marine biology in biomedical science and giving tours around the aquarium. The students seemed to enjoy the schools as well and at the end of each one they presented their findings to an audience of peers, parents and teachers.

This is a very rewarding job and it makes me happy to hear that I have inspired a few teenagers to pursue ocean-related careers.

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summer schools staff

sfaff barAnd the final staff photo. We have survived the marathon of long days at work and what is more – we all enjoyed it!

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Bermuda on a scooter – timelapse.

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Bermuda from the air.

Maybe I am not Scott Stallard (do check his aerial photography of Bermuda – amazing) but even the views from little window of the plane are breathtaking… Just check out those reefs!

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What if you could spend your life sunbathing? – The upside-down jellyfish survey.

A Bermudian mangrove pond, seen from above and under the water.

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The Walsingham Pond is an anchialine pond, a type aquatic pool lacking surface connection with the open sea, but one that is permanently connected with the sea waters and thus still subject to tidal flushing.  One of the most noticeable features of the pond is the high abundance of the upside down jellyfish. They posess a symbitic algae, which perform photosynthesis. The pond is quite murky in deeper parts and thus the light penetration is limited.

The distribution of jellyfish, their abundance and size should therefore reflect the amount of light reaching the different depths.

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pond map

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Equipped with a sledge with a mounted GoPro camera, depth logger and a GPS we conducted a survey of the whole pond. It took us half a day of constant swimming, duck-diving and filming. But for the survey to be robust you need to put effort into it, even when it means hurting ears the day later.

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An ArcGIS plotted track. The only part of the pond not covered (SE)  is due to the loss of GPS connection.

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an example of a screenshot from the survey video. Shown in the middle are two individuals of Cassiopea sp. jellyfish, upside down, exposing the tentacles with algae. The analysis revealed that both the abundance and bell diameter are dependent on depth, used as a proxy for light.

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Worse than bad finning technique? The impact of a cruise ship grounding on a coral reef.

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Cruise ship that run aground on a coral reef near Bermuda

R/V Stommel - one of BIOS vesselsR/V Stommel that belongs to BIOS

I have travelled around the world and seen varios coral reef ecosystems. Most of them not in their best state, showing signs of destructive fishing methods, temperature induced bleeching events and loss of biodiversity.

This time I had a chance to conduct a post impact survey in Bermuda. On May 19th 2015 a cruise ship called ‘Norwegian Dawn’ run aground on a Bermudian reef due to a temporary loss of power. It left a 60m long scar and excavated lots of sediment and rubble. Although a tragic event in itself, it gave us an opportunity to see a cross-section of a coral reef.  It takes thousands of years for a reef to form and just a moment to destroy it.

But despite the obvious impact in the actual scar and the incredible amount of rubble and dead coral left, the scale of the impact seemed surprisingly small.

The reef I saw around Bermuda were actually one of the healthiest reefs I have ever visited! It is probably due to the combination of low temperatures (Bermudian reefs are some of the northern-most reef ecosystem in the world – the 1st place goes this time to Japan) and lack of distructive fishing methods. So although there are only around 20 species of corals in Bermuda, they seem to be doing quite well!

So what happens to the company that owned the cruise ship? Well, nothing really, they have not been fined yet. But it is to soon to say what will follow.

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The 60m long scar on a reef, left by a vessel that run aground

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Preparing for the survey

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Daving showing off his free-diving skills

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Still such a healthy reef!

DRAPELLA ZOFIA POSTER FINAL.pdf - Adobe Reader 15062015 050827

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Seagrass survey in Bailey’s Bay.

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Seagrasses are the only flowering plants inhabiting marine environment, that flower underwater. They can tolerate high salinity and are an important food source for marine turtles. They also serve as a nursery for juvenile fish. They prefer sheltered environments such as bays and need light to photosynthesize. Seagrass beds are however easily damaged due to anchoring, trawling and propellers. On the second day of the Tropical Marine Biology fieldwork held at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS) we surveyed seagrass beds in Baileys Bay. We looked at change in segrass density with depth (a proxy for light) and wave exposure. A second group looked at the impact of boat mooring on seagrass community. The data is now being analysed, but it looks like seagrass is more dense in shallow, sheltered areas. Different types of mooring also influence the seagrass density and the chains seem to have high scour, which creates halos of low density seagrass in close proximity to the mooring.

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Area of the survey – Bailey’s Bay location in the Bermuda archipelago.

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4 x 100m transects starting at a single point in the most exposed area (entry to the bay).

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This is how you should live your life. Or at least how I enjoy it.

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With the post –exam glory of freedom and relief, whatever do is probably bound to be awesome. But add to it a bunch amazing friends, people who challenge  your way of thinking, some deep conversations, a guitar and a cave and you are on a way to making a memory you will remember on your death bed.

And the cave? It is not just some dump smelly cold bit of rock. Rather the opposite, a gorgeous terrace in the cliff overseeing the English Channel.  You can sit on the edge and think of how long it would take you to free-fall to the sea. It is a feeling of happiness to stare at the reflection of the moon while dangling your legs like a little child. With a cider and some red wine, ­­fire to warm your thoughts and candle lit cave there is no better place to be and no better company to have.

I woke up bright and early, only to discover that in fact it is so early that everyone else is fast asleep and not willing to change that. My mind is still rushing, a state enforced by the exam session. There is no internet connection, no phone signal. I didn’t bring any book with me and there is noone to talk to. I am alone with my thoughs, but haven’t practiced meditation in a while. And there is no better spot for that than a flat rock at the edge off a 17m cliff, in the sunshine, even at 6am.  Two hours later others woke up and we made banana pancakes. Breakfest of gods, I can tell you.

Climbing in Swanage is great, even if a bit polished at times (especially sport climbing). I had a go at a very steep 6b+ and managed to get to the top. Very interesting moves.  DWS in the afternoon sunlight was very picturesque, and Will even managed to fall into the water of the top of the Freeborn Man.

What a great weekend. Slightly sunburn, sore and extremely happy we returned to our lives. Or what in my case was packing for the next great adventure!

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