A tour of the RRS Sir David Attenborough

What kind of data collection and research goes on inside a flagship research vessel?
16 December 2022

Interview with 

Will Whatley, BAS & Maria Fox, BAS & Kelly Hogan, BAS & Elaine Fitzcharles, BAS


The RRS Sir David Attenborough


Our planet’s oceans are under significant stress. 40% of the fish caught at sea is ‘bycatch’ and is killed without even being eaten. Carbon dioxide entering the water from the air is making the seas more acidic and dissolving the shells of crustaceans; and millions of tonnes of microplastics are affecting food chains and altering the development of some creatures: a paper just out shows that some sea urchin larvae aren’t growing properly for this reason.

But, to solve a problem, you first have to understand why it’s happening. And a key component is data. Unsurprisingly, when it comes to the oceans, that means getting your feet wet! A lot of marine study is done aboard research vessels, and one such vessel is the Royal Research Ship “Sir David Attenborough”.

The ship, operated by the British Antarctic Survey, was launched in July of 2018, hosts the infamous autonomous underwater vehicle ‘Boaty McBoatface’, and cost £200 million to build. That sort of money means the research vessel packs a serious scientific punch. I got the chance to visit just before the ship set sail a few weeks ago bound for Antarctica…

Will - I do remember as a young budding zoologist making a promise to my parents that one day I would meet David Attenborough. But as I turn the corner at the docks here in Harwich, I do have to say I do remember him looking a bit different on the telly. But regardless, it does sound like we are going to be treated to a tour of the ship, including the labs and the data center. But before that, we have a couple of very special interviews on the bridge. So let's go and have a look.

Captain Whatley - My name is Will Whatley and I'm the captain of the Royal Research Ship Sir David Attenborough.

Will - It's very exciting to be on board. I don't think, even though I saw the tagline of it being a £200 million build, I don't think I truly appreciated just how big this ship is until I first saw it. So for the benefit of the audio listeners at home, what kind of a size of ship are we looking at here?

Captain Whatley - The ship is immense in its size and its complexity. It's 128.9 meters long, 24 meters wide. The distance from the waterline to the top of the ship is 45.3 meters. It's 15,000 tons, but the actual technology density within the ship is the thing that's really big. It's so, so dense. There's so much capability packed into one hull and it's really unique in that regard. The ship does have really good ice breaking capability. The ship is designed to actually ride up on top of the ice and break it with the weight. And the design specification for the ship is to be able to do three knots in one meter thick ice. We can break stuff a bit more than that at slower speeds. And last season we completed our ice trials in the Antarctic very successfully and the ship was really maneuverable and performed very well.

Will - You're off on your second voyage now to the Antarctic. How long is it gonna take you to get down there?

Captain Whatley -
We leave on Sunday and it'll take about three weeks to get down to the Falklands and then another four or five days to get to the Antarctic from there. And there's good excitement amongst the crew. We're all very much looking forward to it. Even having been quite a few times now, it never gets old. Going to the Antarctic is something that we always want to do.

Will -
I'd assume you're therefore well stocked if you're at sea for three weeks.

Captain Whatley - We certainly are, yes. We actually do our main stock up here, so all the dried, the frozen, and all the stuff that lasts and we have a good stock up on fresh food as well before we go and we've got all the cargo and the food and the fuel for all the Antarctic research stations as well. So, we're not quite ready. We've still got a few days left, but we're nearly there.

Will - Our ship of this size presumably has quite an impressively sized crew.

Captain Whatley - We've got around 35 marine crew at the moment and we could take about 55 scientists so we could be up to 90 people in total, which is a fair amount.

Will - How long can you stay at sea? Is there a particular length that you usually go between stocking up on land?

Captain Whatley - Well, it very much depends on what we're doing and and what the mission is, but the main figure is around 60 days, which is actually quite a long time. Within that time you can achieve some, some pretty big science projects.

Will - What are the conditions like in the Southern Ocean? I've heard they're quite turbulent. I assume that there's counter measures in place for the science going on here.

Captain Whatley - There are. The ship's really well designed with those conditions in mind. So all the thrusters are really powerful so we can actually stay on station in rough weather and keep delivering marine science even in those rough conditions in the Southern Ocean.

Maria - I'm Professor Maria Fox from the British Antarctic Survey and I'm leading a team inside the AI lab at BAS focused on automating route planning for this beautiful vessel that we are now sitting on.

Will - Now I've never had the privilege of going to the Antarctic or the Antarctic ocean, but I can't imagine as much in the way of traffic or roads. So when you're using an AI to map out the best available course, what are you measuring? What are you taking into account?

Maria - So you are exactly right. There's no road network, there are no traffic rules, but there are extremely complex dynamic hazardous environmental conditions. So in particular in Antarctica you have very high winds, you have surface sea ice that's quite extensive for most of the year. You have icebergs that move around. Strong currents, very big waves, all the worst things you can imagine for actually being in a boat.

Will - How much time or distance is this hoping to shave off more traditional routes?

Maria - So it depends quite a bit, but what we know is that shipping accounts for the largest carbon emissions in polar science. So the goal here is to do what we can to reduce the carbon emissions of shipping in that context. And anything we can do is going to be beneficial. So what we're aiming for is something similar to what you see in a an in-car navigation system like Google Maps. But you know how, when you put your destination in, Google Maps will tell you the fastest route and it will also now tell you an eco route and it will promise to reduce your fuel consumption by some percentage. So we are aiming for a similar thing where the captain sets the goal of where they're trying to go and we will generate alternative routes, fast ones, low fuel use, low carbon emissions, et cetera. And usually that involves trying to avoid traveling through the thick ice because that is extremely fuel expensive.

Will - And these measurements that you're taking, presumably a lot of parameters, are they coming from measurements taken on the boat or are they taken from satellites? Is it a mix of the two?

Maria - It's a mix of the two at the moment. The bulk of our data comes from satellites. So we have several different forms of data, but it can be seen as measurements of quantities like current or wind or sea ice at particular geophysical locations in the ocean. So we get that data from satellites primarily, but historical data sets even forecast data sets, weather forecasts, sea ice, forecasts and so on. So yes, lots of different kinds of data, but it has to be given to us in a way that we, we can relate to locations in the ocean

Will - And as you said, marine vessels account for a great amount of the emissions that we produce. So this is an AI being attached to a flagship boat, very expensive, high-end, you know, a wonder of science type thing. But presumably in the future there is scope to attach this to all kinds of marine vessels so that everyone can have their go at shaving what emissions they can off their marine journeys.

Maria - Yep, that's a great question. So our code is all open source now. We made it open source just a few weeks ago. So anybody who wants to try doing some automated route planning in the ocean can use our code and also hopefully collaborate with us or raise issues and discussion with us because that's the goal of open source co-development.

Kelly - I'm Dr. Kelly Hogan. I'm a marine geophysicist and I work at the British Antarctic Survey. Most of my job involves coming on research ships like the Sir David Attenborough to collect data in the field around places like Antarctica and Greenland and then I take it home and analyze it and try to understand what's happening. What we're looking at here actually is some echo sounders and those are instruments that are on the bottom of the ship that send down sound to the seafloor and then we listen back for the echo and we do various things of that information. So the one over here on the left hand side is something called a multibeam sound. It basically maps out the depths to the seafloor and we get a nice 3D image of the sea floor. And these marks that you are looking at here which are sort of big stripes or gouges on the seafloor are where icebergs have plowed through the muds and the sands that are down there. Another kind of echo sound that we have here looks just straight down from the ship and straight back up again. And we get the layers of sediment that are there on the seafloor and just beneath. And we use that to, if we want to take a sample from the sea floor, we use that to see where there might be good layers to go and target.

Will - And what are we hoping to find when we sample these samples?

Kelly - Well a lot of my research focuses around understanding where ice used to be and how it may have retreated or decayed away in the past. The reason that we want to do all this now is because as our climate is warming, we are looking at trying to understand how an ice sheet might respond to either a warmer atmosphere or warmer air or warmer waters getting close to the ice and melting them. So what we can do if we take a sample of the sediments for example, we can tell things like did the ice decay away by melting into actual meltwater that went into the oceans or by chopping off lots of icebergs and dropping big pebbles and sands. So we can actually tell that from the sediments that we recover from the sea floor.

Will - And once we have all this useful information, how are we hoping to communicate it to the policy makers or the general public?

Kelly - Yeah, that's a fantastic question. I mean, we always work really hard to pass on the information that we find to both policy makers and the public. That can be through stories from the media or social media for the general public through our website, um, through tweets, through videos. There's lots of outreach that we do with schools and education. It's really important to pass this on to the younger generation now coming through, they have the energy for this. They are the ones inheriting our planet. It is difficult to get the right information to policy makers, but we do the very best we can in terms of getting the key results to them. In KBIs of policy documents like the intergovernmental panel for climate change, the IPCC reports a lot of our key results for Antarctica and Greenland will go into those documents and that's what policymakers use to help their planning and help them make their decisions.

Elaine - My name is Dr. Elaine Fitzcharles, I'm the senior laboratory manager for the British Antarctic Survey.

Will - So you've brought me down here to the labs. Now this is eerily reminiscent of A-Level chemistry labs here. It looks, I'm sure you won't mind me saying, a bit bare at the moment, save for a few fumigation hoods. Presumably there's something a bit more important going on here than me setting fire to my lab coat.

Elaine - This is the main laboratory that we're in. It is very much a large open space, but the intention is that when we have science cruises on board, the scientists can bring their own specialist equipment on board to use when they're here. So it is very much just space for them to fill and it will fill when we have a science crew.

Will - It's massive <laugh>, it's really big and it goes on.

Elaine - So we have 13 laboratories on this ship and we also have four additional container laboratories that are very specialist in their function that we can bring on board when the science needs it. So it's a massive amount of space to be able to do science in.

Will - And a huge selection of freezer rooms as well.

Elaine - We do have quite a lot of freezers on board. We have a walk-in freezer, a walk-in fridge. We've got minus 80 freezer storage and we've got lab fridges and freezers scattered throughout. But because we collect things that are in the cold, we have to preserve them in the cold to bring them back.

Will - And what sort of exciting things are going to be going on in here?

Elaine - So there will be water analysis. What we do is look at the nutrient content of water. We've got other labs where we've got specialist equipment to look at how salty the water is. So it's all about what's there for the algae, the plant life in the ocean, the animal life in the ocean to feed on. And how that then affects bigger things of fish, mammals, everything. It's all linked. So we're looking at the baseline studies. We'll also have people who are collecting marine invertebrates. So krill is one that we study quite a lot. It's a very fundamental food source in the southern ocean. And they'll be coming in here to look at things like lipid content. They'll look at diet of different animals. So it's very much a multi-functional space. We'll have people looking at sediment cores to look at what the seabed is like. So yes, it's about being able to adapt it to the different cruise requirements.

Will - And how are you going to go about getting your samples?

Elaine - So one of the things with the ship is we have several places we can drop things over the side. So we can put equipment over to collect water, we can put corers down to the seabed to collect sediment samples off the seabed. We've got nets that we can use to fish, we can take some fish off the seabed as well. So we can put them off the back of the ship. We can put them off the side of the ship. And in really bad weather we've got what is called the 'moon pool', which is essentially a large hole through the middle of the ship that we can put the equipment through. If it's not safe to put it over the side or if we're sitting in ice, we can still do the science and study what's on the seabed underneath the ice.

Will - When someone explained to me what the moon pool was, they said 'it's a giant hole in the middle of the boat'. And I thought surely that sounds a bit counterintuitive. I'm going to assume that you have it all sorted out.

Elaine - Yes, we do. So currently it is closed. We have a cover over the top so we make sure that it's safe and we would only open it when we're actually needing to use it for science. But it's very much just a hole through the middle of the boat. It doesn't affect the boat's safety. We've done a lot of modeling and how it affects the boat's performance when it's at sea as well. So it's perfectly safe, but it is a hole through the ship. <laugh>,

Will - I've had to huddle back into my car because the weather here is doing its best Antarctic impression. But hopefully that gives you some idea of some of the many wonderful things going on during this ship's expedition to the South Pole and to the RRS David Attenborough, Bon Voyage.


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