RV Investigator: A science lab goes to sea

RV <em>Investigator</em> at sea. Image: Ben Arthur, CSIRO/Marine National Facility.

RV Investigator at sea. Image: Ben Arthur, CSIRO/Marine National Facility.

Investigating Australia’s oceans

Commander Matthew Flinders and the crew of HMS Investigator spent three years circumnavigating Australia. From 1801-1803 a team of British sailors, soldiers, artists and scientists and an Aboriginal man, Bungaree, from the Guringai area around Broken Bay, just north of Sydney, charted the coastline and analysed marine and terrestrial flora and fauna. To support scientific observations the ship was outfitted with a greenhouse, microscopes, and a library. The cartographic and hydrographic work conducted by HMS Investigator stands as a meticulous record of the natural composition of our coastal nation and its surrounding waters.

215 years later, at the behest of the Australian public, CSIRO Marine National Facility (MNF) blue-water research vessel RV Investigator, is rewriting history as it pieces together the most complete modern map of our territorial waters. It is capable of hosting 40 scientists on sea voyages up to 60 days over a 10,000 nautical mile radius from the icy waters of Macquarie Island to the Coral Sea. A modern version of its historic predecessor, RV Investigator is outfitted with laboratory spaces, acoustics and scientific winches to accommodate all aspects of atmospheric, oceanographic, biological and geosciences research. Plus, onboard cameras beam back live images from its current voyage every 10 minutes.

Here at the museum, we also have a keen interest in exploring the oceans; scientific and environmental issues and actions as well as cultural understandings of the ocean sphere. Luckily for me, I’ve recently started at the museum as the inaugural Curator of Ocean Science and Technology, just in time to score a berth on board the vessel for last week’s eight-day transit voyage (14-21 May 2018) from Brisbane to Hobart.

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Visiting vessel RV Whale Song

Whale Song at sea

RV Whale Song at sea

We have a visitor at the museum! Whale research vessel Whale Song arrived last Thursday and will be moored at the museum wharves until 21 January.

On Thursday, I went onboard to have a look around. During my visit I met Curt and Michelle who live and research on the vessel with their daughter and two professional crew… Oh, and Skipper their fiesty little watch dog! Curt and Michelle generously showed me around the vessel and told me about their facsinating whale research.

I learnt that Whale Song is an ice class research vessel specifically built to conduct whale research throughout the worlds’ oceans.  Her hull and machinery are sound dampened so that whale songs can be heard using towed acoustic arrays (a series of underwater microphones) while the vessel is underway.  She may be one of the few vessels, besides navy submarines, that was ever designed to operate silently like this.  She has forward searching sonar and military spec night vision cameras (which we tested out, but no whales in Darling Harbour!) for locating whales in the most challenging conditions from the tropics to the poles.

RV Whale Song at sea with a pod of four whales at the bow

A pod of whales off the bow of RV Whale Song

Curt also showed me the impressive three dimensional real time bottom mapping software that allows scientists onboard to map canyons and seamounts where they find whales.

Most recently the team have completed the second season of a five year program funded by US oil and gas giants known as the Joint Industry Partners.  The project operated from Perigian Beach to the Queensland Sunshine Coast and examined the behavioural affects of seismic air guns on migrating humpback whales. Prior to that, Whale Song was in the Kimberley region measuring blubber thickness with stereo cameras set up on her gimballed 12m boom crane and applying satellite tags to northbound humpback whales off Western Australia’s Ningaloo Reef.

After a brief stop in Sydney, Whale Song will head south around the bottom of Australia, studying pygmy blue whales, killer whales and sperm whales enroute to Fremantle where she will finish  her first circumnavigation of Australia.  The following months will be spent satellite tagging blue whales and humpback whales in preparation for an expedition to the Antarctic in the summer of 2012/2013.

Curt, Michelle and Skipper the dog onboard RV Whale Song

Curt, Michelle and Skipper the dog onboard RV Whale Song

Whale Song can be viewed from the museum wharves until 21 January.

For more information about Whale Song and the Centre for Whale Research, visit their website.

Carli, ANMM.

P.S Check out pics from my visit on Flickr.