On 27 October Australia’s Marine National Facility research vessel, Southern Surveyor, left Cairns with an international team onboard, led by Dr Maria Seton from the School of Geosciences at The University of Sydney. Of the 15 science personnel onboard, there are 12 different nationalities represented.

Dr Seton and her team have been in the under-explored region between the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia, taking rock samples from the ridges and plateaus at depths of up to 3.5 km.

They are also endeavouring to map about 8000 km of seafloor and they are taking gravity and magnetic data, to help to better understand the type of crust that underlies the region and the age of these basins, to give a more complete geologic and tectonic history of the area, during the last one hundred million years.

Onboard are a number of students and three have written a blog update: Daniela Wolf, Louise Nott and Jarrod Moore. Here’s what’s been happening onboard.

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Day 1 26/10/12

Around 4pm, after the calibration of the gravimeter was finished, we left port and got to cast a last view of Cairns from the waterfront.

As we were still in the reef-area, only the gravimeter and the swath were running. Therefore, during the first few shifts there was not much to do other than writing down the hourly values of gravity, gravimeter temperature, latitude, longitude, heading, ground speed and water depth. Every shift would last 6 hours.

We’ve had to adjust our original voyage, and with the new track we took the opportunity to pass through an area that’s thought to have some old shipwrecks from World War II, but have not yet been discovered.

A pool was considered for betting on the first of us to succumb to the rocking seas, though with a forecast of very calm conditions over the next few days, it may take a while to find out.

Day 2 27/10/12

Early in the morning the sub-bottom profiler was switched on, so we could see what was going on below the seafloor.  We were given a short introduction on what to check during our shifts for the swath EM300, and how to process the swath data with the program Caris. There was a brief introduction on the settings of the sub-bottom profiler.  Finally the magnetometer was deployed and now we were also getting the magnetic readings. From now on, the magnetic values had to be noted every 15 minutes together with the other values.

In the evening we were experiencing some difficulties with the sub-bottom profiler while encountering some steep slopes. Due to the small beam-width we lost the seafloor on these occasions. However we were always able to find it again after a few minutes.

At approximately 10pm the fire alarm went off and everybody had to go to the muster station with their life jackets and hard hats, regardless of whether they’d been asleep, working out in the gym or on shift.

Luckily it was only a false alarm. The captain however was very pleased with the quick reaction of the scientific crew.

The seas are remarkably still at the moment; there are not even ripples on the surface. Today’s pastime is watching flying fish break the surface and fly away as our ship approaches, which is immediately spotted by our resident flock of 20+ Red footed Boobies that have taken over the foremast. We watch with our breath held as they swoop in for the kill, though by evening none of us had seen a successful catch. Capturing photos of these lightning quick events posed a real challenge, with somewhat blurred success.

Day 3 28/10/12

Overnight the sea has become a bit rougher than the previous days. All equipment, however, was still running smoothly. We have also moved into deeper water, with water depth ranging from 3000m to more than 4000m.

There was another fire alarm but this time it was already announced to be a false alarm before anybody could make their way over to the muster station.

In the evening we started to integrate some of the processed bathymetry data from Caris into the ArcGIS project with all the background information. We also started processing and exporting the first few lines of backscatter data into the project.

As the sea seems to be growing slightly, but continuously rougher, we are beginning to get the full offshore experience. The food on board is alarmingly delicious, though we cannot help but wonder, with 26 days and no port? At some point the fresh fruits and vegetables may be replaced with scurvy abating lemon juice and instant mashed potatoes, though somehow, with all their experience, we’re sure things won’t come down to this.

Today our hitchhiking fleet of Boobies has dwindled to five, and while the seas are too rough to spot the flying fish, they could still spot them.  Once again, not a single confirmed catch was spotted.

The sunsets are spectacular and it’s common for most of us to be on deck with various camera sizes to capture the moment, though soon after sunset tonight, the weather closed in and rain fell well into the evening.

Day 4 29/10/12

In the morning we passed over the area where the shipwrecks are located. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any indication of them in the acquired data, even after processing both the swath and backscatter data with Caris.  It looks like we won’t end up making the news for discovering the wrecks and become famous!

All the Red Footed Boobies seem to have left us, however, leaving a very messy front deck to remember them by, which will probably take some time cleaning.

Everybody was very sleepy today, which might be due to the increased swell. Whenever somebody sat down they seemed to be nearly rocked to sleep instantly.

One of the biggest news today was obviously the fact that Sabin finally managed to see his first flying fish.

During the night the time will be one hour advanced as we have reached the Pacific Time Zone.

Day 5 30/10/12

We passed some buoys today, wondering what they were doing out there in the middle of the ocean. Excitement also arose when a fishing boat was spotted on the horizon; however, it was extremely difficult to see as it appeared as a small white speck in the distance. Shortly after spotting these, a turtle went past our boat! It was amazing how well you could make it out, making you realize how clear the water is. Now everybody hopes to see some more turtles or maybe even a shark, preferably jumping out of the water and doing a back flip.

Day 6 31/10/12

The first dredge was estimated to take place early in the morning but was postponed to early afternoon. Everybody was very excited especially when the dredge was on the way back up again and we would have a look at the first rock samples. The rocks turned out not to be what we had been hoping for, but the procedure itself had worked very smoothly. Even though the sample probably won’t help us with our scientific questions, we found some very interesting rocks.

Louise had been so fascinated with the first dredge that she didn’t realise she got badly sun-burned and was therefore known as ‘Pink Louise’ for the rest of the day. The upside of that was that now she was already costumed as a lobster for the Halloween Party.

Everybody who had been looking forward to going to the gym after all the Halloween sweets was very disappointed to hear that all fitness had to be postponed to another day; due to a leaking pipe in the gym. As some of the swath and sub-bottom profiler is located in the gym, we had to switch them off as a precaution.

Day 7 1/11/12

The swath could not be switched back on until the second dredge of the day so it had to be done blind like in the old days. As the second dredge brought up mainly chalky limestone, the rock crew was a bit disappointed. After cleaning the rocks, however, we found some sandstone in the sample which can be very helpful to our quest; so in the end everyone was happy.  We had some fun cleaning the rocks and digging around in the mud. Louise was helped to a mud coat as a treatment for her sunburns, which made her look like she was camouflaging for an army operation in the bush.

After the dredge, the swath was switched back on and we surveyed the previous dredge site before making our way to the next one.

Around 9pm we were all called up to the bridge to see the red moon. It was very impressive and everyone tried to take some photos, however, this was very difficult due to the darkness and the rocking of the boat.

Day 8 2/11/12

During the night we had come close enough to Rennell Island to see it from the decks. Everyone was very excited to see land after a week of seeing nothing but water. We would have liked to use the small work boat to explore the island; however for work program and safety reasons, we had to stay on board to do our third dredge. We were expecting the dredge to come up full of limestone again, but luck was on our side, and we had collected pillow basalts; a result that everyone was more than pleased with!

Now we have a few days to rest before the next dredge site comes up.

Day 9 3/11/12

As we are doing a few long magnetic profiles which will take a few days there were just the swath and the magnetometer running. It was once again a sunny day and the sea was calm everyone used the free time to enjoy it outside.