Irish scientist joins mission to the unexplored depths of the Indian Ocean

14 Mar 2019

Craning the submarine into the Seychelles, Indian Ocean. Image: Nekton Mission

A marine scientist from NUI Galway has been enlisted for a major exploration mission to an unexplored frontier.

On 5 March, a multidisciplinary team embarked on the groundbreaking Nekton ‘First Descent’ mission to the Seychelles in order to delve into the depths of the Indian Ocean.

The British-led mission recently left Victoria, Seychelles, with a team of 18 crew members and 33 scientists, technicians and reporters on board. Included in that team is Prof Louise Allcock, head of zoology at the Ryan Institute, NUI Galway.

Future Human

“It’s very exciting to be deploying so many different pieces of equipment and doing such a thorough survey of the ocean,” she said.

Nekton mission plans

Nekton is an independent, non-profit research institute working with the University of Oxford to increase scientific understanding of the oceans. The ambitious Indian Ocean mission will combine innovations in technology, AI, big data and communications in order to further this goal.

Broadcast journalist Oliver Steeds leads as mission director and submersible pilot, while Dr Lucy Woodall, an expert on the impact of humans on the marine environment, takes the role of principal scientist.

The March launch marks the first in a series of pioneering First Descent expeditions in the Indian Ocean, considered the world’s least explored but most at risk ocean. The aim of the mission is both to scientifically explore this vast unknown as well as to conserve it.

“The biological communities we are researching are critical for many reasons, from climate stability to food security, from carbon cycling to the air we breathe. Our multidisciplinary research investigates biological systems and their physical and chemical environment, enabling us to identify key parameters and patterns of ocean change,” said Woodall.

“We expect to discover dozens of species new to science that could be anything from new corals, algae or sponges to larger, more charismatic animals like sharks.”

First descent completed

The first major milestone of the seven-week mission came on Tuesday (12 March) when the team members carried out their first crewed dive from below the surface of the Indian Ocean. Using two crewed submersibles and a remotely operated vehicle, they entered the ‘twilight zone’ below depths of 30m, where the sun can hardly penetrate the deep waters.

A submersible craft with two-people inside is lowered into the ocean by an operator standing outside the craft and wearing a green helmet.

Submarine tests in the Seychelles, Indian Ocean. Image: Nekton Mission

At least 50 of these ‘first descents’ are planned on this expedition. At these depths, the team can document organisms and habitats up to 500 metres deep, while sensors will offer an indication of what’s happening at depths of up to 2,000 metres.

As well as expecting to discover new species lurking in the deep, the team will also document evidence of climate change and human-driven pollution in the deep seas around the Seychelles. Nekton will be working on behalf of the Seychelles government and partners, and the mission will provide important data for future policy decisions on ocean conservation, climate change and fishing.

Allcock’s mission is the first of a half-dozen planned by Nekton between now and the end of 2022. All of the gathered research will then be presented at an Oxford summit on the state of the Indian Ocean.

Live documentaries are also being filmed on-board the First Descent mission for Sky News and Sky Atlantic.

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic