Thursday, 18 October 2012

Discovery Reflections (Howard Roe)

I first saw Discovery  on 13 January 1968 in Millbay Dock, Plymouth. She was being loaded with all the paraphernalia needed for cruise 21, a biological cruise to the subtropical and tropical Atlantic off the West African shelf. This was to be my introduction to sea-going and my new career on plankton. I had transferred to Wormley’s Institute of Oceanographic Sciences  (IOS) from the Whale Research Unit at the end of the previous year. Swapping 25 metre long whales for millimetre long plankton was a challenge!

We were away for 68 days – much longer than most recent cruises. For me, this first experience of the skilled teamwork and sense of community on board, the runs ashore in exotic ports, and the first sight of extraordinary deep-sea animals that I had only heard of in books, was life-changing.

We fished a variety of midwater nets to depths of over 3000m. There were ingenious pop-up nets that really did not work, neuston nets at the surface, and a bottom sledge and Shipek grab. We deployed bottom longlines and made numerous dips in the upwelling off the West African coast with a temperature salinity depth probe – a forerunner to the CTD.

The net systems we used were in transition between older technologies using conical nets with catch-dividing buckets and paper recording depth pressure gauges, to acoustically controlled trawls where the mouth opened and closed to allow catches from known depths. Gear failures were common but the trawls and the rather primitive benthic sledge, were subsequently developed during the next few years to become the complex systems still in use today.

And we caught things: scarlet shrimps which showed clear vertical separation in their distributions and a clear faunal discontinuity at 200N – a zoogeographic boundary confirmed several years later; luminescent squid and fish; jewel–like copepods (my new group!) whose colours sadly faded rapidly in formalin; bottom–living black sharks with reflective green eyes; a spectacular bright orange whale fish; dense swarms of blue copepods and gelatinous salps at the surface.

In the constant temperature lab, goose barnacles and the eggs and developing larvae of shrimps were kept alive for weeks, and euphausiids obligingly survived and moulted several times. Phytoplankton was blooming in huge quantities over the African shelf and filled up all of the bottom sledge hauls we made there. Further offshore we caught corals, sea-cucumbers, large shrimps and halosaur fish. The sampling gear and the series of stations that we worked were the beginning of the very detailed studies carried out by the Wormley biologists over the next 10 years that still provide unrivalled information on the community structures and diversity of deep-ocean animals in the North Atlantic Ocean.

We worked around the clock in shifts – starting with the tedious (and possibly pointless) echo-sounding watches that began as soon as we crossed the continental shelf leaving England. At our chosen sites, which ranged from the Canary Islands, the African slope, the Cape Verde Islands and deep water off Senegal, we worked 12 hour day or night shifts changing over at the various port calls. We worked hard but also enjoyed ourselves. Bronzing during the day (no thought of damaging sunlight in those days); trying to catch squid attracted to the ship’s lights at night; and shark fishing with joints of meat from the cold store were popular leisure activities outside on deck. Inside the social focus was the bar-open continuously with measures (doubles of course) costing sixpence (the equivalent of 2.5p at today’s rates).

The bar was sited at main deck level –it had armchairs and a fireplace and was sadly ousted from this prime position by the installation of the first ship’s computer some 12 months later.

On Fridays we lined up in the bar for our tot of navy rum (the ship’s officers were all provided by the Royal Fleet Auxilliary in those days). Music centres did not exist, but amongst our company were some very accomplished musicians who played whilst the rest of us “sang”. It was here that novices like myself were introduced to liar dice. Films were shown twice a week in the ship’s library-come-cinema; table tennis and darts matches with the crew; and any excuse for a party- sometimes fancy dress during which inventive costumes were constructed from rolls of Mufax paper.

Every Sunday lunchtime we had ‘small-eats’ in the bar, spectacular arrays of canapés sometimes washed down with whatever cocktail was been tested! Dining was formal. We wore jackets and ties in the officers’ mess, where we were waited on by very smart stewards, had silver napkin rings, and if we were a bit late we had to sit at the central circular table with the Captain! In addition to the three usual meals, afternoon tea and biscuits were served in the mess, and we were wakened in the mornings by stewards bearing cups of tea. The bosun provided a laundry service for the more fashion conscious. Times have changed! The food has also changed, no longer do babies’ heads, (steak and kidney pudding) woolly tickers (sheeps’ hearts) yellow peril and herrings feature monotonously on the menu. Some things are better today! We spent two days in Dakar-where we astonished the locals by demonstrating our bow propeller when going alongside. Here we searched for African dancing, bartered for masks, drums and parrots and wandered around the unfortunately named VD market. 

It was all very colourful! Later we made two visits to Tenerife where I was introduced to the Atlantico and London Bars (the latter sadly bulldozed years later). It snowed whilst we were there. Mount Teide covered with snow is spectacular. And on our second visit we attended an ICES conference on the west African Upwelling System. Being new to all of this I paid more attention to touring the island than sitting in a cold conference room. Finally we returned to Plymouth on the 1 April where I resolved to become an ocean biologist!