iMirabilis2: Mission overview
The iMirabilis2 expedition is a 6 week-long scientific research mission that will explore the deep-sea ecosystems of the Atlantic Ocean around Cabo Verde. During those 6 weeks, the scientists on board will use state-of-the-art equipment to undertake a number of experiments and surveys that will reveal information about the inhabitants and physical conditions in the water column and at the seafloor. In addition, a large part of the activities during the expedition will be dedicated to training and skills development for early career marine scientists.
The mission will take place on the Spanish research vessel, the Sarmiento de Gamboa, and is split into two phases, or legs, which have different objectives and involve different teams of people. Planning this expedition has been extremely complicated due to the immense volume of science we have planned, but also due to the COVID-19 crisis, which has forced us to reschedule and then re-plan everything several times! Learn more about these challenges and how we made this expedition COVID safe.
iMirabilis 2 schedule
|Mobilisation, Vigo||16-23 July 2021|
|Depart Vigo for Leg 0||23 July 2021|
|Leg 0||23-30 July 2021|
|Arrive Las Palmas (port call)||30-31 July 2021|
|Depart Las Palmas for Leg 1||31 July 2021|
|Leg 1||31 July-30 August 2021|
|Arrive Las Palmas (end of expedition)||30 August 2021|
Leg 0: Investigating seafloor spreading features
After leaving port in Vigo on 23 July 2021, the ship will sail a roundabout route southwards to Las Palmas in the Canary Islands – this is Leg 0. This journey will take about a week, and during this time scientists from EMEPC and other research institutes will undertake surveying and sampling of some of the geological features on the seafloor in this part of the Atlantic, using the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) Luso. At the same time, some of iAtlantic’s early career researchers on the ship will undergo intensive training in the use of ROV technology. Also on board will be a small team of seabird ecologists from the NGO Projecto Vito in Cabo Verde, who will use this time at sea to observe seabirds. This expedition is an excellent opportunity for them to get hands-on training and experience in seabird surveying and census techniques, as well as collecting valuable new data on seabird abundance and distribution in this area of the Atlantic.
Leg 1: Investigating deep-sea ecosystems around Cabo Verde
RV Sarmiento de Gamboa will reach Las Palmas in the Canary Islands on 30 July, where most of the Leg 0 team will disembark, and new team members will join the ship for the main phase of the expedition (Leg 1). The ship will depart port again on 31 July and head further south-west, where the team on board will spend a month carrying out scientific investigations and discovering what lies in the deep Atlantic waters around Cabo Verde. Data collected during this cruise will contribute to many aspects of iAtlantic’s work, from understanding better the distribution of seafloor habitats across the Atlantic basin, to undertaking detective work to reveal past environmental conditions in the deep ocean, which will help us understand trends and changes in the ocean, and how they affect biodiversity and ecosystems.
On board is a wide array of the latest marine scientific equipment that will be used to investigate a range of scientific topics. Mapping of deep-sea habitats is a major part of the expedition, using a variety of technologies and techniques to investigate the distribution of seafloor habitats at local, regional and ocean basin scales. This work will use multibeam echosounder data, visual data (seafloor photos and video), measurements of water column properties, and seafloor sediment samples. Much of this work will be undertaken with the ROV Luso and the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) Autosub6000, which can be equipped with different instruments and devices to collect the necessary information. The data will then be used to test new machine learning algorithms to help develop new automated fauna recognition capabilities.
These photographic and video surveys will enable us to see what creatures live in these deep waters, how they function as community, and what factors determine their distribution and survival in different areas of the ocean. We expect to see plenty of cold-water corals and sponges along with a range of other benthic organisms that usually live alongside them, but we also hope to discover new species – always an exciting part of deep-sea science! Specimens will be carefully collected and stored for taxonomic analysis back in the lab on land, but some will be maintained on board to conduct short-term experiments in aquaria to learn more about their functioning and physiology. Samples of seafloor materials like sediment and cold-water corals will be used to look back at past conditions in the Atlantic: their microfossil content and geochemical properties provide a record of past oceanographic and environmental conditions, which is important for understanding ecosystem response to environmental change.
To learn more about the scavengers of the deep sea, a different approach is required: we will deploy a baited lander equipped with a camera, which will attract scavengers and catch them on film. From this data we can assess the abundance and diversity of scavenger species in this part of the Atlantic. A lander is basically a large metal frame that is placed on the seafloor, and it can be equipped with different instruments for different purposes. We will also use a lander to deploy a respirometer, which will measure respiration rates (O2 consumption, CO2 production) and fluxes of nutrients and carbon at the seafloor. This is important for understanding the supply and consumption of nutrients in deep-sea ecosystems, which can be disrupted by climate change and human activities in the ocean. Samples of seafloor sediments (which contain microorganisms) will be taken and exposed to different temperatures and nutrient levels in the ship’s laboratory, so that we can measure and assess the ecosystem response to seafloor warming and changes in food supply as a result of global warming or other environmental changes.
Capacity building, training and outreach
Capacity building has always been at the heart of the iMirabilis expedition. From the very start, the ethos for this mission was to maximise every opportunity to exchange knowledge, teach new skills, build capacity, and share experiences. Unfortunately, COVID has forced us to re-plan a lot of our activities, but we are delighted that Kelsey Archer Barnhill – an iAtlantic early career researcher from University of Edinburgh (pictured right) – will be your eyes and ears on the ship for both legs of the expedition, and her role on the expedition is to make sure we share as much of the action as possible with everyone back at home. We also have four other iAtlantic Fellows on board who will be on hand to explain the activities on the ship and answer your questions.
We have a fantastic team of people on board iMirabilis2, each of them highly skilled and specialised in their particular field of expertise. So everyone joining the expedition – whether in person or virtually – will be learning from the best. And it will be a learning experience from everyone: even the expedition leader, Cova Orejas, will be learning new skills as this is the first time she will use an AUV to collect data!
Organising the iMirabilis2 expedition in COVID times
There is no doubt that organising a seagoing expedition like iMirabilis is a challenging task even in normal times: organising equipment, supplies, people and science priorities is rather like trying to solve a 3D jigsaw puzzle where the pieces keep moving when you’re not looking!
However, the global COVID-19 pandemic brought a whole shipload of additional considerations, constraints and compromises. Firstly, we had to reschedule the whole expedition: iMirabilis was originally planned for 2020 but the worldwide shutdown meant it was impossible for it to go ahead. We are very fortunate and grateful that the shiptime for this mission was rescheduled to 2021. International travel restrictions mean that research vessels can currently only operate to and from their national ports, so the geographic scope of the expedition – which originally encompassed a full 3-month voyage from Vigo in Spain to Cape Town in South Africa, including extensive work on the Walvis Ridge as one of our main target areas – was radically altered so that the RV Sarmiento de Gamboa leaves and returns to Spanish ports. Unfortunately, this meant that the original work planned in the South Atlantic had to be abandoned as it was simply not possible for the ship to dock in Namibia or South Africa as originally planned. This was very bad news since our colleagues from South Africa and Brazil formed a large and important part of the original science team, and the data we planned to collect from the South Atlantic would have made a valuable contribution to our understanding of ecosystems in that part of the ocean. However, the expedition still offered a great opportunity to work in the region around Cabo Verde.
So, with a restricted geographic scope and a reduced amount of shiptime, the science plan had to be radically re-designed. As well as ensuring the ship was available, we also had to secure the necessary scientific equipment: this is not easy, since the large instruments like the ROV and AUV are shared across the scientific community and are always in high demand, so some very careful planning and negotiation was required to make sure all the necessary pieces of kit were available for the expedition. We are extremely fortunate to have the ROV Luso and Autosub 6000 on board since these are the main tools of the trade for the research we are carrying out. However, we also need specialised technical experts to operate all the instruments – more than half the science team on Leg 1 are highly skilled technicians who will make sure everything operates efficiently and safely.
What about COVID-19 health and safety? Over the past year we have all become familiar with the need to socially distance, wear a face mask and wash our hands regularly. On a research ship with limited space some of these measures become difficult! To ensure the safety of everyone on board, all the science team go into quarantine for 10 days prior to joining the ship. During this period, they isolate in a designated hotel in either Vigo or Las Palmas (depending on where they will join the ship) and are required to return two negative COVID tests prior to joining the ship. Ten days is a long time to be shut in a hotel room, but everyone sees it as a small price to pay for being able to go to sea…and scientists always value quiet time to get data analysed and papers written!
Once on board the ship there are strict protocols that everyone must follow to keep the expedition COVID secure. The strict pre-expedition quarantine and testing measures minimise the risk of anyone bringing the virus on board, but all members of the team must adhere to rules about regular hand washing, keeping socially distanced wherever possible, and – for the first 14 days of each leg – wearing face masks when indoors on the ship. Equipment and supplies are disinfected before being loaded onto the ship, and the ship itself is regularly cleaned and sanitised. Special measures are in place for the changeover between Leg 0 and Leg 1 in Las Palmas, and there are isolation facilities on board in the event that anyone develops symptoms. The expedition’s COVID rulebook is long and very detailed, but every precaution is taken to keep the team safe.