Out to sea

Antarctica's Southern Ocean is one of the world's greatest research frontiers.

Jack Simmons shares his most daring seafaring journey to East Antarctica on the $120 million state-of-the art CSIRO marine research vessel, the RV Investigator.

It's a good thing Jack Simmons doesn't get seasick. Though, he didn't know this until recently. Until then, his most daring seafaring journey had been on a Sydney Harbour ferry. Now the 20 year-old UOW chemistry student has well and truly found his sea legs, having recently returned from a voyage to East Antarctica on the $120 million state-of-the art CSIRO marine research vessel, the RV Investigator.

He couldn't believe it when he secured a berth on the nautical adventure of a lifetime, venturing to this rarely visited part of the world in the name of science. The Wollongong local sailed through the Roaring 40s and the Furious 50s upon seemingly endless seas, saw icebergs, countless whales, albatross and petrels. But it wasn't all sightseeing.

The 51-day expedition to the Southern Ocean was a research student's dream. And there was plenty of work to be done. The CSIRO's primary objective of the voyage was to study the interaction of the ocean and the atmosphere with the Totten Glacier, with a focus on mapping the sea floor.

Jack's experience in the Southern Ocean was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Photo Paul Jones

CSIRO research

So, with a chemistry background, where did Jack fit in? The top performing student was there as part of a research project for the UOW Centre for Atmospheric Chemistry (CAC). His brief was to assist scientists from the CSIRO and several Australian universities (including UOW) in the Polar Cell Aerosol Nucleation Project (PCAN).

PCAN identified a gap in the science of the east Antarctic Atmosphere, and aims to contribute to more comprehensive measurements of the region's atmosphere which have only been measured once before. The particular focus for this project was aerosols. Aerosols, in the scientific sense, refer to suspended microscopic solid and liquid particles in the atmosphere.

Cloud formation depends on them and they play an essential role in the climate system. To get measurements that represented the natural atmosphere, data had to be collected in an area of minimal human influence. The remoteness of Antarctica served as an ideal place for measurements of the pristine environment.

Jack said his research involved measuring particulate matter in the atmosphere, which in this part of the world is dominated by sea salt and sulphate aerosols.

"The trip was used as a follow up to a previous voyage by my supervisor (CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere scientist and former UOW student and Honorary Fellow Dr Ruhi Humphries). He had found, in a similar region of the world in the springtime, unexpectedly high aerosol concentrations. We wanted to do a seasonal comparison during the summer."

The CSIRO's research vessel, the RV Investigator: Photo Paul Jones

Before the trip, Jack spent weeks reading instrument manuals as his role involved looking after atmospheric measurement equipment, with which he had little knowledge. Despite his lack of experience, and the shock of transitioning from a record-breaking summer of sweltering temperatures to the edge of the Antarctic sea ice, self-described landlubber Jack embraced his new life at sea with gusto.

"Being in the Southern Ocean… it's a very special place. Big beautiful icebergs… are not really comparable to anything you would normally see, especially up in Wollongong! I had some pretty special experiences with whales. Often, when we were putting scientific equipment in the water, they would come around and swim laps of the boat, which allowed us to really get up close and personal. It was really special," he said.

"Being in the Southern Ocean… it’s a very special place."

- Jack Simmons

Daily challenges

As extraordinary as the trip was, there were challenges. The day-to-day routine itself was gruelling, starting at 2am and finishing at 2pm."The most challenging aspect of my voyage was being responsible for a suite of instruments that I had never worked with before. This meant a very frantic week filled with learning before departure, and having to get used to the instruments while at sea."

In his on-board blog, Investigating the Antarctic atmosphere, he highlighted an 'Instrument of the Day', describing its purpose and what he'd learned about it.

Other challenges were less technical but difficult nonetheless. He said showering one-handed was especially tricky with the ship rocking and rolling. It was necessary to hold on at all times to avoid a trip to the ship's hospital and turning the bathroom into a watery mess.

Jack said it wasn't as cold as he anticipated. Photo: Paul Jones

Priceless rewards

While there were difficulties, Jack said the rewards were well worth it. "Even though my project was a little separate from the majority of science on the voyage, I think the most rewarding aspect was working together with a team of inspiring people towards a greater understanding of natural processes that can tell us about Earth's historical climates," he said.

"Also, looking after an unfamiliar instrument suite led me to feel very responsible for the dataset produced on this voyage. This is an extremely rewarding feeling, knowing that I have contributed to Antarctic atmospheric science and hopefully a greater understanding of aerosol populations in this part of the world," he said.

"The most rewarding aspect was working with a team of inspiring people towards a greater understanding of natural processes..."

- Jack Simmons

Some of the more unexpected aspects of his Antarctic adventure included the sheer number of whales he saw, which he estimated to be about 100. "It's impossible to put a number on it. On some days countless, especially when the ship was in the highly productive ocean environment near the sea ice edge. On some days not so many. On other days, none."

Another surprise was that the air temperature wasn't as cold as he anticipated. "It's not as cold as you would think. It's also not as sunny as I imagined. We didn't have any full days of sunshine for the 53 days we were out. Because it's so foreign an environment, I had very few ideas of what it would be like down here before we arrived," he said.

Photo: Paul Jones

Besides the remarkable opportunity to visit the wild Southern Ocean, Jack was also pretty impressed with his ride.

The 94m RV Investigator was built and commissioned by the CSIRO through the Future Research Vessel Project, an Australian Government initiative under the Super Science Initiative and financed by the Education Investment Fund.

According to the CSIRO, much of Australia's marine zone is still unexplored. It is hoped that work carried out by researchers aboard the state-of-the-art RV Investigator will help scientists better understand this mysterious region.

It can spend up to 300 days a year at sea and features roughly $20 million worth of scientific equipment for oceanographic, geological, biological and atmospheric research. The vessel can be at sea for up to 60 days at a time, with up to 40 scientists and support staff on board, covering 10,000 nautical miles.

Only a couple of years old, the ship enables researchers to visit three oceans, from the tropical north to the Antarctic ice-edge. It is currently the only research vessel capable of operating globally across the deep waters of open oceans.

Jack said a rewarding aspect of the voyage was learning about parts of science that he wasn't familiar with and experiencing the camaraderie on board. "It's really amazing to be part of real science.

"Doing work at uni is one thing, but getting out in the field and seeing how it all works and really feeling responsible for the work you're doing is something that has really been a great learning experience for me."

"What I especially found really cool was we had a whole cross section of people from those who have spent 20 years going on voyages like this, collecting data, who are really well established and highly respected in the scientific world… right down to undergraduate research students like myself.

Everyone was really inspiring and happy to share their work."

"Don’t be afraid to get in touch with academics… more often than not they’re excited to have a student who’s interested in their work."

- Jack Simmons

What would Jack say to anyone interested in doing something a bit out of the ordinary at university? "Go and talk to your professors because that's where it all starts. If you're interested in something, don't be afraid to get in touch with academics at the university because more often than not they're really excited to have a student who's interested in their work."

Jack disembarked from the ship in Hobart early this month and was excited to see his family and friends again after such a long voyage. However, he will always remain grateful for the opportunity to visit a part of the planet that only a very select few get to see up close.

He plans to analyse the data collected on the voyage for an Honours project beginning in the spring semester 2017. 

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