Favourite Thing: Exploring the ocean floor in a deep-diving sub, and seeing its landscape and inhabitants for the first time. It’s an awesome feeling: my team and I are usually the first people ever to visit the part of our planet that we’re exploring, and see the new species that live there. Often what we find isn’t what we expect, and I like that because it reminds us how much we still don’t know about the world around us.
Wellington School in Somerset (1982-1989)
I went to the University of Sheffield when I was 17 to take a degree in Zoology (1989-1992). After working for a year to earn some money, I then took at Masters degree in Oceanography at the University of Southampton (1993-1994). I stayed in Southampton to complete a PhD in deep-sea biology (1994-1998), taking part in expeditions with the Russian Academy of Sciences (using the minisubmarines that are in the movie Titanic), and with the US Navy.
My first job was peeling potatoes and cutting chips in a Chinese takeaway four mornings per week before school, for two years. I’ve also been a hospital cleaner, a warehouse worker in a German stocking factory, and for a year I was a quality control technician in a cider brewery. As a scientist, I was a reporter and news editor at New Scientist magazine, and I coordinated a project to send a robot submarine under a polar ice shelf.
School of Ocean and Earth Science, University of Southampton
My job title is “Lecturer in Marine Ecology”. That involves carrying out deep-sea research projects and taking part in scientific expeditions around the world, and teaching university courses in marine biology.
Me and my work
I explore undersea volcanoes in search of new species of deep-sea creatures, so that we can better understand the web of life in the oceans – our planet’s largest habitat and last unexplored frontier.
I’m a marine biologist and oceanographer, working in the deep ocean. And by deep, I mean far beyond the reach of scuba diving: I dive in minisubmarines and use remotely-controlled underwater vehicles to explore the half of our planet that lies under water more than two miles deep.
So I don’t work much in a traditional laboratory – instead, a minisubmarine is the “lab coat” that I have to “wear” to protect me where I work:
And this is the “lab” where I work – undersea volcanic vents, typically between one and two miles deep on the ocean floor:
My science is “exploration science” – the goal is simply to find out more about the world around us and how it works. Most of the geological processes that shape our planet take place underwater. For example, the oceans contain a chain of undersea volcanoes 40 000 miles long, whose eruptions create new crust as the Earth’s tectonic plates move apart, but we still don’t fully understand how that happens. And the deep ocean is the largest habitat for life on Earth – much larger than all the rainforests – but we still know very little about what lives there.
You might think that by now in the 21st century, we have a pretty good map of our planet. But we don’t: we still don’t have an accurate map of the ocean floor (and two-thirds of our planet is covered by ocean). And it was only 80 years ago that people first ventured into the deep ocean in a deep-diving vehicle and saw deep-sea life with their own eyes. So it’s an amazing time to be a deep-sea scientist: people have crossing the seas on boats since around 10000 years ago, but it’s only been in the past century that we’ve really developed the technology to go beneath the waves. There’s a vast amount of exploring to do, and our journey of discovery in the deep ocean has barely begun.
Here’s an example: last year I took part in an expedition exploring the deep ocean around Antactica. We found an undersea crater, three miles across and a mile deep, that wasn’t on any maps. No-one knew it was down there until we started using our ship’s sensors to examine the seafloor. There’s nowhere on land where you can still discover something so big – people have mapped everything on land – but there are plenty of those kinds of surprises still waiting for us in the ocean depths. And best of all (at least for me as a biologist!), there was a colony of deep-sea creatures living in that undersea crater, unlike any we had seen before.
If you’d like to see what it’s like exploring the ocean floor with a remotely-controlled underwater vehicle, check out a video from one of my recent expeditions (the video should open in a new window, and may take a minute or two to download). No-one had ever been to the area that we visited for that expedition, so if you watch the video, you’ll be joining the first few people ever to see that part of our planet. And most of the species of marine life in the video are new to science – so you’ll be among the first people ever to see them too.
Over the past fifteen years I’ve taken part in scientific expeditions exploring undersea volcanoes in the Atlantic and Pacific, investigated the seafloor earthquake zone that caused the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (to understand why the tsunami was so big, and how we can design better evacuation zones to protect people in the future), investigated hotspots of deep-sea life in the Gulf of Mexico, and worked on a project to send a robot submarine under an Antarctic ice shelf for the first time. Each scientific expedition usually lasts for a month or two, during which time I live and work on a ship out at sea.
At the moment I’m leading a project exploring an ocean trench in the Caribbean, called the Cayman Trough. I’m also working on a project studying undersea volcanoes around Antarctica, and planning to investigate a chain of undersea volcanoes in the Indian Ocean next year.
Most of my work is at deep-sea volcanic vents, also known as “black smokers” (shown in the photo above). These are undersea hot springs, where mineral-rich water erupts from the seafloor. They were first discovered 30 years ago, and we’re still finding new ones as we explore the ocean floor. In fact, in April this year my team found the world’s deepest known “black smoker” vents, more than three miles deep in the Cayman Trough.
The chemicals in the hot fluids gushing from the vents nourish lush colonies of deep-sea creatures. So the deep-sea vents support “islands of life” on the ocean floor – and by comparing the species we find at different vents around the world, we can understand the patterns of life throughout the deep ocean.
Over the past two years, my colleagues and I have found more than thirty new species of deep-sea creatures. Each new species is another piece is the puzzle of deep-sea life, and helps us to understand it better. But why should anyone care about exploring life in the ocean depths? I can suggest three reasons:
(1) We use the oceans for food, energy, transport and even recreation. Without an understanding of the patterns of life in the oceans, we cannot know the consequences of our decisions and actions for our planet’s largest ecosystem (as we’re seeing right now with that Gulf of Mexico oil spill…). 37% of the world’s population lives on or near the coast, so the ocean – and how we use it – affects a lot of people.
(2) Trying to understand the patterns in the world around us is one of humanity’s oldest endeavours, ever since our ancestors joined the dots in the night sky to draw constellations. Simply wanting to know how our world works is a fundamental motive behind much of science.
(3) Just as space exploration gave us spin-offs like non-stick pans and pens that write upside-down, exploring the deep ocean has already provided benefits for our everyday lives. So far these have included new medical treatments; although I’m not working in that area myself, there is for example a treatment for pancreatic cancer now being tested that comes from a chemical found in a deep-sea sponge.
Deep-sea species are also giving us better fibre-optic cables for the internet (from copying the structure of the glass fibres that form the skeletons of some other deep-sea sponges), better enzymes to make soft drinks, new washing powder that works at lower temperatures, and even novel cosmetic ingredients. Who knows what else we might find out there?
For me, though, there are also personal reasons for wanting to spend my time studying the deep ocean. When we discover something new on the ocean floor, whether it’s a new species of deep-sea creature or a new geological feature, it reminds me how incredible our world is, and how astounding life is. I think that experience of wonder is something that we can all share, regardless of whatever else we may disagree about. So I think that reaching into the unknown can bring out the best in us, and bring us together.
If that all sounds a bit “Star Trek”, then I don’t apologise for it. I think that exploring the unknown offers a better destiny for us than staying at home squabbling over things that happened centuries ago, or things that someone once wrote in a book. That’s personally why I pursue the science that I do; not everyone will agree with that, and that’s fine too.
My Typical Day
If it’s a good day: driving an underwater vehicle around on the ocean floor in search of new species and new geological features.
I’ll bet that most scientists on here will tell you “there’s no such thing as a typical day”, and I think so too. For me, it depends on whether I’m at sea on an expedition, or back home on land. I typically spend three months a year living and working at sea on a research ship. This year, for example, I spent January-February on a ship exploring the deep ocean around Antarctica, and then March-April exploring an ocean trench in the Caribbean. The ship doesn’t return to land during the expedition – we live aboard out on the ocean.
A day aboard the research ship is very hectic – we have to make the most of every minute out there in the deep ocean, so we work as a team to carry out our research 24 hours a day. For me, that typically involves spending 8 hours out of every 24 “on watch”, where I’m usually in charge of using the ship and our underwater vehicles to explore the ocean floor beneath us. Another scientist then takes over for the next 8 hours, followed by another, before it’s my turn “on watch” again.
When I’m not “on watch”, I’m catching up with my other work. That involves processing the samples from the ocean floor that we’ve just collected, or catching up with other work from back home, such as writing up our results or preparing proposals for future expeditions (we still get email on the ship via satellite). I also try to squeeze in a daily workout in the ship’s gym, because there’s not much opportunity for exercise aboard the ship. If the weather is good, then for a break I might do some martial arts practice out on the deck (but that’s not an option when the ship is rolling about in stormy weather). Otherwise there’s not much to do for recreation aboard the ship. Finally there’s 8 hours for sleep, before the next 24 hour cycle begins. We don’t get any days off during the expedition, unless the weather gets so rough that we can’t work and just have to ride out the storm with the ship.
We’re always a mix of scientists aboard the ship. There may be some marine biologists like me, but also physicists researching ocean currents, chemists analysing the cycles of elements in seawater, geologists who investigate underwater volcanoes on the ocean floor, and geophysicists who study what lies beneath it. We all work together to explore the deep ocean – to understand its patterns of life, for example, I also need to know about the geology down there. In return, information about the species that I study can tell the geologists whether there has been a recent earthquake or volcanic eruption in the area. Our expedition team also includes engineers who build and operate the underwater vehicles that we use – and we couldn’t do our research without that technology to take us into the ocean depths.
If you’d like to see some of the technology we use to explore the deep ocean, check out this video of our underwater vehicle called “Isis” being prepared and launched from our research ship during a recent expedition (the video should open in a new window, and may take a minute or two to download). Isis is an underwater robot that we remote-control from the ship. Isis is about the size of a small car, and carries high-definition camera and robot arms, so she becomes our eyes and arms for working on the ocean floor, down to three miles below us. This video was made by my colleague Leighton, who is one of the engineers for the vehicle and also one of the pilots when Isis is exploring the ocean floor.
And if you’d like to find out more about life on a research ship during a deep-sea expedition, we kept an online diary during our most recent expedition, which you can check out at www.thesearethevoyages.net
Although it’s very hectic aboard the ship, we’re looked after very well by the ship’s crew. For example, the team in the ship’s galley (that’s ship-speak for “kitchen”) prepare all our meals, so we don’t have to cook. There are usually around 50 people in total living on the ship (not just the expedition science team, but also the sailors and engineers who run the ship), and each expedition lasts for between one and two months, depending on where we’re going.
On British ships you get a cabin to yourself, but on American ships you usually have a bunk in a shared dormitory. Living together in close quarters means you have to be tolerant – it can be easy to annoy / get annoyed with each other, but you can’t let that happen! But working at sea usually brings you close as a team – you have a bond afterwards with your shipmates.
When I’m back home on land, my day often starts early when our Jack Russell terrier wakes me up to go out. I’ll then work on the computer for a bit, usually writing something for an hour or two, before I go to the university department where I’m based. There I could be in meetings for the day, for example to plan our next expedition, or analysing results from a recent expedition, or teaching students. That sometimes involves taking the students out for a day trip on a boat, which I love doing (there’s only so much marine biology you can learn in a classroom or from a book, and being out on the water is much better than being stuck in a meeting room, lecture theatre, or lab). If you’d like to see what it’s like to study oceanography at university, check out this video of one of the marine science classes that I teach (the video should open in a new window, and may take a minute or two to download).
After work, if I’m being virtuous I’ll do some exercise, or go for a cross-country run in some nearby woods. Sometimes my wife and our dog come out running too. Or if we’re being lazy, we’ll just walk him for an hour. I miss the countryside when I’m at sea, so I like to make the most of it when I’m back on land. Then my wife and I will cook dinner together and catch up on our day.
If I have a deadline looming, for example to prepare a proposal for another expedition, I may have to do some more work at home in the evening. Otherwise we’ll watch a bit of TV and relax before turning in for the night. My one vice is computer games – I love them, so as a treat maybe I’ll sneak in a quick game before bed. My new computer has a 3D display – you have to wear glasses like for the movie Avatar – and games are amazing in 3D. My excuse is that I’m hoping to use the same 3D technology to film the new deep-sea species that we find.
What I'd do with the money
Buy a computer server that will let school students take control of one of our underwater vehicles during our expeditions, so you can explore the ocean floor for yourselves during a lesson.
I want people around the world to be able to join in the adventure of exploring our planet’s last frontier, seeing what we see “live” as we explore the ocean floor, and chatting with team members during expeditions. To do this, we need a dedicated computer server that can stream the video from one of our underwater vehicles back to land, so that you can watch it. Then through internet chat with our team on the ship, you could take control of the vehicle and use it to explore the ocean floor for yourselves during a lesson.
For example, your class could decide whether we should check out the underwater hill that we can see behind us on our sonar, to find out what lives there, or go down the underwater canyon ahead. And if you find new species of deep-sea creatures, then your class gets to help name them.
It’s your planet – I want you to be able to share in the adventure of exploring it, and helping to figure out how it works! The £500 will help us buy the computer we need to create the communications link from the ship so that you can take part in our expeditions from your classroom.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Lucky so far!
Who is your favourite singer or band?
I’m enjoying Avenged Sevenfold and Jet at the moment. But my all-time favourites are from the golden age of rock: classic Iron Maiden (1983-1987 line-up and albums), AC/DC etc. Mostly I listen to music when I’m getting some exercise, so anything that gets the blood pumping is good.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Sat in a minisub six feet away from an undersea volcanic vent erupting water hot enough to melt lead, one-and-a-half miles deep in the Pacific. Science is an adventure that can take you to amazing places, not just through its ideas, but sometimes physically too.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
(1) a longer lifespan (there’s so much deep ocean and universe still to explore, and one lifetime is too short to do it); (2) my own ship with deep-diving subs to explore the deep ocean right now; (3) a top-notch satellite communication link for the ship, so people around the world can join in exploring the ocean floor, seeing new species for the first time as we encounter them, and helping us figure out what’s going on down there.
What did you want to be after you left school?
For a long time I wanted to be a vet, but eventually realised I was more interested in what animals do in the wild, so I took a degree in Zoology. After that I nearly joined the Navy (because I love the sea and being in charge of things), but became a marine scientist instead. I also worked as a science journalist at New Scientist magazine for a couple of years, and still enjoy writing articles when I get the time. And along the way I turned down a job with the police – people with any scientific training can also make good detectives, because we’re used to piecing together evidence to figure out what’s going on.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Yes; mostly for uniform violations, and for often being late in the mornings from my job before school. Looking back, I also now realise what a pain I must have been to teach – I didn’t do any homework at all during my entire Further Maths A-level, thinking I could just wing it (and consequently I failed it; if I could go back in time and meet my former self back then, I’d kick my backside).
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
Led a project that recently discovered the world’s deepest undersea volcanic vents, 3.1 miles deep in an ocean trench called the Cayman Trough. All the species of deep-sea creatures that we’ve found down there are new, and studying them will tell us much more about the patterns of life in the deep ocean, which is our planet’s largest habitat.
Tell us a joke.
Before you criticise someone, walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you do criticise them, you are a mile away, and you have their shoes.