• Question: what conditions do you go through during reaserch

    Asked by 1697kush to Jon on 25 Jun 2010 in Categories: .
    • Photo: Jon Copley

      Jon Copley answered on 25 Jun 2010:

      When we’re at sea, we’re cooped up on the ship for several weeks and living at “close quarters” with each other for that time. I’m lucky because I don’t get seasick – but for those who do, the first few days out of port are not much fun. Fortunately, everyone eventually gets their “sea legs” and becomes used to the motion of the ship after a few days.

      We’re much luckier than the early explorers, like Shackleton, whose ships were very basic and had much tougher conditions! Physically we’re well looked-after. The food is usually very good, though you do run out of fresh vegetables and fruit after a couple of weeks. And although we can’t go anywhere to stretch our legs, there is a gym on board to help keep fit. Plus the scenery is amazing – the best sunsets I’ve ever seen, so we don’t really miss things like TV for entertainment.

      If a storm hits us, it can be too rough to work, so we turn the ship into the direction where the waves are coming from, and just ride them out. That can last for a few days, and it’s very tiring, because everything around you is always moving (for example, you have to put all the furniture in your cabin flat on the floor, to stop it flying about as the ship bucks up and down!).

      So those are the conditions aboard the ship. Then when we’re actually diving in minisubs, it is very cramped (so not ideal for anyone who doesn’t like confined spaces) – for example, there can be three of you in a metal ball that’s just six feet across (along with all the instrument panels). You’re in there for perhaps 8 to 12 hours (and there’s no loo). You have to take warm clothing with you, because it’s cold at the bottom of the ocean (typically about 2 degrees C, if you go to 2000 metres or so).

      Everything you take in the sub has to be checked to make sure it can’t give off any gases that could interfere with the system that scrubs carbon dioxide from the air in the sub. And that also means you can’t wear perfume, aftershave, or strong-smelling deodorant! On my first dive the pilot forgot to switch on the CO2 scrubber, so CO2 gradually built up in the atmosphere in the sub. By 500 metres we all had headaches, realised what was happening, and switched it on (and we were fine after that!).

      Unlike scuba diving, where the pressure increases as you go deeper, the subs are “one atmosphere diving systems” – so the pressure inside stays at normal (surface) pressure for the whole dive. That means we don’t have to decompress after a dive, and there’s no risk of getting “the bends”.

      One difference, though, is that we breath down the oxygen content in the air from the 20 percent that it is in normal air, to around 16 percent. That’s still plenty for us to keep working normally, but it greatly reduces the risk of fire in the sub.

      Because of all those physical conditions inside the subs, and the fact that only one scientist can dive in the vehicle at a time, we now use remotely-operated underwater vehicles a lot more. Instead of being crammed into the sub, we can all sit in a comfortable control room aboard our ship, pop to the loo or go eat whenever we need to, and keep the vehicle working round the clock on the ocean floor for much longer. Although it’s perhaps not quite as exciting as diving in one of the minisubs, it is a more efficient way of getting our research done.