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What lies beneath? Postcard from a voyage of discovery in the Coral Sea


19 November 2012

Chief scientist Dr Maria Seton holding a deep-sea sponge that came in with the rock dredge from the West Torres Plateau.
Chief scientist Dr Maria Seton holding a deep-sea sponge that came in with the rock dredge from the West Torres Plateau.

Dr Maria Seton from the University of Sydney's School of Geosciences is on a 25-day voyage in the eastern Coral Sea. From on board she writes of her experiences:

On day two of the trip a flock of red-footed boobies had taken over the foremast but were not having any luck catching flying fish, which regularly break the surface and fly away as our ship approaches.

We, on the other hand, have been increasingly successful in capturing gifts from the sea.

I am onboard the RV Southern Surveyor, a 66-metre converted fishing trawler and Australia's Marine National Facility research vessel. I am with my University of Sydney colleague Dr Simon Williams, four of our talented students and a team of scientists from the University of Tasmania, University of Western Australia and GNS Science, New Zealand.

Together with the crew we set sail from Cairns on 26 October to collect data and rock samples from the region between the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia. The deep-sea portion of this part of the world is surprisingly under-explored in marine geoscience terms.

So that's around 50,000 square kilometres of the ocean floor that we are investigating to understand how it formed and how it has changed over the last hundred million years. The age of the basins, the type of crust the region sits on (for example is it volcanic or part of an old continent) and the tectonic movements in the area are all questions we want answered.

This ship not only has a gym, a brilliant cook and crew, but we also have a full range of the instruments we need for our research. We take continuous readings of the water depth, gravity and magnetics, which will be integrated with existing data when we're back on shore in order to determine the age of the ocean basins and distinguish between different types of crust.

We've also been taking samples from the sea floor by lowering a large metal bucket of sorts to a depth of over 3000 metres with the hope of capturing pieces of rock from the bottom of the sea. So far, we have recovered samples of sandstone, basalt, limestone and siltstone. The basalt will allow us to determine when volcanic activity was active in the region and under which tectonic conditions. We can use tiny fossils in the limestone to date when and at what depths coral reef building occurred.

I'm enjoying being at sea. Standing out on deck late at night on the bridge looking at a red moon or star-gazing, the camaraderie, the discoveries, doing science in the open. We feel like the early explorers during their voyages of discovery all those centuries ago. In fact we felt a bit like Captain Cook and Joseph Banks the other morning. They travelled to Tahiti to watch the Transit of Venus but were thwarted by foul weather, much the same as the clouds that obscured our view of the total solar eclipse!

Our voyage is one of the last on the Southern Surveyor, which will make way for a brand new Australian ship for scientific research. During the voyage I found out a 10-year-old schoolgirl and aspiring scientist had won the competition to name the boat - The Investigator. I hope she continues to pursue science and one day has a scientific experience as amazing as this one.


Read the ship blog.


University of Sydney student Louise Nott and University of Hamburg student Daniela Wolf cleaning rocks that came from a dredge off the Rennell Island Ridge. Louise found a very effective sunburn cure in deep sea mud.
University of Sydney student Louise Nott and University of Hamburg student Daniela Wolf cleaning rocks that came from a dredge off the Rennell Island Ridge. Louise found a very effective sunburn cure in deep sea mud.


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Media enquiries: Verity Leatherdale, 02 9351 4312, 0403 067 342, verity.leatherdale@sydney.edu.au