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Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Sailing into the unknown…a scientific and artistic voyage of discovery in 2016

The RV Investigator, Fremantle, WA

Artists have long been associated with voyages of scientific discovery. In the digital age, with a plethora of alternative means of recording and documentation, artists have however become less crucial in the collection of scientific information, or so it would seem. On the 8th of January 2016, I joined an interdisciplinary team of researchers on Australia’s Marine National Facility research vessel Investigator as part of a 58 day voyage to test whether active underwater volcanoes nourish phytoplankton by supplying needed iron. Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies Professor Mike Coffin, Chief Scientist on the voyage to UNESCO World Heritage listed Heard Island and McDonald Islands region, recruited myself and fellow voyager, dancer/choreographer James Batchelor to join the scientific expedition. I embarked in Fremantle, Western Australia with both excitement and a little trepidation about what the next two months at sea would bring.

My days were spent both observing and participating in the day to day life of the ship. This was as much a part of the experience of being at sea as was learning about the scientific research that was being carried out by the international team of marine scientists. The scientific activity on board included the sampling of water from various locations and depths, looking for a range of chemical signals indicating the presence of hydrothermal plumes on the sea floor. Teams of scientists worked together with the crew to deploy sensitive instruments over the side of the ship then retrieve them and their precious samples for analysis back on board in the labs. While all of this was going on the ship was constantly mapping the seafloor, using sound to create an image of the terrain beneath the waves. Dredges and sediment samples were also taken, bringing up on deck some of the geological material from various underwater sites of interest. All of this information is being used to piece together a map of a largely unknown and uncharted region of Australia.

Departing from Fremantle


On deck in Fremantle at the wharf
James rocking that marine safety orange in his immersion suit for our safety induction!
We boarded the ship in searing Fremantle heat, the day before departure. We were given a guided tour of the ship as well as being run through a safety induction, including how to put on an immersion suit. Practicing this in 39 degree heat, it was hard to imagine how it might actually save our lives if we were unfortunate enough to end up in the drink in sub-Antarctic waters!

It was exciting to see Fremantle again after 12 years. I've always enjoyed ports, they are an interesting mix of history, contemporary trade and commerce and of course departure points for journeys - something I am particularly fond of! The ship provided a wonderful vantage point to spy the surrounding port area. 


Exploring the ship on day 1 in 39 degree heat! 






The crew had the somewhat unenviable task of loading all of the scientific equipment and labs in the 39 degree heat. I spent most of the morning hidden inside exploring the ship in air conditioned cool! But, all were out on deck to see the gangway removed and the tugs moving us out from the wharf. Getting closer to midday on the 8th clouds were building up and the weather became quite sultry, giving us a spectacular sky, including lightning to sail off into!

Exploring the ship

Up on the bridge


The first few days of the voyage brought endless interesting things for curious eyes as I explored both above and below decks. Scientists were busily setting up and securing equipment and the crew were assisting with checking lashings and making sure all would stay put if we were to encounter rough seas. It was however incredibly calm with vivid blue waters surrounding the ship for many days. This did however, give way as temperatures gradually dropped and we encountered several days of amazing sea fog with very little visibility. The sea changed to shades of grey, but still the wind remained at bay and we sailed smoothly.



The first instruments were deployed as we reached a test site about 10 days into the voyage. Crew and scientists worked together to ready instruments and operate the winches and machinery required to launch. We still had favourable weather, making for a relatively straight forward deployment over the side. Hard hats, gloves and coats were on as the temperatures were considerably cooler than what we had experienced in Fremantle.




Venturing around the ship often included time spent in the operations room - the nerve centre for all the mapping and imaging of the sea floor. Here I had the wonderful opportunity to learn from the scientists about how images of the sea floor were created through the use of 'pinging' sound from the ship. These pings travel down to the sea bed then return at different rates and intensities which are then picked up by sensors. These acoustic images reveal the depth of the water column, the terrain and topography of the sea bed (bathymetry) and also indicate what the sea bed material is made of, for example rock versus sand.

Sun, after several days of thick sea fog!

Scientific and Creative Operations on board


Science operations were fully underway into the second week, as were the creative ones! Time was spent out drawing and observing on deck, watching all that was going on. I also had opportunity to collaborate with one of my fellow artistic voyagers, dancer/choreographer James Batchelor. James and I are essentially interested in processes that involve body knowledge – that which is learned by doing – a tacit way of interacting and coming to know via participation and action. James and I both draw, James with the body in space and myself utilising various drawing conventions to visually depict the figure in space. We both intently observed all that was going on around the ship, including the scientists and crew. Their interactions with each other, and the maritime environment utilised drawing based methodologies to track, record and trace information in various ways. 

James and I frequently talked, filmed, recorded and interacted. James began some really interesting improvisations around the ship both outside and inside - this attracted everyone's attention. Relating to what I was doing via drawing and observing was much more straight forward for people to grasp than understanding how James' research was unfolding through his bodily interactions with the ship and environment. This meant there were curious looks, but also some really great conversations about the nature of research and how the body plays such an important part of our experience of different environments. Soon it was like we were just part of the furniture! I even ventured out on the foredeck with James for my interpretive dance debut! Decked out in fluoro wet weather gear, beanie, puffer jacket, steal caps and gloves I was ready for anything!

With the sun out again, the crew created some drawings and choreography of their own!

The crew

A big part of any large undertaking are the people who make it happen. In the case of a ship at sea, this is of course the crew. The Master, mates, IR's, engineers, chefs and stewards not only enable all operations to occur, but they also ensure our safety and well being. A huge thankyou to Master, Mike Watson and his team for looking after us so well!


The IR crew are the people who enable the deployment of equipment via the operation of winches and machinery. They frequently work under challenging conditions to operate and deploy some very sophisticated (and expensive) scientific instruments and equipment. It was really amazing to see how effortless they made this look. Teamwork and experience come together with the use of hand signals and radio to communicate. This was a choreography all its own, carried out by Bosun, Jono and his team with good humour, lots of jokes, quips and laughs belying the concentration, awareness, skill and expertise required to do so safely. 

A real highlight of my trip was the opportunity to interact with the crew. I learned more about navigation, the vessel and the maintenance and activities that frequently go unnoticed to keep everything ship shape. I now know how to tie a one handed bowline, a clove hitch, rolling hitch and sheet bend. I also learnt various splicing methods and can say that my spliced eyes will be tying the ship up to the wharf when we return to port! Perhaps a little worrying for some?

I also earned my certificate in 'Lube-oligy' from greaser, Kel. I tagged along with Kel for many days, being issued my own pair of overalls (to look the part) and learnt how to check oil levels of all the working machinery and grease all the winches. This was a great experience and I learnt lots! Hopefully when I have my own boat one day it will come in handy.

Me on the grease gun with Kel
Kel 'inspecting' one of the emergency escape hatches

View of the mighty engine room!
Chief Engineer, Genna took us on a tour of the engine room and otherwise hidden parts of the ship, usually only visited by the crew. This was really interesting to see and better understand how everything works to keep the ship running - and yes, of course we got to see the sewerage treatment area! Genna also cooked us a BBQ out on deck on Australia Day which was fun. Especially considering it was only a few degrees, extremely windy and foggy (as you can see in the photo below). 

Chief Engineer, Genna cooking an Australia Day BBQ for us out on deck!

The mess, decorated for Australia Day

Lamingtons and pavlova for dessert!
Our two chefs, Keith and Matt fed us all extremely well (too well in fact). We were flooded with multiple choices at every meal. Cassie, the steward also treated us frequently to fresh made bread and cakes. It required great restraint not to try a little bit of everything and then inadvertently end up with a huge mountain of food on my plate, wondering how on earth I was going to jam the chocolate eclair in for dessert as well! I only split one pair of pants and I blamed that on the vigorous ping pong and that my trousers were old! Some people did have to resort to trackies and stretchy waist bands! Where is the gym again???

McDonald Islands

McDonald Islands
On the 27th January we saw our first landfall since leaving Fremantle in the shape of the McDonald Islands. Suddenly, the bridge was full of bodies with eyes (and cameras) eagerly focused on the scene across the water, which included lots of penguins, seals and sea birds surrounding the ship. It was as though we were as much of an attraction for the animals as the islands were for us! We circled McDonald for several days, mapping the seafloor as we went. The size of the island has tripled in recent years with several volcanic eruptions. Much of what we were seeing and mapping has never before been seen, nor recorded - the unknown! Wonderful!

Drawing out on deck looking to McDonald Islands

Drawing on the ship

My main tools of collection in the field are pencil and sketchbook, supported by the use of a camera for still and moving image. Drawing provides a very particular way of paying attention where I am critically mindful of all that I am experiencing, not just, that which is observed via the eyes. It is a personal and intimate enquiry, using drawing as a way of making sense of the unfamiliar.

Observational drawing is based largely upon the seen, however through the drawing process I am completely engaged and embodied, all of my senses are being utilised. Drawing is an active, embodied way of engaging with my world and nowhere is this more apparent than on a ship, pitching and rolling on a churning Southern Ocean. Via drawing I am attempting to translate an experience that is seen and felt. Standing on deck, being buffeted by wind and rain in close to freezing temperatures, while trying to keep your footing in heaving seas is a challenge, not usually faced when working in the studio. But, when your studio is a scientific research vessel in the Southern Ocean it is the daily norm.

In the CTD room getting ready to launch

One special additional activity where my drawing skills came in handy was decorating one of the special floats that is set adrift over the side of the ship. These floats, often drift for 8 years collecting data and transmitting this information back to scientists on land via satellite. I was asked by scientist Isa Rosso from Scripps, USA to draw onto the float a picture of Nemo, for school students back in the states supporting her project. You can see a bit more here about Isa's research and the floats at;

Heard Island and Big Ben

All eyes were again keenly peering out of the bridge windows when we sighted Heard Island and Big Ben. We had a variety of weather as we circled Heard Island, providing many different magnificent views. The most outstanding of course was the eruption of Big Ben, with smoke and lava flows evident in the snow.


Big Ben with smoke emanating from Mawson Peak

Another magical view of Big Ben
And just when you didn't think it could get more perfect, a rainbow!



Heading for home 

Heard Earth Ocean Biosphere Interactions, Investigator Voyage 01, 2016! (The science and art crew).

All of these aspects of my experience on board have been part of my drawing process, one of collecting information – a drawing out from the world, a gathering. This, combined with my observational drawings have helped me make sense of something which was previously unknown and unfamiliar. An interesting opportunity to expand my practice and thinking has been provided by this journey. The complex instrumentation and equipment on board the Investigator also used drawing processes to collect and translate data, contributing to knowledge about the effects of iron in the world’s oceans. It is a contrasting and yet similar way of making sense of the world via a drawn understanding.

Observations, teamed with conversations, active participation and involvement were all important aspects of our presence on the ship. These interactions meant that James and I were able to think more broadly about the ways in which drawing in an expanded sense is used as a means of trying to understand ourselves, and the world we in habit. Artist/writer Emma Dexter comments on this aspect of drawing, ‘drawing is not a window on the world but a device for understanding our place in the universe.’

Being a part of this voyage opened up a dialogue between the artistic and scientific disciplines. Both utilise drawing based methodologies to track, trace and record information about the world we live in and our human interactions with that world. The opportunity to stand alongside scientists and crew and share such a unique experience, opens up a collective understanding and appreciation of something that words often fail to describe. The drawn and the visual provide an alternative means of translating and communicating human experience and phenomena that has the potential to speak across disciplinary boundaries, backgrounds and conventions to a broad audience.  Perhaps our presence not only continued a historical tradition, but also extended and expands perceptions of knowledge and information gathering and how the human is inextricably entangled in the research process, whether that be scientific or artistic.

**A very big thank you to Chief Scientist, Professor Mike Coffin for the invitation to be part of the voyage, the Marine National Facility, IMAS and CSIRO.

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