“You have gone very boat”

“You have gone very boat”

“That was a very boat thing to do”

Like everything else, these sentences only make sense if you too… are boat.

There are a couple of interesting principles in genetics. One is the bottleneck effect; where a small group of individuals is isolated. Their particular quirks, rare in the larger population, are now over-represented in this small group. Another is drift; where this isolated group intermingles and starts to drift further and further away from the norm of the larger population. In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins suggests that there are memes as well as genes; little packets of social and cultural information and are passed down and behave very much like genes.

I am going somewhere with all this. This is my attempt of putting some scientific relevance to the fact that we have all gone strange. Oh, have we gone strange! Twelve personalities (not what you would call the norm anyway, having chosen this type of life) have lived in a confined space for four weeks. In-jokes have been built upon in-jokes, references are now several layers thick. The end result is that we would now make very little sense to anyone on land. Jokes we find hilarious are just odd.


Without the deployments to keep us entertained and add meaning to our lives, there is a bit of boredom going around. Boredom has bred creativity, or, maybe just oddity. Heather surprised us all by showing up to breakfast in a Wonder Woman costume, complete with caped socks. Not for any particular reason, but it’s been appreciated.


It has been decided that Thom sounds like a German Sheppard barking underwater when being seasick. This dog is called Sasha; she is a Russian police dog.

Wearing our best clothes, lava-lavas (a kind of sarong) and sitting on a strip of Astroturf is a big night out. Deploying gear on deck while in a pretty dress is also perfectly normal.




Spontaneously singing a full verse of Lonely This Christmas is appropriate at the dinner table.

You can whip marmite until it turns white (you can’t but that will keep someone busy for some time).

An Ikigun (a spring-loaded bolt for humanely killing fish), an egg and a camera capable of high-speed recording is all that’s required to spend an afternoon watching eggs explode.


The number of straight-leg pull-ups is the true measure of a man.

Peeling sunburn is a communal activity.

“Would you rather” questions can become increasingly elaborate, requiring at least 20 minutes of conversation to establish a set of convoluted rules.

During transit sleeping for up to 20 hours a day is acceptable if not encouraged.

People we are communicating with back home via email are politely laughing along but are no doubt quietly worried or putting it down to a lack of sleep. This will go on for some time once we are back. Tales retold in the pub will reach the punch-line and only we will be laughing.

We are legion… we are boat.


Amazing people and unfortunate crabs

It is common to get superstitious at sea. So much of our life on land is under control that the sudden feeling that you are small and at the mercy of these huge processes can come as a bit of a shock. Even the most logical minds can ascribe lucky and unlucky traits in a desperate attempt at making sense and taking some control of random and uncontrollable events.

We have been marred by misfortune at every turn and it is beginning to feel that there is some malicious and deliberate opposing force that is pushing against us. When you are just a few people, tiny against the forces you are up against, there is only so much you can have control over. This is the point where people really prove themselves however.

I am immensely proud of the people on this vessel, of the things they have managed to achieve with so little. Things have been forced to happen, have come into being through sheer acts of will: Deliveries that would have been late have been intercepted in transit (optional scientist as Adam Ant in Stand and Deliver sequence here), a -800C freezer has been found on a remote island and a abyssal depth rated vehicle has been constructed out of spare parts on the vessel, to name just a few.

These acts have yielded rewards. We have seen a slow trickle of data from the trench as we refuse to be beaten. The water is incredibly clean, allowing us to see our gear as far as 20m below the vessel. These clean waters don’t produce much life and so there is very little food raining down on the seafloor below. The photos we have taken have revealed a very clean seabed with golden silty sediment. In some areas there are large and irregular rocks lying on the sediment. Since they have not been burred they must have arrived relatively recently. Their dark colour and irregular shape would indicate they are volcanic in origin and we have seen a few signs of activity in the area.

Yesterday we passed over a ring of bright yellow/green water, in stark contrast to the clear dark blue of the surrounding water. There was a strong sulphur smell and also large amounts of pumice in the water; rocks that had solidified so quickly when contacting that cold ocean water that they were full of gas bubbles and floated on the surface. We have seen these floating blocks the size of footballs. These larger blocks become little floating islands as larvae in the water settle on them and grow. Many are covered in goose barnacles and we even recovered one piece with two crabs living on it. These were crabs that should have been living at the bottom and were not able to swim. They had obviously found their little island home as larva and grown there; if they were ever to fall they could never get back. The pumice is eventually over-colonised and sinks, likely killing all onboard. On a tough day in the middle of the ocean you can dwell on that. It can be a grim metaphor for all sorts of things. Poor little crabs.

We have covered a range of some 5,000m depth but the life we have found has been amazingly consistent. The same four fish species, in different proportions, have been found at all of these depths. These species are familiar; we found them in the Kermadec trench earlier this year. The Kermadec is closer to land and has a higher food input. In that trench we saw many species and several transitions with depth as one species took over from the last. Here in the New Hebrides trench the fish that we saw at about 4-5,000m in the Kermadec have expanded in both directions. This would suggest that in the Kermadec they do not occupy their narrow depth range because that is the only range that they can cope with but, at least on one side of their range, they may be limited not by depth but by competition with other species. The boisterous and greedy macrurids (rattails) may keep them out of the shallower areas in the Kermadec trench but here, with the noticeable lack of this group, they are free to spread and eek out a meagre existence on a seabed with very little food.

There have been a couple of species that have been mocking us for some time. Turning up in abundance for our cameras but refusing to enter a trap and allow us to know for sure what they are. Our deep-sea bullies were a large red shrimp and a very pale eel. We had our hunches as to what they were but without a specimen to look at it was all an educated guess. We have finally managed to capture a few examples of each. We have identified them as best we can on the vessel but in some species x-rays are needed. These specimens were left intact and will be examined at the Te Papa museum in Wellington. I am excited to finally put a name to the face that has been mocking me through a camera’s lens.

Some Thoughts from Thom

The NIWA research vessel Kaharoa is described as having a “lively seaway”. I did not realise that these words are carefully chosen much like in real-estate. Technically true but putting quite a positive spin on the fact of the matter – she moves a great deal! This 28m long vessel will be home to 6 scientists and 6 crew for the next 5 weeks while we cross the South Fiji Basin and head out to the New Hebrides trench; a deep crack in the ocean bed that extends almost 10km down. We will be the first to explore this remote area with a high chance of new discoveries.

We set off from Auckland into an ominous stormy horizon. I am usually seasick for the first couple of days before I find my sea-legs but it’s rare that we would immediately head into such rough weather. I don’t think anyone was spared; scientist or crew, everyone had a few days pinned to their bunk – and I do mean pinned. Once we wriggle into our tiny bunk we have to wedge a board down the side to stop us being thrown from it. We emerged victorious from our ordeal and were straight to work. We are stopping off in the South Fiji Basin on our way to New Caledonia before we head on to the trench.

Check out our equipment section to see what we are using to explore this new area. Although we prepped everything as much as we could things are always a little messy on the first deployment. We have to figure out how best to deploy our gear quickly and safely and we will be continually tweaking how we do things.

Following an extremely long first day, all equipment was successfully deployed and recovered to 4,000m depth. I will be looking at the fish: both samples and video/photos during the expedition. Although I am quite familiar with the fish that we should find in this part of the world and at this depth I was surprised at how different these fish were once we got away from land and right out into the open ocean. The cameras recorded some very large cusk-eels; some over a metre in length. We were lucky enough to also capture some in the fish trap so that we could take samples and preserve some for museums. They were surprisingly jelly like, even for deep-sea fish. The flesh of these fish was a clear gel with individual muscle fibres visible within it. These fellas were clearly no athletes, geared more for a low energy life of cruising the deep. The liver was also very large, storing large amounts of energy to get these fish to their next meal.

We have all noticed a strange occurrence during a time on the boat. A boat is full of sound and rhythm. Your whole world is swinging to a beat and all sorts of noises at the edge of your hearing trigger memories. The result seems to be that you find the strangest songs stuck in your head. Songs you certainly don’t own and it’s unlikely anyone has been playing to get it stuck there in the first place. Such amazing hits have so far included: The Canadian national anthem, one of the songs from Mulan, Build Me Up Buttercup and Come-on Feel the Noise.

(Web Minion’s Note: Thom does a great side line in taxonomic illustration and happens to be the creator of the lovely Coryphaenoides armatus drawing featured as our background image.)