Cruising the Indian Ocean for science

October 14 / 146

Dr Gayle Philip steering the Indigo V citizen science yacht
Dr Gayle Philip steering the Indigo V citizen science yacht

Computational biologist Dr Gayle Philip from the Victorian Life Sciences Computation Initiative (VLSCI) at the University earlier this year took time out from her research in cancer genetics to join a voyage on the Indigo V Expedition.

The expedition was a yacht trip across the Indian Ocean testing new ways of collecting oceanographic data using citizen scientists. Her trip was sponsored by the VLSCI.

Being a keen sailor and having previously been involved in a study about the microbial community structure in the North Pacific Ocean while working at the NASA Astrobiology Institute at the University of Hawaii, I jumped at the opportunity to join the second leg of the Indian Ocean citizen oceanography concept cruise run by the non-profit Indigo V Expeditions. Over the course of almost four weeks, with seven other scientists from Australia, Denmark and Singapore, we sailed the 61-foot yacht Indigo V from Mauritius to Chagos Archipelago, and on to the Maldives, sampling along the way.

The aim of the trip was to collect baseline data from the Indian Ocean and develop and test a new instrument called the Ocean Sampling Microbial Observatory (OSMO). In the future, the team hopes to install this low-cost instrumentation aboard hundreds or even thousands of ships and yachts worldwide.

With all our food, water and diesel on board, we started with a 36 hour shakedown cruise, during which the boat - and the crew - was checked for seaworthiness, to an island in the Cargados Carajos shoals, where we traded with the locals for some fresh fish. After a day, we embarked on the long crossing to the seldom-visited marine reserve, Chagos Archipelago/BIOT.

Life onboard was remarkably simple and at times mundane. It consisted of a rotating watch of three hours at night and four hours during the day, eating, reading, sleeping and sampling. On the hour, every hour, we had to conduct and log a series of safety and weather checks. We sailed for almost two weeks without seeing another boat, or any other sign of human life, until finding ourselves on a collision course – which we avoided - with a huge container ship.

On arriving at Solomon Atoll, Chagos, and threading Indigo V through the maze of reefs to the atoll’s lagoon, we were able to explore an underwater wonderland teeming with soft corals, sponges, reef sharks and fish of every colour. Leaving Chagos, we were greeted with rising temperatures, and alternating becalmed waters and squall lines as we headed north to our final destination of Addu atoll, Maldives, where a new crew boarded to embark on the third leg of the voyage to Phuket, Thailand.

From the highs of the large pod of dolphins that escorted us into the greater banks of the Chagos Archipelago, to the woes of modern technology when George, the cantankerous autopilot, inexplicably broke down on more than one occasion, we experienced it all. The cruise was a success and proved that yachties can make a valuable contribution to oceanography at a fraction of the cost of traditional research vessels.

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