World Oceans Day: A voyage across the ‘Roaring Forties’

Just before the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a lockdown in various parts of the world, a group of Indian scientists, research scholars and academicians had been in a different kind of lockdown. From January 6 to March 8, this group of 39 — 32 men and seven women — sailed around the Southern Ocean (SO), the roughest in the world, conducting experiments and studies of coastal Antarctica from the MV SA Aghulas. The participants had been selected by the National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research under the Ministry of Earth Sciences. All members of the group agree that, though the main objective was scientific research and data collection, the voyage was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Sumit Mandal, Asst Professor of Zoology, Presidency College, Kolkata aboard the SA Aghulas on the Souther Ocean Expedition 11 (SOE11)

Sumit Mandal, Asst Professor of Zoology, Presidency College, Kolkata aboard the SA Aghulas on the Souther Ocean Expedition 11 (SOE11)  

The group set sail from Mauritius on January 6, crossing the notorious southern hemisphere geographical coordinates — the Roaring Forties, Furious Fifties and the Screaming Sixties — cutting through ice fields and negotiating repeated storms. As the region (68 degree South and 57 degree East) experiences daylight for much of the day, many experienced a disorientation. Conducting experiments in temperatures below minus five degrees and at times working on a tilted deck and moving with the roll and pitch of the waves was both challenging and thrilling.

Maiden experience

For most participants, it was their maiden experience and one that redefined what the ocean had hitherto meant to them. “Due to extreme rolling and pitching, the SO is a challenge for every oceanographer,” says Sumit Mandal, Assistant Professor of Zoology at Presidency College, Kolkata, who was on his maiden SO trip. “As a marine biologist, I don’t fall sea sick. But some other members had a terrible time.” He added that the constant daylight “disrupted our biological clock. We also saw the midnight sun at Antarctica.” They saw albatross, petrel-like sea birds, penguins, geese, water fowl, south polar skua, seals and whales. Sumit’s project was to collect sediment samples to study life organisms in them. He collected samples from nearly 10 stations of approximately 2,000 metres depth and was amazed to see the variety of life.

A sample of benthic diversity in sediment from the SO

A sample of benthic diversity in sediment from the SO  

“There are polychaete worms, crabs, starfish, beetle, sponges and soft corals. This is the first time that Southern Ocean’s benthic diversity is being studied by India,” he says. He recalls the biting cold at Prydz Bay that penetrated through his clothes, getting frostbitten through washing the sediments with his bare hands.

Princy M John, a research scholar from Kochi, conducted studies on marine life like the krill and the salp. She collected water samples from as deep as 2.5 kilometres below the icy surface and recalls waves that were as much as eight metres high. “The scenery was stark and heavy. We covered nearly 40 stations to conduct our research,” says Princy.

World Oceans Day: A voyage across the ‘Roaring Forties’

Team leader Anoop Mahajan, an Earth Scientist at IITM, explains the importance of the SO. “All the oceans of the world are connected through the SO. What happens there is conveyed to all other oceans. We need to understand the SO to understand the climate system of the world. From the Indian perspective, the South Indian Ocean is part of it and the monsoon is developed around these.”

Tough environment

He adds that the region needs to be studied through the year but SO is out of bounds in winter. But plans are afoot to study the region then. India has two bases: Bharati at 69 degrees S and Maitri, which is inland. “As of now we conduct winter studies using automated instruments like Argo floats,” says Anoop for whom this was the third trip. “It is not an easy environment. On some days, there is sunshine and the perfect glassy sea is serene.”

Anoop says that often they had to work for up to 18 hours a day on station days. “On non-station days, we analysed the samples and did related work.” The big success, says Anoop, was the collection of a large number of sediment cores, but above all “we saw the power of unity and also the diversity of our country. The crew was South African and we all worked well together.”

When they reached India in early March, it felt like they were out from, as one of them put it, “the Big Boss house”.

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Printable version | Jul 30, 2021 4:22:30 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/a-group-of-scientists-and-research-scholars-recount-their-experiences-of-a-recently-concluded-voyage-to-the-southern-ocean-which-has-the-roughest-waters-bodies-in-the-world/article31779120.ece

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