Questions and answers

Jabba, age 3, from Malvern Montesourri in the UK, asks:

How realistic is the CBeebies series Octonauts? Is it anything like what you are doing down in Antarctica?

Chris Sweeting replies: Dear Jabba - thank you for your question. Like the Octonauts, we are doing a lot of exploring. We go a lot of places where we never know what we will find. We will be the first people ever to see some animals. Unfortunately we do not get to be as heroic and rescue things as much. There are a few other differences too. We do not have the same tools and clothes as the Octonauts and so when we explore really deep water we have to send a robot down rather than swimming there ourselves.

For the adults: many of the Octonaut themes are based loosely on contemporary facts and issues in marine conservation. So, for example, when the Octonauts dive on a coral reef and find everyone has gone and the reef is all white, this is inspired by coral bleaching (the loss of photosynthetic symbionts) - a major threat to our coral reef ecosystems driven mostly by climate change. In every story there is often more than a grain of truth.

Mia Sharpe, age 8, from Twyford St Mary's School in the UK, asks:

When do you think you may see some animals? We are looking forward to seeing some photos of them.

Jon Copley replies: Hello Mia and thank you for your question. Right now we're diving with our SHRIMP camera system to see what is living on the Hook Ridge - please check our next diary entry (24th January entry) to see some photos of what we're finding!

Clare Woulds replies: Dear Mia - In the last 24 hours we have started seeing some animals on the seafloor. This is because we have started using a piece of equipment called SHRIMP, which we lower to the bottom of the ocean on a long cable. SHRIMP has video cameras on it. It sends the pictures back to us up the cable, and we sit and watch the video on TV screens. So far we have seen deep-sea corals, starfish, brittle stars, and sea cucumbers.

Also, a couple of days ago we got our first good look at humpback whales! One of them was jumping out of the water - to see some photos, please click here.

The juniors, age 9, from Dry Drayton Primary School in the UK, ask:

1. Are there any risks attached to going on the expedition?

2. How long do you stay on board the ship and how often do you go onto dry land?

3. How close are you to land?

4. Do any of you get seasick?

5. What type of sea are you in?

6. What do you eat on board the ship and who cooks it?

7. Have you crashed into any icebergs?

8. How many ships have you sailed so far?

9. Have you ever felt threatened by any animals?

10. Who built the ships?

Laura Hepburn, Chris Sweeting, and Clare Woulds reply:

1. There are a few risks when you go on an expedition like ours. The sea can be very rough at times so we need to make sure that all of our heavy scientific equipment is strapped down so that it doesn't roll over and hurt anyone or damage other bits of kit. In this part of the world icebergs can be a real concern too. A few days ago when we were sailing in very heavy fog and could not see far out to sea at all, the captain was worried about running into ice that would damage the ship, so we sailed really slowly.

We are out here to study some unusual and very special deep-sea environments called hydrothermal vents. These are tall structures that form under special conditions (they look a bit like a chimney) and the animals that live on them are not found anywhere else on Earth. (These animals are so interesting because the chemical reactions that happen at hydrothermal vents produce highly toxic materials - things that are very harmful to you, me and virtually every other animal on the planet; however these special animals are able to use these toxic chemicals).

During our trip we take bits of sediment from the seafloor and fluid from the deep sea that contains harmful chemicals so we have to be very careful when we handle these materials. So, yes there are risks in the work that we do, but we take many precautions to ensure that while our work is exciting and adventurous it is still safe. We are also very far away from any hospital if anything does go wrong, so we carry doctor on board.

2 and 3. We stay on board the ship for the whole expedition (six weeks) without stepping onto dry land. On some expedition you don't even see land for that long. On this expedition there have been some times when we can't see land (about 3 weeks), and other times when we can see some of the islands near the Antarctic Peninsula (the South Shetland Islands). A few days ago we were travelling from one site to the next, and we went quite close to Elephant Island. This is the island where Sir Ernest Shackelton's expedition had to camp for more than four months while they waited to be rescued. The view we had showed that the island is all spiky rocks and freezing glaciers, and nothing else. Not a very welcoming place to live at all!

4. Plenty of us on board get seasick, including me. It's worst at the start of the trip, when you're not used to the motion of the ship. I took sea sickness pills for about a week at that start of the trip to make sure that I felt OK when I had to work. After that though I got used to it, and I haven't taken any pills for weeks. The sea has been quite rough and I have not felt sick. I'm not getting to complacent though. If you get tired, or if the motion of the ship changes, then seasickness can creep up on you again, even after weeks at sea.

5. We are in a sea called the East Scotia Sea, which is part of the Southern Ocean. This close to Antarctica the water is cold (about 1 degree C), and in the places where we are working it is deep (up to 2500 metres), and even colder at the bottom (about -1.5 degrees C, but the water doesn't freeze because it is salty).

From the ship it looks very big, and very blue, and in bad weather it can be the roughest piece of sea on the planet. Luckily we haven't seen any really bad weather yet! Sometimes there are some quite big waves though. With their white caps, and the wind blowing spray off their tops, they can look quite spectacular.

6. We are very well looked after for food. There are 50 people on the ship, and the cooking for all of us is done by just two people. It is their full time job! They prepare three hot meals a day. There is always cooked breakfast (eggs, bacon, and other things that I don't eat because I'm vegetarian). Thereís also cereal and toast on offer. The weekend dinner menus are traditional, with fish on Fridays, curry on Saturdays, and steak or roast dinner on Sundays. There is always pudding at dinner time, and you can always get ice cream from the freezer (even in the middle of the night if you want!).

Some people work all night so have to sleep through meals. They get food put aside for them, and everyone can always go into the mess (thatís what the dining room is called) and make themselves toast or a sandwich. We have also all brought some treats like chocolate and sweets with us, to keep us going when we have to work long hours. So, you can see that there is a lot of food around, and it's quite difficult not to put on weight! Fortunately the ship has a small gym where we can exercise - and there is a competition on board to see who can row 2000 metres fastest on the rowing machine.

7. Luckily we haven't crashed into any icebergs. We have seen icebergs though, and the captain and his officers have to be careful not to get too close to them. A couple of weeks ago we had to travel really slowly because it was very foggy so they couldn't see the icebergs very well. Once we had a plan to stop in a particular place to take some samples, but in the end we couldn't, because there was an iceberg sitting right where we wanted to put the ship.

8. There is quite a range of experience on the ship. I put your question to the chief scientist (the boss) and he ran out of fingers and toes. We counted 20 boats that he has worked on over 50 long trips to sea and any number of very small boats. He has also been in 8 different scientific submarines. At the opposite end of the scale, this is the first time at sea for one of the students. Most of us have worked on large and small boats at least a few times.

9. Not on this expedition, where we have been safe onboard. We have been close to some very big animals, like whales, but they are gentle giants, although your question did start us asking around. I've been scared by seals when diving, and someone else has been dive-bombed by birds called skuas on one of the islands. It is their world, not ours, and we need to respect that at times. One scientist on board was also scared by a killer whale when he was working in a very small boat, which could easily have been crushed.

10. The ship was built in Poland and finished in Norway, which might explain why we also have a small sauna on board!

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Expedition diary

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Expedition team

Meet our team of scientists and engineers exploring the ocean depths aboard the research ship James Cook
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