Growing up listening to the sounds of the sea in a shell. The entire seascape captured within the delicate structure of the conch. The inspiration of nature drove me to continuously spend my head in the books when away from the ocean. We didn’t say studying- we said wonder. Wonder about the abyss, the deep blue ocean and its rich inhabitants. How they breathe, how they respire. Eating their way across the food web. A pioneering life history strategy they said- that was our vision. As a student of marine science, there was so much to learn- so much to inspire, digest and reflect upon. The continuous inspiration of the oceans drove me forward into the deep blue wilderness of the abyss. Where had I come from to do oceanography? From a place in my imagination so intrinsically connected with nature. A place unexplored where explorers seek to find wonder. Confronted with scientific understanding I looked to nature to find my muse. Paper after paper, searching for the vision of the natural world within my data. I learned to be a scientist, an ecologist mapping the shallows as well as the deep. Listening to the sea and all its glory I sat there wondering what could be done to save our oceans.
It all started on a sunny summer morning in London when I got the phone call from Southampton university and another one from Bangor university. It was immediately decided; as a young eighteen year old, I would set out to do the oceanography degree at Southampton Oceanography Centre. My parents had little choice on the matter, not that they needed that much convincing. I come from a Gujarati family and my parents were both medical doctors with no experience of oceanography. Yet still, something drew me to the sea. At first my dad wanted me to opt to do a pure biology degree and then specialise into marine biology further during post-graduation; but there was no point to wait – I was sure I wanted to do marine science. I was fascinated and enthusiastic about many nature documentaries and inspired by my ecological coursework during my Biology field course, had decided to study marine biology with oceanography. And soon my journey into the deep blue began. The turbulent times of the first year took a bit of adjusting to. Somehow I had become known as the girl who was always late to her lectures. I did not appreciate this reputation but supposed as this was largely true, did not fight it at the time. During the first year at least. But for the Marine Plants and Animals exam, another marine biology student Sophie and I patiently discussed marine worms as the two of us were waiting outside the exam laboratory clutching our Invertebrate Zoology textbooks. We were to be called in to the exam and had been waiting for over half an hour. We waited and waited, but still no call from Paul Tyler, the Professor of deep sea biology. I was surprised I had the chance to revise most of my notes from Phylum Porifera up to the Crustaceans. We thought this was rather unusual and so dared to reach out to open the laboratory door defying the red sign marked “Do not enter, exams in progress,”which guarded the door. It turned out that due to a timetabling error, the exam had already started half an hour earlier and we had both missed half of the practical exam! I could not believe it. It was my favourite class and already the first disaster had occurred! I ended up failing that practical exam with a disastrous mark. Sophie was very intelligent and managed to pass. I was too scared to complain at the time and only blamed myself for what was in hindsight a silly administrative mistake of the authorities. Fortunately it did not count towards my degree nor did I let it deter my love for invertebrates. This was the only exam I ended up failing- my favourite one. A few years later, little did I know that Sophie and I would end up part of the team of five undergraduates going to Canada – to the beautiful British Columbian coast on Vancouver Island.
Being a student was a tough life at times, but not without its rewards. The wonderful life captured in the Invertebrate Zoology textbook first sparked my interest in marine invertebrates. It started off with the sponges, corals and anemones, molluscs, worms, crustaceans all the way to the tunicates. I was particularly fascinated by the shapes of the spicules of the sponges. I never got into DNA work myself as I selected a different pathway into marine biology, but certainly taxonomy based on morphological classification was certainly an inspiration. Later on in my PhD, I learnt that there were some diverging outcomes in species identification of sponges depending on if you used DNA analysis or the morphological route- just one of the many disputes in marine taxonomy. At the end of the first year, we had our field trip to Dale Fort Field Centre in Pembrokeshire in Wales. It was later on a summer placement here that I would learn to really discover the marine invertebrates in the field. A Dale Fort senior tutor Phil Wensley and I would go looking for intertidal and subtidal rarities in the beaches off the Dale peninsula. Nudibranches or sea slugs were his favourite type of organism and we were fascinated with the range of colours and patterns. Back at Southampton in the second year, we did the marine vertebrates class and I had worked hard to curb my reputation from one of always being late to always being early. Paul Tyler was a wonderful man and I was so fascinated by his inspiring tales of the flight of the black-footed albatross with its tubular nostrils. I could not be anything but inspired by my physical oceanography lectures. Harry Bryden and Joanna Waniek taught us about the physical oceanography of the Labrador sea- an area of deep water formation and the importance of gaining a thorough understanding of the tides. Soon I initiated plans to do a summer placement at the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney in Canada. Terry Curran was my principal mentor in Canada and the organiser of the placement. I was determined to do my third year project working with the Canadian government. I had two choices, data processing using a software called Ocean Data View or do marine habitat mapping. I chose the latter given my biological background. All I had to do now was find an academic to supervise me. I knocked at about fourteen doors in the oceanography centre before Tim Le Bas, a hydrographic data processing specialist agreed to supervise my undergraduate project. Responding to the promise of getting good quality data from Canada, Tim soon introduced me to my co-supervisor Veerle Huvenne- a talented, young Belgian post-doctoral researcher. She would later end up being my mentor, inspiration and something like a life coach for me for about a month. Firstly, I had never in my life met someone who was so enthusiastic about texture! She went on to become the Team Leader in marine habitat mapping at Southampton, leading wonderful technological mapping advances in the Atlantic Ocean. I had finally found my two academic supervisors and found my marine habitat mapping team as I began my third year. Our Canada summer placement had begun!
As soon as we went on the BC Ferries, I soon fell in love at first sight with Vancouver Island. I finally had the opportunity to meet Terry in person. He was a kind and gentle soul- an engineer who specialised in client liaison. Sophie, Kelvin, Michelle and Katie were my Canada buddies and we shared a common bond of being Southampton students in pursuit of discovery. We went on major hikes and excursions around Vancouver island and on Thursdays, we had the opportunity to go sailing on Terry’s yacht. During the weekends, we went cycling trips on Saltspring Island, camping on the island and the experience stirred my spirit. It was here I had the opportunity to go on my first oceanographic cruise, aboard the CCGS John P Tully. We were headed to the Juan de Fuca ridge hot vents led by chief scientist Richard Thomson. I was only mildly seasick in the relatively gentle Pacific Ocean, and the physical oceanographic cruise went to a number of locations around the deep-sea off the west coast, where the NEPTUNE cabled-underwater observatory was being constructed. Effingham Inlet was one of my favourite location; I could not believe the beauty of this secluded place as we travelled majestically through the waves. I had not travelled at sea for ten days before and I was amazed at how everyday we would wake up at a different location- sailing through the vast wilderness of the open ocean. To my surprise, we saw some orcas, a sunfish as well as the black-footed albatross! After the cruise, I changed my focus towards data collection for my third year project on acoustic seabed classification and habitat mapping. Terry and I worked on the small boat called the Otter Bay and acquired sonar data from Patricia Bay- affectionately known locally as Pat Bay. I processed this data with a local seabed classification company Quester Tangent. Back in Southampton, I wrote up my project as a comparison of two different types of sonar systems and produced a marine habitat map of Warrior point – a headland in Pat Bay. This was an inspirational experience for me and I had to build on it further by continuing my studies.
After graduating from Southampton, I decided to do my MSc further specialising in Hydrographic Surveying in University College London. This was difficult experience for me working on my own doing seabed classification. But before long, I had managed to find my ideal PhD advertised in Galway in the west of Ireland on the Understanding the Seabed project. I moved to Galway to work on oceanographic modelling and habitat dynamics in Galway Bay, leading the shallow marine-related research efforts. The project was supervised by my PhD supervisor Prof Colin Brown and post-doctoral researcher Garret Duffy, an Irish man who did his PhD in Canada. It was a dream come true and soon I was watching the sun go down on Galway Bay. We went on research cruises in the North Atlantic, including one to assist a fellow PhD student and good friend Anna Rengstorf with her PhD data collection.
The deep-sea researchers waited patiently on deck on board the mighty research vessel – the Celtic Explorer. As the ship navigated its way to its destination- a carbonate mound province in the North Atlantic, excitement grew in the ship’s dry lab. They had travelled far and wide to be on this journey into the chaotic deep blue ocean. The team lowered their instrument- a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) off the side of the vessel and hoped for the best – keeping their fingers crossed. The cube shaped ROV now operated via an umbilical to the ship and was being controlled by the technical team onboard. What did our intrepid explorers think? They thought about how to gather their much sought-after data. Sometimes you only got one chance over an area and if your equipment did not work- that was it- for this round at least. Operations were expensive and anything could happen- there was always the danger of losing millions of pounds worth of equipment if the cable snapped. Everything had been tested in the lab and even in the field-trials in the lake, but nothing could have prepared them for the immense pressures of the deep-sea. Considerable strain was placed on the housing of the sensors. Everything usually worked fine, but one could never quite predict what was round the corner. Tension was brewing on deck as the ROV reached the seafloor and we were at our destination. We were to spend the next week exploring the area around the mound province before reaching its summit. The mound was known as Galway mound and was one of the most biologically diverse in the province. Studying how the currents swept over the mound was the main objective of the mission. What would they find at the seafloor? They found cold water corals. Unlike their tropical cousins, cold water corals lack light dependent symbiotic algae and can survive in the cold and dark waters on the continental slope. Surviving in the deep sea for thousands of years, cold water corals are species rich ecosystems, supporting a wide variety of organisms. One day we encountered a benthic storm at a submarine canyon incised at the edge of the continental slope. Intense burst of turbulence in the deep-sea brought a fury of sediment into the edge of the continental slope. It was difficult to deploy the ROV and our onboard equipment at times like this. We felt humbled as we realised nothing we could do could really scale up to the power of nature.
Following our intrepid deep-sea corals cruise, I decided to embark on a day-trip to Trá an Doilín beach in the Gaeltacht region of Carraroe, County Galway. The beach, composed almost entirely of “coral” is actually made of branched free-living coralline algal gravels known as maerl, which photosynthesizes to produce energy. I was intrigued to see these concentric patterns, almost like “beach cusps,” carpeting the beach with colourful fragments. The term maerl was first introduced by a French naturalist, Madame Lemoine of the Paris Natural History Museum in 1910. Together with Charles Cotton, the pioneering duo took part in the Clare Island Survey in the West of Ireland, producing detailed botanical records of this calcified seaweed. In the latter half of the 20th century, maerl was extensively commercially extracted as soil conditioner in Brittany. Historically, when fishermen would land maerl, they would celebrate as not only would they land more fish, they would also be able to use the maerl to condition their soils as fertiliser. With promise of a fertile harvest, maerl is considered to be such a prized commodity that there is a traditional cultural festival- the Fête du Maërl, which happens every four years in Pont Callac. Intending to visit this festival, it was only several years later that I met Andre, a former mayor of the Plougastal Douglas region. As a guest of my neighbour he was most surprised to find a Gujarati woman knew so much about the Fête du Maërl and became a fan of our maerl documentary. Fascinated by observing the beach and how its intricate branched gravel was freely moving, carried, mobilised and transported by almost every wave, I decided to focus the direction of my PhD to maerl sediment dynamics. My PhD studies on the mobility of maerl have found that maerl requires a lower flow strength for initiation of motion because of waves, tides and currents, making it particularly vulnerable to the changing climate and the increased frequency of storm event. Maerl beds fill an important niche in the marine ecosystem and provides a stable and three- dimensional habitat onto which a variety of species can attach. Diverse benthic communities such as those of sea cucumbers, clams, scallops and other bivalves live around maerl beds. They are mobile sediments which roll and saltate gently along the seabed, following the motions of the tides and the rhythmic action of the waves. Large megaripples have been observed subtidally, such as those in Northern Ireland. Maerl was mistaken to be coral on Admiralty charts, with an estimated 50-60 % of “crl” areas as being maerl areas in Irish waters. Most recently, on the Abrolhos shelf in Eastern Brazil, dense aggregations of rhodoliths have been found to cover an area the size of El Salvador (21 000 meters squared), with further discoveries in the reef at the mouth of the Amazon. Speaking to the attendees of the International Rhodolith Workshop in Granada, the Brazilian researchers together with the NGO Conservation International, had found that rhodoliths absorb as much carbons per hectare as the rainforests covering vast areas of the seabed. Conservation of these vulnerable marine ecosystems is paramount and maerl is a fragile habitat for juvenile species of fish and bivalves. In fact, studies have shown that maerl emits a chemical which triggers the settlement of bivalve larvae onto the maerl as a safe haven to settle and grow on. The anthropogenic threats on maerl include commercial extraction, bivalve dredging, salmon farm placement over or adjacent to maerl beds, relocation and trawling through a maerl bed. Attempts to discover the unknown, let alone map, these vast areas can be challenging but provide vital information. Marine habitat mapping is one way of helping to manage the anthropogenic threats affecting these areas and designating Marine Protected Areas. The acoustic signature of maerl has been found to be similar to that of biogenic shell hash, making it possible to distinguish regions of maerl from quartz sand and muds. Through the fragmentation and redistribution these carbonates, material is transported and accumulates in the deep sea abyssal plains, forming vast landscapes of undisturbed sediment strata. The growth forms of the rhodoliths also allow it to act as a climatic archive, in a similar way to tree rings. Slow growth rates of circa 1mm per year make maerl recoverablility difficult once destroyed. Some dating studies ageing fossilised maerl to 8000 years old, making it one of the oldest marine plants in the world. My time in Galway concluded with a post-doctoral year studying maerl beach dynamics working with Eugene Farrell in the Geography discipline.
One Sunday, I took the boat to see the cliffs of Moher from the sea- so majestic were the cliffs and I felt the heavy breeze in my hair. Confronted with Aura – the breeze became my muse. The salt pierced my face. So fragile were the ideas undiscovered. Studying marine science, I was continuously inspired by nature and a large range of natural phenomenon in the sea. My journey in oceanography had helped me through many phases in my life. From growing up in my turbulent teens through to the more challenging times of my PhD. A journey which had saved me in many ways. Scientifically, intellectually to spiritually. It was not only me who had benefited; oceanography had inspired my whole family to developed a personal connection with our oceans, so vast and unexplored. Such was the intrinsic value of studying oceanography. It had inspired me to an extent I could never have imagined starting out. Searching for Tethys, the Greek goddess of the sea and her mother Gaia- the goddess of the Earth, my thoughts carried me like the sea carries a wave. Deep in scientific enquiry, the waves broke out of their amorphous casts. The changing realm of the abyss was a mystery which remained with me as I looked for clues to uncover the secrets of the sea.
One thought on “My journey in oceanography”
Very interesting.Great job 👏👏