Category Archives: Update

Andaman Sea update: beautiful cores but long working days…

Evening all,

Apologies for the terribly slow updating to the blog this last week – I blame the phenomenal coring success and subsequent enormous work load.

Free time… what was that again? 🙂

So, we’ve successfully finished coring over 700 meters of seafloor at Site U1447, our first Andaman Sea site, obtaining a record that stretches all the way back to the late Miocene (whoaaa!). This will allow us to peer back in time to when the Indian Monsoon first began to intensify about 8 million years ago, and help us to answer lots of interesting questions about how it has evolved over that time. Great stuff.

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 2.27.07 AM

Having finished coring at U1447, we pulled up pipe and completed the painfully short transit to our next site, U1448, a little ways to the south. I say “painfully” because we normally use the transit to catch up on our site report writing (each site must have a detailed report written about it, complete with figures and photos and lithological units all defined –we really do have a whole book written in just 2 months out here!), and 5 hours is totally not enough time to do that. Oh well.

But despite being very sleep-deprived and a bit crotchety (sorry shift-mates, I need my 8 hours or I’m a grouch), I’m also really chuffed with the sediments we’ve managed to recover at this site so far and excited about all the work we’re going to be able to do with them back on shore. Definitely worth being a bit tired for 🙂

Core view

[First core of U1448 up on deck. More lovely mud and no sand in sight!]

So for now we’re still coring Hole A, probably for another 12 hours or so, then we’ll start on our final (yay!) hole of the expedition, in order to get a second copy of the material and allow as much post-cruise work as possible to be carried out on them. Only another 100 or so smear-slides to go then…. oh dear lord.

We’ll be back in port in Singapore on the 29th, in just one week’s time, so plenty of work to do before then. Eeek. Hope there’s some time to enjoy a few more sunsets before then.

sunset watchers

So for now, toodlepip and good night.

[Still to come: What do paleomagnetists, phys props, and geochemists do? Where do we exercise and chill out after shift (er, when there’s time!)? What will I miss most about the JR?
Wow, I’d better get writing or this’ll be updated from Cornwall…]

Awesome sediments recovered from the Indian margin… now we’re off to the Andamans!

Howdy folks,

Time for an update on what we’ve been up to lately, as I’ve been too busy working for blog maintenance! Where to begin…?

During the first 12 days of 2015 we have achieved an awful lot, having successfully completed two of our most important target sites on the Indian margin. Boo yeah!

We have begun and completed coring at the first of the “BB” Sites, Site U1445, which was our deepest (oldest) target in this region. We drilled down over 600 m into the sediment, which combined with a water depth of 2400 m meant an impressive 3 km of pipe hanging off the bottom of the boat. Again, take a moment to wonder at the technological marvel of that.

At Site U1445 we double-cored to depth and got some fantastic sediment going all the way back to the late Miocene (~6 Ma), which will allow us to reconstruct monsoon and ocean dynamics over this critical interval of Earth’s history, in a region never before scientifically drilled by IODP. So in that sense, everything we find here is new to science and will add tremendously to our understanding of the planet’s most potent climate phenomenon.

Indian Ocean map3_jan 13

We then moved a little ways north and into shallower water (only 1400 m) to drill the second of our BB sites, U1446. This site was targeted to be our high-resolution Pleistocene section and boy it did not disappoint. Double cored with fantastic APC recovery it yielded a super high-resolution account of the last million years or so of sedimentation in the Mahanadi Basin. Woof!

I’m sure a whole heap of great science is going to come out of these cores and I am so excited to get back to the lab to start working on them. (Almost as excited as at the prospect of sleeping in my own bed and drinking a cold beer. Not in that order).

With so many different scientific specialties on board, from sedimentology to micropaleontology to physical properties and geochemistry, the potential for collaborations is endless. I’m sure the scientists on board, along with our shore-based collaborators and students, are going to be working together on this material for years to come.

While I’m here, by way of an explanation you may have noticed that I am (and indeed the people behind the official JR Twitter and Facebook accounts are) always a little vague when it comes to describing exactly what we’ve recovered out here during the expedition. Those engaged in outreach have to strike a delicate balance between letting everyone know all the cool stuff we’ve found and not giving too much away…

Why is this? Well, one of the rewards for the scientists for spending two months out here working 12-hour shifts is the head-start we get in getting the post-cruise science started and published. We have 12 months from the time we take our samples (probably July 2015) before anyone else is allowed to work on these cores, after which they, and all the data we’ve collected during the expedition, become fair game for the whole scientific community to request and analyse. So we want to make sure we don’t put too much sensitive information out into cyberspace that might jeopardise our plans. It’s only fair after all.

Having said that, I am just dying to tell everyone how awesome this stuff is! So here for your viewing pleasure is some mud from U1446. You might not know why exactly it is so awesome, but trust me, it is 🙂

U1446 core photos_blog

This mud makes us happy – like really, really happy…

Happy scientists_small

Right now we’re on our 3-day transit, chasing the sunrise east towards the Andaman Islands, where we’ll start drilling our final site. Yes, there’s even more awesome mud to come! So watch this space.


Still to come:

-What do geochemists and paleomagnetists do on board?

-What do we find in the Andaman Islands?

-Where do the crew eat and work out on the JR?

-Who won the inaugural JR International Ping Pong Tournament 2015???

Go with the (core) flow

Howdy folks,

We’ve arrived at our next Site, U1444 in the Bay of Bengal!

Indian Ocean map3

It’s not quite where we were originally planning to be coring, but as Steve said in the last post, nothing ever completely goes to plan at sea and you’ve got to be prepared to be flexible. Looking forward to having more core on deck soon, regardless of the location!

We arrived at 07.30 this morning (while I was still fast asleep), thrusters are down and we’re tripping (lowering) pipe to the seafloor now. We’re in 3000 m of water out here, so the first core on the floor is not anticipated until around 7 pm this evening…

So this seems like a good moment to explain what we call “core flow” to you all. Basically this is the order in which measurements and descriptions are taken from the core as it moves through the core lab – our specialist deck on the JR for handling the precious mud. [We will hear more about the various specialties, like “phys props”, “sedimentology”, “geochem” etc., and the people on board who do these jobs in later “meet the scientist” posts].

CORE FLOW: A beginner’s guide:

  1. After the drill pipe is lowered all the way to the sea floor at the bottom of the ocean, the core is cut from the sediment pile (this is the steel-straw pushing into the mud, if you recall). The mud gets pushed up inside a plastic core liner inside the pipe, which is then pulled all the way back to the surface 3+ km above with a really strong wire. The 9.6 m-long core liner full of precious oozes is then received on the drill floor, before being carried to the “catwalk” where the curator (Chad) and technicians (Chieh, Heather, Colin, Maggie, Aaron etc…) cut the core into more manageable 1.5 m sections. Everything is very carefully labeled using triple-redundancy pens, stickers and laser engraving – the order of the core sections is super-important!


  1. While the cores are still on the catwalk, the “core-catcher” (the sample at the bottom of each 9.6 m core) is sampled and given to the biostratigraphers so they can get to work straight away. They will look at the micro- and nanno- (really tiny!) fossils in the mud, which can tell us how old the oozes are and how deep the seawater was when it was deposited. At the same time our microbiologist John takes some samples and wraps them up tightly in sterile containers (and freezes them) so he can search for cool “deep-biosphere” bugs later. The geochemists also take a few “whole round” samples from the cores, which they will then squeeze in the lab downstairs to sample the “pore waters” that exist within the sediment pile. The leftover bits of mud from this are called “squeeze cakes”, which I rather like. Nom nom nom.

microbiology sampling

  1. The core sections are then given over to the physical properties team (or “phys props”) whose job it is to scan the cores for a variety of parameters like magnetic susceptibility (how magnetic are the minerals in the mud), p-wave (how dense is the mud), gamma ray (how radioactive is the mud (don’t panic, the answer is always “not very at all”- You get more radiation from spending 15 minutes near the Cornish Granites!)).
  1. After scanning, the cores are left to “equilibrate” for a few hours – this means they have time to come up to room temperature (it’s cold down there and warm up here) and do any expanding they are planning on doing (there’s a lot of pressure at the bottom of the sea, and not much up here, so sometimes the cores get bigger while they’re sitting in the lab!). After equilibration, the cores are split in half lengthways using a piano wire – truly high tech stuff. Now we have two halves – the “working half” which people are allowed to take samples from, and the “archive half” which is to be left untouched for future reference. Some extra samples are taken from the working half for geochemistry measurements before it’s put away for the rest of the cruise.


  1. The sedimentologists now get their grubby hands on the archive half of the cores and can begin the exciting job of describing them. What color are they? (hint they are not always creamy-white like in the photo above!). What are they made of? How big are the grains? Can we see any structures or macrofossils? All of this info is carefully written down in the database so we can make beautiful diagrams and plots of the sediment characteristics later on, while we try to figure out what’s going on.
  1. Last to get the cores are the Paleomagnetists (or “paleo-magicians” as we affectionately call them). These guys measure the ancient magnetic field direction and strength preserved in the magnetic minerals in the mud, which can be really useful for telling where we are in time. [This is pretty complicated, so we’ll let one of the magicians explain it themselves in a later post].
  1. After all this, the cores are boxed up and put in the reefer (the big fridge at the very bottom of the ship), where they will stay until they are unloaded again in Singapore at the end of the expedition, ready to be shipped to our IODP Indian Ocean repository in Kochi, Japan. In about 4 months time, we will all meet up again in Kochi and take our personal samples to do further experiments on the mud – one of the perks of sailing is that you get a 1-year head start on everyone else to do some science on the cores from your expedition, before they are opened up to the whole scientific community. Tick tock…

So that’s about it for core flow. T-minus 4 hours to next core on the floor, so I’d better get back to work!

Next update: meet the (super awesome) sedimentologists…

Core on the floor!

Greetings from the JR!

This is gonna be a bumper post, as a lot has happened in the last couple of days. Hold on to your hats…

So, it’s 1.30 am and I just got off my 12 noon-12 midnight shift. Today was a mixture of exhausting and awesome as…. we finally got core! And what a beauty she is

first core

😀 😀 😀

So, to start from the beginning:

We are currently 285 nautical miles from the nearest land – the northern tip of Aceh, Indonesia – at our first coring site, called “U1443”.

Indian Ocean map2

We are above the so called “90E Ridge”, which, as you might guess, sits at a longitude of about 90E. A well named ridge, I think you’ll agree. It is currently sitting some 2900 m below us, under a lot of seawater, so it requires a whole heck of pipe for us to reach even the seafloor, let along deep into the sediment pile as we’re aiming to do.

Here are some of the roughnecks moving the pipe into position a few days ago (L) and a view from below the derrick (R):

drilling pipe 1                                   derrick1

The pipe is lifted up by the derrick and then lowered down through the “moonpool” (more about that another time) and into the ocean. Piece by piece the pipe is lowered down until it hits the seafloor and we can start drilling.

Now, the kind of rocks we’re trying to get a hold of, actually aren’t rocks at all.. they’re mud. Or “ooze” as we like to call them in the trade. Now if you try and drill ooze using a hardcore rotary drill you’re just going to end up with a whole lot of slurry and not the nicely preserved core we’re looking for. So we use a hydraulic piston called an “APC”, which fires a pipe into the ooze with a huge amount of force. Imagine pushing a straw into some mud (but like, really really fast) and all the mud going up inside the straw in a nice tube shape. It’s just like that.

Here’s our Operations Superintendent (head-honcho-of-drilling) Kevin explaining the different bits to us (the APC is the shiny one on the left):

kevin on catwalk with bits

So cut a long, and really rather technologically-wonderful, story short, at about 6pm yesterday (after about 12 hours of hitches with the equipment induced by a freak lightening strike last week!) we finally succeeded in getting our first core on the deck.

Here’s the techs bringing the first core of Expedition 353 up onto the catwalk… and some scientists struggling to capture the full range of emotions they are feeling right now.

Core on the floor1              Confusion

And so ensued 24+ hours of unrelenting work!

Once the cores start to be recovered they come up fast and furious, and the real work (for the scientists anyway) begins… but I’ll leave that for the next post.

In the meantime, I leave you with Team-Sedimentology and our geeky excitement over the first core on deck.

first core team sedimentology

Leaving the Straits and heading for the open sea!

So we’ve been traveling at over 12 knots (which is pretty fast for the JR) night and day during the transit so far, and we’re making great time. Scheduled to be onsite at Site U1443 by early morning on the 8th Dec (local time).

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map_6th dec

Another perk of being almost through the Malacca Straits is that it means we can step down our pirate alert level a little. Although we weren’t anticipating any big problems, and it’s a lot safer than waters off Somalia, there is still an issue with theft and piracy in the Straits that we need to be aware of. We’ve taken lots of precautions though, including posting watchmen to make sure no one can sneak up on us, and putting some mean-looking razor-wire around the boat as a deterrent.


Anyway, if I was a pirate, I wouldn’t fancy taking on a boat full of burly drillers and sailors!