Setting sail for science is ACE

by Rob Ryan

From misty Bremerhaven to sunny Cape Town, I recently sailed most of the length of the Atlantic Ocean aboard a Russian icebreaker, as part of a Swiss Polar Institute Maritime University course.

The voyage was a precursor to the Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition (ACE), an international project bringing scientists together from many different countries and disciplines to learn more about the subantarctic ocean and islands. During the preliminary voyage from Germany to South Africa, from mid-November to mid-December 2016, the ACE Maritime University (MU) brought together 49 students for a month-long course encompassing aspects of oceanography, atmospheric science and marine biology.

I have always loved ships. I have always been captivated by the thought of spending time on the ocean, seduced by the chance to escape from my land-based life to the mercy of the rolling sea.

The ACE Maritime University aboard the Akademik Tryoshnikov provided this opportunity, and so much more.


Rob waits to board the Akademik Tryoshnikov at Bremerhaven, Germany.


Having cleared the stormy English Channel and the eerily calm equatorial doldrums, by the time Table Mountain rose out of the ocean towards after a month at sea, I had 48 new, firm, scientific friends from around the world.

It was a challenging and incredibly rewarding experience.  In bringing together so many like-minded people from diverse fields and backgrounds, then isolating them from the world and internet for a month, the voyage was an experiment all of its own.

For many, it was their first trip overseas. For many more, it was the first experience on a ship and for pretty much all of us it was the furthest out of our comfort zone we’d ever been.

The voyage highlighted the power of science to be a common language, bringing people together. We learnt a great deal in the coursework component of the ACE MU, but so much more by listening to others talk about their research.

As a chemist and atmospheric scientist, I was thrilled with the chance to talk to people researching everything from ocean currents to marine plastic to sea-bird population genetics. A world of scientific possibilities was opened to me in finding out what other young researchers, like myself, were passionate about.

The ACE MU helped me to view science in new ways. I learnt that it can be a force for diplomacy, for example. As passengers on a Russian ship crewed by people with only a limited knowledge of English, we found that communication was facilitated through common interests and passions like science.


A sunrise over the Atlantic. 


I gained an appreciation for the various roles of science in society, for people in different countries. We held discussions about the differing roles of science in the developed and developing world. This was made possible through participation from countries as culturally and geographically diverse as Pakistan, Nepal, South Africa and Nigeria, as well as Europe, the US and Australia.

Many of us perhaps take for granted the ability to study the science we are passionate about. In Australia, we are generally well supported in science by good education, training and equipment. For me, learning about the challenges and successes of those who have persisted in science without this kind of support, put my own research journey into perspective.

None of our onboard discussions were more robust and passionate than about climate change. It was fascinating to hear first-hand how climate change is perceived in various developed and developing nations. Equally, climate change was observed differently by each person according to their field of research. All were in alarmed agreement at the current lack of meaningful global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with a group consensus that the Paris Agreement target of keeping warming below 2 oC is unlikely to be met.

Out on deck, we had the chance to help with some of the routine activities of a scientific research vessel. This included helping ACE scientists set up and calibrate their oceanographic and atmospheric equipment, collect marine litter samples, launch weather balloons and conduct chemical and biochemical sea water analysis.

Of course, the trip also included some extracurricular activities to keep us sane and active during the month at sea. These included table tennis, chess, cards, music, dance lessons and an equator crossing party, cementing friendships between scientists, students and crew.

All of the students involved in the ACE MU were incredibly grateful for the opportunity, provided by the Swiss Polar Institute, to havethis fantastic experience. All the students have stayed in regular contact, both on social media and in collaborative emails. The chance to meet in such a unique setting, exchange ideas about the world and about science and make 48 new friends over the course of a month is an experience I’ll never forget.


Arriving in Capetown after a month at sea.


It has whetted (or should that be “wetted”) my appetite for ship-based research, and this land lubber will be back to sea as soon as possible.

The ACE voyage itself continues, having recently left Punta Arenas in Chile, bound once more for Cape Town. Since late December 2016 It has visited a number of subantarctic islands, as well as the Antarctic continent and Tasmania, between South Africa and Chile. Its ongoing progress can be followed here.

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