Ocean expedition

How are the oceans doing now that our planet is warming up? More than a hundred scientists from a variety of disciplines focused on this question during the NICO expedition. This voyage on and beneath the waves generated a great deal of new research data for sciencists and policymakers.

Text: Berry Overvelde, image: Thijs Heslenfeld, Stephan van Duin, Jan Machter (NICO-NIOZ)

How are the coral reefs doing in the Caribbean? The short answer is: not well. In addition to warming and acidification, the reefs are also suffering from erosion and eutrophication (increased nutrients in water). But further off the island of Saba, researchers stumbled across good news too: the corals there have been barely affected yet. Researchers were also given their first opportunity during the NICO (Netherlands Initiative Changing Oceans) expedition to map the Netherlands’ only deep-sea area. The first findings are positive: there is great biodiversity on the slopes of the Saba Bank.

The Pelagia, the flagship of NWO institute NIOZ, the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research. After seven months, twelve legs and 22,343 miles, 156 scientists and students filled freezers, containers and computers with data collected in five different ocean provinces.

Researchers empty a multinet, an instrument for sampling plankton. Together with water samples from different depths, scientists can use it to improve models for predicting climate change in the future.

Everything brought to the surface during the expedition could be examined on board immediately. The Pelagia, the Netherlands’ only ocean-going research vessel, is equipped with various mobile laboratories. Geologists, chemists and (micro)biologists therefore all had their own lab, giving them the opportunity to already perform  multidisciplinary research on board. 

A slimy black mass that suffocates just about everything beneath it. Here, near Curaçao, NICO researchers discovered a carpet of toxic blue-green algae. A probable cause of these ‘cyano carpets’ is the dumping of unfiltered waste water into the sea. It’s packed with nutrients, which is favourable for green-blue algae.

Peekaboo! You normally wouldn’t find yourself face to face with this impressive creature, a giant isopod (Bathynomus giganteus). This crustacean lives at great depths and can become almost half a metre long. This specimen was found on the Saba Bank at a depth of between 450 and 1,400 metres.

Birds are just as much part of ocean life as the fish in the sea. So birds were also counted from the Pelagia. However, sometimes there wasn’t much to count, as was the case during the leg from Aruba to Sint Maarten: few birds were spotted, even though there seemed to be enough fish around for them.

The result of one scraping in the North Sea with ‘the scraper’, an instrument used to scrape a layer off the seabed. The catch: mostly shells. The North Sea is one of the busiest straits in the world. People fish for flatfish on the seabed, and wind farms are being built there as well. What kind of an impact is that having on the seabed ecosystem, the place where much new life emerges? Little is known as yet about that, so researchers have been mapping the North Sea seabed in different places.