Voyages of discovery

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NIWA’s flagship of New Zealand ocean research—Tangaroa—is the modern-day Endeavour, venturing into open oceans to conduct work that’s proving how science and commercial outcomes go hand-in-hand.

In 1769, having reached Tahiti, Captain James Cook opened sealed orders from the Admiralty detailing the next phase of his Voyage of Discovery.

With the Transit of Venus completed, Cook’s ‘real’ mission was to sail the research vessel HMS Endeavour south in search of Terra Australis—the fabled southern continent—and claim its riches for the Crown.

On 6 October 1769, Cook and the Endeavour reached the coast of New Zealand, 127 years after Abel Tasman. After mapping the complete New Zealand coastline, proving the country was made up of two main islands, Cook set a course home in March 1770, now all but certain the southern continent did not exist.

On subsequent voyages in 1773 and 1774 Cook crossed the Antarctic Circle, but it wasn’t until 1820 that Antarctica was finally sighted in the hypothetical area of Terra Australis. While Cook failed in his quest to claim the purported riches of the southern continent, he set the stage for amazing discoveries to come—discoveries that NIWA’s state-of-the-art marine research platform Tangaroa continues to make possible today.

As well as increasing knowledge and understanding of the world around us, Tangaroa is playing a leading role in identifying, documenting and enhancing the value of New Zealand’s extensive marine resources, demonstrating that good science and good commerce are not mutually exclusive, but mutually beneficial.

Jewel in the crown

Tangaroa is New Zealand’s only deepwater research vessel. Design and construction began in 1989 in Norway in consultation with staff from the former MAF Fisheries Research Centre. Fifteen months later, in April 1991, Tangaroa was ready for launch, replacing the outmoded GRV James Cook.

With a trawler design, Tangaroa’s primary role initially was fisheries research. After significant upgrades and improvements over the past two decades, however, Tangaroa is now a highly capable, multi-role, oceanographic research vessel.

NIWA owns and operates Tangaroa on behalf of the Crown, along with its other important research vessels—Kaharoa, a multipurpose research vessel notably involved in the Argo project, the world’s largest single science collaboration to deploy profiling floats in all of the world’s oceans, and Ikatere, a survey launch designed primarily for coastal surveys using multibeam transducers to map the seabed.

All three vessels fulfil critical roles for a maritime nation, but Tangaroa is the jewel in NIWA’s crown.

In 25 years the vessel has travelled more than one million nautical miles—equivalent to circumnavigating the globe 50 times—conducting much of New Zealand’s most important and valuable scientific work in some of the most remote and inhospitable places on the planet. The role it was originally designed and used for is now just one of many, says NIWA Vessel Operations General Manager Greg Foothead.

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First Mate Ian Popenhagen guides Tangaroa through the icy waters of Terra Nova Bay, Antarctica. [Dave Allen]

“Tangaroa was doing about 200 days a year of fisheries research. That’s predominantly what it did—fisheries stock assessment, with some scientific voyages as well.

“Progressively over the years, and in response to changing needs and requirements, Tangaroa’s role has evolved into what we now have—a sophisticated, multi-role, multi-disciplinary scientific platform.” Tangaroa is now at the heart of about one-third of all marine research work undertaken by NIWA.

“Today we’re doing about 60 to 70 days a year of fisheries research and the rest is primarily oceanography, marine biology and geology work. That changes depending on what the focus of interest is at the time, whether it’s looking at climate change, for example, or mapping the ocean floor to understand more about what lies beneath.”

The vessel’s busy schedule now sees it at sea for about 300 days a year. And, thanks to continued strategic investment in upgrading equipment and capabilities, NIWA has ensured Tangaroa remains New Zealand’s single most substantial piece of scientific equipment.

High-tech on the high seas

Tangaroa is the country’s only ice-strengthened research vessel, opening up Antarctic and Southern Ocean waters. Last year, Tangaroa made its tenth voyage to Antarctica, collecting data and observations on ecosystems and species—including toothfish, and humpback and blue whales—in Antarctic waters.

A $24 million upgrade in 2010 included the addition of a dynamic positioning system to Tangaroa’s growing list of capabilities.

The system, DP2, uses three thrusters, the main propulsion propeller and computerised controls to keep the vessel within a specific area or on track. The individual thrusters are engaged when required.

Tangaroa is the only New Zealand-based vessel with the technology, which allows it to stay in one place (within a few metres) or, if required, move unerringly along a path. This vastly improves its ability to deploy and precisely locate gear such as seabed samplers, soil and rock testing equipment, seabed drill rigs, and remotely operated vehicles. The system is often employed to keep the vessel stationary in waters too deep to anchor, but also in the case of specialist surveying to track in straight lines or follow underwater vehicles. The system is vital to NIWA’s open water research work, says Foothead.

“The DP2 capabilities are especially essential in the case of many new technologies which require vessels to hold a steady position. These technologies include the use of remotely operated vehicles, autonomous underwater vehicles, manned submarines, seafloor observatories and other equipment that is temporarily fixed to the seabed.

“The DP2 takes the human factor out of controlling the ship’s position. The system is intuitive and compensates for changes in environmental conditions.”

Another piece of crucial research equipment is Tangaroa’s hull-mounted multibeam echosounder.

The Kongsberg EM300 multibeam system was installed in 2000 and upgraded in 2010 to a Kongsberg EM302. The upgrade involved installing new transducers, transceiver, computers and associated software, allowing for detailed scanning of the seabed up to 7000m beneath the surface of the water. Depending on depth, the multibeam echosounder maps the seabed in a swath up to eight kilometres wide and, with 864 soundings per ping, it provides incredibly high-resolution imagery.

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Tangaroa’s multibeam echosounder produces a ‘sound-fan’ of 288 acoustic beams which reveals a very detailed picture of the seabed up to 7 kilometres below the surface. [NIWA]

It’s a far cry from the bathymetric ‘technology’ employed by Cook onboard the Endeavour—a lead weight on the end of a rope. Cook could not have imagined that beneath the surface of the water was a rich seascape of ridges, valleys, plateaus, canyons and seamounts, as well as extraordinary flora and fauna.

Thanks to the technology on Tangaroa, we know more about our vast undersea realm than ever. But, for all that, only about 1.5 million square kilometres—or 15 per cent—of New Zealand’s massive marine realm has been accurately mapped to date.

While bathymetric data reveal the shape and depth of the ocean floor, imagery data use the strength of the return signal (backscatter) to indicate sediment features and habitats, says marine geologist Helen Neil of NIWA’s bathymetric data-gathering. The system also records water column information which is used to identify seeps, plumes and other features not normally imaged in the bathymetry data. As well as the enormous scientific knowledge and deeper understanding of what lies beneath the ocean surface delivered by the technology on Tangaroa; the DP2, multibeam echosounder and the recently installed Kongsberg TOPAS PS18 sub-bottom profiler systems also provide capability important to industry, notably in fisheries, mining and oil and gas exploration.

Riches from the deep

New Zealand possesses vast potential wealth in energy and minerals. Much of that wealth lies offshore, however, either on the seabed or locked beneath it. NIWA is playing a pivotal role in the growth and development of New Zealand’s valuable oil and gas sector. It has also provided surveying, habitat mapping and expertise related to the exploration of offshore mineral resources for nearly three decades.

Tangaroa is a critical piece of equipment in this ocean exploration. The TOPAS sub-bottom profiler characterises marine sediments and strata up to 200m below the seabed. This helps identify subsurface gas hydrates, which on the surface of the seabed can also be indicated by carbonate accumulations, hydrocarbon or methane-based seeps and gas chimneys.

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Images of a black smoker on Brothers Seamount (left) and a gorgonean coral taken by NIWA's multipurpose camera ensemble DTIS, shown being deployed (top right). [Helen Kettles]

The multibeam echosounder can detect plumes of escaping methane or hydrocarbon-based gas seeps in the water column, while the DP2 capability means Tangaroa can hone in and survey specific locations of interest. But energy and mineral exploration poses questions about the viability of resource extraction and potential environmental impacts.

NIWA’s environmental expertise is a core part of its exploration brief, with environmental data collected and seafloor habitats identified, such as the discovery of unique chemosynthetic communities. Chemosynthetic ecosystems are fuelled by chemicals, such as methane gas, rather than sunlight. They occur at cold seeps, hydrothermal vents, sunken whale carcasses and bones, and sunken wood. New Zealand is one of the few places in the world where several chemosynthetic habitats occur in close proximity, allowing scientists to address key questions about their unique ecology and biodiversity.

NIWA’s DTIS (Deep Towed Imaging System) camera, deployed from Tangaroa, has not only captured footage of live seeps, such as methane bubbling from the seafloor and other direct hydrocarbon indicators, but also ecological characteristics and biodiversity hotspots.

“In order to manage something, you need to know what’s there, and that’s everything from base bathymetry through to what is living in and on it,” says Dr Neil.

“In oil and gas exploration, for example, direct hydrocarbon indicators, things like carbonate blocks—hard grounds—that will give us a high backscatter return, can have specific faunas that grow around these seeps, like Calyptogena valves and tube worms. Then, of course, they (explorers) are also looking for the seeps being active within the water column.”

For science, NIWA’s collaboration with industry is a win-win

Once resource potential has been established, research turns to establishing baseline surveys, habitat assessments and oceanography to better understand the ecology, chemistry and ocean physics of the target areas. This holistic ecosystem management approach ensures NIWA is at the forefront of the science required to provide decision makers and managers with the information required for sustainable marine resource use. In terms of good science, NIWA’s collaboration with industry is a win-win.

“New Zealand Inc. gets more data, but, as part of this process, environmental monitoring is also occurring,” says Dr Neil.

“We get more bathymetric data, backscatter data, water column data. We are taking environmental samples and DTIS video. We are gaining information from the deep sea about biologic communities and ecosystems when there’s a global paucity of information about the deep sea. It’s a balancing act that all countries have to make between management, use, sustainability, conservation, tourism and knowledge to make wise decisions.”

The symbiosis between NIWA’s scientific excellence and work with industry led to the appointment of Rob Christie as Commercial Manager of Marine Business Services in 2013. A chartered water and environmental manager and scientist with more than 20 years’ international experience, part of Rob’s role is to coordinate NIWA’s maritime operations, most of which are conducted using its research fleet.

A cost-effective vessel platform for all our users

While the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and the Ministry for Primary Industries provide key government support for Tangaroa, the use of NIWA’s vessel-based expertise by overseas research organisations and private sector clients has become increasingly important in maintaining a high level of vessel utilisation each year. Non-government charters of Tangaroa average about 70 days each year, mostly in international ocean science initiatives and industry-based marine habitat and resource exploration.

“Maximising the utilisation of Tangaroa is imperative,” Rob says. “The more days it is working the better our control of operational and maintenance costs, which also maximises our use of the vessel for scientific opportunities.

“It’s a careful juggling act, scheduling scientific voyages with time-bound fisheries stock assessments and private sector contracts with fixed delivery dates. This is, after all, a national marine facility, and it is NIWA’s role to secure the resources needed to effectively operate and maintain it. We’ve been successful at finding 300 or so days of work for the vessel each year, but it takes negotiation across multiple stakeholders with differing needs to get there. The result is a vessel platform that’s cost-effective for all our users, both government and non-government alike.

“To achieve the level of vessel utilisation required, we’ve also established good working relationships with the other Crown Research Institutes, overseas research organisations similar to ourselves that see the value in research science and collaboration and industry operators throughout the Asia Pacific region. The recent spike in exploration work over the past five years has helped us develop our international reputation and helped showcase our vessel capability, not only from a technical point of view, but also for the scientific expertise involved, particularly around environmental impact assessments.”

NIWA is highly regarded internationally as a pre-eminent ocean science organisation, and continues to invest significantly in upgrading scientific and operational expertise to maintain this position. Its scientists and services are highly sought after in a range of sectors. For example, NIWA is often selected as a research organisation for international oil and gas company OMV in its exploration work.

“They (NIWA) understand and are willing to meet the high operating standards we have in the oil industry, and we benefit from local experts who have deep experience in the area—they don’t have to learn,” says OMV New Zealand Exploration Manager Simon Lange.

“They know the environment and how to operate safely in New Zealand waters.”

OMV New Zealand’s use of Tangaroa helps support the excellent scientific work NIWA does for New Zealand, Lange says.

“Engaging NIWA in our commercial activities is a real win-win situation. But it’s important to note that NIWA’s role is strictly delivering scientific information. They don’t play any part in making decisions about hydrocarbon exploration. There is an absolute separation of the two.

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Long time-series of trawl or acoustic surveys enable reliable abundance estimates for key fish species. [Dave Allen]

In the past, Tangaroa has done swath bathymetry and seabed sampling for OMV. In our case, much of the data they acquire for us becomes public after five years and available to be used by anyone interested. NIWA actually has some advantages here. They acquired the data, too, so they don’t have to reprocess it or make assumptions or guesses about it.”

Greg Foothead agrees that NIWA’s oil and gas work has tremendous scientific spinoffs. As well as the opportunity to survey vast areas of ocean that would otherwise remain uncharted, the specific requirements of the oil and gas sector have demanded investment in new scientific technology and skills.

“We wouldn’t have a lot of the gear we currently do (on our research vessels) unless we were able to make solid business cases for it.”

Captain Cook may have failed to discover southern riches, but NIWA and Tangaroa are ensuring New Zealand does.

Further information

Find out more about Research Vessel Tangaroa and upcoming research voyages.

Note: This feature originally appeared in Water & Atmosphere, June 2016

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With a trawler design, Tangaroa’s primary role initially was fisheries research. After significant upgrades and improvements over the past two decades, however, Tangaroa is now a highly capable, multi-role, oceanographic research vessel.

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Scientific equipment on board the RV Tangaroa