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Meteor Blog 12. August: ROV cable is broken!

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Serious problems onboard: the ROV glass fibre cable is broken and the robot thus not ready for deployment. Cruise leader Antje Boetius and her crew have done anything possible to avoid the catastrophy, to cancel the cruise: In today's blog she describes what had happened during the last two days.

Planetearth Blog

Does the biodiversity of deep-sea organisms play a role for the climate on Planet Earth? Questions all about marine research will be answered directly aboard of the German research vessel Meteor by cruise leader Prof. Antje Boetius and her crew. In cooperation with the geoportal from 17.08.08 to 24.08.08 they contribute a Science-Blog of METEOR expedition M76/3 GUINECO – MARUM research of fluid and gas seeps on the Westafrican continental margin. Technical highlight of the cruise is the remote-controlled under water robot QUEST4000 by MARUM that will be deployed for taking fauna and sediments samples and conduction of in situ experiments. Go on a dive down to places no other human being has ever seen before: explore the fascinating deep-sea fauna and watch the scientists’ work at gas and fluid seeps deep down on the ocean bottom.

Expedition M76/3b is a collaboration of MARUM – Center for Marine Environmental Sciences at Bremen University and its associated institutes MPI and AWI as well as the French research institute IFREMER and the University of Paris.

More Informationen of the Meteor-Blog, an overview of all contributions to the blog and expedition M76/3B:

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12. August 2008 (Author: Antje Boetius)

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Present Position

Antje Boetius: PortraitThe author chief scientist Antje Boetius was introduced in BLOG of 25 July.

ROV cable broken!

12. August: Bild 1

Picture 1-4: Views on the surrounding oil rigs and exploration platforms (Photography by Volker Asendorf)

Here and there we have reported of technical problems and failures with our main research instrument, the ROV QUEST 4000 of MARUM, and how the ROV team was always able to repair what was broken. Hence, I was terribly disappointed to be informed of a major new problem in the night of the 11th to 12th August by the ROV team chef Volker Ratmeyer (see BLOG of 11th  August): “The ROV fiber optic cable is broken and cannot be repaired at sea.”

  “The ROV fiber optic cable is broken and cannot be repaired at sea.”

Here is what happened: Dive 224 starting in the evening of the 11th August had to be cancelled because of an ROV blackout at 1500 m water depth. As a consequence, the ROV team and ship had to carry out one of the most dreaded maneuvers: a dead-vehicle recovery. This means the ROV cannot be controlled, its thrusters are shut off, and it is recovered by its sensible cable, via the winch. Luckily and thanks to the excellent support by the deck and bridge crew, the recovery went smooth and without problems. In less than an hour after recovery, the ROV team was able to locate the error: In the last 20 cm of the cable, close to the connection to the ROV, the fiber which transports all data - including those controlling the vehicle - showed a disconnection. Under normal circumstances, the team could even cope with this problem, but due to the many earlier repairs they were short of a fiber optics connector to cut, terminate and re-plug the cable to the ROV. Not that they had not shipped enough of these to sea – we had used over 5x more spare plugs like on any other previous mission.

12. August: Bild 2

Will the expedition be canceled?

You can imagine what it means to a scientific mission like this one, almost entirely targeted to deep-water ecosystem work, to face a cancellation of a third of the planned dive days. Hence, as soon as I had informed all scientists and the captain of our misfortune, everyone started thinking of other solutions. From land we got a task list for a back up program in case we cannot dive anymore – on board we were still hoping for a good idea to fix the problem. The ROV team tried with the geochemists to find a way to reshape the used plugs and proposed to ask the different oil platforms around us for spare plugs, Frank Wenzhöfer thought of using our set up for microelectrodes to try to repair the broken fiber, and I considered organizing a shipment of spare parts to Africa.

 12. August: Bild 3

Help will come!

In the morning of the 12th we finally had a confirmation that spare parts were available at the MARUM. Around noon, after trying several different shipping possibilities, the logistics company in Hamburg usually organizing transportation of equipment to and from METEOR had a solution. It would be feasible to ship the fiber optics plugs to the nearest harbor in West Africa, to pick them up by ship on the 14 August. Of course this would be a major deviation from the work plan and needed lots of phone calls and emails between us at sea, the Laeisz shipping company responsible for METEOR operations, the MARUM, and the coordination office of the research vessels METEOR and MERIAN. Not only would this detour cost valuable ship time, but also harbor fees. Also, in this part of the world, entering harbor is connected with a variety of difficult diplomatic, logistic and safety issues. But still this plan appeared a possible solution, and hence we asked officially for permission for the pick up of the MARUM spare parts by ship in the nearest harbor. In addition we realized the other idea by Volker, and spent the night of the 12th to 13th August with contacting to the oil platforms around us to ask if they would have the needed plugs available.

12. August: Bild 4

Oil platform have been bad neighbours

As scientists, we are working here to find out how deep-sea ecosystems are shaped by gas emission, but there is also a high commercial interest in gas and oil exploration on the West African margin. As a consequence, not far from our working area, there are various types of exploration ships and platforms (Picture 1-4). In deep water oil and gas exploration it is common to use ROV technology for underwater operations, hence we had hopes to find a supply source for the missing plugs – as this would have saved a lot of ship time. With permission of the captain, METEOR’s navigation officers on shift helped us establishing the contact to the platform managers, and Volker took over to explain technical details of the needed spare parts. Of course it made us feel a bit like tramps, going around begging, and the response was not all that great. Some platforms did not answer at all, others refused to share parts. At least one platform manager was highly supportive and even though they did not have the needed parts, they offered that we could use their helicopter services a few days later.


But luckily, today at high noon, we got permission to enter port via ship for the parcel pick up already on Thursday. Within 24 hours, all responsible parties had agreed that permitting a few more scientific dives to the deep sea is so valuable to science that all the hurdles described above should not stop us. Now we are on our way and hope that all will go well, and that we can pick up diving again before the end of Friday.

Best greetings and many thanks to all who have helped us finding a solution

Antje Boetius