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How to turn your superyacht into a scientific research vessel

2020-11-10By Oliver Steeds

Want to support ocean conservation and help scientists understand our oceans? Oliver Steeds, CEO of Nekton, outlines the changes you can make to your boat today to turn it from a superyacht to a marine science research vessel... 

“Citizens of the world…. We are running out of excuses to not take action and running out of time… The time to act is now”. April 2019. President Danny Faure of Seychelles was hundreds of feet below the ocean’s surface in a two-person research submersible on Nekton’s First Descent mission broadcasting live to the world. It was the first subsea presidential address and became the biggest news story of the day globally.

Nekton helped President Danny Faure of the Seychelles make a first descent for ocean exploration. Image courtesy of Nekton.

Whilst this submersible was launched off a research vessel, the same Triton submersibles and larger models are being launched off more and more yachts. For scientists, conservationists and ocean explorers, yachts – and sometimes these submersibles – are often the gatekeepers of the ocean. Few have the pass to enter.

The ocean remains the least-explored part of our planet. It is our last great frontier. We know the largest waterfall on Earth is underwater along with the largest mountain range and the majority of volcanic activity.

The ocean remains the least-explored part of our planet. Image courtesy of Unsplash.

We know there are over 100,000 seamounts, or undersea mountains, greater than 1,000 metres and that only a handful have ever been visited, let alone biologically sampled. And whilst the average depth of the ocean is over 4,000 metres, the majority of life below 200 metres glows. Over 90 per cent of biodiversity, 3.7 billion years of our evolutionary heritage, remains to be discovered.

The ocean is our planet’s life support system. It regulates our climate, provides food security for billions and essential medicines including the first diagnostic tests and treatment for Covid-19. The ocean produces over half of our oxygen, captures most of our anthropogenic heat and is the largest carbon store on our planet.

Over 90 per cent of marine biodiversity remains to be discovered.Image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

But rather than supporting life on Earth, the ocean itself may soon need to be put on life support. It remains the least-protected part of our planet, and only 2.5 per cent of the ocean is currently highly protected. Increasingly, scientists, climate change experts and governments are calling for 30 per cent protection by 2030. There’s much work to be done.

Sadly, too many still have their heads buried in the sand. But marine scientists are pushing back the boundaries of knowledge, which is crucial because we can’t protect what we don’t know.

Nekton mission director Oliver Steeds. Image courtesy of Nekton.

“With endurance to operate in coastal or remote locations, diving capability, tenders, small cranes and accommodation, the private yacht fleet can provide access to the sea to enable and empower marine scientists to work on the frontlines of our changing planet,” explains Mike Pownall, Nekton’s head of marine operations and a veteran of planning, implementing and leading complex offshore and subsea operations.

With a bit of deck space, autonomous underwater vehicles, small “suitcase ROVs” (remotely operated vehicles), drop cameras or baited cameras, sensors, hydrophones and buoys, even water collection systems can all be readily deployed and recovered. Add a slightly larger crane and you can deploy submersibles, and even a larger ROV if the vessel can hold station.

Nekton has used an Omega Seamaster Submersible to 3D map coral habitats.Image courtesy of Nekton.

Research teams vary in size, from one up to a dozen or more depending on the goal. Without too much bother, critical research can be undertaken on ocean transits, whilst wildlife and surface observations, coral reef research or a vast range of physical, chemical and biological research activities can all be achieved at most locations visited by yachts.

With more available deck space, a modular or containerised system can be considered to house diving systems, submersible operations or even a laboratory.

The Arksen 85 eco-explorer wll be equipped with solar panels. Image courtesy of Arksen.

Utilising a larger tender or the main yacht – with a hull mounted or “over the side” pole mount multibeam echosounder – owners can map the uncharted depths and discover new subsea mountains, trenches, ridges and features and even name them in perpetuity. Yachts can also be the stewards or sentinels of the sea. With meteorological logging equipment, yachts can provide vital data to inform weather and climate science.

“From the design phase up, yachts often have extraordinary capabilities built in that can have dual use for owners and scientists,” explained Andrew Winch, a leading yacht designer. “From power systems to isolated air conditioning in specific rooms through to, more obviously, the tenders and diving equipment, if you can be flexible and adaptable, the opportunities are endless.”

At 57m in length, the bold and rugged Heesen XVenture offers research facilities alongside luxury lifestyle features. Image courtesy of Heesen.

In simple terms, it is all relatively straightforward. There are thousands of marine scientists who have vital research that needs to be undertaken at sea. All it takes is the willingness from yacht owners to invite scientists onto their vessels. Yachts for Science has been set up to be the match-makers – a partnership between the marine research institute Nekton and BOAT International, Arksen and the Ocean Family Foundation. 

We can all do our bit. Will you?

Using your superyacht for scientific research could help protect the ocean for future generations. Image courtesy of Unsplash.

To help, here’s an introductory guide to the yacht requirements for a range of different research activities along with what more can be done with a few additions or discreet tweaks.

Internal workspace

Scientists will need some sort of workspace, the size of which will vary depending on their research activities. Some simple aspects could be considered:

  • A dry lab with work surfaces for equipment
  • Computational infrastructure: networking for laptops, capability to receive GPS and Gyro feeds from the bridge, additional monitors for survey and video analysis
  • Storage for equipment and, if samples are being collected, then a standard refrigerator (four degrees) and freezer (minus 20 degrees) and a smaller specialist minus-80-degree freezer are all helpful
Designed by Winch, the Heesen XVenture upper saloon offers owners a spot to relax while cruising through icebergs. Image courtesy of Winch Media.

External workspace

A number of aspects can easily make deck space functional to allow “plug and play” adaptability for scientists, including:

  • Deck power – multiple ports in operational areas
  • Fresh and saltwater connections
  • Deck space (variability determines size of research equipment that can be deployed)
  • “Wet Lab” – if sample collection is required (could also be an internal area with direct access to the deck)

Diving

For near shore or coastal operations, a yacht or tender can act as a dive-support base with supply from shore of equipment or divers. Expect scientists to bring their own personal dive gear. To operate further afield, diving capability could include:

  • Equipment: Compressor, tanks, repair kits, spare kits, weight, buoys, freshwater basins to rinse equipment, drying/storage area
  • Safety: Oxygen kits, diving-specific first aid
  • For technical (TEC) diving, below 30 metres: specialist compressors, Nitrox and Trimix makers, recompression chamber and other equipment will be required. On the plus side, technical divers usually bring their own equipment
Owners of the Heesen XVenture explorer can choose to keep a Triton submersible on board. Image courtesy of Heesen.

Submersible operations

Increasing numbers of large yachts have submersibles, and different models from Triton, U-Boat Worx or Seamagine could all be considered. Cranes and support equipment vary for different types of submersibles and depend on sizes ranging from 2.5 tonnes (two persons, 100 metres), 4 to 5 tonnes (three persons, 500 metres), 8 tonnes+ (three to seven persons+, depths from 300 to 1,000 metres). Key functionality to support submersible operations include:

  • Workbench, tools, HP oxygen bottles, storage (spares etc.), high-pressure air compressor, battery charging, tracking and underwater communications systems and a retractable awning to cover the submersible (equipment provided by sub supplier)
For near shore or coastal operations, a yacht or tender can act as a dive-support base with supply from shore of equipment or divers. Image courtesy of Heesen.

Cranes and winches

For the deployment of oceanographic equipment, deck space, crane and electric winch capability – often in combination with RIBs and tenders – define what is possible and can enable the utilisation of:

  • Towed nets (hand deployed/recovered)
  • Baited remote underwater video (BRUV) and/or baited drop cameras
  • Remotely operated vehicles
  • AUV’s (autonomous underwater vehicle), ASVs (autonomous surface vehicle), gliders
  • Small “metocean” (meteorological and physical oceanography) monitoring equipment for short or long-term deployments – such as weather buoys, tide gauges or current monitoring devices
  • CTD (with hydrographic deck winch) for water chemistry research
The Arksen 85 has been designed to cruise anywhere in the world. Image courtesy of Arksen.

Increasing specifications

A-Frames, hydrographic winches, hydraulic deck cranes, dynamic positioning, hull mounting of specific equipment, removable sacrificial deck frames and worktops all increase the scale of research operations and activities

For more information, contact yachtsforscience@nektonmission.org

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