Book: Southern surveyor

For those who love the sea, saying farewell to an old ship can be a sentimental business – particularly when that ship is also a shared workplace, a home away from home and a symbol of the adventure that scientific fieldwork can provide.

This affectionate valedictory for the RV Southern Surveyor is a fitting tribute to the ship’s 10 years at the forefront of Australian marine research. In an inspired choice, CSIRO publishing chose Melbourne-based author, actor and television personality Michael Veitch to tell the stories of the men and women to whom the Southern Surveyor meant so much.

Veitch, whose one-man stage presentation of his previous book, Flak – True stories from the men who flew in World War Two, is touring Australia, has a talent for winkling out people’s stories with warmth and gentle humour. It is put to good use here.

For this book, Veitch interviewed the ship’s former captains and crew, support staff and scientists to build up a picture of life aboard the Surveyor and the important discoveries made in the course of her more than 100 voyages.

The ship was already 16 years old and a veteran of the North Sea fishing industry when Australia’s peak science agency, the CSIRO, acquired her in 1988. At first used for fisheries research, in the late 1990s she was repurposed as a scientific research vessel with a rabbit warren of laboratories and labyrinthine corridors. One crew member describes the chaotic interior: “She was a small ship, but you could always find more than one way to get somewhere from somewhere else.”

But the crew also remember her as safe, stable and immensely strong, able to take the worst the Southern Ocean could dish up. She also required constant maintenance. In the words of engineer Fred Rostron, she was “a bit like grandfather’s axe – lasted 50 years but had three new heads and two new handles”.

“I’m not a good sailor but being chief scientist you have to keep that as quiet as possible.”

The structure of the book takes us on a comprehensive journey through the ship and its history, as we hear from oceanographers, the crew, geoscientists, biologists and the science support staff.

Amazing facts are strewn throughout, punctuated by the odd moment of drama.

There are the recollections of men such as marine geologist Robin Beaman from James Cook University. He remembers a voyage on the vessel as one of the most significant moments of his career, and his excitement at finding a continuous 1,000 kilometre chain of drowned reef, an ancient forebear of the Great Barrier Reef.

Then there is geomorphologist and former chief scientist of the ship Colin Woodroffe who, despite uncertain sea legs, pressed on with his work on coastlines that provided vital data for the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. He told Veitch: “I’m not a good sailor but being chief scientist you have to keep that as quiet as possible”.

There are the legends of the ship, such as Richard Arculus, an igneous petrologist, who peers into the distant past through formations at the bottom of the ocean, “The deepest trenches, highest mountains, biggest earthquakes, most explosive volcanoes are all associated with these places. We’re discovering things all the time,” he says.

There are too few women’s stories, reflecting how male-dominated science can be, but there are a few such as Martina Doblin, a biological oceanographer who studies harmful algae in estuaries; hydrochemist Alicia Navidad who endured one of the roughest trips of the Surveyor’s history and oceanographer Bernadette Sloyan, who tracks the intricate patterns that make up the inner life of the ocean.

The stories go on and the adventure of discovery runs through them all. It is a fine acknowledgement of the work of the men and women who went to sea in the Southern Surveyor. If the bigger, newer and faster RV Investigator, which replaced her in 2014, can generate half as many fascinating stories in her years of service, Australian marine science will have been well-served.

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