Research Vessel Falkor

Maritime science at work

The world's seas are one of the last frontiers of science and exploration, and a source of vital information about climate and ocean ecosystems. Curator of Ocean Science and Technology Emily Jateff profiles the Schmidt Ocean Institute and its research vessel Falkor, which visited Sydney in January ahead of a year-long circumnavigation of Australia.

Museum staff enjoyed a new view from their windows in January, seeing not the usual glare from the skyscrapers opposite, but the midnight-blue starboard side of Schmidt Ocean Institute research vessel Falkor. Rising more than 24 metres into the air, the ship was a visual sea change, a mammoth manifestation of how crucial scientific endeavour is in understanding oceans and inspiring action. 

The Schmidt Ocean Institute (SOI), an American not-for-profit organisation started by Eric and Wendy Schmidt to advance marine research, uses its 82-metre research ship Falkor to conduct sea-going expeditions. As with the CSIRO’s RV Investigator, berths and access to equipment on the ship are free for approved scientific research projects. The SOI difference is that Falkor is the only philanthropically funded year-round seagoing research vessel in the world.

RV Falkor in Hawaii. Image: Schmidt Ocean Institute
RV Falkor in Hawaii. Image: Schmidt Ocean Institute

RV Falkor arrived in Sydney in the early hours of 6 January 2020. After a bit of settling in, it opened its gangway to media and museum members and then hosted two full days of sold-out public tours. Altogether, more than 900 people toured Falkor. On the evening of the 7th, the museum co-hosted an event to launch the 2020 Australian expedition and hear first-hand from the scientists leading research on board.

On the 10th, Falkor departed for the first leg of its year-long circumnavigation of Australia, during which it will conduct seven science expeditions using its state-of-the-art deep-water remotely operated vehicle (ROV) SuBastian, which is rated to 4,500 metres. Australian marine researchers currently have limited access to deep-water robotic technologies; much of this technology in Australia is available only for commercial oil and gas work – not for scientific research or to understand the implications of the ocean to life on land. 

SuBastian is an underwater robot, sometimes known as a remote-controlled submarine, controlled by pilots on a ship. The ROV is connected to the ship by a cable, called an umbilical, that contains lines running communications and power to the vehicle. ROVs can vary in size, ranging from a shoe box to a large van depending on the type of mission each needs to accomplish. ROV SuBastian is 2.7 x 1.8 x 1.8 metres – about the same size as a subcompact car. In air it weighs 3,200 kilograms, and although this seems like a lot, most of the weight is flotation and will become positively buoyant or neutral weight in the water. The ROV is equipped with five powerful thrusters (just like propellers) that move the vehicle; one thruster moves it sideways, two move it forward and back, and another two are used for vertical movement. The person operating an ROV is called a pilot. This is because they can technically ‘fly’ the vehicle in all three dimensions. SuBastian requires at least three to four people to manage it offshore, including two ROV pilots to fly it. 

RV Falkor's ROV, SuBastian
ROV SuBastian ready for deployment from the A frame on the stern of RV Falkor. Image: Shelton DiPress/Schmidt Ocean Institute  

With ROV SuBastian, Australian scientists will collect information about corals that may hold the answers to the global impact of a warming ocean. SOI undertakes this research in partnership with the Australian Institute of Marine Science, the Western Australian Museum, the University of Western Australia, the Institute of Polar Sciences, Geoscience Australia, the University of Sydney, Australian Centre for Field Robotics and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Over the course of 2020, their research will range from studying the causes of coral bleaching to how microplastics affect the ocean’s ecosystem, the biodiversity of Cape Range, seamounts of the Great Barrier Reef and the depths of Bremer and Perth canyons. Deep-water coral reefs are underwater communities teeming with life. Home to millions of species, these rich habitats are threatened by disease, pollution from sewage and agricultural run-off, over-fishing and global warming. Some deep-water corals are older than redwood forests, and because changes in the corals’ skeletons act as archives that record changes in ocean temperature and chemistry over long periods of time, they serve as living museums.

The research that will be conducted and samples collected by SuBastian will uncover centuries-long records of conditions, especially the rapid environmental changes over the past few decades – namely ocean warming and ocean acidification. Teams of scientists also expect to find a range of species, among them corals, sponges, sea stars and large fish, including sharks, with the possibility of discovering new species, especially during deeper dives.

The Schmidts have a great love for Australia. This isn’t Falkor’s first visit to our shores, and doubtless it won’t be the last. ‘RV Falkor’s first visit to Australia was in 2015 when we completed incredible work in the Perth Canyon showcasing underwater worlds that had never been seen before,’ says Eric King, Director of Operations for Schmidt Ocean Institute.

SOI co-founder Wendy Schmidt adds:

Most people don’t think about the bottom of the ocean. When you look at a map, the ocean is portrayed as flat blue with very few features. However, this couldn’t be further from what the ocean floor looks like. Picture huge mountains and canyons, exotic hydrothermal vent forests and unique conditions that mimic other planets. There are still so many things we do not know about the topography or the ecosystems that cover the largest part of our earth.

With less than 15 per cent of the ocean floor mapped, the unexplored depths of the ocean – home to potentially countless unidentified species of animals and organisms – may hold answers to environmental issues like global warming and even the cures for disease.

As you may have guessed, the Schmidts also love the movie The Neverending Story. Falkor is named for its mythical flying creature, and SuBastian for his rider, the movie’s hero. Falkor also has a work boat named Atreyu and a safe boat named Auryn.

All of the dives will be live-streamed from underwater to the internet in high-resolution video and can be watched in real time. Viewers can watch as the scientists make discoveries and ask them questions. These dives started at the beginning of February and can be viewed on the Schmidt Ocean Institute Facebook page, YouTube channel and website. The museum and Schmidt Ocean Institute will deliver an Ocean Talk in October this year on the results of the 2020 Australian Expeditions.

The staff of the Australian National Maritime Museum wishes the Schmidt Ocean Institute and the crew and science teams on board Falkor all the best for their 2020 expedition as they journey out to expand our knowledge of the ocean depths. In the words of the ship’s namesake: ‘Never give up and good luck will find you.’

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Header image: RV Falkor berthed near the museum in early January 2020. Image Kate Pentecost/ANMM