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Australia’s scientific research flagship, the RV Investigator, celebrates five years of service this month.

The vessel is maintained by the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) and studies a wide variety of Earth sciences—including oceanology, meteorology and biology.

It’s nearly 100 m long, is designed to spend up to 300 days a year on the water, and is crewed by 20 people with the possibility to house up to 40 scientists. The Investigator was designed to sail in every ocean condition Australia has to offer, from the tropical north to the Antarctic fringe.

History and RV Southern Surveyor

In May 2009, the Australian Government budgeted $120 million to replace the aging RV Southern Surveyor. The ship was the backbone of the country’s marine research for over 20 years. It was ordered in 2011 and was constructed in Singapore. The vessel arrived in Hobart in 2014 and officially began operations on December 12.

Built in 1972, the Surveyor was 66 m long and was originally a European fishing trawler. It was purchased in 1988 and retrofitted by the CSIRO. It could stay at sea for around 26 days and had a range of 9,600 km.

The Investigator has over double the capacity. It can be on the ocean for up to 60 days and has a range of 20,000 km.

The Surveyor was famous for the chemical mapping of the Great Barrier Reef and the detection of a large water vortex off the coast of Perth.

Scientific Equipment

The Investigator can scan and collect weather data in a 150 km radius and can study sea life up to 3 km below the water. Its engines were designed to run quieter than a normal ship so the noise doesn’t scare marine animals away.

Many of the Investigator’s underwater equipment are housed inside the gondola, part of a drop-keel system that extends up to four metres below the ship’s hull. It features advanced acoustic sampling devices and cameras.

In 2018, the World Meteorological Organisation approached the CSIRO and the Investigator became the first ship in the Global Atmosphere Watch. The GAW is an ongoing program that studies the chemical makeup of the atmosphere with the aim of gathering data to help scientists better understand the planet’s changing climate. The Investigator takes measurements wherever it sails.

Mapping and SS Queensland

Australia has the third largest water territory in the world, with a coastline covering nearly 70,000 km, and still only 25 per cent of the country’s ocean floor has been mapped. Part of the Investigator’s ongoing operation is to explore unknown areas and it is doing so with the latest technology in 3D mapping.

Earlier in 2019, the Investigator was tasked with creating more detailed ocean floor maps of Bass Strait and used the wreck of the SS Queensland to calibrate its equipment. To gather the data, the Investigator sailed over the wreck a number of times and aimed echo sound wave beams (sonar) at the site. Each pass over the wreck added another piece to the puzzle and created a more comprehensive 3D picture. The ship then lowered a camera over the wreck to confirm its readings were correct.

The SS Queensland sank in the waters near Wilsons Promontory on August 3, 1876. The crew of the steamer Barrabool confused the Queensland’s masthead light for a local lighthouse and the two vessels hit at full speed. The impact was catastrophic, and the Queensland sank in just over half an hour. The ship’s resting place was only discovered in 2005.

The Investigator has been involved in similar missions in the past and has discovered the wrecks of the SS Macumba and SS Carlisle.

Educator on Board

In the Educator on Board program, STEM school teachers have a unique opportunity to travel on the Investigator. The teacher chosen works closely with scientists to develop learning materials and resources. It’s a great way to engage students and get them excited for the STEM fields. On a recent trip, over 800 students—in Australia and around the world—got to learn about underwater volcanos and coral through a live webcast.

The data and research collected by the Investigator is available to all scientists upon request. More information on the ship can be found at the CSIRO website.