Marine scientists can keep exploring a crucial niche thanks to a new, unique ship, says Tony Tysome.
Marine scientists at the University of Wales, Bangor, are enjoying the benefits of a £4.8 million project to maintain the higher education sector's only seagoing research vessel.
A new ship, the Prince Madog , was launched in summer. It is now taking its first cruises as a research platform that will provide training for the next generation of marine scientists.
The ship's arrival maintains Bangor's 32-year position as the only UK university with its own research vessel. It occupies an important niche, bridging a gap between "day boats" and the much larger and very expensive vessels run by the research councils. Its medium size fills a crucial role by allowing it to conduct work that would be uneconomic for larger ships and unfeasible for smaller coastal craft.
The Prince Madog can accommodate ten scientists and up to 20 students on cruises up to 100km out to sea that can last up to ten days without the need for refuelling. It is the smallest vessel to be fitted with an ultra-quiet electric drive option, which will allow sensitive acoustic surveys of the sea-bed by keeping noise levels to a minimum.
A public-private partnership made possible the replacement of the university's old Prince Madog ship. It included a new three-storey support warehouse in place of an old wooden shed storage facility.
The university was supported by the government's Joint Infrastructure Fund, which provided £2.8 million. A £1.4 million gift came from warship builder Vosper Thornycroft, which is now joint owner and manager of the Prince Madog .
The new vessel will continue the work of its predecessor, which was used to make significant discoveries such as the existence and biology of shelf seas and tidal mixing fronts.
Ray Seed is head of Bangor's School of Ocean Sciences, which helped design the new ship. He said: "Shallow seas pose major scientific challenges in the next decades. Scientists need to understand how the shallow seas around the continents respond to man's influence, and how global change such as the rise in sea level or an increase in stormy weather will affect coastlines.
"What scientists discover about this important environment will inform decisions at governmental level. The shallow seas are of major economic importance, and the use of the resources of the seas must be assessed and monitored."
Mike Kaiser, a senior lecturer in marine biology at the university, said:
"It's a rather luxurious thing to be sharing. But my feeling is that this is not so much a university ship as a UK-wide facility. Anyone can use it as long as they have the funding to do so."
Roy Evans, Bangor's vice-chancellor, said: "Achieving our aim of replacing our 30-year-old ship with a state-of-the-art research vessel is a major boost, not only for our university, for our own ocean science research and teaching, but also for the UK's whole science research infrastructure."
Kaiser said the ship's first tasks would include a survey of sandbanks needed to gain European conservation status, cruises across the Irish Sea for oceanographers taking water samples and developing profiles of the water column, and marine biologists undertaking fish population research, as well as study day trips for undergraduates.
Although the ship was fitted with the latest instruments and was also relatively comfortable, it should not be regarded as an expensive luxury, Kaiser added.
"If you are a marine scientist who wants to do anything other than tidal work, you need to have access to a boat. It's our telescope on the marine environment," he said.