Research Expeditions

Research Expeditions

At any one time scientists and technicians from the UK marine community can be at sea on numerous vessels. This page provides information on the current research expeditions being undertaken by our two Royal Research Ships Discovery and James Cook. Here you can discover where our ships are and what they are aiming to achieve.


Updates from the ships’ Plans of Intended Movement (PIM)


RRS Discovery RRS James Cook

Vessel: Discovery

DTG: 230617 1200
Zone: UTC -1
Exped: DY080
Subj: PIM

Pos: 52 19N  037 52W
Co: 248
Spd: 10kts

Wx: SW F4. Fog patches. Slight seas and low swell.

Status: Vessel relocating to main survey track..

Intentions: Bird ctaching activities followed by dusk CTD & Plankton nets.

 Fuel ROB: 281t

Vessel: James Cook

a: SST berth 11-2 Pointe a Pitre

b: Mobilisation/demobilisation suspended for duration of bunker operations. Food stores being loaded.

Alongside Guadeloupe until 27th June

Ships’ positions

This map shows the positions of the NOC operated vessels RRS Discovery and RRS James Cook. While every effort is made to keep this map up to date sometimes position updates are not possible.


MARS Portal


Latest Expeditions

RRS James Cook

Cruise Principal scientist & institution Location Duration in days (begins) Aim
JC150 Claire Mahaffey

University of Liverpool


North Atlantic

48 days

Zinc, iron and phosphorus co-limitation in the ocean

At present, on-going warming is predicted to reduce the physical supply of essential nutrients, nitrate and phosphate to the surface ocean, and hence control future trends in productivity in the subtropical gyres.

However, this view ignores the significant additions of nitrogen to the subtropical ocean from both natural and anthropogenic atmospheric input that decouples nitrate and phosphate, causing phosphate stress for phytoplankton. This will drive an ‘arms race’ towards accessing alternative forms of phosphorus, such as dissolved organic phosphorus.

Recent work by our team and others suggests that availability of trace metals, specifically zinc and iron, regulates the uptake of alternative phosphorus pools. If such phenomena are widespread, this suggests that predictions of future trends in biological activity are inaccurate and instead we need to consider expansion and intensification of a phosphate-deplete ocean. By combining novel observational and modelling experiments, we will gain a more complete quantitative understanding of how trace metals regulate phosphorus acquisition and thus biological activity in the contemporary and future ocean.

During JC150, our aim is to quantitatively assess the role of zinc and iron in regulating phosphorus acquisition by key phytoplankton groups, specifically the nitrogen fixer, Trichodesmium and the cyanobacteria, Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus. We will achieve this aim by performing a series of trace metal clean bioassay experiments at 6 stations along a westward transect from Guadeloupe to Tenerife at a latitude of ~ 20°N.

In these low phosphate subtropical waters, phytoplankton are known to deploy alternative strategies to acquire organic phosphorus. We will collect seawater using the trace metal clean titanium CTD rosette and sampling bottles. We will add a range of concentrations of zinc and iron (alongside other nutrients) and determine the impact of these trace metals on the rate of organic phosphorus acquisition, growth and carbon and nitrogen fixation and incubate under in situ light and temperature conditions for 48 hours. In addition, we will collaborate with international experts in the field of single cell elemental quotas and proteomics to determine the impact of trace metal additions on cell quotas and protein production.

In addition to trace metal clean bioassay experiments, we will exploit the natural gradients in inorganic nutrients and trace metals along the transect to determine the natural variability in rates of phosphorus acquisition, carbon and nitrogen fixation, cell quotas and proteomics.

RRS Discovery

Cruise Principal scientist & institution Location Duration in days (begins) Aim

Ewan Wakefield

University of Glasgow


Charlie Gibbs Fracture Zone, NW Atlantic 24 days

The Distribution and Ecology of Seabirds in the Sub-Polar Frontal Zone of the Northwest Atlantic


This cruise aims to survey and sample of seabirds in the Northwest Atlantic to examine multiple aspects of their ecology. In addition, complimentary studies on physical oceanography, nutrient dynamics and cetaceans will be undertaken.


Breeding seabirds are a familiar sight in coastal areas but pelagic species, such as shearwaters and fulmars, spend most of their time far out at sea. Typically, they travel 100s to 1000s of km from their colonies to provision their offspring and may migrate across oceans during non-breeding periods. Until recently this made them enigmatic but the development of bird-borne tracking devices is now providing incredible insights into their movements and behaviour. Nonetheless, many fundamental aspects of their ecology (diet, niche partitioning, etc.) remain poorly understood.

This is of concern for a number of reasons: Firstly, pelagic seabirds may be major consumers of mesotrophic organisms in many areas of the world’s oceans, thereby exerting top-down control of pelagic ecosystems. Moreover, recent studies on functionally homologous cetaceans suggest an intriguing possibility - that by rapidly resupplying nutrients (and particularly iron) within the photic zone, seabirds enhance primary production within oceanic waters, mediating carbon drawdown. Similarly, due to their wide ranging movements, they may provide important links between disparate marine ecosystems, such as those on and off-shelf or in different hemispheres.

Secondly, shearwaters and other large petrels rely on the wind in order to fly efficiently. This constrains them to follow least-cost pathways defined by large-scale wind patterns, much in the same way as traditional sailing ships. There is emerging evidence that climate change may alter these wind patterns, potentially impacting seabirds in either positively or negatively. In turn, this could disrupt their provision of the ecosystem services alluded above.

Finally, negative impacts from human activities, such as fisheries and the introduction of invasive species to breeding colonies, mean that as many as 40% of seabird species may become functionally extinct by 2100. There is therefore an urgent need to identify areas used most frequently by seabirds so that potentially harmful human activities can be mitigated.

Early seabird biologists worked largely from ships, piecing together data on distribution, movement and diet, often through lethal sampling of birds. There followed a shift to colony-based studies, and latterly to remote observation using bird-borne devices. Since the pioneering days, surprisingly few studies have been carried out at sea in the deep Atlantic, despite the fact that the area is bounded by large seabird colonies and some of the world’s most developed countries. A recent meta-analysis of tracking data by BirdLife International and others has identified a potentially important hotspot of seabird diversity and abundance in the deep Northwest Atlantic. It has been suggested that this area, which lies in the vicinity of the sub-polar front, south of the Charlie Gibbs Fracture Zone (CGFZ), should be designated as a High Seas Marine Protected Area but more data are needed to confirm its importance.


Expedition DY080 is being undertaken as part of the NERC-funded project Seabirds and wind - the consequences of extreme prey taxis in a changing climate.  

This project has five broad objectives:

  • to estimate the distribution, movements and behaviour of key seabird populations during breeding and non-breeding stages and determine the dependence of these processes on movement constraints and habitat;
  • to quantify temporal variation in habitat use within species and niche partitioning between them;
  • to predict how wind-mediated seabird movement corridors are likely to change under future climate change scenarios and estimate how this will affect the ecosystem functions performed by seabirds;
  • to estimate nutrient recycling and transport within and between marine ecosystems by seabirds; and
  • to facilitate the conservation of seabirds and other higher marine predators by identifying potential High Seas Marine Protected Areas.

The study focuses on four morphologically similar speceis: Cory's shearwaters (Calonectris diomedea), northern fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis), great shearwaters (Ardenna gravis) and sooty shearwaters (Ardenna grisea).

During the project, these species will be tracked using gelocation and time-depth loggers deployed at their colonies. In addition, we intend to track the latter two species at higher resolution using satellite tags deployed on birds caught at sea. This will allow simultaneous observation of individual birds, seabird communities, and the environment in which they forage.

Expedition Aims

  • To estimate the distribution, abundance and behaviour of seabirds and cetaceans in a study area centred on the sub-polar front, south of the Charlie Gibbs Fracture Zone (CGFZ), and to survey these species en route to and from the study area.
  • To develop non-lethal methods of catching seabirds at sea.
  • To estimate the diet, stable isotope and contaminant loading, faecal nutrient content and moult status of seabirds within the study area.
  • To determine the comparative habitat use of great and sooty shearwaters on and off the Canadian continental shelf and the timing of their movements between these areas.
  • To map the location of major frontal features and nutrient regimes within the study area.
  • To estimate the vertical distribution and biomass of mesopelagic nekton within the study area.
  • To conduct in vitro phytoplankton incubation experiments to estimate rates of nutrient cycling within the study area.

Participating institutes: The University of Glasgow, Environment Canada, the Sea Mammal Research Unit, the University of Manitoba, the University of Rhode Island, the University of Coiumbra, GEOMAR, CEFAS, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

The cruise blog can be accessed here


Previous and Upcoming Expeditions

Learn about the previous research expeditions that have been undertaken.