No cruisy break for winning student

Environmental science and biodiversity conservation student Sophie Gilbey recently returned from an experience of a lifetime – spending the Christmas and new year period aboard the RV Investigator, undertaking important CSIRO research during a 10-day voyage along Australia’s west coast.

Winner of one of two Indigenous Time at Sea Scholarships, Ms Gilbey joined fellow Flinders University student PhD candidate Elise Tuuri, who was on board to collect samples and data as part of Flinders University microplastics research, led by Associate Professor Sophie Leterme to understand plastics in the marine environment.

Together with microplastics sampling, Ms Gilbey assisted with the full range of research undertaken on the voyage, including surveying seabirds and studying marine mammals, atmosphere and weather.

Ms Gilbey says she and fellow scholarship winner Tiahni Adamson (from the University of Adelaide) were able to assist researchers as much or as little as possible, and naturally immersed themselves in the opportunity.

“Our day was structured around where the ship was going to be,” Ms Gilbey explains.

“One project used a continuous plankton recorder that was towed behind the ship. When the ship stopped, we had to bring it in.

Sophie Gilbey on board the Investigator with a weather balloon

“We collected lots of different data, surveyed birds, and released weather balloons that measure air pressure, temperature and humidity. The balloons ascend to around 30km and were released several times a day – I got to release one at 2am on Christmas morning!”

She says more than 5,800 birds over 25 species were counted during the trip – “I certainly learnt a lot more about birds!”

Sailing just 30 nautical miles off the coast of Western Australia, the voyage supplemented its key activities with bathymetry, which is mapping the sea floor to obtain a better understanding of the seabed and water depths.

Ms Gilbey says the experience was made particularly memorable by the friendly welcome of everyone on board, including researchers and scientists together with a selection of teachers who joined the crew.

She made sure to join the voluntary Kris Kringle, thoughtfully organised beforehand to ensure crew members had the opportunity to give and receive on Christmas Day.

“Everyone was so helpful and accommodating, and the food was amazing! Especially Christmas lunch, there was an entire table of seafood, roast meat, pudding, the whole deal.”

Not one to rest on her laurels, Ms Gilbey returned in early January to put together a video of her experience (currently under review), before heading off to South Africa for a four-week game study trip. Offered by Flinders’ College of Science and Engineering, she says it’s another research opportunity she is grateful for – and happy to accumulate a little debt to experience.

With two years left on her studies, the intrepid explorer is loving both the biodiversity and environmental science components of her double degree and is keeping her options open for the future. Recent events however have kindled a keen interest in fire ecology, a highly relevant career path likely to remain in demand.

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