A new Mediterranean scientific research ship will allow Greek researchers to study the climate change-threatened ecosystems of the Mediterranean Sea about which we know surprisingly little.

When scientists of the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research speak about the Mediterranean, one theme is consistent: there is so much left to learn about this intercontinental sea, whose shores are home to more than 500 million people.

“We sometimes say the Mediterranean is a miniature ocean”, says Dr Tanya Zervoudaki, one of the centre’s researchers. “We see so many habitats and such high diversity, but also it’s a sea surrounded by anthropogenic stressors. It’s a vulnerable ecosystem, and there are so many things we don’t know about it yet”.

With the support of the European Investment Bank, the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research is building a new and much larger  ship to replace the one they’ve been sailing since 1985. It will expand the capacity for research on everything from the effects of climate change to the search for undiscovered life forms at great depths.

Mediterranean scientific research ship to replace 1985 vessel

The new vessel will be able to support up to 20 crew members and 30 scientists — more than twice the capacity of the old ship, the Aegaeo. It will be about 70 metres long and about 15 wide, with five decks. It will have more than 200 square meters of scientific laboratories, ample open deck space, oceanographic winches, cranes and A-frames for deployment and recovery of scientific instruments.

The European Investment Bank signed a loan of up to €57.5 million to the Greek state in July 2020, to help finance the new oceanographic vessel and a new research station on the island of Antikythera. These projects will take five to six years to complete.

Dr Dimitris Sakellariou is the centre’s Research Director of Structural/Marine Geology and Marine Geoarchaeology. Of the new vessel, he says “this has been a dream of the last 15 years. We will have the ability to load the vessel with much more advanced and heavier equipment, and much more modern instruments.”

Stability of Mediterranean scientific research ship promotes new experiments

Because this ship will be so much larger than the Aegaeo, it will also be more stable, allowing scientists to conduct experiments on board that they cannot perform now, such as DNA extraction, which is important for assessing biodiversity. The new ship will also carry submersible vehicles for exploring the depths of the Mediterranean, including forms of life of which little is known, like those near active underwater volcanoes.

“We will be able to reach microbe communities that are currently not accessible,” Sakellariou says. “They are really very important for the biologists and the scientists who work with genomics and genetics. There are so many fields that are still open and wait for us to survey them.”

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Critical to aquaculture

The vessel will also be critical in assessing the changes being wrought on the Mediterranean by climate change.

The surface temperature of the water in the sea has already risen 0.4 degrees celsius, and acidification, caused by CO2 being dissolved in the water, has lowered its pH by 0.1 since the pre-industrial period. Invasive species, new forms of bacteria, and other pathogens are also important areas of research.

Dr Pantelis Katharios is a researcher in the Aqualabs division of the HCMR, where the focus is on aquaculture. He says the new research vessel is critical because so much is unknown about the Mediterranean and the rapid changes caused by the climate crisis.

“It’s important to have the people and the equipment, because in the end you may address emergencies that we don’t even know about yet,” he says. “Two or three years ago we had a new parasite emerge that no one knew about, and it nearly wiped out the population of Pinna nobilis, a clam that is the biggest bivalve we have in the Mediterranean. It helps keep the water clean.

“It’s a huge impact for the Mediterranean ecosystem. We need the vessel for things like this.”