A new research ship – due to launch in 2021 and funded by a Norwegian billionaire – will be the largest and most luxurious vessel of its kind ever built.
The 183m Research Expedition Vessel (REV) – which has been engineered to endure polar ice and punishing ocean polar conditions – will be packed with top-of-the-line research gear and superyacht-standard accommodation.
Currently under construction in Romania and estimated to be costing around $350m, it is owned by Kjell Inge Røkke, aged 60, who made his fortune in the fishing and offshore energy sectors.
The ship offers room for 60 researchers and large areas for science and engineering. It will also be eco-friendly and fuel efficient with a broad, stable hull designed to reduce sea noise pollution. When it encounters a garbage patch, it booms will be able to collect up to five tons of plastic a day to incinerate onboard for energy.
The REV will also have trawls for capturing marine life and a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) for on-the-spot observations.
"The idea is that all the assets are on the ship, and you can pick and choose – that is tremendous," says Ajit Subramaniam, a microbial oceanographer at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University.
The ROV, capable of 6,000m descents, can be launched through large side doors or a moon pool in the hull. A pair of ship-borne helicopters can release smaller autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), which don't need tethers to the main vessel.
"Think of it as an aircraft carrier for robotics," says Chris German, a marine geochemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. The REV will also have a crewed submersible capable of descending 2,000m.
The main trawl, designed by Røkke's company Aker BioMarine for harvesting krill in the Southern Ocean, can remain 3,000m deep while funneling fish to a tube that quickly pumps them up to the ship's wet labs. It offers the tantalizing possibility of collecting jellyfish and other soft organisms that normally don't survive the slow trip to the surface when the trawl is winched up, opening a porthole into marine food webs.
Alex Rogers, an oceanographer at the University of Oxford in the UK, starts next month as the full-time science director for REV Ocean.
He says scheduling an expedition on the REV could be quicker and more flexible than on government research vessels, which are sometimes limited by range, budget, or scientific focus. On the other hand, working with philanthropists is not like dealing with a research funding agency. "You have to explain what you're doing," Rogers says. "Be prepared to communicate with them."