Life on the 'Voyager'


My first survey onboard the Celtic Voyager was back in 1999. I was a Geophysics MSc student in NUI Galway at the time. We boarded in Castletownbere and sailed to Bantry Bay to perform a general side-scan sonar of the bay and a targeted side-scan sonar survey of the wreck of the La Surveillante, a French Armada vessel, located in the inner bay.

INFOMAR Phase 1 aimed to map 3 priority areas, off the east, south and southwest coasts and 26 priority Bays all around the island of Ireland. The Celtic Voyager was an integral part of this mapping effort. Originally fitted with an EM1002 Mulitbeam from Kongsberg, the system was upgraded over the years to the EM3002 and finally fitted with a dual headed EM2040 specifically for high resolution mapping of shallow water areas. Each one an improvement in terms of data density and resolution. The Sub-bottom profiler, initially a pinger source was changed to a chirp source system in recent years. Other essential equipment for seabed mapping including the Motion Reference Unit (MRU) and Satellite navigation have all improved significantly over its lifetime.

In the early years of INFOMAR we mapped Galway Bay, Donegal Bay and Cork Harbour. These were testing times for both the scientists and crews. Uncharted shoals, fishing gear, and marine traffic were all hazards. There was a lot of on the job learning during this period as we got used to nearshore mapping and new software. Mapping bays and enclosed areas involved detailed planning by all scientists and Bridge Officers days in advance of operations and dividing areas into night time and day light operations.

As the years went by and INFOMAR operations moved further offshore, survey planning became more straight forward but the weather became the biggest factor. From 2008 – 2012 we mapped much of the Irish Sea and off the west coast. Extensive mapping of the Celtic Sea commenced and expanded offshore in the subsequent years. Last year we completed mapping the UK border in the Celtic Sea which is a major milestone for the programme. We are now routinely mapping areas up to 20 hours transit south from Cork however, this can lead to increased weather downtime. We need winds and swell to be below a certain threshold in order to map properly and flat seas are not guaranteed 300 miles south of Cork.

It’s been a privilege to be part of this programme on the Voyager and to have helped steer its evolution. Remember there was little or no internet when she was commissioned, which meant no contact with the shore. Back then we could only send vital emails from the one PC on the bridge but today the Voyager can facilitate Wifi for the scientists and crew. It was difficult early on but some of the systems and procedures we developed then are still in place now and I’m proud of that.

INFOMAR is the DECC funded national seabed mapping programme, jointly managed by Marine Institute and Geological Survey Ireland.