Faces of the Sea – Vera Quinlan, Hydrographer with the INFOMAR Programme
Vera Quinlan works at the Marine Institute, and is involved in Ireland's seabed mapping programme, INFOMAR. As a hydrographer, Vera's career and sense of adventure has taken her around the world.
Vera says she has always had a connection with the ocean. Her father has a huge love for the sea, and would share stories of her great grandfather working as a sea captain for the city of Cork steam Packet Company. Vera's father built sea kayaks as a teenager and later circumnavigated the world on a yacht. So seafaring was in the blood.
"When I was 10, I 'helped' my dad build a 21 foot kit boat over a winter. We started with a raw hull, and built the inside of the boat. It was very exciting," Vera said. "Then we started sailing and I just loved it. With my mum, dad, and two siblings, we would head off on this tiny boat and sail on Lough Derg, even in the winters. We hadn't a clue what we were doing, but it was such an adventure."
She has fond memories of the sailing boat being towed from Dublin to Kerry for family holidays, and spending her summers in and on the water.
"I would go snorkelling with Dad, discovering new underwater worlds, and even through a black leaking mask, it was incredible. I would spend hours, immersed in rock hopping and discovering new rock pools around the coastline," Vera said.
Vera would sail her own mirror dinghy from the age of 11, and then a Laser. By the age of 16, she was invited to take part in the Sydney to Hobart Race and sail on the Irish Tall Ship, Asgard II which she described as a 'truly amazing and inspirational experience'. It was then that she knew that she would spend a large proportion of her life at sea.
With the initial intention of becoming a marine biologist, Vera went to Liverpool University to undertake a course in marine studies. "I had a healthy interest in marine technology and combined with my interest in geography and maps took the strands that lead to, 'Hydrography'. It was a discipline that I hadn't heard of before university," Vera said.
Hydrography is the science that measures and describes the features of oceans, rivers and coastal areas. Hydrographers produce charts and maps of the ocean floor which are important for shipping and navigation, infrastructure development, fisheries management, resource exploration, as well as for marine research and protection.
For 12 years, Vera worked in the seismic survey industry which saw her travel and work in West Africa, Gulf of Mexico, Australia and the North Sea.
"I would work for six weeks at a time at sea on large ships towing up to ten streamers, 8kms in length. These vessels would chart the depth of the ocean, but also look at what was below the seabed, penetrating over 5kms into the Earth's crust. I was involved in navigation and positioning and would use laser technology, GPS, and acoustic equipment to create the shape of the seabed and subsea in 3D. It was a high-tension job, but I really enjoyed it," Vera said.
Vera then left the industry to fulfil another ambition; to sail across the Atlantic Ocean.
"My husband is an adventurer; he had done plenty of climbing expeditions but he had never sailed before. I resurrected my old laser and he went out in the water and learnt the basics, and eventually we decided to sail across the Atlantic for our honeymoon! We had a winter to get organised and did the work necessary on a borrowed 40-foot steel boat. Then we set off, across the Atlantic."
"We left the west coast of Ireland and sailed down the coast. It was a daunting challenge, but we took it in stages; the Aran Islands, Baltimore, then across Bay of Biscay. We kept going south and soon everything fell into place. We crossed the Atlantic, made landfall in Barbados, sailed onto Venezuela and then to Cuba, our final destination. We sailed back across North Atlantic to the Azores and home again," explained Vera.
After 15 months of sailing and travelling, Vera settled on the west coast of Ireland.
For the past 12 years, Vera has been based at the Marine Institute and works as a hydrographer for INFOMAR, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment funded national seabed mapping programme. INFOMAR is joint managed and delivered by the Marine Institute and the Geological Survey Ireland, which aims to survey Ireland's unmapped marine territory.
"My role involves planning the surveys for the year ahead and, highlighting the data and products that the INFOMAR team create for potential beneficiaries both in the Marine Institute and elsewhere in Ireland. I also go to sea for up to six weeks each year on the Celtic Explorer or Celtic Voyager, and use multibeam echosounder (MBES) systems to collect hydrographic data."
"Seabed mapping technology is continually being updated, so we are always checking and upgrading equipment, as well as upskilling to ensure the INFOMAR programme is using the most efficient technology and survey approaches. We work with different service areas in the Marine Institute, including marine environment and fisheries. Multibeam data can be used to identify different types of substrate for example, and therefore benthic habitats. Through interpretation of the data we can map the distribution and extents of gravel beds in coastal areas that are utilised by spawning herring, and mud patches further offshore which form the habitat of the prawn (Nephrops norvegicus).
If we don't explore the ocean, we won't know what's there. If we don't know what's there, we won't be able to protect our ocean," Vera said.
Vera's sense of adventure and love of the sea has lured her back to ocean passages, this time with her two children in tow. The family of four will set sail this summer to sail across the Atlantic Ocean.
"The kids are very excited about all the different countries that they have heard about. It will be a great learning experience for them, the geography of our travels, the history and trading routes of each country, reading charts and plotting and positioning on charts. It is also a lot of responsibility for them, as they will be involved in watch keeping, cooking on a boat, performing maintenance and engine checks. Again, we will take it a step at a time, and hopefully we will soon be sailing under the Statue of Liberty," Vera said.
"I love adventure and I love being at sea. Whether I'm sailing on a sea passage or on a survey, it's like I'm going back to where I came from. It just feels like home."