Faces of the Sea - Aodhan Fitzgerald, Research Vessel Operations

Faces of the Sea - Aodhán Fitzgerald, Research Vessel Operations. Photo Cr Wonky Eye Photography

For the past 13 years, Aodhán Fitzgerald, Research Vessel Operations Manager at the Marine Institute has been coordinating the operations of Ireland’s two research vessels, the RV Celtic Explorer and RV Celtic Voyager.

Growing up beside the sea in West Kerry, Aodhán spent his spare time fishing, boating and building boats. His interest in the ocean, led him to study a Bachelors of Marine Science at NUI Galway and then a Masters of Environmental Science at Trinity College Dublin.

“While I was at university, I spent a lot of time sailing. I went on long sailing trips to the Mediterranean, Iceland, Russia, Norway and to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on different sized boats,” Aodhán said.

After spending time traveling by sea, Aodhán decided he wanted to the see the world by air, and trained as a commercial airline pilot with Aer Lingus. However, the events of September 11 in 2001 encouraged Aodhan to rethink his career in the industry, and he redirected his attention back to the marine.

In 2003 Aodhán secured a position in the Marine Institute in the area of marine renewable technology. Since 2006, Aodhan has been working as the Research Vessel Operations Manager, overseeing Ireland’s two national marine research vessels, the RV Celtic Explorer and the RV Celtic Voyager.

“Our team organises the annual schedule for the two marine research vessels, which involves working with the scientists to ensure the vessels are able to meet their objectives, as well as working with P&O Maritime Services who provide personnel and maintenance for the vessels. We also organise diplomatic clearance for the vessels to operate in foreign waters, the purchase and maintenance of new equipment, as well as managing the vessel’s operating costs,” Aodhán explained.

Collectively the two research vessels completed more than 570 survey days at sea in 2018. Equipped with wet and dry laboratories, the RV Celtic Explorer and RV Celtic Explorer enable scientists to undertake research on fisheries, the environment, climate, weather, and seabed surveying.  

“The core purpose of our two research vessels is to facilitate fish stock assessments surveys, so our scientists can accurately determine the Total Allowable Catches for the Irish and European fishing industry. The vessels also support academic research across a range of sciences, such as oceanography, biodiscovery and geology,” Aodhán said.

Over the past decade a number of ocean discoveries have been made on the RV Celtic Explorer, including the discovery of the Moytirra Hydrothermal vents north of the Azores (20011), mapping of the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (2015) and most recently the discovery of a rare shark nursery off the west coast of Ireland (2018).

Aodhán says the trans-Atlantic GO-SHIP voyage from St John’s Newfoundland to Galway in 2017, really signified how far the RV Celtic Explorer has come since the vessel first came in to service in 2003.  

“For the GO-SHIP survey, a team of international scientists spent 27 days at sea, investigating the condition of the Atlantic including carbon dioxide levels in the ocean. This survey, which would normally be undertaken by much larger vessels, was successfully completed on board the Celtic Explorer, and to a very high standard,” Aodhán says.

“With technology constantly evolving, it is essential for the equipment and capabilities on the research vessels to be continuously updated to meet the needs of scientists. The Marine Institute’s deep-water Remotely Operated Vehicle, the Holland 1, which collects video and images, and sampling systems, has greatly improved our research capabilities over the past ten years.”   

Aodhán says that with technological advancements, comes the demand for professionals with engineering, technology, computer and science skills in the marine industry.    

“There are a lot of career opportunities in the marine sector for people with technical skills, from ROV pilots and technicians, instrumentation technicians as well as marine engineers. Mariners, deck officers and captains are also highly sought-after around the world,” Aodhán said.

There have been significant developments in marine technology, since Ireland’s first multi-purpose research vessel the RV Celtic Voyager was launched in 1997. The design and build of a new state-of-the-art marine research vessel, to replace the Celtic Voyager, is one of the largest upcoming projects for the Marine Institute’s Research Vessel Operations team.

“The new marine research vessel will be equipped with the latest technologies, to facilitate a wide range of research, leading to new explorations and discoveries in our oceans. A new vessel will be a significant milestone for marine research in Ireland, and an exciting project to be part of over the next four years,” Aodhán said.

Another challenging project for Aodhán and the Research Vessel Operations team, is coordinating EuroFleetsPlus, an EU funded project which involves 42 marine institutes, universities and foundations from 24 countries.

“Through EuroFleetsPlus, industry and researchers will be able to apply for fully-funded ship time and access to a fleet of 27 research vessels, as well as equipment such as remotely operated and autonomous underwater vehicles. This is a really exciting project for the international science community, and it will be interesting to see the innovative and diverse research taking place across our oceans – from the North Atlantic, to the Pacific Southern Ocean to the Ross Sea,” Aodhán explained.

“EuroFleetsPlus is just one way the Celtic Explorer contributes to marine research in Ireland,” Aodhán says. “Our ocean still remains largely unexplored, but advancements in technology have enabled us to make new discoveries and understand more about our oceans.”