The 10 October shipwreck of Taiwan’s R/V Ocean Researcher V (OR-V), which resulted in the death of two people, is a major setback for ocean research in Taiwan, scientists told Eos.

The ship, which was Taiwan’s largest research vessel, sank in rough seas in the Penghu Passage between Taiwan and China. The 2700-ton, 72.6-­meter-long vessel, whose maiden voyage was in February 2013, was operated by the Taiwan Ocean Research Institute (TORI). Taiwan’s Ministry of Science and Technology is conducting an investigation into the causes of the shipwreck.

The deceased are TORI assistant engineer Lin Yi-Chun and Hsu Shih-Chieh, a fellow with Academia Sinica in Taipei, who was leading a five-person research team that was measuring pollutants in the Taiwan Strait.

OR-V had three science laboratories and precision navigation systems and had been equipped with instruments, including an acoustic Doppler current profiler; a multichannel seismic system; a multiple plankton sampler; sensors to measure conductivity, temperature, and depth; a 20-meter piston corer; a subbottom profiler; and a shallow/deep-sea multibeam echo sounder. The vessel also had the capability to mount remotely operated vehicles that dive to 3000 meters.

The deaths and the loss of the vessel are “a major tragedy in our research community that will greatly affect ocean research in Taiwan,” Academia Sinica president Chi-Huey Wong told Eos.

“Oceanic scientific exploration, especially the more ambitious ones, will be delayed, and the impact is likely to last longer than a decade. While the cause of this tragedy is being investigated, lessons should be learned to prevent similar tragedies in the future,” Wong stated. “Ocean research and exploration is one of the most important goals for Taiwan to pursue, as Taiwan is surrounded by oceans and constantly impacted by extreme events initiated over the oceans. I think our future oceanic research and exploration should be better designed and implemented, instead of being hindered by this tragedy.”

International Community Response

Oceanographers from other institutions expressed condolences and told Eos that the shipwreck will have significant ramifications.

“The ship may be replaced, but its loss will diminish Taiwanese capabilities for work related to GEOTRACES”—a Scientific Committee on Ocean Research (SCOR) project to create a global survey of trace elements and isotopes—“and other ocean research for some time,” SCOR executive director Ed Urban told Eos. He said that the vessel was equipped with state-of-the-art equipment for trace metal clean sample collection and analysis, which only a limited number of ships worldwide possess.

“The establishment of a trace-­metal clean sampling capacity in Taiwan had taken nearly a decade from when it was first discussed in a regional GEOTRACES meeting,” Urban said. “However, I know that the Taiwanese science community will rally to overcome the great challenges involved.”

Bruce Appelgate, associate director for ship operations and marine technical support at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told Eos that the loss of the vessel “would constitute a profound setback for any oceanographic institution, and this loss will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the oceanographic community, especially Taiwanese scientists and their colleagues around the world who study the South China Sea and waters around Taiwan, because [OR-V] was so well equipped for scientific research.”

Scripps physical oceanographer Rob Pinkel added that Taiwanese researchers have been generous in sharing their research vessels with U.S. and other international colleagues. The sinking of the vessel, he noted, “thus is a tangible loss to all scientists, not just Taiwanese.”

Dan Fornari, senior scientist in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, was on the vessel last year helping researchers with a digital deep-sea camera system he built for them to use in gas hydrate research. The vessel could accommodate extensive multidisciplinary research and “basically did all of their heavy lifting in terms of field work,” Fornari said. “There are folks within the U.S. oceanographic community [who] are trying to figure out what they can do to help, but it remains to be seen how much we can help functionally.”

Moninya Roughan, group leader for the Coastal and Regional Oceanography Group at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, told Eos, “Working at sea is extremely challenging yet rewarding, and it is often a sense of adventure that lures young scientists into oceanography. It is my hope that the academic community respond responsibly to this incident and that this isolated incident does not have far-reaching ramifications.”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

© 2014. American Geophysical Union. All rights reserved.

© 2014. American Geophysical Union. All rights reserved.