Position: Physical oceanographer Field: Physical ocean processes, Argo project Organisation: NIWA, Wellington

Dr Phil Sutton started off studying physics at Auckland University. When it came time to specialise, he was drawn to geophysics. This uses the principles of physics to study the Earth, including the ocean and atmosphere.

I haven't been to sea for the last few years so I'm missing it a bit. Going to sea is certainly an adventure and is an appealing part of it, but it can wear a bit thin after a while actually.

Looking for a PhD topic that would combine geophysics with his love of sailing, Phil went to San Diego and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. This is part of the University of California and one of the foremost oceanography labs in the United States. His PhD supervisor, Dean Roemmich, was one of the main scientists involved with the then new Argo project, so it was natural that Phil got involved too. He was sometimes able to get trips back to New Zealand by working his passage on ships deploying Argo scientific floats.

Phil is now a physical oceanographer at NIWA – he studies the physical properties and processes of the ocean. Phil has made the most of his contacts around the world to remain heavily involved with the Argo project – mostly interpreting data, but also occasionally preparing and deploying floats. The real-time data from the Argo floats, freely available on the internet, means that Phil can follow a wide range of research interests. As well as studying global currents and climate, Phil has done smaller-scale research. This has included looking at the effect of currents and temperature on orange roughy stocks near New Zealand and how a shark that travelled from near South Africa across to Australia might have used ocean currents.

Did he get the sailing he wanted in San Diego? He certainly did, crewing on some amazing yachts. He does still get the occasional taste of the sea with research voyages on vessels such as the Kaharoa

Mostly, he’s happy for others to do the long voyages – crossing the ocean to Africa or South America in a 28m long ship can be rough. Between periods of float deployment and research, there’s not much to do – Phil mainly reads books, but others watch movies or listen to music. You need to get on really well with the rest of the 5-person crew too.

Useful links

Visit the main website of the Argo project to see latest float information and an animation showing what the floats do.

This article is based on information current in 2010.

    Published 22 June 2010