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Building a Massive Ship to Tackle the Ocean’s Biggest Problems

In February, construction will begin on a research and expedition vessel like no other. Nina Jensen, the new chief executive of the company behind the ship, hopes that it will be a “floating think tank” that will change the conversation about ocean health.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A concept image of the REV.Courtesy of Nina Jensen

For the past 15 years, Nina Jensen has served as chief executive of the environmental group WWF Norway. A marine biologist by training, Jensen describes the position as “the best job in the world.” But when a big – really big – opportunity fell into her lap, she couldn’t say no.

Jensen has taken the helm as chief executive of Rosellinis Four-10, a Norwegian company formed by billionaire Kjell Inge Røkke to develop what it says will be one of the most advanced research and expedition vessels (REVs) ever. The ship is being financed by Røkke, who made his fortune largely in offshore oil drilling, shipping and fishing. At almost 600ft (182m), the vessel will be one of the largest yachts in the world, housing scientists, artists and entrepreneurs.

Construction of the REV will begin in February 2018, with the goal of launching in 2020. On board, it will have extensive laboratory facilities, underwater drones and microphones, submarines, a helicopter pad, sonar and a trawl that can selectively pick up only certain kinds of fish. It is being built in collaboration with WWF, and the design also includes tools for cleaning up plastic debris as it sails.

Oceans Deeply spoke with Jensen about the REV design and what the project hopes to accomplish.

Oceans Deeply: How did Røkke end up offering you this job?

Nina Jensen: The conversation between us actually started a bit more than a year ago. He contacted me in my capacity as CEO for WWF in Norway, as we’ve been in partnerships with several of his companies over the past decade. He had a very exciting opportunity that he wanted to discuss with us. Over time, he asked me if I would be willing to take over as CEO to run the entire operation. Initially, I instantly turned it down because, I mean, I already have the best job in the world. But the project grew on me over time, This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you just cannot turn down.

Oceans Deeply: What scientific abilities will this ship have?

Jensen: There is nothing that this ship will not be able to do. It will have the best available technology and scientific capabilities of any vessel today. It will have drones that can operate at varying depths and also at different heights. It will have submarines, ROVs [remotely operated underwater vehicles], AUVs [autonomous underwater vehicles] and underwater communication capabilities. It will have trawls that can go down to 8,000m [about 26,250ft] in depth. It will have wide-ranging technology and lab facilities on board that we have developed in close association with a scientific institution in Norway.

In addition, what gets me really excited is that we also have a separate section on board with 3-D printers, a metal shop and model-building facilities so that the technologies or equipment that are needed can actually be developed onsite and tested while running the research mission. I think is something quite unique that no other research vessel has today.

Oceans Deeply: I understand that this ship will not be just for research, but will also welcome engineers, artists and science communicators.

Nina Jensen with Kjell Inge Rokke. The two are teaming up to build the largest and most advanced research vessel in the world. (Courtesy of Nina Jensen)

Jensen: We don’t want this vessel to be a traditional REV. We want it to be more like a floating think-tank, where we bring together different disciplines and capacities. We will be inviting traditional scientists, innovators, entrepreneurs, musicians, artists … people from all kinds of different disciplines that share the same passion and interest for the ocean and can come up with new solutions that we haven’t necessarily thought about before.

Oceans Deeply: One of the things that is advertised about this ship is the ability to collect plastic out of the ocean. But on the website, the only thing I see is a concept sketch of that plastic-collecting device. What are the plans for plastic collection right now?

Jensen: This is something that we haven’t concluded. We are currently working with different providers. What we have said is that it will have different kinds of collection mechanisms that will collect plastics and waste as the ship is in operation, but we will also have on board a special incinerator that can deal with up to four tons of plastic per day. It burns at such a high temperature that it doesn’t emit any harmful gases.

All of this is still in development. Part of the equipment on board will also be decided over the next two-and-a-half years as the ship gets ready to be launched in 2020.

We’re still in the relatively early phases of this project, and we are still open to input, suggestions, and if people out there can come up with, or think of, a technology that should be on board and we don’t have, that would be really interesting to get input on.

Oceans Deeply: This ship will also be available for charter and recreational trips, as I understand it, including for Røkke himself and his family. Can you address that?

Jensen: The ship has a threefold purpose. One-third of the time will be spent on research, one-third on expeditions and one-third on rental. The rental part is intended to cover the operational costs of the vessel, so that we can do more science. Should we, at some point, end up with a surplus or profit from the rental part, then that surplus will potentially go in a science fund or to fund additional research that is furthering what is happening on the vessel already.

As part of that rental, Kjell Inge and his family will pay the same market price as anyone else who wants to rent the boat. It is a model to generate more funding for science.

Oceans Deeply: Much of Røkke’s money, which is financing this ship, comes from offshore oil drilling. Given oil’s contribution to climate change, which is causing many of the issues that REV is trying to help solve, is there concern of a conflict of interest?

Jensen: It’s a paradox, and I would totally agree that it is a conflict of interest in many ways. There is no doubt that the changes in climate that we are seeing today are caused by the burning of fossil fuels, such as oil, gas and coal. [Røkke’s] activities in the oil and gas industry have, to a large degree, contributed to that. However, I would rather that he, and people like him, actually spend their money trying to fix the problems and do good for society, rather than not do it at all.

However, I am very much in agreement with the criticism on this. There is no doubt that we need to leave a large proportion – as much as 80 percent – of the remaining fossil fuels in the ground if we are to succeed in solving climate change. Hopefully there will be an increasing awareness and realization of this as we go through the project as well.

Oceans Deeply: Is there anything else that you would like to say?

Jensen: I certainly hope that those who are [reading] will share the same enthusiasm that I have for this project. We really want you to engage with us to come up with great ideas for research projects and help us make a difference for the oceans.

One of the things that is really important for us is that we want to engage young, unestablished scientists that may have a great idea and are not necessarily affiliated with a research institution. So, we will be launching a program to reach out to these people worldwide and pick the best brains out there to make a difference.

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