A GROUP of scientists from Southampton will give up their traditional family Christmas to take part in a “groundbreaking” ocean research project.

Aboard the RRS James Cook, the team will leave Southampton today to embark on a six-week study of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

Taking place over both Christmas and New Year, the project includes never-been-done-before research into the ocean’s underwater vents.

The team will study how the vents continually pump the sea with iron and aid the growth of microscopic phytoplankton – which feed much of the ocean’s wildlife, including whales.

But it won’t be all work for the ship’s 50 strong team of crew and scientists.

The team will celebrate the festive season onboard the research vessel with a slap-up dinner, and will welcome in the new year from the comfort of the ship’s own bar.

For co-lead scientist Maeve Lohan, professor of marine chemistry at the University of Southampton, it will be her fifth Christmas at sea.

She said: “For a lot of people this will be their first time.

“It’s exciting having Christmas on the ship but people do miss their families too.

“We all do a secret Santa and have a meal and people can speak to their families over the phone as well.”

Setting off from Southampton, the team will first travel to the Azores islands.

From there, a group of 27 international scientists, including five from Southampton, will begin sampling the water to test for the concentration of iron.

Scientists say this will help them to determine how much ‘hydrothermal vents’, which line the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, contribute towards the levels or iron in the ocean.

Co-lead scientist, Alessandro Tagliable, from the University of Liverpool said: “The critical question for us would be how far the iron goes. That’s what we hope to answer.”

The six week voyage will end on the Caribbean Island of Guadeloupe, where the crew will catch a flight back home.

A team led by Brian King, from the Southampton-based National Oceanography Centre, will then pick-up the ship from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

His team will test the levels of carbon dioxide in the ocean on their way to South Africa.