The MBA Sepia is a versatile platform for research and instrument deployment, accommodating up to 12 passengers and operating from shallow river environments to 60 miles offshore. 

Between 1888 and the present, investigations have been carried out into the physical, chemical, and biological components (ranging from plankton and fish to benthic and intertidal assemblages) of the western English Channel ecosystem. The Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom has performed the main body of these observations. More recent contributions come from the Continuous Plankton Recorder Survey, now the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science, dating from 1957; the Institute for Marine Environmental Research, from 1974 to 1987; and the Plymouth Marine Laboratory which was formed by amalgamation of the Institute for Marine Environmental Research and part of the Marine Biological Association, from 1988.

Together, these contributions constitute a unique data series – one of the longest and most comprehensive samplings of environmental and marine biological variables in the world. These unique long-term data sets provide an environmental baseline for predicting complex ecological responses to local, regional, and global environmental change.

In order to carry out chemical and physical work in the western English Channel the MBA has worked with a number of different research vessels, each with their own history.

Busy Bee (60 ft.) 1896 – 1901

The first fully-decked and reliable steamboat owned by the MBA, was purchased in 1896 and used for teaching courses as well as conducting research. This vessel carried out preliminary work on mackerel, Scomber scombrus (Garstang, 1898).

Oithona (83 ft.) 1902 – 1921

This ocean-going steam yacht, along with Huxley, carried out exploratory surveys (Standard Hauls) of the Southern North Sea, the English Channel, and the continental shelf west of Plymouth, contributing to ICES investigations (Rozwadowski, 2003). Identified continental shelf waters influenced the hydrography and biological communities of the English Channel (Lankester et al., 1990).

However, during World War I (1914-1918), the Royal Navy requisitioned the research vessels, subsequently interrupting scientific sampling. The hire charge for Oithona was £1 per day and she was returned in April 1919. The MBA obtained another boat, Salpa, in 1921 and offered Oithona for sale; she was sold in 1922 for £775 to Professor G. Gilson of Brussels, to be used for Belgian government fishery and biological investigations.

Huxley (115 ft.) 1903 – 1909

The ship, formally called Khedive, was purchased by Dr Bidder and leased to the MBA and renamed Huxley in honour of the first President of the Association. The ship was based at Lowestoft where another laboratory was set up in rented accommodation in 1902.  Huxley was built especially for commercial steam trawling in the North Sea and worked on similar voyages to Oithona. The boat was equipped with commercial otter trawl, with 90 feet head-line, and beam trawl with 44 feet beam, shrimp trawl, Agassiz trawl, Todd’s crustacean trawl, dredges, tow nets, Garstang closing net, Hensen vertical nets, Petersen young-fish trawl, and the hydrographic instruments of the international commission, including Richter thermometers and Pettersson-Nansen and Ekman water bottles.

Salpa (88ft.) 1921 – 1939

This ex-Naval vessel fitted out as steam drifter trawler, with the exception of the fish hold, which was altered for use as a mess-deck. Salpa served as a replacement for Oithona.

A remark by Dr L.H.N. Cooper about Salpa: ‘powerful for her time she may have been, but uncomfortable she certainly was, to an extent which those who work our present vessels may find it hard to understand’. Nevertheless, it was with Salpa, at first lacking even a deck laboratory, that work resumed on the plankton and hydrography of the Western Channel after the long interval since 1909.
Sampling work (Standard Hauls) again was halted during World War II (1939 – 1945) as Salpa was taken out of commission, pending requisition by the Navy.

Sabella (90ft.) 1946 – 1953

A motor fishing vessel leased from the Navy. After equipping the ship for trawling and water sampling she was brought into service in the autumn of 1946, in time for the first post-war visiting physiologists who required supplies of squid. Sabella began investigations off West Cornwall in the hard winter of 1946/47, and in subsequent years sampling of water and plankton was extended across the continental shelf to the west and south-west, the region now called the Celtic sea.

Sabella, lacking radio and radio-aids to navigation, was unsuitable for the precision station-keeping needed for newer research and Salpa had been disposed of in 1946, a new vessel was planned as a replacement. The preliminary plans for a new ship announced in 1947 were for an oil-fired steamboat of 110ft length (Sarsia), to be backed up by a 60ft motor-trawler for inshore work (Sula).

Sula (60 ft.) 1948 – 1972

A partly-completed Admiralty-pattern motor fishing vessel purchased and fitted out entered service as Sula in 1948. She carried out the MBA’s Standard Hauls. Use of Sula inshore allowed Sabella to go on longer voyages.

Photograph shows winning her class at the Brixham trawler race in 1971.

Sarsia (128 ft.) 1953 – 1981

Planning of this ship continued through 1949 and 1950. By 1951 the new ship was to be a diesel-engined vessel of 115ft length, and the design was finalised in the autumn of 1952, when construction started at Dartmouth. The new ship, named Sarsia, came into service in late 1953. At 128ft overall, she was the largest vessel actually owned by the MBA. A basic feature of the design of Sarsia was the ability to operate close inshore and from smaller ports in the south-west, should financial stringency ever call for disposal of the 60ft inshore vessel Sula.

Sabella was returned to the navy in 1953 and Sarsia gradually worked up to full operational status and by 1955/56 was working all over the Celtic sea and out to deep water in the Atlantic. During her 28 year service to the MBA she extended operations from the north coast of Spain to the Sognefjord in Norway, and from the entrance to the Baltic out to the ocean far west of Ireland.


Fredrick Russell (143 ft.) 1981 – 1982

This converted trawler replaced the Sarsia, but it was taken over by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and converted to general oceanographic research in 1982 and was not available for time series work off Plymouth afterward.

Squilla (60 ft.) 1973 – 2003

In order to replace Sula, a steel-hulled vessel called Squilla entered service in 1973, expressly designed for trawling over the stern and for catching and carrying live fish and squid in tanks with a circulating seawater system fitted below deck.

Due to the MBA’s facilities and specific experience of the local fishery a co-operative squid fishing programme was mounted aboard Squilla from September to December 1977 between the MBA and White Fish Authority (WFA). The WFA assessed trawling and seining performances, the feasibility of jigging for squid at night using light attraction techniques, to compare the use of different lights and monitor squid response during jigging operations amongst other aims.The MBA intended to conduct biological investigations on squid including the capture and release of tagged squid which would provide information on growth rates and migrations patterns in local waters.

Squilla is seen here from Sarsia on a joint fishing operation in October 1979. (WFA Field report No.587)

Sepia (42 ft.) 1968 – 2004

As early as 1965 it had been noticed that the plankton off Plymouth was changing in character, with young stages of bottom-living fishes becoming abundant again, and by 1970 the change was confirmed as affecting many aspects of life in the sea, including phytoplankton and fish.

Development of the sea-going facilities at Plymouth enabling the MBA to collect samples at sea was accelerated with help from NERC. A long-planned 40ft twin screw motor launch was brought into commission in 1967. The new vessel, called Sepia, was fast enough to bring back delicate living material from as far out as the Eddystone, yet handy enough to trawl close inshore and in the Tamar estuary.

MBA Sepia (50 ft.) 2004 – present

The MBA Sepia, the MBA’s most recent Research Vessel, was a custom built twin screw Kingfisher K50 15.45 m twin screw vessel. The design aims of the MBA Sepia were a Research Vessel that could manoeuvre in the close quarters and shallow depths of a river, whilst still having the power to tow heavy trawl nets. The MBA Sepia was built in Falmouth, entering service in 2004, and boasts a large dry laboratory, trawl winch and hydraulic A-frame for the deployment of equipment. The MBA Sepia supports the research objectives of MBA Research Fellows as well as contributing the MBA’s National Capability Monitoring (Funded by NERC). She is primarily engaged in surveys for Standard Hauls, plankton trawls, young-fish trawls and inshore and river surveys. The MBA Sepia is now moored at Sutton Harbour Marina and can be seen from the pedestrian bridge over the lock gate.


Anton Dohrn(s) 1903
A succession of various sailing dinghies that were named after Professor Anton Dohrn of the Zoological Station at Naples.

Gammarus (25ft) 1923
Was a specially designed inshore motor-launch to replaced Anton Dohrn. Skippered by Bill Searle.

(New) Gammarus (34ft) 1970
The new Gammarus replaced the older ship with the same name. Used for inshore or river surveys.

Staff List

Rachel Brittain
Research Vessel Manager

Rachel is the MBA’s Research Vessel Manager for the RV MBA Sepia, working alongside the crew, to contribute to the MBA’s long term monitoring programmes and supporting MBA Fellows and Researchers at sea.

Email: Telephone Number:
+44(0)1752 426256
Sophie Rainbird
Sea-going Research Technician
Sophie is the Sea-going Research Technician at the MBA, working within the MBA Sepia ship’s team.
Email: Telephone Number:
01752 426256
Sean McTierney Profile Picture
Sean McTierney
Skipper MBA Sepia
Sean’s role at The MBA is Skipper of The Research Vessel MBA SEPIA, providing service to the MBA’s National Capability work and support to all sea going work, logistics and training.
Email: Telephone Number:
+44(0)1752 426256
John Readman
Sea-going Technician

John Readman is the MBA’s Sea-going Technician, responsible for scientific work conducted onboard RV MBA Sepia whilst at sea.  John ensures that data collected from the Research Vessel is processed and accessible, supports the creation, im

Email: Telephone Number:
+44(0)1752 426256

For all enquiries please contact Aisling Smith, the Research Vessel Manager, on or 01752 426256.