The Science of a Marine Reserve

Sue ScottGlobal Ocean Legacy is collaborating with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) on their current research expedition to Tristan da Cunha archipelago, in the remote South Atlantic Ocean. Tristan da Cunha is about 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles) from the nearest human settlement, making it the remotest inhabited island on Earth.

The BAS research vessel RRS James Clark Ross will carry out deep sea research in the waters around the archipelago. It is the most important research expedition that has ever occurred around the islands at these depths. The data collected by the expedition will enable us to develop a greater understanding of the need to better protect these waters.

Sue Scott, a marine biologist, is currently on the RRS James Clark Ross. Sue will be reporting on her experiences on the expedition. Take a virtual journey with her as she discovers more about the incredible biodiversity of the Tristan da Cunha archipelago.

Lasting Impressions

June 24, 2013

On our slow journey north to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean, we traveled through tropical seas with just a few flying fish for company. South of Tristan da Cunha, in water temperatures of less than 16 degrees Celsius (60 degrees Fahrenheit), our ship had been surrounded by albatrosses, petrels, and other seabirds feeding on the abundant crustaceans and squid that depend on the tiny plants that bloom in plankton each summer.   

A day or two north of Tristan da Cunha, we entered warmer waters and left our seabird followers behind—and the ocean felt strangely empty. The few baleen whales we spied were probably on migration, because there's little food for birds or whales here. Colder oceans have more nutrients in the surface waters and so are much more productive. These tropical waters are beautifully clear and blue, precisely because there's so little living in them.

Cup corals from bottom trawl.

As we continued travelling north, stopping each day for up to eight hours for more buoy deployments, we had plenty of time to write a survey report and reflect on the results of our sampling. The other scientists and I came away from this voyage with much new information, and I've gained an invaluable appreciation for life at depths of 100 to 350 metres (325 to 1,150 feet) to complement our shallow water studies. As in shallower water, diversity is relatively low at greater depths, as would be expected for these isolated, small, and geologically young islands. But by the time all the specimens have been identified and the photos processed, we will have significantly increased the list of known species from Tristan da Cunha waters and expanded our understanding of the marine biodiversity of the region. It's another piece of the jigsaw puzzle that will fit into management decisions and interpretation materials produced for the island. And, I hope, it will engender an appreciation among both islanders and outsiders for life at this little-studied depth.

Working in rough seas off Nightingale Island.

Working remotely in deep water has big limitations, and it was useful for me to experience that firsthand. As a diver, I am used to being able to search around and record everything I see. I also can home in on particular habitats or features to examine and photograph in more detail. On this survey, our remotely operated camera lander system could only look downwards, giving us snapshots of seabeds from that limited angle. Hence, we could not learn much about life on rock walls or buried inside sediments. We also know virtually nothing about life below the 350 metre limit that our system could reach, though the seabed off the Tristan islands slopes rapidly to 3,000 metres (nearly 10,000 feet).

Camera lander team working in the middle of the night.

The boundaries of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites around Gough and Inaccessible islands extend to 12 nautical miles offshore, well into waters of incredible depths. That means we still have little idea of what lives in the great majority of this area. Far from satisfying my curiosity about the deep water life around the Tristan islands, our survey has just whetted my appetite. Now I want to know what lives in the deeper habitats we couldn't sample.

Head of eel larva from midwater trawl.

Technically, working at these great depths is possible—the British Antarctic Survey, or BAS, has used a remotely operated video camera system known as ISIS to capture images and specimens down to amazing depths of 6,500 metres (21,000 feet). But this is a beast of a machine, requiring five container-loads of support and lots of time and expertise to deploy. The system is also very expensive to use. In many ways, the ‘inner space' of our planet is more difficult to explore than the outer space surrounding it. So for now, I will be content with getting as much information as possible from the photos and samples we gathered in depths from 100 to 300 metres.

Patrick at the braai, featuring Tristan crayfish.

Most of all, I have been impressed by the efficiency of this research cruise, especially the dedication of the scientist teams and the crew in making maximum use of expensive ship time. Not a minute is wasted, with scientific work carried on in shifts through the night when required. That has enabled a unique survey of all the remote Tristan islands through the collaboration among BAS, The Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Darwin Initiative.

Crew and scientists relaxing at the braai.

As we approached Ascension Island and the end of a successful voyage, it was time for a celebratory braai—a traditional South African barbecue—on deck. Our galley crew produced a feast, with Tristan crayfish, big crustaceans abundant in the waters of those islands, as the star attraction. A well-managed, Marine Stewardship Council-certified fishery for these crayfish make them a mainstay of the Tristan economy. Washed down with a cold beer, they are truly delicious—a fitting end to an amazing trip.

Scientist team on the James Clark Ross. Back, from left: Will Goodall-Copestake, Dave Barnes (chief scientists), Peter Convey, Camille Moreau, Oliver Hogg. Front, from left: Gabrielle Stowasser, Peter Enderlein, Emily Hancox, Jana Domel, Sue Scott.  

Tristan in Deep Water

June 19, 2013

After our afternoon ashore on Tristan, it was back to work sampling the marine life at 100 to 300 meters (328 to 984 feet). At this depth on mainland coasts, we would be on the continental shelf, a plateau of varying width offshore around the continents. But on Tristan, the seabed slopes steeply into deep water, with no well-defined shelf. The older islands nearby, Nightingale and Inaccessible, have had longer to wear down. They have been through more changes in sea level and have more of an erosion platform. This shelf is still pretty narrow, but at least off those islands, we could find somewhere relatively flat to trawl. Not so off Tristan, where we couldn't find a flat bit anywhere. We had to leave it until the very last so that if the net snagged on the uneven ground and tore, it wouldn't compromise the rest of the survey work.

Deploying the camera with Tristan in the background.

I've done many dives around the islands and know the life in shallow water well, but I've never seen what it looks like below 30 to 40 meters (98 to 131 feet). We know that marine communities start to change below these depths, because seaweeds become sparse and the occasional sea fan, cup coral, and biscuit star starts to appear. Operated from the ship, our camera revealed that life is indeed very different in deeper water. Cup corals are particularly abundant and grow on steep rocks, along with hard branched sea animals known as bryozoans and mini-forests of sea fans. Sponges, sea firs, soft corals, and hard tube worms are common on hard surfaces everywhere.

Operating the camera in the middle of the night.

Almost every trawl brought up animals I hadn't seen here before. As at Gough, hermit crabs, feather stars, a sea cucumber, tiny crabs, and spider crabs are probable new recordings for Tristan. We collected several kinds of starfish, brittle stars, and urchins, most of them different from those in shallow water. We captured beautiful little dragonets in both photos and trawl, a fish recorded only once before off Tristan.


Northwest of Nightingale was a particularly interesting site, where black coral came up with many other animals clinging to its branches: anemones, brittle stars, and stalked barnacles. Black corals are listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species or Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES. That means they are not necessarily threatened with extinction but may become so unless trade is strictly regulated.

Black coral

The mid-water trawls brought up a couple of the amazing phyllosoma larvae of the Tristan lobster, looking like transparent leaves with stalked eyes and long legs. These curious larvae drift in the plankton for many months before changing into a more-recognizable lobster shape, called a puerulus (see Blog 6), which settles on the seabed. Where they drift to in all this time, and how they find their way back to Tristan, is still a mystery.

Sorting the catch from the bottom trawl.

At Inaccessible Island, the terrestrial scientists got a rare chance to go ashore at Salt Beach because of the wind conditions on the northeast coast. Once there, they could collect mosses and the tiny animals that live within. This meant that they managed to get ashore at three of the four Tristan islands, something that I thought from experience would be almost impossible on such a short visit and at the start of winter.

Starfish and a biscuit star.

Before we finally left the islands, we even had a second chance to go ashore on Tristan. That was a much-appreciated decision by our captain and islander boatmen, because weather conditions were rather marginal for taking us off the ship. This time it was a Sunday, so everything was shut except the pub. Strangely, that didn't bother us much. The Albatross Bar stays open from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday afternoons. Many islanders were there, so it was a great chance for us to meet more of them. As before, we were made to feel very welcome and enjoyed another great afternoon of Tristan hospitality before departing on the long journey northward to Ascension, the gateway to home.

The waterfall on Inaccessible Island, with our inflatables dwarfed by the cliffs.

A Memorable Afternoon on Tristan

June 13, 2013

It takes about 20 hours to sail from Gough Island to Tristan da Cunha, but we had an extra task to do halfway between the two islands. At 1 a.m., when most normal folk are asleep, we stopped to put the camera down on Esk Guyot, a flat-topped seamount that rises steeply from 3,000 meters (almost 10,000 feet) to within 290 meters (950 feet) of the surface. The seabed was of stones in coarse gravel, with cup corals and a few sea fans, but otherwise rather bare-looking. This work is standard procedure for the British Antarctic Survey scientists aboard the James Clark Ross, but what an amazing facility—to be able to stop above an isolated seamount in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, put a camera down, and see what's there.

Islanders coming out to greet us and do the paperwork.

About 10:30 the next morning, it was exciting to see Tristan finally appear out of the mist ahead. Nightingale Island appeared shortly after, complete with rainbow—a good omen, perhaps. We arrived off the Tristan Settlement just after lunch. Sea conditions were good enough for islanders to bring their launch out to the ship, and for Connie Glass, the police chief and immigrations officer, to complete customs formalities there. That meant we all would have a treasured Tristan stamp in our passports. Then about 20 of us were able to go ashore, a first for most of our scientists and crew.

Arriving at the harbor.

With George, their island guide, the terrestrial biologists targeted specific habitats for sampling, looking for mosses and the tiny creatures that live in them. The rest of us were free to explore the Settlement and environs. The Tourist Centre and post office were opened for us, and Dawn, the tourist officer, organized transport to the Potato Patches, where islanders grow crops and graze cattle, and elsewhere.

Catholic church with James Clark Ross in the background.

Some more energetic folk keen to stretch their legs were taken by Land Rover to the slopes of Burntwood. From there, Julian, an islander, led them to one of the few paths up to the Base, the area above the coastal cliffs. With an ascent of 2,000 feet and a matching descent, that was an ambitious goal for a hike of a few hours.

Tristan Settlement with volcano that erupted in 1961 on left, and the scar of a recent rockfall.

This is my eighth trip to Tristan, so I've done the tourist bit and bought a few T-shirts, but since my last visit the islanders have built a replica of an original Tristan house, complete with a roof thatched with New Zealand flax. I wanted to see this, so I headed from the Settlement toward the volcano. I wasn't disappointed. It's a beautifully crafted building, in a stunning and poignant setting. The house is tucked between lava flows from the 1961 eruption, as if in defiance of the forced evacuation of the island at that time. It was constructed by island pensioners, in part to pass on traditional building skills and knowledge to the younger generation, who now use poured concrete and tin roofs for house-building. The walls, made of big blocks of split and shaped volcanic rock fitted closely together, are a real work of art. And even the chicken shed is thatched. The inside of the house is laid out as a traditional Tristan home, and I decided there and then that this would be my retirement home.

Replica of traditional Tristan house beneath the volcano.

Meanwhile, Trevor Glass, the island's conservation officer, wanted to talk to two of our passengers from South Georgia, who had been involved in the rat eradication program there. This project is relevant to Tristan, because mice do serious injury to birds on Gough Island, and both mice and rats are on Tristan. The results of eradication attempts elsewhere are being watched closely, to see if they can be applied to Gough.

Lava seashores with James Clark Ross in the background.

I also had forthcoming marine projects to discuss with Trevor, so after a “business” meeting at his house over a cold beer, and a very quick visit to a few old friends, it was time all too soon to head back to the harbor and our ship. A truly memorable day of Tristan hospitality and stunning scenery.

Gough Beneath the Waves

June 11, 2013

The Tristan archipelago, in a unique position as a temperate island group in the South Atlantic, is relatively well-studied on land, but its underwater life is much less known. The purpose of our trip aboard the James Clark Ross is to find out more about the life in deeper water -- below 30 metres (98 feet). That's deeper than safe diving depths, so we are using remote equipment deployed from a ship. The scientists aboard the ship have cameras and trawls designed to take photos and samples of deeper marine life. And they have developed standard methods from working on surveys in Antarctic waters at depths of 100 to 350m (328 to 1,148 ft). Working at such depths with equipment on cables from a ship in a swell is fraught with difficulties, but it's the only way to see what's down there.

Piper (Round bellowsfish)

Arriving at Gough, the first task was to use sonar to get an idea of the relief of the seabed. The bottom trawl requires a relatively flat stretch to work without sustaining damage. From the sonar map, three likely sites spread around the island are chosen. Then the camera is carefully lowered to send back live images of the seabed and the animals on it. The camera looks downwards only, and takes photos of a standard 0.5sq metre area for later statistical analysis. For me, it is just as interesting on the few occasions when the camera array lands on a rock and tips over. We can then record a longer, side view of the seabed, and can see interesting habitats like cliffs covered in sea fans, views the system doesn't normally provide. My brain understands this long view better than the view from above. Understandably, the camera operators don't share my enthusiasm when the camera falls over, as they have to maintain the system in working order and repair any damage.

Hermit Crab

Our photos from Gough show abundant cup corals, together with seafans, sponges, starfish and frequent fish -- mostly soldiers (Helicolenus mouchesii). One rock shark (Notorhynchus cepedianus) caused great excitement when it swam lazily past, directly beneath the descending camera frame.

Cup Coral

 After taking the photos, a small trawl (Agassiz trawl) is lowered and towed by the ship for around five minutes to gather live animal samples from the seabed. Again, this is limited by the seabed terrain, as the outer net can tear if it becomes snagged on rocks, and too many boulders in the net make it very heavy to retrieve. Ideally, the trawl collects mobile animals like urchins and crabs from the seabed, together with a few cobbles and boulders with attached animals like seafans, cup corals and sponges, so we get a range of animal and plant life. Once on board, these are sorted, photographed, documented and preserved in ethanol or frozen for future identification and genetic work. I was particularly excited to see hermit crabs with commensal anemones on the shells, a featherstar, a tiny spider crab, a beautiful pearly sea snail, and a sea cucumber, none of which I had seen in shallower Tristan waters.


The biologists also want animals from the water column at the same sites, so they can analyse the tissue chemistry and look at possible feeding relationships between the animals living between the surface and the bottom and those on the seabed. For this, a midwater trawl is used, with a clever device that opens and closes two nets so they can sample at different depths above the seabed. This has to be done at night (between dusk and dawn) to collect the plankton that rises in the water column during the hours of darkness.


Some weird and wonderful creatures were captured in these nets. At Gough, they included tiny silvery fish, sea butterflies (a swimming mollusc), small squid and cuttlefish, and a tiny round bellowsfish (Notopogon lillei), called 'piper' locally because of its elongated snout. I also was interested to see a little puerulus, the last larval stage of a crayfish (rock lobster). Only a few centimetres long, it looks like an adult crayfish in shape, but is completely transparent. It takes on its colour only after settling on the seabed. Funding has just been obtained from the Darwin Initiative for more research on these larvae, as we know little of their biology --despite the crayfish fishery being the mainstay of the Tristan economy.


June 7, 2013

Gough is an extraordinary island. Most people have probably never even heard of it, let alone set foot on it. Quite alone in the South Atlantic, 200 miles south east of the northern islands of Tristan da Cunha (Gough is part of the same UK Overseas Territory), Gough appears pristine and prehistoric.

Gough's impressive cliffs and geology.

The patchy vegetation of tussac, dense stands of stunted island trees (Phylica arborea) and ferns, is superimposed on a spectacular geology of sheer cliffs cut by steep gullies with waterfalls, and outcrops of bare rock in fantastic shapes (including one called Hag's Tooth). The eerie noise of fur seals calling and giant petrels wheeling past like pterodactyls adds to the ancient feel of this place. But this is actually a false impression as Gough, only 3 to 5 million years old, is actually young in geological terms.

Gough's dense vegetation of island trees, ferns and tussac.

Though it looks idyllic on a good day (and we had a good day), Gough is a harsh place, and there are good reasons why it has no permanent human inhabitants. The South African weather station here is manned by six staff and two environmental wardens. They stay for a year before a complete changeover. They rarely see a ship, apart from the fishing vessels that come twice a year. So as rare visitors, we were welcomed warmly.

Gough Island weather station, perched on top of sheer cliffs.

We were lucky to have seas calm enough be able to go ashore. Still, that is a hair-raising adventure in itself. We were hoisted up a sheer cliff by crane directly from our inflatables, three at a time, in a small net cone. Definitely not for the faint-hearted.

Being craned up in the cage!

After coffee and a briefing from the base staff, we split into groups for our sampling work. Our team went with two base staff to one of the few places on the coast accessible from the land.

In the pub on the base!

That entailed a walk of only half a mile or so, but because we had to push through such dense vegetation, it felt much longer. We tried to avoid stepping off the peaty path, fearing a misstep might collapse a shearwater burrow and bury a late chick inside. At the end of the walk, we lowered ourselves down a rope to the beach, a rugged shore of rock and boulders populated by young fur seals. The tide was conveniently low. I took photos and collected seaweeds to compare with the reference collection I have from Tristan. I was thrilled to see a lovely male Gough bunting pecking around the shore, a species unique to this island.

Male Gough bunting, endemic to Gough.

On our way back, the wardens took us on a slightly different route, through dense vegetation containing many plants endemic to the Tristan islands. The Phylica trees form impenetrable thickets in places, their ancient trunks covered with lichens.

Gough moorhen, endemic to Gough.

While we had been out enjoying the sun and scenery, the remaining base staff had prepared us a braai -- a traditional South African barbecue. They have a plentiful supply of frozen food, but are not allowed to import or grow any fresh fruit or vegetables because of the risk of introducing non-native seeds or pathogens to the island. They have learned to be inventive with tinned and frozen vegetables.

A briefing for our team from the base staff.

These strict import rules were imposed for a good reason. Gough has suffered from damage wrought by a tiny mammal introduced by humans. Probably brought in with sealer's food supplies, house mice were on Gough by 1880, and now infest virtually the whole island. They cause significant damage to breeding birds, especially burrowing petrels, by eating eggs and chicks. Unbelievably, gangs of up to ten mice attack live Tristan albatross chicks, eating their way into the body walls, causing horrific injuries and eventual death. This magnificent bird, endemic to the islands, is now endangered because so many have been killed by longline fishing or by mice.

Tristan albatross, endemic to the Tristan islands, endangered because of longlining and mice.

It would be good to put things right on Gough. Getting rid of the mice would again make the island a safe breeding place for innumerable birds. But this is a thorny task for many reasons, including the possible effects of mouse bait on the endemic Gough moorhen, several of which happily pecked around our feet at the braai. The results of mouse eradication attempts on other islands are being studied, with a view to applying them on Gough. Success would be a major conservation achievement for the UK Overseas Territories. After all, Gough's designations as both a World Heritage and an international Ramsar wetland site mean we have a duty to care for its wildlife and natural features.

Our ship the James Clark Ross standing by, with tussac in the foreground.

But the task of our team was to discover what lives in the deeper waters around the islands, so we soon had to say goodbye to new friends on Gough, who had helped give us a magical day we will never forget. Next stop Tristan da Cunha.

Of Birds and Boundaries

June 4, 2013

Light-mantled sooty albatrossIt is surprising how you can keep occupied at sea, even when not sampling. My cabin is a great office, with fewer distractions than at home. As a break from the computer screen, I can go on deck and look for seabirds. This is one of the great privileges of being at sea, as there is no other way to see these magnificent birds.

With ranges of hundreds, even thousands of miles across the open ocean, seabirds can sleep on the wing or on the water, and don't need to come ashore at all except to breed. All they need to do is locate food, which they do by sight and an extraordinarily sensitive sense of smell. On the first couple of days out from South Georgia we had birds typical of cold water around us—blue petrels, Antarctic prions, grey-headed, black-browed and wandering albatross, southern giant petrels, cape petrels, southern fulmars. On the third day I was thrilled to see my first light-mantled sooty albatross, a stunningly elegant bird.

At about 49 degrees south latitude we crossed the Antarctic Convergence, a major oceanographic boundary that marks the northward limit of cold Antarctic water. It runs right around the globe, encircling Antarctica. Over a few hours the water temperature rose from about 3 degrees Celsius to nearly 6 degrees Celsius (37 degrees Fahrenheit to 43 degrees F). That might not sound like much, but over a short distance it is a major change for cold-water marine life and a major barrier to the dispersal of larvae.

Southern giant petrel

So we are now in the South Atlantic, rather than the Southern Ocean, and the water temperature will gradually rise toward Gough Island. I will be interested to see if we detect the position of the Subtropical Convergence, another well-known ocean boundary, which lies somewhere between Gough and Tristan islands. That boundary makes Gough waters consistently a few degrees colder than the more northern islands.

Wilson's storm petrelI was hoping for some good bird-watching as we progressed toward Gough. Indeed we have seen quite a range of seabirds, but big swells and frequent thick mist haven't helped. We have added white-chinned, soft-plumaged, Atlantic and Kerguelen to the petrel list, as well as the tiny Wilson's storm petrel, which was foraging in our wake.

The last two days we have deployed buoys around 43 degrees south latitude, where we have seen our first “ringeyes,” the Tristan name for the spectacled petrel. This bird ranges widely in the South Atlantic but nests only on Inaccessible Island, one of the three northern Tristan islands, so it's a very special Tristan bird. We also have seen a couple of great shearwaters, a bird that breeds in huge numbers on the Tristan islands but heads for the Northern Hemisphere in the austral winter. Sensible bird—perpetual summer. Sounds good to me.

Yesterday we had an avian stowaway, a solitary cattle egret that landed on our ship for a rest. These birds, mostly inexperienced juveniles, regularly get blown off course from South America while on migration. We'd already seen some arriving there, but they rarely survive a winter. They also reach Tristan, and sometimes survive the winter foraging in the pastures, but they haven't been known to breed there. This “getting lost” might seem rather stupid behavior, as most birds die, but it's a strategy that sometimes succeeds spectacularly. At the end of the 1930s, for example, cattle egrets managed to reach the Guianas in South America from their original home in Africa, a crossing of 2,850 kilometres (1,770 miles). . From the original few colonisers, they have expanded their range today to huge areas of North and South America. There are now 40,000 of the birds along the Atlantic coast of the United States. The greatest distance known to have been covered by a cattle egret is 4,216 kilometres (2,620 miles). Some journey!


Watching the Buoy...

May 31, 2013

As we left South Georgia and the shelter of the sound six days ago, the sea rapidly became rougher. And, with a few brief calmer periods, it has remained rough ever since. For us "benthic" ecologists, who study life on the ocean floor, the time at sea has been time in the "office," writing up data and communicating with the outside world before the main burst of activity at Gough and Tristan islands. For other scientists aboard it's been nonstop data gathering. A project called "Waves, Aerosols, and Gas Exchanges," or WAGES, run jointly by the National Oceanographic Centre in Southampton and Leeds University in Britain, is aimed at understanding aspects of the ocean's role in climate change.

Leaving the shelter of South Georgia.

The National Oceanographic Centre team is looking at how oceans absorb carbon dioxide, or CO2. Oceans are a carbon sink for CO2, which has important implications for climate change. Yet theoretical estimations of rates of CO2 absorption vary widely. The project is trying to get a more accurate fix on this. Every time a specially equipped buoy goes over the side (for up to 24 hours) the array sends back a mass of data. It measures the waves 40 times per second, from which researchers can tell whether the wave caps are solid, breaking, or foam. The different states have different surface areas, which affect CO2 absorption rates. A camera on a bracket at the top of the buoy records the sea surface, as a check on interpretation of the data.

Deploying the instrument buoy into the gray sea.

Concurrently, instruments on the ship's superstructure record wave height and direction, wind speed, and CO2 concentration in updraft and downdraft. The scientists have been doing this continuously since May 2010 (except when the ship is in port, of course). Ideally, the scientists would like to record a whole weather system passing through with all the changes in sea state from calm to rough and back again. So they actually want this rough weather!

The buoy floating upright in the water, transmitting data.

Meanwhile, the University of Leeds scientists are working to get better data about sea spray aerosols. Tiny droplets of spray thrown up from the sea evaporate, leaving salt particles. High in the sky these particles act as condensation nuclei for cloud formation and affect the properties of marine clouds. Cloud properties, such as albedo (reflectivity), affect the amount of solar radiation absorbed and reflected by the Earth's atmosphere, and that has obvious implications for climate change, too.

Scientists crunching data in the well-equipped instrument control room of the research ship James Clark Ross.

Globally, sea spray is the second-biggest source of aerosol after wind-borne dust. Even with clear skies, the salt crystals reflect some radiation. And, with 70 percent of the Earth's surface being ocean, this could be a significant amount. The scientists have developed a device that directly measures the size spectrum of aerosol particles 10 times a second. This is the first instrument fast enough to make direct measurements of the production of sea spray aerosols, making this pioneering research for the team.

All this adds up to an enormous amount of data, which has to be recorded, processed, and analyzed. That means the researchers are constantly at their computers, sometimes too busy to eat. It's a highly productive way of using this long sea journey between South Georgia and Gough Island. And yes, the swell is currently building nicely, so they'll be happy, but another sleepless night for the rest of us.

South Georgia

May 15, 2013

Well, what an amazing bonus to this trip—four days ashore on South Georgia. It's one of the most spectacular and awe-inspiring places I have been. We were lucky with the weather so were able to complete a hastily-assembled work plan and marvel at the extraordinary scenery.  

Working on the shore while our ship sails away.

High, snow-covered peaks contrast with the lower-level brown and green vegetation of grasses, mosses, and low-growing "cushion" plants that survive the harsh Antarctic climate. My favourite plant is a beautiful little shield fern that grows beside streams. Near the sea, mini-forests of tussac grass, the largest plant on the island growing 5 feet (1.5m) high in places, were being used as dormitories for young fur and elephant seals.

Our companions on the shore - elephant seal heap, with iceberg in background.

The main season for viewing wildlife is over, so we missed the picture-postcard spectacles of massed penguins and seals that South Georgia is so famous for. But that actually made it easier for us to work on the shores, which can get pretty overcrowded in summer. And safer, too, because Antarctic fur seals, especially the big males, can be aggressive to human intruders.

Dense tussac at the top of the shore with elephant seal (left) & Antarctic fur seal.

By the time we got to South Georgia, only a few juveniles were left, but they can still be quite protective of their “patch,” and are quite capable of chasing you along the beach. When we arrived, there were good low tides, by South Georgia standards where the tidal range is also less than a metre. So, with a hastily arranged permit from the South Georgia government, I took the opportunity to familiarise myself with the flora and fauna on the shores, and made collections of seaweeds, which may be a useful comparison to those on Gough Island, which we hope to visit later in the expedition.

Antarctic fur seals posturing with the BAS base at King Edward Point behind.

We stayed at the British Antarctic Survey base at King Edward Point, a comfortable modern building in contrast with the old whaling station of Grytviken nearby. Grytviken is an eerie place. Its abandoned and rusting whaling ships and huge metal vats are a grim reminder of the days, which ended only 50 years ago, when wildlife massacre was acceptable. Here, many thousands of seals, whales and penguins were slaughtered and reduced to a mere chemical commodity, oil.

Lost World - Maiviken

The stories are told in the excellent museum at Grytviken, run by the South Georgia Heritage Trust. Thankfully, times and human attitudes have changed. Now tourists are asked to give the wildlife some space, and major human efforts are targeted toward eliminating the reindeer and rats introduced by early human settlers. Those efforts are intended to allow the natural flora and fauna to recover. Reindeer have damaged the natural vegetation by overgrazing, and rats have decimated populations of birds—especially the endemic South Georgia pipit—by eating eggs and chicks. We did our bit for conservation by dining on reindeer steak, cooked for us by the staff at the base. Very good it was too!

Grim reminders at Grytviken. Graffiti on the vat reads 'Blubber Cookery'.

Why Tristan da Cunha?

May 10, 2013

For me, the reason is it's a pristine area with special marine life. A voyage to Tristan da Cunha is always an adventure. The most isolated, inhabited archipelago in the world, the islands lie 2,400 kilometres (1,500 miles) from the nearest human settlement in the middle of the southern Atlantic Ocean between South Africa and South America. The only way to get there is by ship.

This will be my eighth trip to these remote islands, and I'd thought I'd gotten there and back by just about every possible form of seaworthy transportation—the regular fishing ships, the South African research ship SA Agulhas, various cruise ships, and even on a Navy vessel—but this time I'm thrilled to be on the British Antarctic Survey ship James Clark Ross, leaving from Stanley in the South Atlantic.

The James Clark Ross arrives on a grey morning in Stanley, Falkland Islands, for the start of our cruise.

The James Clark Ross works in the summer season by carrying equipment for pioneering oceanic research in harsh polar regions, inaccessible in any other way. The ship sails right up the Atlantic Ocean from Antarctica to the Arctic Ocean in May and June each year. Our chief scientist, Dr Dave Barnes, realised that a relatively minor detour on this repositioning cruise would provide a unique opportunity to do some sampling in deep water around Tristan da Cunha. Although we have basic information on the life in shallow near-shore waters around the islands from our diving surveys, we know virtually nothing about what lives on the seabed below 40 metres (121 feet), the depth to which we can dive safely in the area. Dave obtained funding from the Darwin Initiative, a UK government-funded program aimed at research in biodiversity, for three days of work at Tristan da Cunha. Ship time, however, is expensive. But recognising this opportunity, The Pew Charitable Trusts agreed to support extra days so that more time could be spent both at Tristan da Cunha and at Gough Island, which lies 200 miles to its southeast. From Pew's perspective, basic information on marine biodiversity and habitats is essential to underpin any potential plans for a fully protected marine reserve around the islands.  

Scientists assemble the midwater trawl net on deck.

So we are just at the start of this exciting research cruise, ready to leave dock later today. The scientists on board have already been busy preparing the heavy nets and trawls that will be deployed to gather data from the working decks and the laboratories for processing specimens. We have just learned that we may have an opportunity to visit South Georgia Island en route to Tristan da Cunha, so with luck, my next blog could be from there!

Microscopes in the James Clark Ross' laboratory have to be fastened to benches due to the heavy seas.

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