Polychaete research in the Falklands by Teresa Darbyshire - seals, seals, seals
Shore sampling can be risky. Tides, slippery rocks, remote places. We always fill in risk assessment forms before we do fieldwork and I duly filled mine in before heading out here. I must now put my hand up though and admit it was incomplete, I had left off some risks. In my defence though, elephant seals sidling up behind you and birds of prey flying off with your samples are not risks that most people would have thought of.
I flew out to Sealion Island this morning. A small island that is the southernmost island of the Falkland Islands group and notable for its breeding colony of Elephant Seals. It is part free time and part still sampling where possible. After the short flight in the little 8-seater plane (photo 1), I headed straight down to the beach to watch the enormous bull Elephant Seal (photo 2) lolloping along like a huge rippling slug with all the pups around laid out ready for a bit of sunbathing. From there I wandered down along the rocky shoreline keeping an eye out for potential dive sites (definitely not for orcas or more seals). Coming across a flat expanse of rock still just under water I was interested to see it was very slate-like with lots of potential layers to lever up to look for worms. This was great as I hadn’t seen any rock like this up to now as most of the islands are fairly solid granite. I had forgotten my dive knife which would have made a good chisel but my penknife didn’t do a bad job and I was soon picking out worms from the crevices. As I worked I heard a strange splashing sound, looked up but didn’t notice anything. As it happened again a short time later I again looked up to see one of the Elephant Seal pups I had earlier walked around to get on to the ledges had moved along towards me. I looked at it, it looked back and didn’t move. I carried on, more splashing, I looked up. The seal was closer and another had also appeared. I carried on. Splash, splash, splash. Looked up, they were a bit closer. This carried on for a bit until their courage ran out and they kept their distance to the relief of all. I moved on.
Down to another shore and a bit more scraping and collecting. This time I look up and what I think was a Striated Caracara landed only a couple of metres away and looked at me. I had already seen one of these twice, also close up and was beginning to feel followed. It hopped closer, surely not normal behaviour for such birds. The Striated Caracara, according to the island’s leaflet is one of the rarest birds of prey in the world. This rare bird then hopped over to the sampling pot near my bag, curled its talons round it and flew off (photo 3) as I watched in disbelief. It landed higher up the shore where a friendly goose then attacked it until it abandoned the pot and flew off again. Very surreal. I retrieved my worms and left.
The rest of the day involved more penguins, including rockhoppers (photo 4) which I hadn’t seen before, lots more birds and more seals.
Tomorrow will probably be much the same, hopefully without the wildlife trying to steal my precious samples!
Polychaete research in the Falklands by Teresa Darbyshire - The dive blog
This was to be ‘liveaboard’ diving. We loaded all our kit on to the Hans Hansson, an ex-North Sea Scandinavian rescue vessel that has only been down in the Falklands for a few months in her new role as a tourist/research vessel. Setting off on Thursday morning we didn’t have very far to go but took it easy with a slow steam towards the north of Stanley. The slow roll eventually made my stomach wonder whether or not to stay friends with me but happily we managed to hold it together.
I had been concerned about just how cold the water was going to be with the suggestion that it would be around 5°C, which would have been painful. In general though, temperatures varied between 7 (cold, my hands hurt) and 9°C (chilly, some feeling remaining at end of dive). My new 7mm hood did its job to keep my head warm while the rest of me tended to get quite cold towards the end of each dive. Of course I was moving around very little and less than on a normal dive as I was mostly in one area collecting each time.
The seabed around Cochon Island was very rocky with steep walls and gullies in the shallower water (6-8m), large rocks and cobbles over coarse sand at around 10-15m and larger boulders/bedrock with bigger patches of open sand from around 15m and deeper. This also varied according to where we were around the island.
Diving through the giant kelp was an interesting experience. This kelp is nothing like anything you see in the UK. It grows up from its holdfast which attaches to the seabed at any depth down to 20m or so and then the fronds spread out on the surface for many more metres creating a thick mat of surface kelp (photo 1). This stuff is so tough that the RIB would actually anchor to it while the divers went in and then the divers themselves could use it as a shot line to the seabed and back again. When going in from the RIB it could be hard to get your feet under you through the fronds and then the general rule was sink straight down and don’t flounder! Otherwise it wraps itself round you and you end up dangling mid-water (probably upside down) hoping that your buddy might notice, take pity and cut you free.
Diving is done to very safe protocols here as the nearest recompression chamber is in Chile. Therefore, all dives are done shallower than 20m and there is no decompression diving, reducing the risk of nitrogen issues. The dive surveys are carried out by volunteers, who make up the Shallow Marine Surveys Group, just like the SeaSearch volunteers in the UK. These guys all give up their time willingly, often, as in this case, taking time off work to be involved or, where self-employed, giving up a day or two’s pay. It makes you feel very humble knowing that you are being paid to be there with them.
The marine life was colourful and diverse. Lots of different nudibranchs, starfish (photo 2), sea cucumbers, urchins, snails and crabs with many of the surfaces covered in a pink encrusting alga so thin in places that you could put a finger through it. Worms were not immediately evident unless you went looking for them. Turning over rocks was the simplest method and yielded many different species although some were particularly common. Those most often seen were large scaleworms (photo 3) more than 6cm in length, long paddleworms up to 20 cm long (photo 4) and on many surfaces were the long tubes of parchment worms (Chaetopterus sp.). Other methods of collecting involved scraping rock surfaces covered in a turf of hydroids and/or bryozoans, taking samples of the loose pink algal crusts and pieces of giant kelp holdfast. I say pieces because these holdfasts are enormous being nearly a metre wide and half as much high. I’d never be able to get one of those in a bucket!
I was also joined in my collecting by Christoph (photo 5), a German researcher just back from a cruise to South Georgia who was looking at crustacea, particularly isopods. Between us, life on the seabed was not safe.
The threatened weather didn’t materialise as forecast. The worst predicted day, Saturday, turned into the best with the least swell on the exposed side of the island leading to an amazingly still evening watching penguins and shearwaters return to the island for the night. This to the delight of the surveyors who managed to blitz the entire island with survey sites over the four days.
The visibility was the only disappointing point of the weekend. Again like the UK, a spring bloom is in progress here with plankton thick in the water. Visibility is still good in my eyes being a minimum of 6 m but knowing it can be crystal clear and at least 50 m is merely a tantalising thought. Macro shots are still possibly but wider shots of the scenery are impossible in the thick plankton, particularly as the kelp can increase the gloom at times.
The weather forecast for Saturday appeared with gusto on Sunday morning and although a first couple of pairs got in for a dive it was quickly decided to pack up and move slightly down the coast to Kidney Island where there was a chance of more shelter. This then ended our weekend with a shallow dive in a bay with the prospect of seeing sealions (photo 6). These did indeed come to play in the water and I quickly realised that the seals in the UK are little puppies compared to the full grown St Bernards I was seeing. Having 3 or 4 of these in your face under water having the occasional nibble at extremities gets a little nerve-wracking but still an unmissable experience. Also found a 'worm garden' with the worms poking upright out of their tubes in the sand into the surrounding water. Dug some of that up to bring back but I promise there was loads more left!
Polychaete research in the Falklands by Teresa Darbyshire - Day 10
I should stop wishing for better weather, every time I do it gets worse. This morning I woke to the sound of rain being beaten against the window by the ever present wind (it may have been a stronger wind but I can’t tell any more). I hoped it might pass quickly but it soon became apparent that it was set in for a while. The desire to go sampling waned. Maybe today would be a good day to catch up on some admin, putting my notes in order etc etc?
I went down to the Fisheries department and for the first time met Paul Brickle. Paul is the guy that I organised this whole trip through. Unfortunately he’s been on a research cruise since before I arrived only returning yesterday so this is the first time we have actually met except over a skype call. During our discussions Paul mentioned a good sampling site with some different species I potentially didn’t have. The site was only round the corner and with low tide still an hour away it seemed a waste to miss it so off I went into the rain… The site was near one of the many rotting beached hulks that exist along the Stanley shoreline, the Lady Elizabeth (photo 1). As I dug away on the beach a coach-load of tourists stopped and lined up on the road to take pictures, no doubt rather annoyed at the sight of a person in blue and yellow waterproofs digging holes on the beach directly inbetween them and the photogenic rusty wreck. Shame. I carried on. At least despite being wet, it didn’t feel as cold and my hands retained feeling this time.
Back in the lab I slowly began to steam and dry out. My catch turned out to include two different species of lugworm (photo 2). The photo shows the two different species. For anyone who has seen them before, these probably look just like the lugworms you find on beaches in the UK but I can assure you they're not. There are several differences to differentiate these two species on but the different colours are not one of them!
The rest of the afternoon involved getting equipment ready for my first dive trip – very exciting! Of course, in true UK style, the weather is deteriorating in preparation, Saturday looks decidedly dodgy with 30-35mph winds from the wrong direction! Still, we should get some dives in before that and I’m really looking forward to it. Apparently the poor (!) 8m recent visibility has cleared up (have these guys dived in the UK?!). We should have 4 days diving around Cochon and Kidney Islands, both nature reserves, located a short distance directly north of Stanley.
No more blog then until I get back on Sunday. Hopefully I’ll be able to tell you about some fabulous diving!
Polychaete research in the Falklands by Teresa Darbyshire - Day 9
The rain passed but the sun sadly didn’t return. In fact, it’s been really cold the last couple of days. Last week I only needed 2 layers to keep me warm while sampling, one of those having short sleeves. Today I had a long sleeved top, jumper, fleece and waterproof jacket and I was ok. Unfortunately that couldn’t keep my hands warm and thick gloves are no use when you’re trying to tease small worms out of mud.
My first site was a shallow inlet with a stream running into it at the top. The tide had retreated and left a windy and gradually widening watercourse to follow. After 15minutes tramping along with the going getting gradually softer I began to realise that I still couldn’t see where the sea had disappeared to (photo 1). This did not bode well and I decided not to try and find the end as it was becoming more likely I might get stuck in the mud and also that when the tide did decide to come back in it would be very fast up such a shallow area. Instead I sampled 3 different spots and then made my way back to the car and set off for the next site.
As the two sites were facing completely different directions in terms of where the sea approached them from, this meant that the times of low tide for each were actually nearly 3 hours apart allowing to sample the same tide in both places.
The second place gave me an interesting offshore back to sample that was accessible at low tide. Again, this was quite different to places I had been before and was completely packed with little tubes (photo 2) indicating a LOT of worms should be there in the tubes.
Once again my hands were completely frozen and numb by the time I finished and I was glad to stop. The feeling in my toes had also started to disappear and I tried to think warm thoughts of the week before. What happened to the sun?
Still my excursion out had been a nice change. The roads are a little disconcerting to drive on as once you leave Stanley they are all unconsolidated gravel. The maximum speed limit is 40mph for good reason and every so often the landrover wavers a little as you drive before grip reestablishes itself and I try to relax my grip on the wheel too! I also got to see the ‘granite runs’, a strange area of naturally occurring broken granite blocks (photo 3) of which the Falkland Islands has one of the largest areas in the world.
Today’s wormy photo (photo 4) is of a paraonid (still no common name I’m afraid), one of my new worms today.
Fingers crossed it might start to warm up again soon!
Polychaete research in the Falklands by Teresa Darbyshire - Day 8
This morning’s work was based back at the rock pool site I visited on Friday morning. It was a tad chilly first thing and the cold water rapidly sapped all feeling from my hands. I wanted to have another look at the encrusting algae (photo photo 1) that I had failed to do anything with on Friday and to that end I had taken along my trusty dive knife. This made pretty short work of chipping away and prising up chunks of the hard stuff and as hoped I found treasure beneath. Ok, not treasure but there were some worms and that would have to do. I happily splashed around the rock pool for a while variably slicing off bits of algae and digging in the gravel under stones until low tide had passed, I felt I had made a decent effort to collect everything available and my hands had stopped working entirely. I made my way back to the Fisheries department just in time to avoid the torrential rain that suddenly appeared.
Today’s highlighted worm is Boccardia (photo 2 - sorry no common name). This is what mostly lived in that encrusting algae, burrowing through the crevices. I was also pleased to get some more of a species of ragworm that was originally described from these islands. I’ve been able to identify it by the pattern of teeth that are found around the jaws (photo 3). It’s good to have examples of animals from the same place they were originally described as you can be sure then that you are looking at the same species that was used to write the original description. Important if you feel the need to change the description or the name (an annoying habit of taxonomists!).
I had also decided that tomorrow’s adventure would be to leave the Stanley area and try and sample some interesting looking spots a bit further away. Unfortunately it was pointed out to me that most of the Islands are split into privately owned lands that include the foreshore. I therefore spent a couple of hours this afternoon tracking down the land owners names, then their phone numbers and finally tried phoning to ask permission to collect. The permissions were freely given once I managed to get an answer although the people did sound a little bemused at the request. So that is my day tomorrow, the challenges being to a) find my way to where I want to go (there aren’t many roads and even fewer road signs) b) find my way back (possibly not as straight forward as it may sound).
I have refuelled the landrover at the only petrol station on the island at the princely sum of 72p per litre for diesel. Wish me luck.
As I write this I can hear hail being lashed against the window by the wind. It sounds more like a UK November night than the kind, if blowy weather I’ve had up to now. So for anyone irritated by my constant mentions of bright sunshine you can feel a bit happier, hopefully only briefly though.
Polychaete research in the Falklands by Teresa Darbyshire - The Penguin blog
Luckily by the time we left Friday night the rain had moved off although the wind had been left behind. I had been told it would be a 3 hour drive to Volunteer Point so when we arrived at a gate into a field at a group of houses I said “Wow that was quick, are we here?” “Oh no, this is just where the road ends!” Cue 2 more hours of bouncing over peaty grassland following any one of numerous tracks picked mainly by virtue of which looked less boggy. There were four 4x4s in the convoy (photo 1) and there was nothing to worry about because we had a new towrope (apparently the last had snapped recently, no doubt dragging someone out of a bog). Getting ‘bogged’ was just a general hazard that didn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary. I hoped I wouldn’t have to see the new towrope in action.
A bit less than 2 hours later we bounced up to the warden’s house at Volunteer Point (actually only 10 miles from where the road had ended!) before moving on to put the tents up.
The wind actually died down later in the evening but was howling again by morning. The sun had arrived though with a bright blue sky and I went off for a bit of penguin spotting before breakfast. I’ll skim through all of the details but basically there are 3 species of penguin at Volunteer Point: King (photo 2), Magellanic and Gentoo. We spent Saturday over at Cow Bay just across from VP. A large expanse of beach with several Gentoo colonies bizarrely located up a very large, steep hill away from the sea. The reasoning for building nests in a place that must be an enormous trek for such non-flying birds with legs of only a few inches was unfathomable.
And the body-boarding, yes three people did go in, I did not. They all said how much fun it was but it did also take an hour for the feeling to come back to their toes afterward.
Volunteer Point is a spit of land with the sea on both sides. Just down from the campsite was a sheltered lagoon with a gravelly shore leading into sand. I did some sieving in here on Sunday morning and was pleased to find it contained many worms. My only worry was that I will find something incredibly exciting in it and only had the chance to sample it once and it’s a difficult journey for anyone to go back to.
An afternoon stroll on the main exposed beach later saw me picking up some washed up bladders off giant kelp. As I sporadically bent down, picked one up and shoved it in a pocket someone eventually got round to asking me why. I pointed out the encrusting spiral tubes of worms attached to the bladders (photo 3) and received some sympathetic nods in reply. This was all then forgotten as we witnessed nature in action in the shape of a sealion appearing suddenly out of the surf intent on grabbing a penguin off the beach (photo 4). Not a happy ending for the penguin I’m afraid. This was probably a major highlight of the weekend and I have to admit I did spend the next hour hoping another penguin might be sacrificed for my camera although I was to be disappointed.
So we bounce, bounce bounced back from Volunteers Point stopping twice along the way to change flat tyres on different cars as the tracks took their toll. Still it was worth the trek.
Back to reality with a 6am start for the early tide!
Polychaete research in the Falklands by Teresa Darbyshire - Day 5
So did you guess which one I went for. Yes it was the early one which involved getting up at 4am. Sounds bonkers I know but there was some method in the madness not least of which was that it was still early enough to go back to bed once I finished for a couple more hours sleep!
To the east of Stanley but on the outward facing coast is Surf Bay. As its name suggests it is an exposed beach and is also made up of fantastically white sand looking very tropical in the bright sunshine the first time I saw it (photo 1). Sadly it didn’t quite look like that at 4am with a bit of mist and grey sky, but at least the wind had dropped for now which it always seems to first thing in the morning here.
The sand is very fine and to be honest did not look like the kind of habitat you normally find much in the way of worms in. However I wanted to try sieving a bit of it to see if there were any of the tiny species that sometimes inhabit such areas. For this reason I only needed a short time around low tide to try this as I could always come back if necessary. After this I moved across the headland to the even more exposed rocky side with low rock pools and mostly bare rock. The rocks here are covered in a pink encrusting alga similar to that you may have seen in the UK. This also sometimes harbours its own fauna under the crust so I took a small rock covered in that away too to see what it might hold.
After catching up on some sleep I took my small collection to the lab. As suspected the pale sand held nothing in store for me except some very active amphipods and isopods (small crustacea). Glad I hadn’t wasted good collecting time there! The rock however turned out more interesting. The pink crust was so tightly fixed to the rock that there were no animals under the small pieces I managed to chip off. However the small pieces of seaweed that had been attached yielded several small worms new to my list from their holdfasts. These were interesting enough that I will go back to this site on Monday to get some more rocks to play with (at a more sociable time as well).
My other reason for choosing the early tide was the fact that I am being dragged off this evening to visit the King Penguin colony over at Volunteer Point. One small drawback to this is the fact I have to camp. Not that I am averse to such activity but I normally choose warmer weather, the offer of a wetsuit to join in some body boarding may also require some inventive excuses. Do surfers need shore cover? I think they do and I may sacrifice my enjoyment to provide it. The weather has now also deteriorated, probably due to the impending camping event, and it's raining combined with a howling gale force wind (photo 2). Just like camping in the UK really. I am of course also taking some sampling gear with me just so no opportunity will be missed!
Polychaete research in the Falklands by Teresa Darbyshire - Day 4
Today I became connected to the rest of the Falkland Islands or at least became easier to find and for cheaper. Having had people trying to find me and failing yesterday, also sadly leading to a missed dive opportunity, I managed to buy a local SIM card for my phone and also unlock my phone in order to use it! Phone numbers here are short whether they are home or mobile, consisting of only 5 numbers. Well, I suppose the population just isn’t big enough to need anything longer! As well as meaning that those trying to help me out here actually can, this also now has the added bonus of personal safety in case I slip on some giant kelp while chasing a worm and injure myself (hopefully not) at least I can get someone to come and rescue me.
Tides are getting later and today’s was not until 1650. So around 3pm Freya and I headed down to Moody Brook (photo 1), a fantastically named area west of Stanley where a river joins the sea making a slightly estuarine region. I hoped to find a different brackish water fauna here but it didn’t seem to quite work out. The animals I was finding were not ones that I would associate with lower salinity water and in fact, the lower we got on the shore the more they looked like several we had found at previous sites. Some were different, more a product of the softer muddy sand than the salinity though. Our last sampling spot in fact, was so soft that it threatened to steal my wellies several times (photo 2). Luckily there were several rocks around as well to help lever myself back out with thanks to the spade.
We were getting pretty cold towards the end and trying to draw a map of the sampling sites with numb fingers certainly didn’t create artwork. It was windy before but it has definitely picked up and with a colder edge to it than before. Apparently it’ll be gale force by tomorrow and its certainly whistling round outside right now!
Investigations back in the lab showed that indeed several of the species were the same as those I had found before although in some cases this was very welcome as it provided additional numbers of animals that I had only found single numbers of before. Having multiple specimens of species is very important if you later need to describe a new species or just improve current descriptions. With only a single animal to work with you can never be quite sure if it truly represents the rest of the species or not as mutations can frequently occur.
I have noticed as well over the last few days that the worms here are doing what everything else at this time of year (spring in this case) is doing – reproducing! Many of the worms have eggs or larvae attached and I took this image (photo 3) of an animal called a syllid with all its larvae attached for safe-keeping giving it a very strange appearance.
Tides tomorrow are very awkward – do I go for the 5am or the 6pm? Early start or late finish… ?
Polychaete research in the Falklands by Teresa Darbyshire - Day 3
So, I’m happy. A new day with new worms (yes, I am easily pleased). Having said that, it is only the second day’s sampling and the challenge will be to be still finding new worms on day 28, I’ll let you know!
Bit of a late one though as late tides mean a later finish in the evening but conversely this does give me a lighter morning. I spent the morning driving around (I do like the landrover!) the local area checking out potential sampling sites, the idea being to spot places that have different habitats to each other that may harbour different species. On my way back into town I visited the local Museum. A small place with every square inch of wall space and several other cabinets covered in information on the history of the Falkland Islands from shipping, social history, whaling, natural history, geology and of course the Falklands War and island defence over the years. Very interesting.
For the afternoon, Freya made her return. This time we headed just east of Stanley to a spot known as The Canache. Strangely I hadn’t put Freya off the day before with a 2 hour stint on the beach and several more in the lab and she still seemed keen and smiling (Photo 1). The shore was very sandy, a complete contrast to yesterday’s rocks. This was of course deliberate as mentioned above in the bid to find new species. The shore was heavily dominated by a group of worms called bamboo worms (Maldanidae) whose tubes were evident with every spadeful (Photo 2). While kneeling down in the wet sand in my borrowed oilskin trousers (thanks Paul), I duly found the holes in the seams as the water seeped down my legs. Ah well.
We sampled a few times down the sandy beach and then moved across a small spit to a rocky area where we found a few of the same species as yesterday but also several new ones, including different species of ragworm and a large 1.5inch scaleworm (for those who don’t know this is very large), larger than any I have seen in the UK.
Back in the lab I had now managed to access the camera microscope, the downside of this being that it adds even more time to that needed to go through the animals. The results can be nice though although it will only take images of a small area so the animal needs to be small or you take a picture of a small piece. New to the day were some onuphids (Photo 3), flattened worms that build tubes on rocks and a goniadid (I think) that obligingly pushed its proboscis (the spiky-looking tube) out of its mouth (Photo 4). In these animals, the appearance of the papillae on this structure is often used to help identify the species so this was very useful. Pictures also act as later reminders of the colours of the animals as these can be a distinctive feature for identification but fade once they are preserved. I just need to find more tiny things now (sigh) so I can take pictures of whole animals as well.
What’s in store for tomorrow? (today actually as I didn’t manage to finish writing this last night), well you’ll have to wait and see as I haven’t made my mind up yet. Sun’s shining again though…
Polychaete research in the Falklands by Teresa Darbyshire - Day 2
So, Freya and I tramped down to the local shore in our wellies and waterproof trousers earlier. The wind was whistling around us but was surprisingly not as cold as you might expect. I introduced Freya to the delights of attacking a shoreline with a large garden fork and then having to peer at the results as if you’ve lost a contact lens (photo 1). There is not a large tidal range here, less than 1.5m which for someone used to the 10m range of the Bristol Channel is tiny. Still we found a reasonable range of little worms, some excitingly large, others eye-strainingly small and did our best to keep them from breaking into several smaller pieces before we could get them back to the lab.
We sampled 3 sites down the shore and, not surprisingly with such a small tidal range, found that the specimens varied little between samples and there was not a high diversity within those. That said, I have a nice collection just from today covering at least 12 different family groups and slightly more species. The most striking was a very stripy phyllodocid looking as if it had just escaped from jail (photo 2) and a terebellid with a fantastic ‘80s crimp to its gills (photo 3). Not the best photos I admit but I am hoping to access the camera microscope soon!
Tomorrow will be a new site, hopefully with different animals to find. Luckily I havebeen given a landrover to use as I need to get around. I’m just about used to it now and have stopped hopping along when I set off!. 4x4’s are the only vehicles seen on the roads and I’m very grateful to the complete stranger who has entrusted me with this vehicle to use while he is away! People here are very friendly, nothing is locked and doors are left open. In paranoia, I did try to lock the landrover last night but found that the locks were so unused that I couldn’t get a key in them!