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Land in Sight

The RRS Discovery arrives at St Johns, Newfoundland © Marguerite Tarzia

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Vol.11. 1st July 2017

With land in sight, Marguerite Tarzia recounts the final days aboard the RRS Discovery and reflects back upon her amazing journey across the great Atlantic Ocean…

 

Land ahoy!! Nearly a month since we left port in Southampton and set out on our scientific expedition across the wild high seas of North Atlantic, dry land is in sight once again. There has been quite a bit of excitement amongst the crew about crossing the fabled Grand Banks of Newfoundland on our way to St Johns. The Grand Banks – one of the world’s most famous fishing grounds – are a part of the Canadian continental shelf which juts out far from the coast and are renowned for their rich biodiversity. They also known, however, for their persistent fog and the risk of bad weather – indeed, they provided the inspiration for the book (and subsequent George Clooney blockbuster) A Perfect Storm. And they have certainly lived up to their reputation – the biodiversity is impressive…when we can actually see it through the fog!

 

Catch me if you can

Though our long voyage is coming to an end, and the scientific teams have begun to pack up their gear, these final days have been very active as we maintain our watch for seabirds and whales. Arriving at the boundary between the deep open ocean and the Flemish Cap (an underwater plateau), the ship stopped for the day, bobbing in the calm water, surrounded by the endless fog. This was our final chance to catch Great Shearwaters and deploy them with GPS tracking tags.

 

Ewan Wakefield throwing a net © Marguerite Tarzia

 

Although we have seen Great Shearwaters throughout the trip – and in particularly high numbers as we started our first northward transect – they have proven difficult to catch. The first bird caught, a little over a week into the trip was a Great Shearwater. However, since the bird was underweight, the team decided not to put a GPS tag on it, thinking that there would be plenty more opportunities. And from that point on, each time we put out the chum to bring in birds, the larger and more aggressive Northern Fulmars would swoop in, out-competing the few Great Shearwaters that approached the boat.

 

Great Shearwaters  © Marguerite Tarzia

 

After four weeks of hoping and trying, this time was different. An obliging group of Great Shearwaters was spotted bobbing on the water next to the ship by breakfast time, and as the chum went out the group got bigger and bigger. As we threw fish overboard the birds got more and more excited and less wary of the boat and the humans with their nets. Finally, Ewan Wakefield (our expedition leader) successfully caught a bird and the processing team got to work. Then we caught 10 more and, suddenly, the back deck felt a little like a conveyer belt of birds coming in and birds going out (now with GPS attached).

 

 Attaching a GPS tag to a Great Shearwater © Marguerite Tarzia

 

The data from these birds will provide really interesting insights into where they move over the next few weeks and months, as they cross the Atlantic and along the European and west African continental shelf before returning to their breeding grounds in the South Atlantic islands (Tristan de Cunha and Gough). It made for a very exciting end to the seabird part of the trip.

 

Crossing the pond

As we steamed off towards St John’s leaving the tagged birds behind us to do our journey in reverse, the scientific team reflected on our journey across the Atlantic Ocean. It feels pretty special to have been able to ‘cross the pond’ by boat. Though the great North Atlantic is home to some of the most intensive shipping activity and human development anywhere on the planet, with ships and planes criss-crossing it daily, there is still so much that is not yet known about this mysterious ocean. This trip has just been a small taste of what is out there- and that taste has been quite incredible.

 

Releasing a Great Shearwater © Marguerite Tarzia

 

Warning signals

Although we have spent 26 days out at sea in what is a wild and sometimes inhospitable ocean, there have also been the tell-tale signs of humans, and the impact we are having on the planet. The diet sampling has revealed bird stomachs full of plastic, whilst the oceanographic work has found elevated temperature readings of water from the Labrador Current (1’C higher than 30 years ago). Shipping and fishing vessels reminded us that even the high seas are not so remote and that animals are having to co-exist with rapid and sometimes significant changes.

 

The science team disembarks at St Johns, Newfoundland © Marguerite Tarzia

 

Where to next?

Over the coming weeks and months, the information collected on this trip will be analysed and considered. The collaborations formed during this voyage will hopefully lead to some new discoveries of how and why this mid-Atlantic area is so important for seabirds, cetaceans, sharks and turtles. This October, BirdLife intends to submit a proposal to the OSPAR Convention (for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic) that the area we studied, the ‘Evlanov Seamount & Basin’ be safeguarded with the internationally recognised designation of Marine Protected Area (MPA).  As the first research expedition to the site, this voyage, and what we have learned, will hopefully play a significant role in insuring its protection and further study - so full speed ahead!