Journey to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (1)
A map that holds the secrets of the wild open ocean…a map that pinpoints the precise location of untold treasures – X marks the spot. Sounds like you have dived right into a Jules Verne novel doesn’t it? Is this fabled Atlantis finally found? Are we 20,000 leagues under the sea? Well, here at BirdLife, we find science to be stranger, and more spectacular, than fiction. Welcome to Journey to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a blog in which I chronicle my month-long voyage (6th June – 2nd July) across the high seas with a team of international scientists on the RRS Discovery.
The Discovery is part of the NERC (Natural Environment Research Council, UK) research fleet and is operated by the National Oceanography Centre (NOC). Our expedition, led by University of Glasgow scientist Dr Ewan Wakefield, will take a crack team of marine experts (specialising in ocean fronts, seabirds, cephalopods, cetaceans and phytoplankton) from Southampton, UK to the ecologically fabled ‘Evlanov Seamount & Basin’ – a region of the sub-Polar Front (SPF) of the North Atlantic, just south of the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone CGFZ). This is where the North Atlantic Current crosses the mid-Atlantic ridge and exciting new data tracking research suggests that here will we find a veritable treasure trove of marine biodiversity.
Great Shearwaters © Martin Abreu
Following rigorous, and highly innovative, analysis by a massive collaboration of over 60 seabird scientists, our BirdLife marine team has identified an ecologist’s paradise. Data-tracking shows the ‘Evlanov’ site to be a seabird magnet, being the area of the North East Atlantic with both the highest number of bird species (it’s an important foraging ground for at least 19) and the highest number of individual birds. It is estimated, conservatively, that the area supports at least 2.9 million seabirds throughout the year. Moreover, the area has been found to be an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) for 12 species, including the threatened Atlantic Puffin, Bermuda Petrel, Northern Fulmar and Zino’s Petrel as well as long-distance migrants such as the indefatigable Arctic Tern, which undertakes the longest migration of any other animal.
Cory's Shearwater © Pedro Geraldes
Seabirds are an intrinsic part of the ‘circle of (marine) life’ – what flies above the waves can tell us a lot about what swims below. As seabirds are more easily monitored than their underwater counterparts, they are an ideal ‘homing beacon’ to use to identify important marine biodiversity sites. We therefore have good reason to expect the Evlanov site to be rich in marine megafauna such as Blue and Mako Sharks, Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, and Leatherback Turtles. Sei Whales have also been tracked here from the Azores during their northward migration in summer. Interestingly, it appears that as these animals approach this unique area, changes in temperature and currents spur their natural instinct into action, prompting them to begin foraging activities.
Northern Fulmar © John Fox
All the scientific signs so far indicate that this is marine paradise found. This October, we plan to submit a proposal to the OSPAR Convention (for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic) that the site be safeguarded with the internationally recognised designation of Marine Protected Area (MPA). Our expedition, this month, is the first research trip to this area and our work – sampling seabirds and their environment directly at sea – will play a pivotal role in better understanding the science of this incredible site. The more we know about the marine riches out there, the better we can ensure their protection.
So join me on this exciting Journey to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge as we explore the high seas and discover the true meaning of what the enigmatic Captain Nemo so perfectly described as ‘the Living Infinite’.
“The sea is everything.
It covers seven tenths of the terrestrial globe. Its breath is pure and healthy.
It is an immense desert, where man is never lonely, for he feels life stirring on all sides.
The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence.
It is nothing but love and emotion;
it is the Living Infinite.”
Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
I’m Marguerite Tarzia and I work as Marine Conservation Officer for the Europe & Central Asia division of BirdLife International. Seabirds don’t abide by international boundaries, so my job involves bringing conservationists together to jointly work on solutions for seabird protection. A lot of my time is spent working with BirdLife partners to identify the most important sites for seabirds and helping them in getting these areas protected.
Last year, I was heavily involved in BirdLife’s initiative to identify important sites for seabirds in the North Atlantic. We worked with over 60 scientists to identify a site in the high seas of the North Atlantic Ocean - the very area that this trip is going to explore. I’m excited to take part and to be able to report on our trip and what we find out there.
I'm also really excited to get my sea legs back! Before joining BirdLife, I worked in my home country of Australia as a cetacean ecologist focussed on the Antarctic and on Australia’s tropical and temperate waters. I spent a number of years going out to sea, always loving the opportunity to experience real wilderness. In recent years my work has been mostly desk-based and I am really keen to get back to the ocean and remind myself why I am working to protect marine biodiversity.