Europe and Central Asia

'Fish chum' and stormy seas

View from the RRS Discovery © Marguerite Tarzia

   The Voyage

RRS Discovery





Vol.3. 12th June 2017


The Shipping Forecast

We are now a week into our journey, having steamed past the English Channel, the Bay of Biscay and off the continental shelf into the Atlantic and high seas. The weather has not been too kind to us, with a number of storms coming between the RRS Discovery and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. We diverted slightly to miss the worst of them, and now hope that next week brings us clearer seas with fewer whitecaps and stinging rain. Despite the heaving seas since leaving Southampton, on World Ocean Day, the waves calmed a little and we had some bright sunshine to complement our sightings of Fin whales, a Cory’s Shearwater, Northern Gannets and some unidentified cetaceans. Over the weekend, we had some lovely weather – all the better to see the large whales blowing around us.


All hands on deck

The scientific team (15 scientific staff and two technical support staff) are settling into ship’s life nicely, falling into the rhythm of the sea. There is less uncontrolled swaying now…and much fewer green faces at dinner time! The collective appetite for the delicious meals prepared aboard has exponentially increased and they’re certainly a sight for sore eyes after braving the upper deck for three hours at a time in the pummelling wind and rain in search of those elusive whales and dolphins.


The view from ‘Monkey Island’

We are still in transit towards the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, planning to arrive at our first track line today or tomorrow. Once we arrive the rest of the scientific team will spring into action. For now, the seabird and cetacean teams have been busy with their surveys, training observers and counting animals along the track line. I have been helping the cetacean team out, which is from St Andrews in Scotland (SMRU). Claire Lacey is leading the cetacean team, alongside Guilherme Bortolotto de Oliveira and Nadya Ramirez-Lopez.  Our days are nicely defined by our shifts up on ‘monkey island’ (this is a high platform above the ship’s wheelhouse), meals, breaks and sleeping. The team studying phytoplankton (tiny microscopic plants) has also been busy collecting samples (more on this in the coming weeks) and is led by Thomas Browning with Ali Al-Hashem (GEOMAR, Kiel).


Whale watching from 'Monkey Island' © Marguerite Tarzia


Seabirds ahoy!

The seabird team has also been on watch, recording birds in defined snapshots of time. For the last few days this has mostly been Cory’s Shearwater, with individuals dipping in and out of the swell in front of the ship. This team – the largest on board – has a lot of different roles and is led by Dr. Ewan Wakefield (Principal Investigator for the trip, University of Glasgow), with seabird observers Julie Miller and Simon Pinder and intern Laura Thompson (University of Glasgow), Holly Hogan (Environment Canada), Paulo Catry (ISPA – Instituto Universitário, Lisbon), and Paloma Carvalho (University of Manitoba). This team is observing seabirds whilst we are underway, but also trying to catch seabirds and investigate their diet and record other important data.


A siren call

For the rest of the scientific crew - such as Igor Belkin (University of Rhode Island) who is studying the oceanography of this region, and Vladimir Laptikhovsky (CEFAS, UK), who will be looking at the role of fish and cephalopods in the diet of the seabirds we manage to catch - it is a waiting game. For the really lucky ones, this transit time has given them the chance to mix up ‘fish chum’- otherwise known as the smelliest bits of fish and fish oil. The chum will play a vital role in one of the most exciting parts of this trip, as a siren call to hungry seabirds. The preparation of the chum has involved hacking up frozen fish mush, with bits of goo flying into people’s hair then mixing these pieces with gloopy, pungent fish oil. Showering apparently does not help remove the smell!

From now on, the ship will be stopping more regularly and in areas with high numbers of seabirds. The chum will (in theory at least) bring the birds in closer, and then the team will race out on the Fast Rescue Boat in the hope of catching the birds on the water or in flight. Paloma Carvalho has experience in catching both Sooty and Great Shearwaters in this way, and her experience will be invaluable for us as we try to do the same here. This activity remains very experimental, and we are unsure of whether we will be able to successfully catch the birds. Paloma will be writing a guest blog to let you know how it goes in a week or so!


The 'chum' © Marguerite Tarzia


For now, think of us as we head west on our rolling course, avoiding the bad weather systems, eating too much food and getting ready for our busy week. We will update again soon, with guest blog appearances from Julie Miller and Vladimir Laptikhovsky.


Follow the RSS Discovery's position on the National Oceanography Centre's 'Vessel Tracker'.




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