All aboard and full steam ahead!
Vol.2. 6th June 2017
Today our research expedition- the DYO80- on board the RRS Discovery and led by University of Glasgow scientist, Dr Ewan Wakefield, is setting out from port in Southampton. On board, are scientists from across the Atlantic, experts on oceanography, seabirds, cetaceans and deep-sea fish and plankton. Our destination is a remote area to the east of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge; an area of deep, open ocean, with complex currents. Far from land and the jurisdiction of any country’s government, this region is within the ‘high seas’. We are heading out there primarily because very few ecological research expeditions have before, and we have very good reasons to believe that it is an area of high biodiversity, both for seabirds and for other pelagic top predators.
X marks the spot
I am accompanying this trip and providing assistance to the seabird and cetacean teams, and preparing this blog to keep you updated on our trip. Why am I on board? Last year BirdLife International was involved in identifying this same area, in collaboration with over 60 seabird scientists working across the Atlantic. We managed this by compiling lots of different data from individually tracked birds (tiny devices attached to the birds lets us see where they go). Over 20 different species, including those which breed in the Arctic and in the South Atlantic were used in the analysis, and remarkably this area came out on top- with both the highest number of birds and the most diversity of species. The area seems important throughout the year for different species. With the highest diversity in the stormy and freezing winter months. Although the tracking data has been invaluable in identifying the area, the next step is for scientists to survey the area and undertake research to further understand why this area is so important for seabirds and other pelagic predators.
Exploration & (scientific) Discovery
On this trip the focus will be on the keeping watch for seabirds and cetaceans and other species whilst the ship is steaming along our survey track. This will provide insights into which species and how many we encounter. When we find seabirds we will be looking to understand what they are feeding on, key seabird species which we think are using the area at this time, including the Northern Fulmar and the South Atlantic breeding seabird species- Sooty and Great Shearwater;
Throughout this process we spoke to other scientists working on sharks, turtles and cetaceans, and the information available suggests that this area is also important for other groups of marine predators. We are hoping to see this area protected, but in order to do so it is invaluable to actually survey the area.
Marguerite Tarzia (right) & the Whale Team
In detail, we are aiming to achieve the following:
1. To estimate the distribution, abundance and behaviour of seabirds and cetaceans in the off-shelf study area, centred on the sub-polar front, south of the Charlie Gibbs Fracture Zone (CGFZ) and on transit to and from the ports of embarkation (Southampton, UK) to and disembarkation (St Johns, Newfoundland).
2. To map major frontal features and nutrient regimes within the off-shelf study area and along the survey track.
3. To refine non-lethal methods of sampling seabirds at sea.
4. To estimate the diet, stable isotope and contaminant loading, faecal nutrient and moult status of seabirds within the study areas, with particular focus on the cephalopod component of seabird diet.
5. To determine the comparative habitat use of great and sooty shearwaters on and off-shelf and the timing of their movements between these areas.
6. To estimate rates of primary production within the study area, phytoplankton community structure, the identity of the nutrients limiting productivity, and the effects of seabird faeces on phytoplankton growth.
7. To estimate the vertical distribution and biomass of mesopelagic nekton within the study areas.
You can also follow the RSS Discovery's position on the National Oceanography Centre's 'Vessel Tracker'.