Researching polychaete worms in the Falkland Islands

In November 2011 I visited the Falkland Islands to start a project looking at the distribution and identification of the marine bristleworms (polychaetes). The visit was part funded by the Shackleton Scholarship Fund and, following a highly successful visit, a second grant was awarded in April 2012 to fund a second trip in January 2013. The additional fieldwork will concentrate on the island of West Falkland which was not sampled at all on the last trip as well as visiting a few extra sites on East Falkland to gain more comprehensive coverage of that island too. The combination of the two trips together will provide data from all around the coasts of both islands as well as Falkland Sound in between them and will be the most detailed survey of the polychaetes of the intertidal and inshore regions for that area to date.

Check back regularly to see what I've been up to.

Teresa Darbyshire

Polychaete research in the Falklands by Teresa Darbyshire - day 25

Posted by Peter Howlett on 9 December 2011
Sand Bay
Photo 1: Sand Bay, Port Harriet
Photo 2: the new Nereid worm
Paddle worm
Photo 3: a large paddleworm
Falklands map
Photo 4: Location of Port Harriet

Wow, what a glorious day! It’s a bank holiday here but unlike most in the UK, a bank holiday with fantastic weather. The temperature is 18degC, that may not sound that high but it feels very warm and the burn factor is quite high. It’s been strange driving along listening to the radio reporting the weather in the UK which I hear is particularly bad right now. I am very thankful for being where I am!

This morning’s sampling site was Sand Bay, near Port Harriet, about a half hour drive out of Stanley. The bay opens out quickly to a wide area of sand (photo 1). The sand varies quite widely across the bay from very coarse to fine, sometimes with gravel or rocks and in other places just sand. The animals themselves also seemed to change accordingly so it was worth dotting my sampling sites around the bay.

Although at first this bay didn’t seem that much different to several of the other sites I’ve been to, a couple of the samples turned up some very different animals.

The most interesting was in a patch of the ‘solid’ sand, no stones but with some layers of old plant material as you dug down. Burrowing into those layers were a different sort of ragworm to any of those I’ve seen in any of my other samples, with striking red and white colours along its body (photo 2). I spent a while collecting several of these as they were obviously a different species to those I already had.

There was also a different type of paddleworm, the longest yet (photo 3), from one of the other sample spots. I only found one of these though.

By the time the tide turned, I had a large collection of pots from the different sites around the bay and a few animals that I already knew would be new to my list. As I wanted to get some photos of the ragworm with its colours I decided to go back into Stanley to the Fisheries lab rather than head straight out towards Darwin. I wasn’t that far away and it was worth the time. After a quick photo session I then got back on the road again, back out past where I had already been that morning and on to Darwin which would be nearly a 2 hour drive.

As it was such a warm and dry day I had the window open slightly but wasn’t prepared for just how much dust was created driving along the gravel roads. It was only when I arrived here at Darwin that I realised that the car, both inside as well as out, and myself, were coated in the dust.

I have been given instructions on how to get to the two creeks I want to sample tomorrow and hopefully they will also provide some interesting finds to end the week.

Polychaete research in the Falklands by Teresa Darbyshire - day 24

Posted by Peter Howlett on 8 December 2011
Mullet Creek
Photo 1: Mullet Creek
Boccardia worm
Photo 2: a Boccardia worm
Looking for worms
Photo 3: Searching for worms in the sand

Back out to the shore this morning with Freya for company once again. We were only going a short distance outside of Stanley to an inlet called Mullet Creek (photo 1). This was a stream flowing down towards a sea inlet surrounded by coarse gravelly sand at the higher end, changing to a medium sand further down towards the sea. It was surprisingly less soft than I expected but still had a similar fauna to the site I sampled up at Mount Kent that had been much softer. It wasn’t quite as far down to the sea as it had been at Mount Kent, where I never even got close to finding where the sea had gone to).

I collected more of the Boccardia species (photo 2) that I thought might be different to the first one I had found which burrows into hard places such as the calcareous algae. These are very small and require a long time spent kneeling on the sand teasing them out of the surface layers (photo 3). There were also more paraonids, including more whole specimens, which is always good to find as opposed to small pieces!

The sea did still go out a long way as the inlet was very shallow. We were still heading down it when we came up to a fence that came part way out into the inlet. This was a minefield warning fence and so that was the end of our journey down the inlet. We still managed 6 separate sampling spots spaced out ranging from what would be ‘high shore’ to what was virtually ‘low shore’ so we didn’t do badly.

The sun didn’t come out for most of our sampling which kept it a little cool but also meant we were less likely to burn. It did come out as soon as we were finished though to warm us up.

A few hours back at the lab going through the samples and then a bit more formaldehyde to alcohol changing finished off the day.

The next couple of days will be quite busy. I’ll be sampling at Port Harriet tomorrow morning, a little further out from Stanley than I went today and then from there I’m heading west to Darwin for the night. Darwin is a couple of hours away on a narrow strip of land that connects the two sections of East Falkland, one northeast the other southwest, together. With sea on both sides but from completely different sides of the island, I’ll be able to sample two sites on Friday morning which have tides nearly two and a half hours apart. I’ll then head back to Stanley where I can sort the samples out in the evening. That will then be the last of the shore sampling!

Polychaete research in the Falklands by Teresa Darbyshire - day 23

Posted by Peter Howlett on 7 December 2011
Terebellid worms
Cirratulid worm

With the tides being so poor at the moment I decided to forego this morning’s tide in favour of organisation for the rest of the week and of what I have done so far. That’s my excuse anyway and I’m sticking to it.

One job that needed to get started was to transfer my large number of samples from formaldehyde to alcohol. Formaldehyde is great for ‘fixing’ the specimens initially but is not good for long-term preservation and vice versa for alcohol. Also, formaldehyde is an acidic solution and this is very bad for those animals that build calcium-based tubes as it starts to dissolve the tubes making them weak and difficult to observe. The formaldehyde has to be poured out of the pots (through a sieve so as not lose those precious worms) and then replaced with water for a short time to help remove salt crystals from the seawater before being moved to 70-80% ethanol. I managed to get through the first two weeks samples before stopping.

Other mundane activities that needed doing including getting some cash out. Not as simple as it sounds as not a single ATM exists on these islands! A trip to the one and only bank is required to be supplied with Falkland Islands pounds.

Then the excitement of picking up my next car, not borrowed this time but hired for a few days. This time I have the luxury of a Mitsubishi Shogun to drive around. A bit bigger than the landrovers but surprisingly not as nice to drive although electric windows are always appreciated. Of course, being a Japanese car this means that every time I want to indicate a turn I now turn the windscreen wipers on instead followed by muttered curses as I indicate late and then try and turn the wipers off. And yes, I did do this every single time today. Hopefully tomorrow I may remember which side they are on and then undoubtedly I’ll do the same in my own car when I next get back in it. It also came with that Falkland Islands signature feature, a large crack in the windscreen. This might have been disconcerting at the start of the trip but since I haven’t seen a single car windscreen here without a similar crack, you have to accept it as a fact of life that comes with driving over loose gravel roads all the time.

Mobility reinstated I went back to the Fisheries department for more land ownership investigations and permission requesting for the next few days localities. So a quiet day compared to most of the others and sadly nothing that generated exciting photos for me to post. Instead I have added a couple more wormy pictures from earlier days for your enjoyment and a gratuitous picture of a crab because I like it.

Polychaete research in the Falklands by Teresa Darbyshire - day 22

Posted by Peter Howlett on 6 December 2011
Photo 1: the talk
Kelp holdfast
Photo 2: Kelp holdfast
Spiophanes worm
Photo 3: Spiophanes worm

My first public talk (photo 1) is now out of the way. Quite a relief actually. It was meant to be a ‘community talk’ so a general introduction to who I was and why I was there really. Having it towards the end of my visit also meant that I was able to include more interest in the form of a map showing where I had been sampling as well as photographs of some of the animals I have collected. Adding all of these at the last minute does not lower your stress levels. It did add a bit more relevance though than using some of the stock photos I have of UK animals which was what I had in there first of all.

It wasn’t a large audience but I am not the most natural or confident of speakers and the addition of Falkland Islands TV filming the talk did not bolster my confidence any. Feedback was good though and comments included being pleasantly surprised at how interesting it actually was. Always good to hear!
I have another to do at the Fisheries department next Monday which will be to a more scientific audience and therefore a bit more technical about the worms themselves. Hopefully that will be considered surprisingly interesting too.

I was on my second borrowed car this morning which enabled me to get out for the morning tide. I had wanted to go back out to the shore by the Lady Elizabeth, not far away, as the last time I had gone down only just before low tide and had not had much time to sample and then of course found lots of interesting animals. Unfortunately today was a neap tide that stayed about half a metre higher than when I had been there previously. As this shore shelves very gently, this meant that the sand bars I particularly wanted to get out to remained stubbornly underwater. I still managed a little digging through the few inches of water to get some animals and also did more on the high shore than I had previously but it still felt disappointing.

On the way back I also decided to stop by the marina which had a patch of sandy mud that looked interesting. However, the nearby sign that declared the area believed to be free of mines but that one might get washed ashore from elsewhere put me off digging. Can’t imagine why. Instead I went across to the other bank of the inlet which was rocky (nowhere for stuff to wash ashore) and dragged in some shallow Macrocystis kelp to look at the holdfast (photo 2). I had a brief thought that it might have attached itself to a landmine that was being washed ashore but luckily this was not the case and I spent 10 minutes pulling it apart and shoving it in a bucket which it only just fitted into (it was only a baby holdfast in comparison to those offshore). I did wonder how exactly I was going to deal with this monster back at the lab as holdfasts require a lot of time painstakingly going through each piece to pick off the animals. These structures are a habitat feature of their own with a large community of animals generally associated with them that makes it essential to sample them. The answer came in the form of 6 very large pots which the holdfast was duly separated and pushed into for a later date. That is probably going to be at least a week’s work on its own!

The samples from the Lady Elizabeth turned out to be more successful than expected when I found several specimens of Spiophanes (photo 3), a worm I had only had a badly mashed glimpse of before, so this was very pleasing.

All in all another successful day. I have hired a car from tomorrow for a few days which will get me around to my last few shore visits and then hopefully I will get the chance for a bit more diving at the weekend. Still finding new stuff though so there must still be lots more out there to find!

Polychaete research in the Falklands by Teresa Darbyshire - weekend dive report

Posted by Peter Howlett on 5 December 2011
Landrovers and RIB
Photo 1: towing a RIB off-road!
Egg Harbour House
Photo 2: Egg Harbour House
Photo 3: Better light improved the diving experience
Photo 3: Octopus guarding its eggs
» View full post to see all images

Yes it was a good sign! The weather this weekend has been what every diver dreams of, light if any wind, flat seas and warm. Do I dare complain that the risk of sunburn was too high having already fallen foul of the strong rays here several times? No, just don’t forget the suncream!

5am was a very early wake up call on Friday but I don’t think anyone regretted it. We headed over to Egg Harbour which, as I am used to now, required a long drive on gravel followed by an off-road track, when one was available, or a general ‘it’s over that way’ decision on driving over unmarked territory. This time however, we were towing a RIB as well, not something you normally contemplate off-road! To be fair though, this RIB is on a double-axled trailer with tyres the same size as the cars. It too seemed to bump happily along and over the rough ground although even the four wheel drive needed help once on a steep slope (photo 1).

We were staying at Egg Harbour house (photo 2), a strange sight as you approach it sitting on its own on the hillside with absolutely no other sign of civilisation around it. Still, it was very comfortable, with its own jenny and water pump for amenities and peat burning aga to keep us warm in the evening.

But what about the diving I hear you ask? The diving was all virgin territory as this area was unsurveyed and new to all there. I’ll admit that the life was not as prolific as at Cochon Island, however the kelp was also not as thick and the bottom was very light. Although the visibility was similar to before, the light made everything seem clearer (photo 3). Most of the dives were on rocky seabeds with the rocks of varying sizes across the sites, some easy to turnover in my hunt for worms some not so. Sometimes turning over a rock produced a surprise, as much for me as undoubtedly for the stunned octopus that stubbornly clung to the rock as it guarded its eggs (photo 4)! Starfish of many different sizes and shapes abound but the pretty picture award went to this whelk (photo 5).

As for the worms there were many different ones for me to collect. I was particularly happy to find this pectinarid (photo 6), a group I had not collected here up to this point. There were several to be found on the dive lying on the seabed which on this dive had lots of sandy sediment between the rocks. This animal builds a very neat cone-shaped and slightly curved shell, shown in the photograph with the animal next to it. On another dive was a different sort of paddleworm to the one I collected around Cochon with very nice colours (photo 7).

As for the other wildlife, we had a brief visit by some Commerson’s dolphins as we arrived at the launching site on Friday afternoon and then on Saturday we had some friendly and some not so friendly sealions (photo 8). The photo also shows just how flat and almost glassy the water was by then. I unfortunately had the not so friendly ones. They were very curious at first although you don’t notice them so much when you’re head down in the sand and rocks, just the occasional flicker in the light as shapes pass above your head. Then you get the nudge. Then you feel something on your head and look up to find a whiskered face in yours. It was when the jaws started nibbling and more around my head that I became concerned particularly as it combined with a bit more force behind it! It was nearly time to come up though and I was happy to do so.

I was also able to do some shore sampling between dives at a couple of sites which kept me busy and all added to a very productive weekend. I was not the only busy one though as all the surveyors had their own reporting sheets to fill in between dives (photo 9). Again, more new sites completed for the team here.

A long drive back Sunday afternoon felt like a shame to all there, with the good weather still persisting. Long may it last (or at least for another week please).

Polychaete research in the Falklands by Teresa Darbyshire - day 18

Posted by Peter Howlett on 2 December 2011
Night Heron
Photo 1: Night Heron
Photo 2: the wreck of the Jhelum

This was an odd ‘in between’ kind of day. With no car to get around I was very limited in my options of what to do. I got a lift over to the Fisheries department this morning and spent a few hours putting notes together of the animals I’ve found so far and the sites I’ve been to. I also managed to put names to some of species by going through relevant papers I had.

Eventually I put together what pots and chemicals I needed to take with me on this weekend’s dive survey and walked back into Stanley. This was actually very pleasant as the weather at that point was warm and sunny and the wind seemed to be dropping off. On my way I passed a Night Heron (photo 1) at the water’s edge, the first I have seen not sitting still on a nest. Apparently they are generally most active at night, hence the name! All very tranquil.

The low tide was late afternoon today and rather than waste it without a car, I decided to sample a different site along the edge of Stanley. This similarly involved a nice walk along the water’s edge deciding which spot to dig up. By this point, the usual strong wind had become a gentle breeze and the water was unusually still, it all made a nice change.

Stanley is a long, stretched out town, so walking along the front takes a while. There’s not a great deal of change along the shore but I picked a spot just short of the wreck of the Jhelum (photo 2), an old wooden sailing ship condemned and left to rot all the way back in 1871!

This site was slightly different to the one we first sampled over two weeks ago. The stones embedded in a coarse sand were covered underneath in the tubes of the same terebellid worm we found on day 1. Although these worms were the same, there were lots of others in the sand to pick out as well and I am hopeful that some of these may be different. Again, being car-less meant no going back to the lab to look at my catch under the microscope. I had to content myself with sorting them out in the flat instead.

Plans are underway to hire a car next week to get me mobile again for my last week of sampling which will be great. As for tomorrow, we are leaving at 6am for Egg Harbour on the edge of Falkland Sound between East Falkland, where I am now, and the other main island, West Falkland, where we will be diving for the next few days. Hopefully, the still evening is a good sign of the weather we will get.

Polychaete research in the Falklands by Teresa Darbyshire - day 17

Posted by Peter Howlett on 1 December 2011
Photo 1: Orcas
Stanley, Falkland Islands
Photo 2: aerial view of Stanley

I’m halfway through my trip. Two weeks from now, at the time I’m writing this, I should be back in my own bed. It’s a strange thought.

My intention to do another pre-breakfast orca vigil this morning failed as I woke to to the sound of wind and rain at 5.30. I wasn’t that dedicated and so went back to sleep. Still, after breakfast, with a couple of hours before my flight back, I headed out with a last hope. As I reached the beach I thought I saw a black fin in the water….no it was five! I spent the next hour and a half happily watching a pod of orcas patrolling outside the sheltered pool that the seal pups play in (photo 1). The occasional squall blew through leaving me very damp and the strong wind made standing up difficult but it was worth staying. My camera’s not good enough to get really good shots from the distance I was at but I did what I could. Sadly, I didn’t get to see any seal-munching though, ah well.

The flight back was bumpy and the landing was my first experience of approaching a runway sideways but ended smoothly. The flight also afforded good views of the islands from the air (photo 2) The afternoon was spent editing two talks I am due to give here, one to a general public audience and one, slightly more technical, to the staff at the Fisheries department. Now that I have had a couple of weeks here and have some photographs of the worms I have been collecting, I was able to add a bit more local relevance to the presentations.

Sadly, the night before I went diving last week, the owner of the car I was borrowing returned and retrieved it. I now have to work on finding an alternative in order to do more shore sampling. Still ,we are off on a new dive survey on Friday morning and I have plenty to do at the lab tomorrow to keep me going until then.

Not much to report today so I thought I might add a few words on life out here for those who are interested.

Before I flew out, several friends voiced doubt and some concern about the availability of various supplies out here. In some cases you might have thought I was flying out to a third world country! Just in case though I was careful to pack some essentials. A small jar of marmite and some chocolate. Well, let’s face it, toiletries were bound to be available. I am happy to report however, that supply levels are good and marmite, the rating standard, is indeed available. Even my Green & Blacks milk chocolate can be replaced.

Groceries are generally quite expensive. However, as the two main supermarket brands stocked are Sainsbury and Waitrose it’s difficult to judge how much of the expense is the brand and how much the shipping!

Fresh fruit and vegetables are expensive and not available in a large variety but frozen and tinned varieties are easy to stock up on. Fresh meat is mostly beef or mutton of varying cuts and both are cheap, very good quality and very tasty. In terms of other kinds of non-food supplies its difficult to know what’s available. From what I’ve heard though most are bought via Amazon!

People are all very friendly and in that typical island style, everyone knows everyone and where they live. If you need to know where someone lives or their phone number, if you ask someone on the street then they will probably know!

As mentioned before, 99% of all cars on the road are 4x4s and most of these are landrovers. Speed limit is 25mph around town and 40mph everywhere else for very good reasons. It’s only around Stanley that smooth roads exist. Outside of town, roads are just gravel and only go to the main settlements. Beyond that there are just tracks that require the 4x4. I’ve heard several stories of accidents and none are between cars, all involve coming off the road. I won’t be speeding anywhere! Fingers crossed I’ll get some transport sorted though so I can trundle off somewhere new soon.

Polychaete research in the Falklands by Teresa Darbyshire - mean birds

Posted by Peter Howlett on 30 November 2011
Elephant Seals
Photo 1: Elephant Seals fighting
Rough seas
Photo 2: The surf on the south side of Sealion island
Striated Caracara
Photo 3: The Striated Caracara brought back up.

This morning I got up at 6am to go and watch for Killer Whales that often patrol the nearby Elephant Seal beach. Unfortunately last night the wind blew up (even more than usual) and was still going this morning making the sea on that side very choppy. Apparently the Killer Whales don’t like wind and choppy seas – wimps! So no joy there. The Elephant Seals however are much more active at this time of day and I got to see them fighting (photo 1) each other (not very seriously) and making lots of noise.
Having walked one side of the island yesterday today I made the obvious choice and walked the other side, always on the hunt for more potential sampling sites. Also no joy. The north coast of the island is mostly cliffs that drop off to the sea or solid rock with no way down. Further down towards the west end there are large, rounded clean rocks embedded in a loose clean sand, that rarely has much in, or more solid rock. At the east end, which I visited on my way back last night there is lots of open white sand and sand dunes, very much like Surf Bay where I also didn’t find anything. In this wind the whole area also becomes a sand-blasting site where if you stop for more than a few seconds one side of you gets coated in an inch of the stuff.

So back to the same sites I did yesterday, on the south side, which wasn’t such a bad thing. The effects of the wind were very evident on this side as the waves crashed in all along the shoreline (photo 2). No Elephant Seals followed me today, but the caracara, annoyed at being denied yesterday came back and attacked me. Yes, actually attacked me. It watched me do my sampling, pacing back and forth on a nearby rock, flexing it’s talons, and then as I started to leave and head back up the beach something hit me on the head - the caracara. Luckily I had my woolly hat on (highly protective) but this bird really didn’t want me to leave the beach and hovered inches above and/or in front of me when I tried. Eventually, the oystercatchers, also upset by its presence, flew at it and ran it off giving me just enough time to make my escape from the beach.

So on to the other site. After some more slate-splitting I returned to my bag, which I had left on a dry rock, to find the caracara sitting on the rock next to it. And it had brought a friend (photo 3). Not that I’m feeling freaked out by this bird at all but I really do think it’s following me, and those talons and beak do not look nice. This time though I was merely watched as I packed up and left, casting nervous glances behind me.

They are definitely going on the risk assessment form next time!

Polychaete research in the Falklands by Teresa Darbyshire - seals, seals, seals

Posted by Peter Howlett on 29 November 2011
Photo 1: The Islander aircraft used on inter-island flights.
Elephant Seal
Photo 2: Bull elephant seal
Striated Caracara
Photo 3: Striated caracara nicking my samples!
Rockhopper Penguin
Photo 4: Rockhopper Penguin
» View full post to see all images

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

Posted by Peter Howlett on 28 November 2011
Giant Kelp
Photo 1: a mat of kelp leaves on the surface.
Photo 2: a starfish
Photo 3: Scaleworms.
Photo 4: Paddleworms
» View full post to see all images

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!

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