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Falkland Islands 2013 January 16th update

Peter Howlett, 16 January 2013

Due to a technical hitch the sampling at Whalebone Cove was postponed. Low tide was in fact 2 hours later than I thought as I had subtracted rather than added 1 hour for summertime, oops! Instead I got on the road to make the tide in the north (which I had worked out correctly). Three hours in the car brought me to Race Point Farm near Port San Carlos. This is in the northwest of East Falkland and had a very rocky shore with some large crevices in the rocks. These crevices could be split open with a spade and inside, hiding in the built up silt, were some very large worms indeed of the family Eunicidae (also known as ‘bobbit worms’ – google the phrase and you’ll find some footage of relatives of these worms hunting). The biggest of these measured around 20cm in length and as these worms have jaws I kept my fingers well away from the bitey end! The wind was whistling around the shore and despite being summer, my fingers were certainly cold. There was plenty to find though with colourful paddleworms being particularly common (photo 1). My bed for the night was a surprisingly cosy caravan at Elephant Beach Farm slightly further north. Despite how this sounds it really was comfortable, being fully equipped with power, hot shower and cooker and, even better, a freshly baked loaf of bread and some fresh eggs from the hens outside my door to keep me going.

Port Salvador was the next port of call and after calling in on the landowner, Nick Pitaluga, for a chat, he very kindly offered to drive me up to near Cape Bougainville right on the north tip of the coastline to sample there. This had originally been where I wanted to go but the road does not go that far and I had no desire (or permission) to take the hire car off road. The bone-rattling drive there, mostly on a visible track but the last part just generally cross-country toward the sea, confirmed that I would never have made it even halfway there without a guide. The exposed coastline was unsurprisingly rocky with long ledges of rock running out from the shore (photo 2). The tides are very low right now and the ledges were exposed right down into the kelp zone, where the enormous blades (nearly 1cm thick) of Lessonia kelp draped themselves over the rock and were so heavy they could barely be moved out of the way (photo 3). Underneath, in the cool damp crevices I found long tubes cemented to the rock. These turned out to be the home of large sabellariid worms (Phragmatopoma sp. photo 4), a relative of which lives in the UK and is known as the honeycomb worm for the tubes and occasionally reefs, it builds. Out here, this worm also sometimes creates reefs although here the tubes were individual. The worms inside are large, over 5 cm in length. I didn’t find any specimens of this family last time I was here so this was a very exciting find for me. Several scaleworms were also found sheltering in the crevices (photo 5).

On the drive back to the settlement I could see the sandy shores near it now exposed by the tide. These looked interesting so I decided to go back to the area the next day to do some digging there. This turned out to be a very rich beach and it was easy to see why there were so many wading birds around. The shore was literally covered with worm-holes and casts (photo 6) and I spent 3 hours working my around and down the shore with the tide. The weather by this time had changed from occasionally sunny (constantly windy) with a need for suncream even though I was feeling mildly hypothermic to mostly sunny with a feeling that I really might actually need the suncream (still windy).

On the drive back to Stanley that evening I felt that the first few days collecting had gone well. My main current concern is the fact that everyone I meet keeps trying to feed me either tea and cake or tea and biscuits (occasionally both). I have now given up on my post-Christmas attempt to wean myself off sugar.

On Wednesday I made it to Whalebone Cove having now worked the tides out properly. Amazingly the wind had dropped (not stopped obviously) which helped the tide go out as low as possible. This was important because I was after some particular lugworms that are only found at very low water. I found these last time and they appear to be different to the others higher up the shore. However, I didn’t find very many before so I needed to collect more to be sure that differences I see are not just natural variation but a definite consistent difference in body form. The wind and tide were kind and allowed me to get what I needed so then it was back to the lab to inspect my catch. Photo 7 shows a map with the locations of the sites mentioned above.

Photo 1: A Paddleworm
Photo 2: Rock ledges at Cape Bougainville
Photo 3: Lessonia kelp at Cape Bougainville
Photo 4: Phragmatopoma worm
Photo 5: Scaleworm
Photo 6: Worm casts on the beach near Port Salvador
Photo 7: Map of the Falkland Islands showing the location of the sites mentioned in the blog

Falkland Islands research 2013: January 11th

Peter Howlett, 14 January 2013

It hasn’t been the best start. It’s never a good sign when your plane stalls on the tarmac while taxiing to the runway and everything goes dark. As calls of ‘get the jump leads out’ echoed around the plane, the pilot turned the key again and off we flew, landing at Ascension Island 8 hours later. Sat in the middle row of seats I was unaware of the events outside the plane but as we stopped the pilot, with a slightly embarrassed tone, announced that we would be delayed getting off the plane. It quickly circulated, from those that had witnessed the event, that our wing was now jammed under that of the only other plane on the tarmac. Great. The next 12 hours were a long story that involved our plane being declared unserviceable (after being separated from the other plane) and then, surprisingly and not a little worryingly, it was suddenly serviceable again, we were herded back on and on we flew. The landing at Mount Pleasant airport was mildly bumpy in the gale force winds that greeted us at 1am, 10 hours later than originally due but at least we were there.

This time I am based at the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI) in Stanley, a new organisation that was created in early 2012. Its objective is to be a world class academic institute, based in the Falkland Islands, operating in the South Atlantic from the equator down to the ice in Antarctica, conducting world class research, teaching students, and building capacity within and between the UK South Atlantic Overseas Territories (UK OTs). The institute’s remit includes the natural and physical sciences (see http://www.south-atlantic-research.org).

Today I am just sorting out my itinerary and equipment and visiting the different facilities I will be using while I’m here. Then from tomorrow I’ll be back out on the beaches chasing worms. The first stop will be Whalebone Cove, a bay just outside Stanley that I visited last time. The lugworms I collected from there turned out to be very interesting indeed with a potentially new species involved and I would like to see if I can investigate those a little more. Then it’s a drive to the northwest for an afternoon tide.

It’s extremely windy here at the moment, even more so than usual, so I am hoping that this drops a little. It is sunny and warm though which is a nice change from the wet and grey weather I left behind and much better for sampling in.

The map of the Falkland Islands shows the sites I visited last year - this year I will mainly be sampling on the West Falkland.

South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute, created in 2012.
The pilot managed to jam the wing tip under the wing of the only other plane on the ground!
Map of the Falkland Islands showing sites where sampling was carried out in 2011.

This morning I presented my last talk to the Fisheries Department which was about the methods of collecting and identifying polychaetes. It seemed to go down reasonably well and then I handed back my key and left for the last time.


My samples are now officially with the Post Office hopefully to be on their way back to the UK shortly. As for me my journey back starts at 5am tomorrow morning. It will already be daylight then and will be the last time I see daylight at that time of the morning for a few months to come. Arrival back in the UK is likely to be a bit of a shock for me I think as there is currently around 8 or 9 hours less daylight there each day than here and the weather is now decidedly wetter and colder. Shortest day is fast approaching in the UK with longest day due here next week. Ah well.


Several weeks ago I pointed out that my challenge would be to still be finding new animals on Day 28. By my calculations that would actually be today so I failed there as there has been no new sampling since Friday which was Day 25. However, as I did have a new worm that day, from my final site, I think that’s pretty good going!


My sampling here has gone well and I’m really pleased with the variety of animals I have been able to collect. I’m looking forward to being able to spend some time looking at them in more detail in the New Year. I’ve enjoyed my time here and had an amazing opportunity to visit a place and see things that many others won’t get a chance to and I appreciate how lucky I’ve been.


I know that some of the people I’ve meet here have also been reading this blog and I’d like to take the opportunity to thank everyone involved for all of the help I’ve had getting out here and during my stay, from loaning me cars to get around to coming out on the shores with me or taking me diving to get more samples. This trip wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without all of your help.  

 
The Shallow Marine Surveys Group, whose survey work I piggy-backed to go diving, do a fantastic job out here with their dive surveys, mostly as volunteers with a few grants to help with costs and the Fisheries Department allowed me free run of their lab at all hours.


Not least of course I must thank the Shackleton Scholarship Fund and National Museum Wales who have funded and supported this visit.


Thank you all!

Adélie Penguin in the Museum's collections
Adélie Penguin in the Museum's collections. The Adélie Penguin is the only other truly Antarctic penguin. It is about half the size of the Emperor Penguin and weighs between 4 and 6 kg. Adélie Penguins look as though they are being affected by the climate change happening around the Antarctic Peninsula. Adélies only occur where there is plenty of pack-ice in the sea. As the peninsula has warmed there is now less pack-ice in the height of the summer and the Adélie Penguins appear to be moving further south to stay with the pack-ice.

My directions turned out to be accurate and easy to follow and I arrived at Teal Creek in plenty of time for the tide. The biggest problem I had was deciding where to stop along the creek. At the time I arrived the tide still had a way to go out so it was difficult to know how much ground would be uncovered. I made my decision and walked out into the small inlet off the creek (photo 1). The area was very soft but the depth of the mud varied and I didn’t venture too far into deeper areas, wary of getting stuck. As I dug around I was surprised to find the same new ragworm that I had found at Sand Bay the previous day, having not found it at any site before and now two in a row. There were also many of the bamboo worms that seem to dominate the shores here.


I left the creek shortly before actual low tide in order to give myself time to get over to Camilla Creek where low tide would be in just over 2 hours time. The tide hadn’t gone down much for a while so I didn’t think I would be missing anything new being uncovered.  As I drove out past the previous choices I had had for stopping in the area I realised that the earlier bays had much larger areas of mud flat exposed and I thought maybe I had made a mistake in my choice of sampling site. However, on reflection, the water had retreated to the far side of the creek from these bays and that would have left me with no access to water across the mud which is essential during the collecting, so I probably did make the right choice after all.


Camilla Creek was reached fairly quickly with some expanses of mud flat already exposed. It was a much larger, wider creek (photo 2) than Teal but the shore itself seemed more gravelly leading down to it. I quickly realised that although the approach was easier, the mud itself was softer and deeper and probably not to be ventured too far into without additional company for safety and better sampling gear than what now felt like a very short pair of wellies. After extricating myself from the mud I skirted around the edge of the water level in the small bay sampling different spots and finding quite a variety of different mud, sand and hard areas to try.


Eventually it was time to leave for the journey back. This time I kept the window tightly shut and arrived back slightly less dusty than the previous night. There was at least one new worm for my list from the samples in the form of another different paddleworm (photo 3).


Saturday saw the last of the formaldehyde to alcohol changing where possible. The later samples would all have to stay in formaldehyde though as they needed to stay in that fluid for at least a few days to make sure they were properly ‘fixed’ before being moved to alcohol. That will now be done after both I and they arrive back in Cardiff. This was then followed by several hours of painstakingly sealing and taping around the lid of each pot and then sealing them into bags in order to reduce the risk of any fluid leakage during transport. As there were around 200 pots to do this took a while! The photo shows all of the pots at various stages of packing.


This morning (Sunday) saw a few more hours of sealing and packing until I had 7 boxes of packed samples ready for posting tomorrow (I can’t bring them back on the plane with me sadly).
There had been plans to do a last shore dive locally this afternoon but unfortunately the wind has scuppered our plans, blowing strongly all day. As it would have been a shallow site with entry off the shore, the windy conditions would have made getting in and out of the water difficult, conditions underwater uncomfortable and visibility poor, so an obvious decision was made. Still disappointing though as everyone had told me what a lovely dive it was going to be!


Tomorrow’s plan includes my final talk at the Fisheries Department in the morning followed by getting those parcels on their way and then getting my own packing started. Only one more day left here!

Teal Creek
Photo 1: Teal Creek
Camilla Creek
Photo 2: Camilla Creek
Paddleworm
Photo 3: A paddleworm
Pots
Photo 3: The result of 4 weeks collecting
Falklands map
Photo 4: Location of sample sites

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.

Sand Bay
Photo 1: Sand Bay, Port Harriet
Ragworm
Photo 2: the new Nereid worm
Paddle worm
Photo 3: a large paddleworm
Falklands map
Photo 4: Location of Port Harriet