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.
Falkland Islands research 2013: January 11th
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.
Polychaete research in the Falklands by Teresa Darbyshire - last day
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!
Polychaete research in the Falklands by Teresa Darbyshire - day 26-28
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!
Polychaete research in the Falklands by Teresa Darbyshire - day 25
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.