SMSG Blog

Expedition blogs and news from the Shallow Marine Surveys Group

Volunteer Ecological Surveyors

By Sarah and Simon Browning

Simon and I have been volunteer divers with the Shallow Marine Survey Group (SMSG) for the last two years and have been privileged to undertake a number of marine research expeditions within the Falklands.


Last year we joined the SMSG Ascension Island expedition bringing with us a small team of the military divers from the Falklands but this year we are by ourselves as volunteers directly supporting the project, our main role to participate in underwater transact surveys, specimen collecting and underwater photography.


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Arriving on 24 May, we landed a few days ahead of the main group to enjoy some leave relaxing on this fabulous island.  We took the opportunity to do a couple of dives to check out the camera and more importantly confirm our fish identification skills ready for surveys! The topside of Ascension is equally fascinating and we enjoyed a couple of beach walks beachcombing and watching the blow hole at North East Bay. The evenings were spent on the beach looking for Green turtles and, even though now at the end of the season, after only a few minutes sitting on the beach we saw three laying - amazing. At the same time we saw hundreds of baby Greens scurrying off in to the sea under a full moon and were also very lucky to witness an eruption – truly spectacular seeing so many tiny juvenile turtles pouring out of the sand.


Our leave was soon over with the arrival of the RMS St Helena bringing Jude, Steve and Elizabeth from St Helena. The project swung into action led by Jude with us all out for an afternoon dive off Wigan Pier checking octopus holes, collecting data from settlement plates and assessing general seasonal changes from last August -September. The whole team was assembled by 1 June and since then we have been busy getting involved in all aspects of the project. So far we have  undertaken a number of transact surveys, completed intertidal surveys, collected a number of specimens, helped process samples, revisited the shrimp pools at Shelly Beach and helped with otolith (fish ear bones used for ageing) removal.


20130526-Ascension Is_PSII Simon-U 129


For Simon and myself this trip has given us such a great opportunity to work with eminent marine biologists and in the field. We are looking forward to the next week diving and exploring the rich marine ecology of Ascension…what new species will we discover?

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Guest — Simon Plummer
I can’t stop smiling thinking of what a brilliant time you are having. The fact that I can visualise what you are talking about ma... Read More
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An expedition highlight

The team returns to Shelly Beach


We mentioned in one of our early posts that two of our team members had been fortunate enough to be shown a very special site here on Ascension, the small rock pools at Shelly Beach where two very rare and vulnerable species of shrimp are found.


Yesterday a large number of the team enjoyed a return visit to the pools, escorted by Stedson Stroud and Jolene Sim of Ascension Conservation. This time we were loaded with all the equipment we would need for a survey of the site, including underwater cameras, devices to measure salinity and temperature, GPS units to map the site and, most excitingly, special permission by the Ascension Island Government to collect a small number of samples for further study.


Enjoy this short gallery of images taken at this exceptional location.


[gallery orderby="title"]
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FIDT share their experience

The Falkland Island Dive Team (FIDT) is a group of Service, Ministry of Defense (MOD) and civilian personnel who have given their time to support this exciting Project.  The team is making a vital contribution to the project by providing logistical support and planning for the delivery of equipment plus booking of flights, accommodation, vehicles and boat.




[caption id="attachment_454" align="aligncenter" width="584"] Sarah Lee in Lava Tunnel, English Bay.

In the first 2 week period of the project the FIDT have assisted SMSG with data collection, critter and fish collection, photographs, transects and inter-tidal surveys. Not only are the team helping collect data but they have also been getting their hands dirty, literally, by helping to process fish specimens, with Simon Plummer, the diving supervisor, measuring, weighing and dissecting fish and to remove the otoliths which are used to tell how old the fish is.




[caption id="attachment_455" align="aligncenter" width="584"] Simon Plummer (centre) with Drs Vlad Laptikhovsky and Judith Brown

The FIDT have enjoyed discussing their findings with the expedition Drs and Professors. This has made the diving and the experience of working, helping and supporting the project a far more broadening experience. It has also made the team even more mindful of the diverse and balanced marine ecology of the Ascension Islands.




[caption id="attachment_456" align="aligncenter" width="584"] FIDT member Simon Browning demonstrate black triggerfish capture techniques, using a bread basket, while Vlad Laptikhovsky and Simon Plummer look on.
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Hawksbill tagging underway (well, nearly)…

[caption id="attachment_392" align="alignleft" width="300"] Sam Weber instructing volunteer turtle catchers on the finer points of the art.
Image: W Dimmlich

Attempts to capture and tag some of Ascension Island’s elusive hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) got underway during two night dives at the Pierhead in Georgetown this week. Best known for its globally important nesting population of green turtles (Chelonia mydas), Ascension Island also has a small resident population of critically endangered hawksbill turtles about which very little is known. Hawksbills do not nest on Ascension and from their sizes it appears that most individuals are sexually immature juveniles or sub-adults, but the nesting population(s) from which they originate and the migratory pathways which bring them to the Island remain a mystery. By fitting metal flipper tags carrying a return address and taking tissue samples for mitochondrial DNA analysis we hope to answer some of these questions, as well as adding to scarce data on growth rates and residence times at Ascension. But first we have to catch them!




[caption id="attachment_393" align="alignleft" width="584"] A young hawksbill is spotted in the shallows near the pier.
Image: P v West


[caption id="attachment_394" align="alignleft" width="584"] As it swims close to the shore Dion Poncet prepares to leap.
Image: P v West


[caption id="attachment_396" align="alignleft" width="584"] Unfortunately a near miss and the turtle can be seen just escaping Dion's outstretched hand.
Image: P v West


Every evening, as many as 5-6 hawksbill turtles gather around Georgetown Pier where artificial lighting and fish discards allow them to continue foraging late into the night, making this the perfect place to start our tagging campaign. After an unsuccessful attempt earlier in the week, a crack team of elite military divers including Simon Browning, Simon Plummer and Phil Thomas managed to capture one of the largest hawksbills yet seen on Ascension - too large unfortunately, as it proved too heavy to land in the conditions at the Pierhead! Nevertheless, spurred on by their progress so far the team are planning a return visit this week and we will post an update soon.

[caption id="attachment_397" align="aligncenter" width="584"] Success! It takes Phil and two Simons to finally capture a hawksbill and shepherd it back to the pier.
Image: P v West


Contributed by Sam & Nicola Weber
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Guest — Alexander Gaos
This is fantastic stuff! Saludos from those of use working here on the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative...please let us know i... Read More
Friday, 31 August 2012 12:12 AM
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Team Member Simon Browning

[caption id="attachment_138" align="alignleft" width="274"]Simon Browning Lt Col. Simon Browning
British Forces South Atlantic Islands

Simon graduated from Swansea University in Environmental Biology, sharing a room, for one term, with Dave Barnes, before heading to Ireland delivering research support to Matt Murphy at Sherkin Island, where he led the Littoral Flora and Fauna survey team, red seaweeds his specialisation. Refocus set him towards the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst; successful commission sent him to far flung destinations with the Royal Logistics Corps including Belize, Kuwait, Iraq, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and finally to the Falkland Islands.


His passion for marine biology never far from the meniscus; enthralled by the biodiversity of places such as Belize, Falklands and UK, diving is central to his core interests. Whilst in the UK he enjoyed contributing to Seasearch UK diving around the south coast recording worm casts, biodiversity and marine habitats.


A diver of over 24 years he is a BSAC Dive Leader and boat handler. Simon has been diving regularly with both the Shallow Marine Surveys Group and the Falkland Island Sub Aqua Club for the last 12 months, fascinated by the diverse marine life and enthralled by the Fur Seals and Sea Lions.


The opportunity to be part of an auspicious scientific diving project to Ascension Island will undoubtedly be a pinnacle event and leading the contribution to logistic planning professionally satisfying.


Simon’s philosophy logistics, the power behind the punch

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Team Member Sarah Browning

[caption id="attachment_132" align="alignleft" width="300"]Sarah Browning Sarah Browning
Falkland Islands Sub Aqua Club (FISAC)

Sarah has been living in the Falkland Islands for just under 12 months, coming here with her husband Simon in August 2011 on a 2 year tour. She is the Falkland Islands Sub Aqua Club (FISAC) Treasurer and Secretary.


Sarah has been diving since 2004, diving all over the world in wonderful locations such as the Maldives, Oman, Tobago, Malta and the UK from Scotland to Cornwall to the beautiful Pembrokeshire coast. A keen conservationist, Sarah has undertaken a number of dives with Sea Search UK around the south coast enjoying activities such as recording marine life and habitats and helping to mark out an artifical reef. She was also a volunteer with the Episkopi Turtle watch in Cyprus during a three year posting there where, amongst other things, she enjoyed the excitement of camping overnight on beaches waiting for turtles to come ashore to lay eggs.


Since arriving in the Falklands Sarah has been diving regularly with both the Shallow Marine Surveys Group and the FISAC, enjoying the pristine South Atlantic waters and diverse marine life, as well as slowly overcoming her fear of very large sea lions close up!


A BSAC Dive Leader, Assistant Instructor and Boat Handler she is looking forward to participating in this exciting project and getting some Ascension Islanddives in her dive log.

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Guest — Linda Foulkes-Stokes
Hi Sarah - was searching for something totally different and got you! Hi from everybody you know at Epi Turtlewatch and belated c... Read More
Saturday, 12 January 2013 7:07 PM
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Latest Comments

Dave John Hunting seaweeds around Ascension
31 August 2013
Great to see underwater photos of this very unusual submarine environment where the ubiquitous black...
Helen Marsh Team Member Stedson Stroud
03 July 2013
Great to hear more about Stedsons work, and how he got started, having met him on Ascension Island l...
Simon Plummer Volunteer Ecological Surveyors
10 June 2013
I can’t stop smiling thinking of what a brilliant time you are having. The fact that I can visualise...
Simon Plummer Black triggerfish anecdotes
10 June 2013
An enjoyable and funny read, thank you steve for making me chuckle.
Simon Plummer Ascension Island fish record
10 June 2013
The photos are brilliant, envious.

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