SMSG Blog

Expedition blogs and news from the Shallow Marine Surveys Group

Boatswain Bird Island

On Sunday 26th August, most of the team had a break from the intensive diving of the first week on the island. Team members dispersed to all corners of Ascension but Dr's Pieter van West, Vladimir Laptikhovsky and Wetjens Dimmlich elected to take the 4 hr round trip hike to Letterbox, a vantage point at the eastern-most point of Ascension Island. This location offers magnificent views along the coast and over Boatswain Bird Island, an inaccessible rock about 300m from Ascension.


The hikers were met at the start of the walk by low clouds and strong winds driving rain over the mountain and had to make the decision whether to attempt the long walk across the inhospitable lava fields. However, the indomitable Vlad Laptikhovsky, echoing the words of another famous Russian pioneer, Yuri Gagarin, "Let's go!" encouraged the rest of the small group to grit their teeth and set forth into the white-out conditions.


(It may also be that the same words were used by Captain Scott in the Antarctic).


Along the way the group were alternately hot, cold, wet and dry but the effort was rewarded by stunning views of Boatswain Bird Island before the weather closed in yet again.


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Ascension 21/08/12

Day Two


Most of the team have now arrived on Ascension and are getting straight into work. Yesterday (Monday 20th August) new arrivals were somewhat groggily taking their first dives just hours after touching down on Wideawake Airfield. First order of business was trialling the sampling methodology for transects along the seabed during which species counts would taken.




[caption id="attachment_303" align="alignleft" width="584"] Dr Judith Brown gives a rundown of safety guidelines for the team to follow while diving in this remote location.
Image: Pieter van West

These early dives were done in English Bay, a sheltered beach with easy access and relatively calm waters so everyone could check out their gear and make sure all was in good working order. The weather was overcast with passing showers, but occasionally the sun broke through in full tropical strength.


Under the direction of Dr Simon Morley some team members also began to set up the lab in the offices of the Ascension Island Conservation Dept. complete with collapsible aquaria for climate change experiments. We still need to address the issue of transporting fresh seawater to the office everyday to keep the experiment running over the 3 weeks. Today, Simon and Dr Wetjens Dimmlich embarked on a scavenger hunt around the island following any rumour of containers which might hold water. Eventually, after scouring the local rubbish tip unsuccessfully they had to give up and now need to work on a new plan for getting water to the fish tanks.




[caption id="attachment_316" align="alignleft" width="300"] The boiler of the Derby, sunk in 1929.
Image: SMSG

This morning’s dives were on the wreck of the Derby, a steel hulled steam trawler which was used to transport guano from Boatswain Bird Island.  She was moored in English Bay but sank together with other small vessels during heavy rollers in January 1929. She lies off a reef in about 9m of water and involved more transect work and also photography of marine life near the wreck. This proved challenging in the swell, and was made more difficult by the countless urchins found in almost every crevice so any handholds or potential spots to kneel had to be carefully considered before committing yourself to it. In the meantime the subject generally decided not to wait around and had swum away. It’s likely that capturing images of the fish life is going to prove quite a lot more frustrating than anticipated.




[caption id="attachment_620" align="aligncenter" width="584"] The bow section of the Derby.

While other team members were either diving or driving around Ascension in futile quests for water containers, Dr’s Pieter van West and Alexander Arkhipkin enjoyed a very memorable tour by Jolene and Natasha of Ascension Island Conservation. Shelly Beach is a location accessible only by 4wd vehicle and a half hour hike through a lava field. This used to be the site of a large sooty tern colony numbering in the hundreds of thousands of birds, but this was wiped out by feral cats. Rock pools are found here, separated from the sea by 100m of lava platform but replenished with seawater through underground fissures. These pools appear to contain ecosystems probably found nowhere else. Of particular interest are two unique species of shrimp (Procaris ascensionis and Typhlatya rogersi) living in these interconnected network of rock pools.




[caption id="attachment_305" align="alignleft" width="584"] Procaris ascensionis, one of the extremely rare and protected species of shrimp found only on Ascension Island.
Image: Pieter van West

It may be that the shrimp are the most vulnerable species on the planet, found only in these pools and only on Ascension Island and are completely protected to the extent that we are only permitted to look but not touch. In addition to the shrimp Peter noticed other distinct species of algal and invertebrate life which may be worth further investigation. Unfortunately this visit to the rock pools was only a short one as the main object of the excursion was to collect oysters required for another study. A return visit to these pools will no doubt occur later in the trip with the underwater cameras to collect a full record of the species existing there.

Recent Comments
Guest — Phil Thomas
I will speak to Interserve this morning to see if they can help with water containers, if you go to the Interserve offices and ask... Read More
Thursday, 23 August 2012 8:08 AM
Guest — SMSG
Thanks Phil, we should be ok for now. Have managed to scrounge up some containers...
Thursday, 23 August 2012 10:10 AM
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Team Member Pieter Van West

Pieter van West (Professor/Principal Investigator, University of Aberdeen) is the Microbiology Programme Leader in the School of Medical Sciences at the University of Aberdeen. He graduated as a molecular plant pathologist (MSc, Cum Laude & PhD) at the Wageningen University (1988-1993 & 1994-1998), which was followed by a post-doctoral project at the University of Aberdeen (1998-2000). He was awarded a Royal Society University Research Fellowship to study “Fundamental molecular processes in Oomycete pathogens” (2000-2008) and became a Lecturer (2004), a Senior Lecturer (2005), a Reader (2009) and currently holds a Chair in Oomycete Biology (2012).




[caption id="attachment_223" align="alignleft" width="200"]Peter van West Prof. Peter van West
University of Aberdeen

His current research programme in the Aberdeen Oomycete Laboratory focuses mainly on oomycete biology. Oomycetes, or water moulds, are a distinct group of eukaryotic microbes with often a fungal-like morphology, but with a much closer genetic similarity to brown algae and diatoms. Pathogenic oomycetes infect a wide range of organisms including crop plants, weeds, ornamental plants, trees, fish, humans, insects, crustaceans, brown algae, nematodes, fungi and even other oomycetes.


In the Aberdeen Oomycete Laboratory, several economically and environmentally important water moulds are studied at most disciplinary levels (taxonomy, ecology, epidemiology, biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology and especially host-microbe interactions). The most important animal pathogenic oomycetes under investigation are Saprolegnia parasitica, Saprolegnia australisSaprolegnia diclina and Aphanomyces spp. The plant pathogenic species include Phytophthora infestans and several Pythium spp. and the marine algal pathogenic species include Eurychasma dicksonii and Anisolpidium spp.


He has conducted and participated in expeditions and field trips with a scope in oomycete research, notably to the Falkland Islands, the Canadian Arctic, and Ascension Island.
Within the framework of the research expedition to Ascension, Pieter is particularly interested in collecting biological samples from fresh-water and salt-water for the presence of oomycete and fungal pathogens. In particular oomycetes that may infect algae or crustaceans, and fungi that attack sea turtle eggs.

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The photos are brilliant, envious.

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