Expedition blogs and news from the Shallow Marine Surveys Group

Ascension 25/08/12

Simon Morley joins the team as a scientific diver but is also running two projects that will add to research being conducted across the globe. Over the last 10 years the team at the British Antarctic Survey have measured the temperature limits of animals from Arctic, temperate, tropical and Antarctic shallow seas. By measuring how the temperature limits of marine animals change when temperature is raised at different rates they aim to predict how vulnerable these animals will be to climate change in different locations. Ascension Island provides an ideal comparison with tropical Singapore as it compares an isolated tropical Island (Ascension) with one that is almost continuous with other land masses and is exposed to much higher levels of human influence.

[caption id="attachment_331" align="aligncenter" width="584"] Dr Morley tending to his aquaria which have been set up in the Ascension Island Conservation offices.

The second project is to look at the settlement of larvae onto an artificial sea bed that can be turned over and photographed on a regular basis. Whilst the team can deploy the plates during the survey, this project will be continued by local divers who will visit the plates every 6-8 weeks to take more photos as animals settle and start to grow on the plates. We will also attach temperature loggers to the plates so that we can measure changes in temperature throughout the year.

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Ascension 24/08/12

[caption id="attachment_325" align="alignleft" width="201"] Divers descend to commence another survey

The team has settled into a diving routine over the last couple of days. Generally we have been boat diving in the mornings and then shore diving in the afternoon. The weather has continued to be highly changeable, alternating between brilliant sunshine and torrential rain.

Loading the boats at the Georgetown pier can be challenging in a swell. The exposed site makes passing gear over a matter of careful timing as the boat rises or drops several meters. However once loaded and away the seas on this side of the island have been mild and we've been able to access some good sites along the north-west coast. Windy weather has kept us to this section of coastline until now but hopefully over the next few days we'll be able to push further around the island.

Dives here are utterly dominated by countless black triggerfish (Melichthys niger). While sheer numbers impressed all the divers at the beginning, now they are simply getting in the way of photographs we'd like to take of other species! The only challenge to the abundance of black triggerfish comes from the creolefish (Paranthias furcifer), but even in their vast numbers they can only manage a distant second place.

So far all is going very smoothly, but logistics are made a little more complicated by roadworks on one of the main roads linking different regions of the island, necessitating long detours for what normally be a short drive. Some team members swear certain offroad shortcuts can cut journey times but this is still under considerable debate.

[caption id="attachment_323" align="aligncenter" width="584"] One of the team vehicles departs Georgetown on a short-cut through the lava fields on the way to English Bay, location of the Ascension Island Dive Club facilities and one of our bases of operation.

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Team Member Drew Avery

Drew Avery is a satellite communications engineer who returned to Ascension 2 years ago after an extended career in remote locations such as the Chagos Archipelago, Greenland and the Middle East. An amateur naturalist and wildlife photographer he has contributed to the Smithsonian Institute Encyclopaedia of Life and written species articles for Arkive, an on line data base of rare and endangered species. His most current project has been compiling a complete library of natural science research done on Ascension for the Ascension Heritage Society. A part-time student he is currently enrolled in Oregon State University Masters in Natural Resources program and will be shortly completing a post –graduate certificate in Sustainable Military Lands Management form Colorado State University.

Since returning to Ascension he has been fortunate enough to be able to volunteer with a number of diverse projects, including lichen surveys on Green Mountain, a variety of bird studies and the ongoing Overseas Territories Environment Green Turtle research Program.

Drew likes long walks and beer

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Team Member Caz Yon

[caption id="attachment_311" align="alignleft" width="199"] Caz Yon

Caroline (Caz) Yon has been living and working on Ascension Island for the last 20 years and currently manages the ESA Telemetry Tracking Station at North East Bay.  For her day job, Caz is a communications engineer but as with a lot of people on a small island wears many hats on a voluntary basis.

She gave up being a Justice of the Peace after 13 years of service and is now a legal advisor assisting people with various criminal and civil issues.

Caz also runs the Ascension Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals offering front line and emergency veterinary services as well as overseeing the import/export of pet animals.  Caz is also a First Aid and PADI Dive Instructor and offers courses in both on the island.

Rare moments of spare time are always spent in the water away from telephones and emails!  Having always lived next to, surrounded by or on the sea it is only natural she has a love of the underwater world.  After years of slightly bewildered but nonetheless real admiration and appreciation of the marine environment, she is really hoping to gain greater insights and knowledge by being involved in the survey.

She feels this is a fantastic opportunity to kick start education and awareness of the inshore waters of Ascension and will hopefully lead to a long term conservation commitment thus ensuring the health and vitality of the marine life for generations to come.

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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.

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Team Member Jolene Sim

[caption id="attachment_298" align="alignleft" width="168"] Jolene Sim
Ascension Island Government Conservation Department

Jolene Sim is the Assistant Conservation Officer for Ascension Island Government. Her interest in conservation started when she was a young girl. Jolene was inspired by her father’s respect for the fauna and flora of St Helena, both terrestrial and marine. He feels a special kinship with creatures of the sea. As a result, Jolene developed a passionate interest in St Helena's wildlife. Her personal experiences and observations gained from voluntary work on St Helena has provided not only knowledge, but a fascinating insight into the work involved in ecological restoration of remote islands.

In 1996 Jolene left St Helena for the UK where she joined the Merchant Navy as a Deck Cadet and progressed to the position of 1st Officer. Her 10 year career at sea meant she had long vacations where she could spend much time doing what she enjoyed most. Her natural desire to learn more about South Atlantic Islands meant she spent some of her free time visiting both St Helena and Ascension Island, where she carried out voluntary work with the Ascension Island Conservation Team, and St Helena’s seabird monitoring and underwater surveys (Fisheries Section of Agriculture & Natural Resources Department).
Jolene has a great appreciation of what Ascension Island has to offer, and it is her natural desire to learn more about the Island’s environment, to safeguard and restore native species and habitats, and to promote awareness of conservation, particularly through the schools.

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