Expedition blogs and news from the Shallow Marine Surveys Group

Images of Ascension

Some preview images of Ascension Island.

A small collection of images taken by one of the team members during a previous short visit to Ascension Island. With more time to explore the island on this visit we hope to return with more photos of above-water life on this small island in the middle the Atlantic Ocean.

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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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Team Member Phil Thomas

Phil Thomas has been living and working in the Falkland Islands for 12 months as a Senior Project Manager for Interserve Defence Ltd, starting in August 2011 on a 2 year tour.

[caption id="attachment_213" align="alignleft" width="224"]Phil Thomas Phil Thomas
British Forces South Atlantic Islands

Phil has been diving since 2001, diving in various locations around the world such as Egypt, Malta, Croatia, Thailand and the UK from the bleak inland quarry sites to the stunning South Devon coast. A keen UK diver enjoying the beautiful shore dives that the South Devon coast has to offer, concentrating on the smaller marine life amongst the gulley’s, rocks and kelp forests; on a sunny day with the play of light and shadows through the Kelp forests, the UK rivals any dive site in the world.

Since arriving in the Falklands Phil has been diving regularly with the Falkland Islands Sub Aqua Club (FISAC), officially the most Southerly dive club in the World! Enjoying some very challenging, yet rewarding dives in the cold South Atlantic waters

A BSAC Sports Diver, working towards his Dive Leader & Boat Handler qualifications. Phil is thrilled to be part of such an important research project in a challenging and remote marine environment.”

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Team Member Stedson Stroud

Stedson Stroud - Saving Ascension’s wildlife

Although he now heads up efforts to protect the wildlife of the British Overseas Territory of Ascension Island, Stedson Stroud. MBE has had an unusual journey into formal conservation.

[caption id="attachment_208" align="alignleft" width="300"]Stedson Stroud Stedson Stroud. MBE.
Conservation Officer - Ascension Island Government.

Born on the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena, Stedson developed an interest in the natural world at an early age. “My mum and dad, with a family of 10 children, brought us up on St. Helena living off the land with an organic and sustainable attitude towards biodiversity, so they were a real inspiration to me,” he explains. The interest that Stedson developed in horticulture, beekeeping and the natural world would stay with him throughout his life, and would play an important role in shaping his priorities.

During several nomadic years working throughout the world, Stedson took the time to speak to Naturalists, Conservationist, old farmers in many countries also beekeepers at Buck fast Abby, Devon UK , learning and recording their skills. When he returned to St. Helena as a trained beekeeper, field Vet, and tracker in 1991, Stedson made a remarkable discovery. One day, whilst following some bees up a gorge, Stedson came across a plant he had never seen before. Taking samples, he began to investigate and, working with St Helenian Botanist George Benjamin and the Royal Botanic gardens at Kew, discovered that it was an endemic bastard gumwood tree (Commidendrum rotundifolium), a plant long thought to be extinct. “Discovering a lone plant which was thought to have been extinct for over a hundred years spurred me into helping to propagate it, and get more of its kind back into the wild. Conservation became special to me.”

Some years after this first discovery, Stedson made another astonishing find, yet another endemic plant long thought to have gone extinct, the St. Helena endemic boxwood (Mellissia begonifolia). “Then I truly knew I had a career in conservation!” says Stedson.

Finally in 2003, Stedson made his way back to Ascension, initially as the Assistant Conservation Officer for the Ascension Island Government. As a member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s South Atlantic Island Plant Specialist Group, Stedson faced many challenges. “Ascension’s endemic plants were uncared for. All of them were on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, some were extinct and some were on the brink of extinction, mostly due to the threats imposed by alien invasive plant species. We’ve set about clearing and restoring sites where invasive species have taken over, which is no easy task!”

Through careful propagation of the threatened endemic species, stable captive populations of many of these plants have now been established and efforts are underway to reintroduce more of them to suitable parts of the island. A few years ago Stedson and Botanist Dr Phil Lambton rediscovered the Ascension Endemic parsley fern Anagramma ascensionis on the south side of a steep cliff on Green Mountain this fern was on the IUCN Red List as extinct, it is now being cared for on Ascension and RBG Kew.
The island’s endemic plants were not the only species suffering from the impacts of invasive species. When it was first discovered, Ascension was thought to house around 20 million seabirds, with species including fairy terns, masked boobies, and the endemic Ascension frigate bird. But over the years this number dwindled to just a few thousand nesting on shore ledges and offshore stacks, mainly because the birds were being eaten by feral cats. To tackle this problem, Stedson helped with a feral cat eradication programme, which has led to several hundred pairs of seabirds returning to the mainland to nest for the first time in over 100 years. These pairs continue to breed successfully, and are re-establishing viable populations once more.

Despite these successes, Stedson remains concerned for the future of Ascension’s fragile wildlife, marine and terrestrial. Invasive species are still a major problem, and left unchecked threaten the survival of native plants, birds and animals. Human development is also a problem, with large parts of the island unprotected and vulnerable to damage. He and his team face a constant struggle to preserve what is left of Ascension’s unique environment, and to try and restore what has been lost.

Stedson has never lost sight of the beauty of the nature he works so hard to protect. “Seeing female green turtles slowly making their way up the beaches to lay their eggs after their long journey from Brazil, or watching the land crabs making their lengthy and dangerous trek from the top of Green Mountain down to the shore to deposit their eggs are hugely inspiring. Ascension boasts a wonderful array of biodiversity, from the turtles to sooty terns to our very own endemic shrimp found in larva pools. More than ever, conservation is needed to ensure the survival of these species."

Stedson looks forward to Paul Brickle and his Shallow Marine team and to be involved in this very important Darwin project.

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All packed and ready to go!

Saturday saw the culmination of six weeks of web-searching, ordering and finally gathering all the SMSG kit from various offices and stores and packing it all into boxes. Fortunately despite the Falklands remoteness and some last minute ordering everything has turned up. It took longer than expected to vent 20 dive tanks which have to be empty for the flight to Ascension.

[caption id="attachment_199" align="alignleft" width="300"]Jude and Paul Loading Rovers Jude and Paul loading gear into the Landrovers for the trip to Mount Pleasant.

Amazingly the tanks, survey gear, cameras, personal dive kit, fish traps, fishing rods, paperwork, sample bottles, lead weights and much much more squeezed into the back of two Landrovers. Thankfully as the British forces are part of the team they are assisting with the transport of gear to Ascension. The hour drive to Mount Pleasant complex to drop off the gear along a very badly potholed road was rewarded by tea and chocolate brownie.

[caption id="attachment_200" align="alignleft" width="225"]Dive Kit in store at MPC All the kit waiting in the store at Mount Pleasant for transport by RAF flight to Ascension Island.

No diving now till the trip as all our gear is packed to go on the next flight so it will be waiting for us all when we arrive in Ascension. Time now for people to swat up on their fish species (for those who haven’t already passed their fish ID test). Just the swimmers and suncream to pack and take with us in just under two weeks.

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Team Members Sam and Nicola Weber

[caption id="attachment_175" align="alignleft" width="300"]Nicola Weber Dr Nicola Weber
University of Exeter & Ascension Island Government

Nicola and Sam Weber are Darwin Post-Doctoral Research Fellows at the University of Exeter and Ascension Island Government. They are based on Ascension where they are responsible for coordinating a Darwin Initiative project that will produce the first Biodiversity Action Plan for the Island. The project, which began in July, will bring together partner organisations from the UK, Sweden and Ascension to produce a series of Species Action Plans (SAP) for priority species that identify current threats and develop targeted strategies for their conservation. Prior to starting their present posts, Sam and Nicola were running an Overseas Territories Environment Programme project, which aimed to update population size estimates for nesting green turtles on Ascension Island and produce a revised management plan for this species.

[caption id="attachment_176" align="alignleft" width="225"]Sam Weber Dr Sam Weber
University of Exeter & Ascension Island Government

Sam first visited Ascension in 2007 as a PhD student at the University of Exeter to carry out research on the reproductive ecology of green turtles, and has been trying to find ways to come back ever since! Prior to starting his PhD, Sam also completed an MSc in Biodiversity and Conservation at the University of Exeter. He is a keen recreational diver and is looking forward to surveying some of the remoter corners of Ascension’s coast as a part of the SMSG team. Nicola has a BSc (Hons) in Marine and Environmental Biology from the University of St Andrews where she carried out her dissertation with the Sea Mammal Research Unit studying the energetics of grey seals. She also learnt to dive here in the cold Scottish waters where she gained her BSAC Dive Leader qualification. After completing an MSc in Conservation and Biodiversity at the University of Exeter, she remained there to carry out her PhD where she deployed proximity loggers to study the movement and contact patterns of the European badger and the implications that these have for the spread of bovine tuberculosis.

Within this group expedition to Ascension Island, Nicola and Sam will be assisting with dive surveys where needed, but in terms of research they will be focussing primarily on the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles that are found in the near-shore habitats around Ascension. The hawksbills at Ascension are probably juveniles using it as a staging post before recruiting to adult feeding grounds in West Africa or Brazil, but compared to their more famous cousins the green turtles, very little is known about them. With the help of the SMSG team, Sam and Nicola are hoping to expand the flipper-tagging programme for hawksbills on Ascension to answer fundamental questions on population size, residence time and growth rate. They will also be taking DNA samples to help determine which nesting population(s) the juveniles around Ascension originate from, and collecting observational data on diet and distribution around the Island.

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