Monday, 16 December 2013

Danson Harbour, Dec. 7-10 (Frithjof Kuepper, Melina Markou and Alexandra Mystikou)

After only one night in Kay’s cosy home in Stanley with a lot of laundry, re-packing and a night of office work, we hit the long road from Stanley to North Arm and then off-road towards the SW corner of East Falkland, to a remote, lonely house (belonging to the North Arm settlement) otherwise used by farm staff for herding cattle etc., which would be our home for the next 4 days. An almost 5 hour drive! It has to be said that despite the images of marine life, diving etc. on this blog, much of our time in the Falklands is inevitably spent in cars, typically 4 WDs. Distances are huge and roads are poor or non-existent, which makes for long durations of rough vehicle travel for getting almost anywhere. The southern half of East Falkland, south of the Isthmus of Darwin and Goose Green, is mostly made up of the great plain of Lafonia, mostly dry grassland reminiscent of Patagonia, with very little human population.

Outhouses like “ours” at Danson Harbour were built in the past and are still used today for working these huge lands, especially for cattle ranching. They are occupied only sporadically, whenever farm staff needs accommodation for a couple of days. Heating is by a peat-fired kitchen stove with back boiler for providing warm water and a fireplace in the lounge. A diesel-powered generator in an adjacent shed provides electricity for a few hours a day.

Our team of 4 joined forces with the team of the Shallow Marine Surveys Group (SMSG), who coordinate and conduct assessments of the status of inshore resources around the Falkland Islands. SMSG is headed by a core group of experienced biologists and divers and assisted by volunteers from the local community who carry out scientific collections and identifications, photographic surveys, and marine ecological research that contributes to local and regional conservation policy initiatives.

Days started at around 7.30 am with Pieter yelling “How would you like your eggs today?” until he would have a response from everyone. After a cooked breakfast for fuelling up, we would load the 4WDs with dive and sampling equipment and drive to the boat launch site on a secluded beach, about ½ h off-road driving away. The team worked in 2 groups, each of which would go for 1 or 2 dives from a Zodiac with outboard engine, 15-30 min from the boat launch site.

The dives were very rewarding scientifically, but challenging due to the environmental conditions – very cold waters, currents, wildlife, weather conditions and the giant kelp forest all of which can bear special hazards for divers. Moreover, the lack of a recompression chamber on the Islands was the limiting factor for not working in depths greater than ~ 20 m. Nonetheless, we very much enjoyed and managed the diving with safety and organisation.

A highlight of our dives was an underwater encounter with a male Sea Lion while we were sampling seaweeds. The big creature came very close to us and after a few “dancing” movements, he left us to continue our work.

The seaweed flora of the Falkland Sound area has not been studied in depth since the days of Skotsberg 110 years ago, as the access is difficult in such a remote place and scuba diving for phycological objectives had not been conducted in this area. This left us feeling like genuine explorers, something that a scientist does not feel very often in his career these days. Indeed, this was the exploration of a pristine environment in a region rarely ever visited by phycologists, in which one can expect to encounter many undescribed red algal species.

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