Thursday, 26 December 2013

Flying home from the Falklands – reflections on our expedition (Frithjof, Pieter, Alexandra and Melina) Dec. 17, 2013

We are writing these lines in mid-air between the Falklands and Ascension Island. Seeing the vast expanses of ocean underneath is a good moment and inspiration to reflect on the last 3 ½ weeks spent in the South Atlantic.
After a 3-day visit to Ascension Island, our team of 4 scientists and divers - Alexandra Mystikou (joint PhD student of the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute in Stanley (SAERI) and the University of Aberdeen), Professors Pieter van West and Frithjof Kuepper (both at the University of Aberdeen) and Melina Marcou (Dept. of Fisheries and Marine Research, Cyprus) - have been roaming and diving the shores of Saunders Island, West Falkland, SW East Falkland (Danson Harbour area) and Sea Lion Island from Nov. 26 - Dec. 17, with strong support by Stevie Cartwright, Paul Brewin and their friends from the Shallow Marine Surveys Ground (SMSG) and SAERI (notably Dr. Paul Brickle). Another important activity covered the freshwater courses in these regions, where isolates were made for surveying the diversity of aquatic oomycetes, a group of pathogens related to fish mould and potato blight.
The only major, published research on seaweeds in the Falklands is the work of the Swede Carl Skottsberg on the Falklands’ brown algae in the early 1900s. With no diving available at that time, inevitably a part of the deeper-water flora was not covered – and the archipelago’s red and green algae have remained almost totally unexplored to this date. The team is returning to Europe with hundreds of specimens and samples and over 10,000 photos. Follow-up work at Aberdeen – mostly consisting of algal and oomycete culturing, DNA analysis and microscopy - will start immediately but will certainly take several years to complete.
The team came across challenging weather conditions, poor visibility and underwater currents. In combination with the cold waters (7o Celsius), they made the scientists’ work not an easy task. Nevertheless we not only managed to complete successfully the scheduled sampling, we also very much enjoyed diving in the Falkland Islands. The underwater environment of the Falklands is full of surprises -the colourful coralligenous habitats underneath the forests of giant kelp (Macrocystis sp.) and the deeper-growing Lessonia create a unique habitat for the marine organisms, which looks like a magical world. The underwater photos taken by SMSG and the team reveal a secret paradise hidden in the waters of the Falkland Islands. This was the 5th visit of Frithjof and Pieter to the Falklands - every single visit so far has resulted in new discoveries of seaweed and oomycete biodiversity from around the islands.
We are very grateful to SAERI and SMSG for their support during our expedition - namely the Director of SAERI and Alexandra’s co-supervisor Dr. Paul Brickle and his team at SAERI (Rachael Crowie, Dr. Deborah Davidson, Anne Saunders and Dr. Ilaria Marengo). We would like to thank also Steve Cartwright, Dr. Paul Brewin, Dr. Martin Collins, Joost Pompert and Vernon for their organization and support of the expedition to the Falkland Sound (Danson Harbour).
Once more time the people from the Falkland Islands showed us their hospitality and made everything they could to make us feel like home. Special thanks to Brian Jamieson (owner of the South Harbour Farm for warming up us with a cup of tea after of a cold dive but also to the owner of Dunnose Head Farm (SW of Port Philomel). Our special thanks go to Kay McCallum for making our stay in Stanley feel like home. Her orange cake filled us with energy to complete even our most challenging task.
We are once more on board the gray-painted AirTanker Airbus A330 Voyager. As the Falklands disappeared from our views, a Typhoon fighter jet appeared as escort on each wing tip, a stark reminder of the siege-like situation that the Falkland Islanders still have to put up with. 

We are flying back to Europe, but our hearts and minds remain in the Falklands with the Falkland Islanders and the magic underwater world in this cold corner of Planet Earth...

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