Claire Goodwin, a Research Scientist in Marine Biodiversity at Huntsman Marine Science Centre heading to South Georgia on an expedition.
Claire (centre) and some of the survey team on the last SMSG South Georgia Expedition.
Credit: Shallow Marine Surveys Group
Hello, I'm Claire Goodwin, a Research Scientist in Marine Biodiversity at Huntsman Marine Science Centre. I'm heading to South Georgia on an expedition – that's the sub-Antarctic one with penguins and leopard seals rather than the south of the American state or the country near Russia (I've been doing a lot of geography lessons for confused work colleagues!). I don't think I can squeeze you into my suitcase – it's packed full of SCUBA gear, sampling kit and warm clothes. But you are welcome to come along virtually – I'll be keeping in touch every few days via this blog.
I've been working with the Falklands based Shallow Marine Surveys Group (SMSG) since 2008. A chance meeting at a conference got me in touch with Dr Paul Brickle (now Director of the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute), and he invited me down to look at Falkland sponges. My work at Huntsman covers all aspects of marine biodiversity, but I have a particular soft spot for this animal group. SMSG are a volunteer group of marine scientists, dive enthusiasts, and volunteers from the local community. They aim to contribute to marine science, conservation, and education. I've participated on survey trips with them to all corners of the Falklands and one especially memorable trip to South Georgia in 2010. Much of the time, these surveys are the first times anyone has visited these underwater sites. SMSG surveys have an essential role in providing information for the management of the areas they visit. I've experienced a fantastic diversity of marine life diving with them and found 36 sponges new to science so far. Plus, I have seen more penguins and albatrosses than you can imagine. So, when Paul invited me to participate in this expedition, I didn't need much encouragement. Of course, getting down here is expensive. I am very grateful to the Falklands based John Cheek Foundation for supporting my travel for this trip.
The main aim of the expedition is to survey South Georgia's coastal marine biodiversity. South Georgia's marine life is thought to be amongst the most diverse in the Antarctic. Many species that live here are at the edges of their distribution ranges, either as far north or south as they venture. It also has many species which are only found here (endemic species). Scientists are worried about the future of South Georgia's marine life as climate change is causing its icy oceans to warm. Yet, the marine animals and seaweeds aren't well known. The expedition will provide information on species and habitats, which will be useful in managing the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands Marine Protected Area (SGSSI-MPA). This is one of the world's largest MPAs, covering an area of 1.24 million km2 (5 x larger than the United Kingdom).
It takes a lot of people to make an expedition like this work. The South Atlantic Environment Research Institute (SAERI) are planning and co-ordinating this multidisciplinary survey in conjunction with the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI). Steve Brown, whose day job is Operations Director for Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands, is the expedition leader and will be making sure that things run smoothly and that we accomplish our scientific goals. Professor Juliet Brodie (Natural History Museum, London) and Dr Paul Brewin (SAERI/SMSG) are Co-Principal Investigators on the expedition and will be leading the science.
The cruise will undertake fieldwork for the Darwin Plus Project "DPLUS122 - Biodiversity discovery and the future of South Georgia's seaweed habitats". Professor Juliet Brodie and Dr Rob Mrowicki from Natural History Museum, London (NHM) lead this project, with academic partners from South Atlantic Environment Research Institute (Dr Paul Brickle and Dr Paul Brewin) and British Antarctic Survey (Professor Pete Convey). I'll introduce you to them and tell you more about the project over future blogs. You might not imagine there being much seaweed in somewhere so icy. But on my last trip there, seaweed dominated all the habitats we surveyed. Giant kelp forest (Macrocystis pyrifera) loomed above many sites, providing both a convenient descent line for divers and a fur-seal playground. The trailing fronds of Himantothallus grandifolius covered much of the remaining exposed rock. The fronds of this trailing weed can reach more than 30 m - like our sugar kelp on steroids! And that's before we start on the many, less obvious, red, and green seaweed species. Yet, there hasn't been an expedition to survey and study the seaweeds of South Georgia. This expedition will provide much-needed information on seaweed biodiversity.
We'll be mainly surveying by SCUBA diving. As well as collecting seaweeds, we will also be doing SCUBA surveys of habitats and animal species and hunting for invasive species. I will be collecting sponges – my taxonomic speciality. On my previous trip to South Georgia in 2010, I found 15 sponge species new to science – I'm hoping for a few more. Dr Karin Gérard is joining the team from the University of Magellan in Punta Arenas (Chile). Karin will be collecting specimens for her work on how Southern Ocean animals are connected and evolve. PhD student Joanna Zanker will be taking oceanographic measurements for her studies on circulation in South Georgia's fjords.
And yes, the SCUBA diving will be cold! (Water temperatures were between 0oC and 2oC on the last trip). Don't worry; I have packed lots of woollies. Diving in such remote locations must be carefully conducted – we are far away from hospitals and recompression chambers. Tritonia Scientific Ltd – a U.K. based company with years of diving operations in far-flung places – are managing the diving. Jonathan Sayer is joining us as dive supervisor.
We have a very experienced dive team. As well as Rob, Karin, and myself, three Falkland based Shallow Marine Surveys Group members are joining the expedition. SMSG dive throughout the South Atlantic. Past destinations have included South Georgia, Ascension Island, St Helena Islands and Tristan da Cunha. Three of the dive team from this trip were on the 2010 South Georgia expedition with me. It will be great to dive with Steve Brown, Dr Paul Brewin (mentioned above) and Stevie Cartwright again.
And of course, we will need a boat! I'll be travelling in comparative luxury on this trip – often the vessels I work on don't even have a washroom. The Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands is supporting the expedition by making their ship the M.V. Pharos S.G. available. It's a big boat – 79 metres long. I'll have my own cabin, and the chef on board will keep us well supplied with meals – much needed as diving in those frigid waters uses up a lot of calories. It's a bit of a change of work for the Pharos crew - the primary role of the Pharos is undertaking fisheries patrols in the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands maritime zone. It also provides logistic and scientific support to the research stations on South Georgia.
Well, that's all the intros. Now to finish squeezing everything into my luggage and double-check I haven't forgotten anything. There aren't any shops where I am going!
Claire (front) preparing to venture into an unexplored cavern on a previous SMSG/SAERI expedition.
Credit: Marina Costa/SAERI
Caption: A SMSG diver in joined by a fur seal as they swim through giant kelp forest.
Credit: Claire Goodwin