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Dispatch 3 – Welcome to Stanley

Fortunately, I did manage to escape quarantine after only five days....


Fortunately, I did manage to escape quarantine after only five days. But Karin, my Chilean colleague, wasn't so lucky. Although negative for Covid-19, she was sitting near someone who tested positive in the 'circle of doom' on the plane. So, she had to do a full ten days of quarantine. But now she is out, and we can explore Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands.


The English navigator, John Davis, aboard the 'Desire,' made the first modern sighting of the Falkland Islands in 1592. The British captain John Strong is thought to have made the first European landing in 1690. He named the channel dividing the two main islands 'Falkland Sound' after Viscount Falkland, then Treasurer of the Royal Navy. But archaeological evidence published this week suggests that the Yaghan (Yámana) people from Tierra del Fuego might have visited centuries before him. From the 18th century, sealers, whalers, and penguin hunters of many nationalities visited the islands. The French, British, Spaniards, and Argentines have all claimed the Falklands at various points. But in 1833, the British reasserted their sovereignty, and in 1845 they established Stanley. The Falkland Islands are now an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom.


Eager to stretch our legs after quarantine, Karin, Jonathan, and I hike up to Mount Tumbledown and Mount Harriet with local friends. Overlooking Stanley from the west, we can see right down the harbour. We pass a rusty Argentine field kitchen before coming to the war memorial on the top of Mount Harriet. In 1982, Argentine troops occupied the Falkland Islands for 74 days. This war was a major episode in the protracted dispute between Argentina and Britain over the island's sovereignty. Britain sent a task force to recover the islands. After fierce fighting on land, at sea, and in the air, the Argentine forces surrendered. Many remnants of the war, like the kitchen, can be seen around Stanley. In total, 907 people were killed in conflict and many more injured, and there are also cemeteries for both nationalities here.


Overlooking Stanley Harbour from behind an Argentine field kitchen abandoned after the Falklands war.

 

On Sunday, we get a very different view of the harbour. Over a glassy calm sea and in glorious sunshine, we skim over its surface and out of the narrows, accompanied by leaping Peale’s dolphins. We are aboard the Shallow Marine Survey's Group's RIB and new research vessel, the RV Jack Sollis. Our mission is to check out our dive gear and do some rescue training before departing for South Georgia.

One important check is our weights. I usually dive in a drysuit rather than a wetsuit. My drysuit has seals at the neck and wrists to keep me dry. In a wetsuit, the warmth comes from a layer of water trapped next to your skin and warmed by your body. But in a drysuit, the heat mainly comes from staying dry and your body warming what you wear underneath. To keep warm while diving in South Georgia, I will be wearing far more layers under my drysuit than I do at home in Canada. I have a sleeping-bag like onesie and many thermal layers under that. These trap air, which is buoyant, so I need to wear far more lead on my weight belt than usual to allow me to sink. The other divers have also layered up. Although we are limiting our dives to a 30-minute bottom time, you quickly get cold in 2oC water.

Fortunately, my weights are adequate, and I submerge into the green water with my dive buddies Paul and Steve. Rays of sunlight filter through undulating fronds of giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera). The seaweeds' upper fronds straddle over the surface, making a handy anchoring point if the dive RIB needs to tie up. But you do have to be careful when at the surface, as the fronds can easily tangle you. Underneath, the tree kelp Lessonia is encrusted with life – jewel-like blobs of ascidians and sponges, blue and pink painted shrimp, and a smorgasbord of seastars. Prehistoric-looking white Serolid amphipods scuttle over the white sand between the kelp trunks.


Claire explores the giant kelp forest.


 

When we surface, it's time to practice some rescues. We have put as many safety factors in place as possible, so hopefully, the trip will be emergency-free. However, we still have to prepare in case we need to recover an injured or unconscious diver from the water. That's no easy feat when they wear pounds of lead weights and lots of securely attached dive kit. We practice removing the casualty's dive kit - tricky when you are wearing thick gloves. We secure a gadget called a Jacob's cradle onto the side of the RIB. We use this as a sling to haul the casualty out of the water and onto the boat deck. It works best with four of us: one in the water to manoeuvre the diver onto the sling, two on the boat pulling the sling aboard, and one to support the casualty's head. Once aboard the boat, we would be able to administer first aid and oxygen.


The dive team practice recovering a casualty onto the RIB. Image credit: Jo Zanker.


 

We manage to squeeze in some training for others too. Juliet and Rob, our seaweed experts, have been running a series of courses on seaweed for local school children and community groups. I help them with a session for Wildlife Watch, a club for local children run by Falkland Conservation. The kids aren't impressed by the smell – we are working with specimens collected last week, frozen, then defrosted. But once they get over it, they are excited to try their hand at pressing seaweed. It might sound like an activity for Victorian Ladies, but scientists researching seaweed today still use this way of preserving seaweed samples. The scientists keep the pressings as a way of documenting their finds. I help the children float their seaweed specimen in a shallow tray and onto a piece of paper that they have carefully labelled with the collection date and location of the seaweed. The paper is then removed from the water and placed in a lasagne of newspaper and diaper liners (to stop the paper from sticking). The stack of seaweed pressings is then strapped between two boards to squeeze the water out of the specimens and dry them for long-term storage. These seaweed herbariums can last for hundreds of years. My specimens aren't perfect, but that's ok – I have a feeling I will be getting a lot more practice when we get to South Georgia.

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