Episode 4 – Still alive…

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The Ocean Tracking Network and the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA, France) are collaborating on a study of the successful colonization of the remote French Kerguelen Islands by brown trout, introduced to the region in the 1960s. The project presents a unique opportunity to study large-scale colonization by a species in the context of climate change and glacial retreat.
Colin Buhariwalla is an OTN Masters student at Acadia University in Nova Scotia. Over the next three months, Colin will be conducting acoustic range tests and documenting his time on the Kerguelen Islands. Colin shares his unique experience at this remote research site through comedic updates and poor grammar (though mostly edited below). These are his stories…

Presqu’ile (almost island) Jeanne D’Arc and Presqu’ile Ronarch – Feb 3-9

Firstly, I apologize for the delay and must reassure everyone that, yes I am indeed still alive and well. Since my last email, our trout team (commonly referred to as ‘pop truite’ on base) has spent 26 of the last 38 days trekking +300 km of some of the most rugged, remote, and beautiful terrain Kerguelen has to offer.

We started with a trip to Presqu’ile (almost island) Jeanne D’Arc and Presqu’ile Ronarch, followed by a two week stint in the coveted Val Travers (10-12 people visit here annually and it is on top of everybody’s ‘To See In Kerg’ list), and finished off with a short, duration not distance, manip in Val Studer/Port Elisabeth.

Presqu’ile Jeanne d’Arc
Our trip to Point Jean d’Arc came two days after the preceding manip to Korrigans and was the most challenging experience we’ve faced on Kerguelen. It was difficult logistically, the terrain was harsh, the weather was mostly crap, and morale was at an all time low. The whole experience threw me off my email game as some time was required to recover from this mission.

All of the logistics (food, shelter, living supplies, transport, etc.) for field work here are well planned out by the friendly/wonderful folks at IPEV (Institute Polaire Francias Paul Emile Victor—I still don’t know where all the extra letters went) who work off of project proposals/field plans provided by the various research teams 1+ years in advance. To make life easier on us, not having to carry all of our living supplies plus sampling gear on our trek, we were outfitted with 11 60L tuques of supplies we were to deposit at three locations to be encountered on our manip (again, thank you folks at IPEV for being so accommodating/amazing at your jobs). So at 5:30 in the morning on Feb 03 we loaded the Zodiac with all of our gear and headed for the southern presqu’iles.

Phonolite_ridge

Savage beards
On the Zodiac ride we should have realized that this manip was going to be difficult. The sea state couldn’t be defined as rough, relative to what we’d previously encountered; however, we would skip over 2-3 waves at a time and required constant vigilance to prevent ourselves from being thrashed around. About 20 minutes into the trip, the looming purplish-grey clouds unleashed their payload of tiny hail stones, into which we plunged at 20-25 knots (~40-50 km/h). The hail assaulted any piece of exposed flesh and each strike felt like a tiny dagger pecking at your face. Luckily for us we were bundled up and the only parts exposed were below our goggle line (cheeks, lips, neck); additional protection is offered by the c sported by many men on Kerg (sorry, ladies). The hail continued with us the entire trip and came in waves every 5-10 minutes… by the end of each cloud your face is numb, recovers between clouds, and the process starts all over again.

The single most important piece of field gear
On top of the hail, 45 minutes into the transit we realized that we forgot our VHF radios. The VHF radio is the single most important piece of field gear that we carry with us in the field. The radios are our lifeline to base and any activity outside the security perimeter requires radio contact. If you leave base, you radio in (all sorties must be pre-authorized). When you arrive at your destination, you radio in. Each night while in the field, you radio in (1730 for check-in and weather). If you are in areas without VHF reception, you take a satellite phone and call in at 1800. There are no exceptions. Without radios, you return to base immediately and reschedule your manip. Our radios were safely back in the lab, charged up and ready to go. Luckily for us, the Reserve Natural (equivalent to our Parks Canada) guys had an extra VHF on the Zodiac. Manip saved!

An old whaling station
After a 75km zodiac ride and depositing gear at two sites, we arrived at our final destination PJDA (pronounced Pay-Gee-Da) or Porte Jeanne d’Arc. PJDA is an old whaling station that was used in one form or another from the 1800s until the 1940s-1950s. There has been a recent excavation/restoration of a couple of buildings on the site, but most of what remains of the whaling past is the rusted out boilers and barrels where they rendered the blubber.

While at PJDA we electrofished two rivers to see if they were colonized by trout. Anybody who has electrofished can tell you how exciting it is to turn fish. When rivers are devoid of fish, it becomes frustrating after one or two empty streams (again, all freshwater fishes found on Kerguelen have been introduced). Eventually, you start to second guess the equipment and your technique.

Flight of the Light-Mantled Sooty Albatrosse
After fishing, we hiked to a gorge at the head of one of the fishless rivers. We sat on one side of the gorge and watched Light-Mantled Sooty Albatrosses (Phoebetria palpebrata) try and land on opposing cliffs to feed their chicks. Now, if you’ve never watched a seabird attempt anything on land, it can be quite funny to watch. They are more awkward than a grade 7 boy at his first at a junior high school dance. The gracefully soaring albatrosses didn’t seem like they were able to slow down. They would circle around the cliff a few times, head low, and then pull up on approach to their nest in an effort to ditch speed. Then, with the finesse of an ox, flop themselves down onto the ledge of the cliff. The motion can only be described as a ‘ka-splat’.

Sooty Albatrosses are a beautiful bird—charcoal grey, a white line over their eye, and an impressive wingspan— however, their call is one of the most heinous animal noises I’ve heard (up there with cat fights). Their call, in my opinion, is the embodiment of the name of a plastic fishing lure used by Stewiacke Nova Scotia fishermen to catch Striped Bass (Morone saxatilis) along the banks of the Shubenacadie River. The name: Nuclear Chicken.  Hopefully YouTube will have some clips that you can use to verify the description.

Vallee de l’Acoena
After a night at PJDA we set out for Vallee de l’Acoena. On our way we navigated rivers, gorges, and the least favourite terrain, the sides of the mountains—after a couple of hours of trekking on an angle, your joints get pretty sore. Our substitute maniper, Vincent, had some trouble with his feet so we had to keep an eye out for him. Every time I asked how he was doing, his reply was always the same, “Ça va”. I’ve never seen a person in such obvious pain brush it off/not mention it for as long as he did (the entire 100+ km of the manip). He was tough and extremely nice; a great combination for a maniper.

Silver torpedos
On arrival  at Acoena we pitched our tents and headed off sampling. The first hole we came to with the electrofisher was ~ 10m long, 1 to 1.3m deep, and 1.5m wide. It was primarily made up of an undercut bank and looked ‘fishy’. As soon as we put electricity to water, 65-75cm trout (3+ kg) rolled out from under the bank. We could only handle (sample) 4-5 trout at a given time so we returned to the hole four times before we had to move to the next spot. When you use an electrofisher you have the opportunity to see what lies beneath. This hole was the best I’ve ever seen for holding large fish… silver torpedos shot out everywhere from underneath the bank, bumping into your legs before swimming to freedom or being netted.

The Vallee de l’Acoena was one of the most beautiful places we’ve been during our manips. The  steps carved into the basalt from ~1cm/century of erosion and moraines cleaved by the meandering river channel contrasted the 8-10 million year history of the volcanic terrain with the much more recent deglaciation. The striking and dipping (apologies for the terrible geology joke) terrain are a constant reminder of the geological time scale and much shorter biological time scale we’re working with—the biota have changed quite substantially with the introduction of numerous plant and animal species. The beauty of the valley, however, was hard to appreciate after two nights in a tent where 40–60 knot winds (~75-110 km/h) would cause you to wake up with folded tent in your face. Hail and rain rode the wind to the camp site and you could watch the clouds push down the valley on their way by.

Acoena_tents with hail

We left Acoena and followed the coast to the adjacent presqu’ile, Ronarch. The weather and pain of a team member led to an all time low of morale—especially after 7 hours of trekking on the side of a mountain in rain, hail, and wind. All of this was quickly erased when we arrived at the small Phonolite Cabin to find half a cubit of rose wine, a propane heater, and beds waiting for us. That night we feasted on duck confit and potatoes… perfect to lift our spirits for the stay in Phonolite.

I promise, I’ll finish up soon.

Important knowledge from the Kerguelen field trials
I’d like to take a quick second and talk briefly about science. Science, at the basic level, is all about asking questions, searching for answers, and the generation and transmission of knowledge. I have had the opportunity to be around/work with great scientists in the past. People who are passionate about their research and take the time to try and make it reachable/engage whoever is interested (E.g. M. Dadswell, G. & J. Gibson). People who are able to captivate an audience and garner interest in their subject, no matter the topic (e.g. M. Stokesbury, F. Whoriskey). Well, I am going to take a stab at some knowledge transmission from Kerguelen field trials… potatoes saturated in duck grease and rillet (canned meat), however tempting, DO NOT constitute a good breakfast before a 25-30km hike… I am not saying I did this, but I did this. The logic behind the experiment was to have a filling breakfast before a huge hike to Riviere des Macaronis. Details over a beer for those interested…

Riviere des Macaronies
I will finish off with a description of one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen on Kerg. We descended to the mouth of the Riviere des Macaronies and arrived at an incredible cove with waves crashing against the cobble beach. Everywhere you looked there was interesting wildlife in your face. Elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) slept in the sun; fur seal pups (Arctocephalus gazella) played on the banks of the hills bordering the beach; Skuas (Stercorarius maccormicki) and gulls, sat around looking to scavenge; Northern Giant Petrels (Macronectes halli) waddled around looking for weak/dying penguins to eat (this massive bird requires a google search); and three species of penguins covered the rocks and beach: King Penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus), Gentoo Penguin (Pygoscelis papua), Macaroni Penguins (Eudyptes chrysolophus).

RivMac_manchot2

The penguins gracefully leapt in and out of the water as they swam to the beach. Once on land they looked like drunkards, stumbling over the rocks and hobbling around. At one point, there was a disturbance on the water and all of the giant petrels started to run (not fly) from around the cove to a site where only sign of the attractant was a frenzy of gulls and petrels in blood stained water. This place, and the animals that seemed to ignore us after 5-10 minutes on the beach, will stick in my mind as one of the most amazing spots I’ve ever seen.

The next day we packed up and headed for the rendez-vous point with L’Aventure II. On the way out of the bay, quickly passing the coast we had stumbled over only a few days earlier, a pod of Commerson’s Dolphin (Cephalorhynchus commersonii) checked us out. It was a fitting end to a tough, but amazing manip.

 

Much Love,
Colin

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