Kerguelen saga: part deux — Life on the Marion Dufresne (episode 2)

Since 2016, the Ocean Tracking Network and the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) have been collaborating on a study to understand of the successful colonization of brown trout introduced to the Kerguelen Islands (southern Indian Ocean) in the 1960s. The project presents a unique opportunity to study large-scale colonization by a non-native species in the context of climate change and glacial retreat. The first OTN-supported Kerguelen trip in 2016 sent former OTN masters student, Colin Buhariwalla, to the remote Kerguelen Islands to conduct preliminary tests and establish tracking arrays. Over the next three months, OTN PhD student, Xavier Bordeleau, will be conducting brown trout tracking studies in partnership with the French Polar Institute (IPEV), and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). He documents his research and the rhythm of life on the remote Kerguelen Islands through photographs and journal updates.

Philipe Gaudin (INRA), Jan Davidsen (NTNU) and Xavier Bordeleau (OTN/Dalhousie) on the steps of Jan’s house in Norway.

Putting things in perspective
Looking back on how it all started, the first time I heard about the Kerguelen Archipelago was in Fall2014. I had moved to Halifax only a few months earlier to pursue graduate studies at Dalhousie University with the Ocean Tracking Network, and my supervisor, Dr. Glenn Crossin, invited m
e in his office to show me the satellite imagery of a mysterious archipelago. Wondering what this had to do with what I was doing at the time, Glenn suddenly asked me if I wanted to go. And instinctively I said, “Yes.” Zooming out on Google Earth for too long, that’s when I realized how remote this place is… about 3,300 kilometres away from the nearest populated location of Madagascar to be exact. Moreover, no airstrips or any way to get there by plane. So a 4,300 kilometre, 10 day, boat ride it was (stopping by the Crozet Archipelago). In distance, this is equivalent of crossing the Atlantic Ocean from Halifax to Brest, France. But traveling on the rugged and unpredictable southern seas adds a bit of taste to that journey. Overall an exciting, but also an intimidating challenge.

Three years and a failed attempt later, we are now finally at sea! I must say that the moment we left port was particularly special to me, as last year I made it all this way only to be turned down when our project got cancelled the day of departure due to a major logistical problem. I have learned the cruel reality of polar research the hard way, but thanks to a very dedicated group of people (including: Fred Whoriskey and the OTN; Philippe Gaudin and Jacques Labonne at INRA, France; Jan Davidsen at NTNU; as well as people at the French Polar Institute), we are back at it this year and hungry for success.

Current position: the “Roaring Forties”
As I write this, we have now been at sea for four day
s. Last night we passed the Roaring Forties (strong westerly winds of the Southern Hemisphere; current position: S 42.64°, E 52.45°). We have gone through the clear blue water and warm breeze of the tropics, to the choppier and dark water of the Southern Seas. For someone who had never spent at night at sea, one major uncertainty I had was how I was going to to be able to handle it… so far, acclimating well and function normally.

Life on the Marion Dufresne is good, and the mood is friendly. We are 65 passengers in total, a mix of scientists, staffs, and tourists, so quite a few people to get to know. True to the French culture, meals play a central role in the day: entrée, main course, cheese, dessert, and of course wine (I thought Colin had a pretty funny description of it all, from a non-francophone perspective)! Between meals, the day is punctuated by training sessions (e.g. biosecurity, first aid, helicopter safety, etc.). For the remainder of the day, people work, chat, read, spend time on deck to enjoy the view and do some birding. Surprisingly, few people are on deck, but to me this is the best to place to be, a tiny dot in the middle of the ocean.

Sea birds; see birds
This morning I saw my first my first ever albatross, a young wandering albatross gliding effortlessly over the waves. Pretty cool to see the bird with the greatest wingspan in the world (up to a massive 3.5 metres)! As we are approaching Crozet Archipelago, sea birds are getting more abundant and it’s amazing to discover a whole new fauna! We are set to arrive in Crozet tomorrow and will stop there for a few days while supplies and personnel are being exchanged. If the weather is decent, we will have a chance to be dropped on the Island on Dec 12 for a day. Seeing king penguins and elephant seals for the first time will a most memorable moment.

Fingers crossed!