Kerguelen saga 2.0: episode 3 – Crozet & Antarctic fauna

by | Jan 2, 2018 | News

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.

Bonjour à tous,

After five nights at sea, we finally reached the waters of Crozet Archipelago on the morning of December 11.  I realized I was acclimated to life at sea when I woke up with the unusual sensation of stability – surprisingly, the moderate rolling of the ship got quite comfortable after a while. Looking through the porthole, I first saw land: a steep and rocky coastline under a foggy morning — a characteristic sub-Antarctic landscape.

Five nights is not six months, but it was still surprising to see land, and sufficient time to realize that we were now entering a completely different world. Then, noticing movement in the sea, I saw a striking site: king penguins diving beneath the dark surface of the ocean.

It’s funny how after three years of making images in my mind about the first time I would encounter penguins in the wild, I never expected to see them in the water. But indeed, they are seabirds! I dressed in a hurry, grabbed my camera and rushed on deck. There were 50 or so king penguins (second largest penguin species after the emperor), surrounding the Marion Dufresne. Such magnificent and curious creatures to watch.

Every year, there are only four rotations of the Marion Dufresne to supply the scientific bases of Crozet, Kerguelen, and Amsterdam (all parts of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands). Due to the logistical constraints imposed by such important operations, we had to wait patiently to the following day to have a chance to discover this new world.

On December 12, at 5:15 am I woke up, ate breakfast, and it was time to go. It started with a short helicopter flight, my first one, from the ship to the base of Alfred Laure, which offered a unique perspective. After a brief reception and coffee with the people working in Crozet, it was time to head down to the colony. Suddenly, there was so much to see and feel. Twenty-thousand king penguin pairs calling, courting, and disputing; elephant seals roaring and fighting aggressively, others sleeping; a couple of gentoo penguin wandering around; great skua and giant petrels patiently waiting for a lost egg or a weak chick.

Nature in its purest expression

As Philippe would say: “It’s loud, it stinks, but it’s beautiful”! Beautiful, indeed. While we were already saturated by this magnificent display, a pod of orcas surged in Baie du Marin. We first saw the immense dorsal fins from far away, then we realized they were on the hunt. At this time of year young elephant seal begin to enter the sea, and it does not go unnoticed by the greatest apex predator of the ocean. The pod came closer and closer, and to our astonishment, moved within ten meters of the beach! This moment was simply unreal, and we all felt very fortunate to notice such spectacle. Nature has this immense power to surprise and fascinate.

A giant petrel surveys the landscape

Later in the day, we hiked to the wandering albatross colony nesting on the green slopes of Baie du Marin and we had the privilege to observe their gracious courtship. Head to the sky and wings wide open, so delicate and yet so powerful. Philippe, Clément and I then went for a hike to the modest Mount Branco, a volcanic summit. It was a relatively short hike, but after about a week at sea it was great to do some physical activity and finally resume our terrestrial lives!

An albatross prepares for take-off

Life at sea can be long

A paradox between days that go relatively fast (as they are punctuated by trainings and meals) and time that goes slowly, reliving the same day over again in a confined space. After our return on the Marion Dufresne, and leaving Crozet Archipelago, we navigated passed l’Île de l’Est, which is now an integral ecological reserve. No one has set foot on the island in over 30 years! Under the fog, massive Mordor-like cliffs plunging down into the rough sea. Then, hundreds of birds (petrels, shearwaters, albatrosses, terns, skuas, gulls, cormorants, prions, penguins) flying, floating and swimming in all directions. A mysterious island where nature is king, and can flourish unbothered by us humans. The pinnacle of a magical day.

Dr. Philippe Gaudin (INRA, France), Xavier Bordeleau and Clément Rio (undergraduate student from Purpan Engineering School, France)

Uninhabited and remote l’Île de l’Est

For the remaining of the transit from Crozet to Kerguelen (Dec 12-15) we had decent weather (apparently, it does happen sometimes)! The first sight of Kerguelen Archipelago was very impressive. First, compared to Crozet Archipelago (~350 km2), Kerguelen is immense (~7,200 km2; as areference point, Prince Edward Island is ~5,700 km2). Approaching the Archipelago, we could see Cook Glacier and the snowy cap of Mont Ross (1,850 m in elevation) appear in the horizon.

As I write, I am now discovering life in Port-aux-Français, while organizing our next few months here and helping Jan Davidsen and Jacques Labonne prepare the equipment for receiver deployments and tagging (which is scheduled for late-January to mid-February).

We came here to work, after all!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!