Mapping the extraordinary habitats of South Georgia

Pop pop pop pop pop. That seems to be the noise that a shattered glacier makes as the tiny pieces of ice float out into the bay that it spills in to. It is a still day and this is the noise filling Royal Bay, the site we’re currently visiting. Like a million thousand year old ice cubes melting in a gin and tonic that is 8km wide.

Peters Glacier Cheapman Bay ©SAERI

Royal Bay is our twelfth location that we have visited as part of an ambitious joint project to map the habitats of South Georgia. All being well we have a good twenty locations to go.

We are here to record the variety and extent of animal and botanical land habitats around the frozen interior of the island. We are armed with some simple tools: a white 30cm ruler, a pocket camera, a clip board (importantly, with water proof cover), pencils (also waterproof) and a ‘GPS’ navigation gizmo. (Okay, GPS isn’t altogether simple.)

We have been tramping up and down hills, through waist-high swampy Tussac grass, across fragrant herbfields made of Burnet with its sticky burrs, and gingerly along beaches with perpetually angry Fur Seals and -mostly- placid Elephant Seals.

Several sets of major influences are causing South Georgia’s habitats to change. A changing climate is arguably the most systemic. However, introduced Reindeer used to graze large regions, and Norway rats and house mice, also introduced, have until recently preyed on birds, insects and eaten vegetation.

It is striking how much influence the presence of animals has on habitats here. Burrowing birds from the petrel family can transform a hillside into a highly fertile Tussac habitat with their faeces. So no rats may mean more birds, meaning more fertilisation, meaning recovering habitats.

Light Mantled Sooty Albatrosses in Tussac ©SAERI

A Darwin Plus funded project led by SAERI, in partnership with the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Oregon State University, Shallow Marine Survey Group, Falkland Islands Government and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee aims to build an island-wide coastal map that will allow the Government to see how the island is changing and therefore how to best work with that change.

Lush mossy habitats ©SAERI

For our small part of the project we are supported by the most excellent MV Pharos, a tough red and white ship with a hard working crew and an awesome galley. We’re lucky enough to be sharing the trip with an inspiring team from the South Georgia Heritage Trust, here to check if rats have finally been removed.

For the next four weeks we will be working our way up the east coast, visiting bay after bay, each one a natural wonder, many with glaciers whose size are hallucinatory and seem to emanate a deep luminous blue. Humpback Whales have started to appear, some doing turns in the air as they leap out of the water.

To say there are penguins here would be an understatement. Some beaches are impossible to find a path through as there are too many feathered parents raising noisy chicks crowding the place out.

It is uplifting to be able to visit and briefly work in a country whose natural heritage is not only in good shape, but is actually getting better and better. An example of visionary management.

Sacha Cleminson & Carlos Leiva

Mapping lobster biomass and the utilities/services on Tristan da Cunha. QGIS reaches the remotest inhabited island of the world!

by iLaria Marengo

Working with GIS and as data manager is exciting, but it becomes even more when the job is taking you to unusual places such as Tristan da Cunha, a small volcanic island in the middle of the Southern Atlantic ocean surrounded only by other two smaller islands, Inaccessible and Nightingale and, further south, Gough.

all_sa_ukots  tristan-group

The project to realise an Information Management System and GIS centre for the South Atlantic UKOTs has reached its final destination and a proper conclusion after three years of life. Getting to Tristan is all but easy thus it took time to arrive, meet the small community and bring QGIS and a flavour of data management in such a remote place.

The QGIS course was not planned in advance but day by day once in Tristan. In fact it was thought that could be more effective to tailor the lessons according to the main needs and existent GIS skills of the users. The majority of the time was spent at the fisheries and electricity and plumbing departments. The directors showed a great interest in receiving a GIS course and their requirement were very specific. They ranged from being able to map lobster biomass per monitoring station, lobster catch (total and average per fishing season) and effort around Tristan, to the network of services, utilities and structures of the settlement of Edinburgh of the seven seas.

total_catch_tristan   tristan-tourism

A series of maps (geological topographical and aerial) have been georeferenced to provide the students with a reference background. Currently the main need is to find a clear image of the settlement as it will help digitising the electricity, water and sewage networks, the buildings and other utilities such as substations, streetlights, stone water tanks and so on.

crawford_map  geological_map

Unfortunately on the island internet is very limited and not reliable. Among the whole South Atlantic UKOTs Tristan has the smallest band width, hence it is virtually impossible to download images or connect to google earth like everyone else would do in the other territories. In terms of GIS a poor internet is partly a limitation as getting new plugins, google maps or updates of the software becomes very difficult. The solution is to work with the long term release releases and get large data (such as imagery) saved as offline images and shipped in on DVDs.

In parallel to the GIS course, time was spent in harvesting metadata. The departments involved in the training course provided metadata about their data and RSPB kindly helped in gathering information on environmental data captured throughout the years with the help of the local conservation department. Almost 40 metadata records were collected and will be available on the metadata catalogue online from the end of November.

Finally, few hours were dedicated with officers of the tourist office and advice on QGIS mapping techniques was given to improve the current maps given to the tourists landing at Tristan. Using QGIS will make mapping much easier and quicker than what is now, entirely based on graphic design software.

The GIS course delivered in Tristan focussed on simple and basic tools that could help straightway the GIS users in achieving their requirements. Indeed, more can be done with GIS but the overall idea, after being on the island, is to let the GIS grow a step at a time according to people’ needs.

Geocaching in Tristan da Cunha

By iLaria Marengo

Learning about projections and coordinate systems, navigation techniques, compass and bearing, and the use a Global Positioning System (GPS) nowadays can be a bit funnier thanks to geocaching, a modern version of the traditional treasure hunt.

In brief, geocaching consists in getting a pair of coordinates, loading them into a GPS and using the device to navigate to the point where a small box, the geocache, has been hidden. The cache is a small waterproof box and generally contains a logbook and the treasure, which usually are tiny items that have a particular meaning for the person who placed them. The people who find the cache are free to take its objects (except the logbook) but they must leave something of similar value.


It was an unexpected but pleasant surprise to find out that in Tristan da Cunha, the remotest inhabited island in the world, a series of caches had been hidden by the local tourist office as part of a commemorative geotrail. The 200 anniversary of the British Garrison in Tristan da Cunha was celebrated with parties and various initiatives and setting up a geotrail was one of these.

The opportunity of being the first to do the geotrail was then seized and seen as the best way to engage the oldest students of Saint Mary’s School to have an open air geography lesson about projections, maps and the use of GPS for navigation and marking spatial objects. Thanks to Anne, the head teacher who authorised the half day out, and the help of Sarah, fisheries officer, the kids in class 5 were taken around the settlement to learn how to use a GPS, how to mark a waypoint, enter coordinates of a point and navigate to it in order to find it. The day before the “hunt”, the six pupils were asked to write on a small piece of paper why they enjoyed living in Tristan. The papers would have placed in each cache as treasure for the next geocachers.

ticket_geotrail   ticket_geotrail2

A map of the settlement with a sketch of the geotrail, the coordinates of each cache and a description of the importance of each site in the context of the British garrison period was given to the kids for reference.

geotrail_leafletThe kids of class 5 learned very quickly how to use the GPS in the two hours of cache hunting and navigation. The day before rained heavily, however the muddy and soaked fields did not spoil the day and the amusement of the kids. The hope is to have passed to the kids a new skill which they can well use in Tristan and in any job with conservation, fisheries and public work.

kids_geotrail1   kids_geotrail

It would have been great to show the kids how to map the points in QGIS. However, there was not enough time to plan for a GIS lesson, which was instead given to some of their parents!

New publication on ingestion of anthropogenic material by turkey vultures in the Falklands

A new study by SAERI was recently published in the journal Polar Biology presenting the first results on the amount of human rubbish ingested by turkey vultures in the Falkland Islands, in particular plastic. The paper is entitled “Anthropogenic debris in the diet of turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) in a remote and low populated South Atlantic island“.

Turkey vultures at the Stanley opern rubbish tip (photo: Amélie Augé)

Turkey vultures at the Stanley open rubbish tip (photo: Amélie Augé)

The abstract of the paper is: “Plastic pollution is becoming an increasing issue for wildlife throughout the world. Even remote areas with relatively little human activity are affected. The Falkland Islands are a South Atlantic archipelago with a small human population (<3,000), mostly concentrated in one town, Stanley. One hundred regurgitated pellets from turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) were collected in Stanley in July and August 2015 to investigate the diet and amount of anthropogenic debris (human-made artificial products) ingested. The frequency of occurrence of anthropogenic debris was 58% of pellets for plastic, 25% for glass, 23% for paper, 21% for aluminium, and 3% for fabric.  Aside from anthropogenic debris the majority of pellets were made of sheep wool (on average 29% of the volume), feathers (19%) and vegetation (18%). On average, when present, anthropogenic debris corresponded to 16.1% of the mass of each pellet, equivalent to 1.6g. The turkey vultures are known to feed in the open-air rubbish dump near the town. This study highlights that they ingest significant amounts of anthropogenic debris. Further investigations should be undertaken to monitor and identify potential health effects. Other birds also use the dump and may be affected. Even in such remote sparsely-populated islands, pollution may be a significant issue. Rubbish management could be put in place to limit birds from feeding at the dumps. A low human population density may not indicate low pollution impacts on wildlife and the environment and should be investigated further in the Falkland Islands and at other remote islands.”

A piece was published in the local newspaper (the Penguin News) last Friday about the results and is available online.

If you want a copy of the full paper, contact me and I’ll send you the pdf.

SAERI staff participate in Ascension Island MPA workshop in London

Ascension Island is a tiny island in the middle of the South Atlantic, right below the equator. The land area of the island is very small with its 88 km2, but it comes with a large marine Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) of 445,390  km2 administered by the Ascension Island Government (AIG). The island is one of the UK Overseas Territories. As part of the Blue Belt initiative for the UKOTs by the UK Government, some of the islands’ waters are going to become a large no-take MPA with a fishing closure area to be designed for 50% of the area.

AIG ran a workshop on 18 April 2016 at the Foreign Commonwealth Office in London where three SAERI staff were invited: Dr Paul Brickle, Tara Pelembe and me, Dr Amélie Augé. The workshop called ‘Towards an evidence-based MPA for Ascension Island: Ensuring scientifically robust marine spatial planning’ aimed:

“1. To review current knowledge of Ascension Island’s marine environment in the context of marine spatial planning and sufficiency for marine reserve designation.
2. To draw up a prioritised and costed list of research that still needs to be completed, including both pre-designation evidence gathering and subsequent monitoring.
3. To discuss practical aspects of delivering the science plan, including logistics and legacy planning

The ultimate objective of the scientific programme will be to integrate all available fisheries and ecological data within a formal marine spatial planning framework to ensure that any future large-scale MPA is placed in the most appropriate location.” [extracts from workshop material]

The workshop provided a great venue to discuss aspects of scientific needs to design the MPA and an MSP process to assist AIG in developing best practice to define what areas should be closed and a science program. SAERI has been involved with several marine reseach projects (and will be with others in the future) that provided important data on fish and benthic habitats around the island and were used in the discussions. I also gave a short presentation about the MSP process in the Falklands, showcasing the production of the MSP GIS database and its online application: the prototype Falklands MSP webGIS. This showed an example of how AIG could produce scientific tools to facilitate the identification of areas where the no-zone take would provide the most conservation benefits. Links between the two territorites will hopefully be developed in the future to share experience and expertise for MSP research.

Dr Amélie Augé presenting the Falklands MSP process to the participants

Dr Amélie Augé presenting the Falklands MSP process to the participants

The Minister for the UKOTs joined the participants at the end of the day and Dr Judith Brown (AIG Director of Fisheries, workshop organiser and facilitator) gave a summary of the day’s discussions and conclusions to the Minister who, then, provided insights in the importance of the process for the UK Government, and thanked the participants for their inputs.

Dr Jude Brown summarising the workshop day to UK Minister for the UKOTs

Dr Jude Brown summarising the workshop day to UK Minister for the UKOTs

An evening reception at the end of the workshop provided great networking opportunities with the participants, along with a range of other invited guests from various NGOs and UK Governement representatives. My walk back to the hotel after the reception provided beautiful nighttime views of London, a change from the Stanley night lights!

London at night (photo: Amélie Augé)

London at night (photo: Amélie Augé)

Amélie’s attendance was funded as part of the Darwin Plus project ‘Marine Spatial Planning for the Falkland Islands‘.

Marine Spatial Planning: Mapping historical whale sightings to manage the future!

——————————-This blog post was written by Veronica Frans, research assistant at SAERI in the Darwin Plus-funded project ‘Marine Spatial Planning for the Falkland Islands’  team. The Environmental Planning Department financially supported the study via their Environmental Studies Budget. An edited version of this blog post was published in the Penguin News on 29 April 2016.——————————————————————

Last year in October, a blog post was written about the Marine Spatial Planning team’s efforts to capture the story of whale recovery in the Falkland Islands’ waters. I travelled all around the Islands, interviewing people about where and when they had seen whales throughout their lifetime, and if they could recall a difference between the numbers they saw in the past and what they see today. I also went through museum archives, government and whaling records, old newspapers, Falklands Conservation reports and scientific publications. The results are finally in and it seems that indeed, a story can be told!

Increase in whale sightings since the 1970s when none were seen

Increase in whale sightings since the 1970s when none were seen

Interviewee accounts have indicated that many whales were often or always seen in the Falkland Islands’ waters in the 1940s and 50s, but in the 60s and 70s, there were very few to virtually no observations. Commercial whaling ended worldwide in the 1980s. Since the 1990s, the number of observations has increased and skyrocketed for the 2010s, since we still have half a decade left to go! The older generations could recall having seen whales in their childhood, but noticed their absence and recent return; most interviewees representing the younger generation, however, had stated that they did not recall seeing their first whale until adulthood.



The majority of whales seen in the Falkland Islands’ inshore waters are sei whales, followed by fin whales, minke whales, southern right whales and humpback whales. Sighting hotspots were found, with the highest concentrations in Berkeley Sound, Falkland Sound and the large bays of West Falkland.


Whale observation hotspots since the 1990s

One interviewee described the increase in whale sightings as an “explosion of whales” and others stated that they were “glad to see they’re back and [they] like seeing them”. To many local residents, the return of the whales in the Falklands’ waters may be obvious, but we now have data to study the recovery and tell the story to the rest of the world. Locally, the findings from this study can be used in Marine Spatial Planning by informing FIG on potentially important areas for the whales, and when they are most likely to be present in these waters.

Peak of whale sightings: January to March each year

Peak of whale sightings: January to March each year


I and the rest of the Marine Spatial Planning team thank all participants again for their contribution, as well as those who provided other useful sources of information for this study.

Hotspots of Cultural Coastal Values Identified for Marine Spatial Planning

———————-Article written by Denise Herrera from the Marine Spatial Planning team, and published in an edited format in the local Falklands’ newspaper Penguin News on 22 April 2016. The project was supervised by Dr. Amélie Augé (SAERI) and Dr. Kate Sherren (Dalhousie University, Canada).————————————————–

Pssshhhh – we know which spots are the best in the Falklands! Late last year the Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) team at SAERI conducted interviews in the local community to identify coastal areas that people value so they can be included in the MSP process for the Falkland Islands. Interviews took place in both camp and Stanley.

Example of a map during interview, later digitised for analyses (dummy map)

Example of a map during interview, later digitised for analyses (dummy map)

A total of 47 islanders and long-term residents were asked to identify the 15 places most important to them around the islands and whether they valued them for their aesthetic “Natural Beauty” value, recreational value, historical value or sense of place, nicknamed: “Makes me feel at home”. This was done using new techniques in ‘Public Participation Geographic Information Systems’, or simply put: drawing and labelling coastlines on a laminated map of the Falklands. Participants were asked to identify the strength of their attachment, using a variety of colourful marker pens. Our participants embraced this fun and interactive activity with such enthusiasm that a whopping total of 745 lines were drawn!

Clear hotspots of values were found around our islands. Surf Bay was a clear favourite in recreational value as well as Bull Point and the Chartres estuary. The Natural Beauty of a place received the most responses with hotspots including Sea Lion Island, the Neck at Saunders, Cape Dolphin, Carcass Island and Bull Point.  Of highest historical value was San Carlos, the coast by the Lady Elizabeth wreck, the Mission Station on Keppel Island and the first Settlement on Saunders. What’s more, participants weren’t swayed in their choice by their home settlement meaning a true representation of Cultural Coastal Values was given.


Natural Beauty valued area (highest attachment in red)

Ecosystem Services are the benefits that we gain, directly and indirectly, from the environment. For example a walk on the beach can bring you happiness and well-being, making you healthier and more productive at work. MSP is a coordinated management for the marine environment that includes ecosystem services and environments as a whole. Often seen as land-use planning for the sea, MSP identifies areas of interactions, current or future, between marine uses and economic, ecological and cultural values. With this in mind, the inclusion of Cultural Coastal Values in MSP for the Falkland Islands will aid in better management, maintaining our unique environments, including your favourite spots. After all, who would like a sewage treatment site next to their favourite beach?!

Conference presentation: Using local knowledge to predict baleen whale distribution around the Falkland Islands

Veronica Frans, from the Marine Spatial Planning project team at SAERI, attended and presented her research at US-IALE 2016 (the International Association for Landscape Ecology). The conference took place from 3-7 April 2016 in Ashville, USA. Veronica presented the results from the work she has been doing in the Falkland Islands since August 2015 on baleen whale historical distribution and sighting numbers, as well as an innovative species distribution modelling (SDM) technique using local knolwedge data to determine suitable habitat for baleen whales around the islands, now and as their numbers recover. The results will inform the MSP process for the islands. See the abstract here.


Veronica giving her presentation at US-IALE on Monday 4 April 2016.








———-Veronica F Frans, Amélie A Augé, Jan O Engler and Hendrik Edelhoff (2016). A whale of a tale: using local knowledge to predict baleen whale distribution around the Falkland Islands. US-IALE 2016, Ashville, North Carolina, USA.——————————–

The modelling work is conducted in collaboration with German scientists with expertise in SDM, Jan Engler (Zoological Researchmuseum Alexander Koenig) and Hendrik Edelhoff (Dept. of Wildlife Sciences,Georg-August-University Göttingen, Göttingen).

The presentation was very well received with some great feedbacks and interesting ideas to complement and improve the research.

The Darwin Plus Marine Spatial Planning project funded Veronica’s attendance but she was also awarded a NASA travel award that provided assistance with travel costs (congrats Veronica!).

Veronica receiving her NASA award

Veronica officially receiving her NASA award from Jack Liu and Janet Franklin during the conference.


Local stakeholders gathered in Stanley for a 3-day marine spatial planning workshop

Last week, from Tuesday to Thursday, marine stakeholders of the Falkland Islands gathered for a workshop on Marine Spatial Planning (MSP). This workshop was part of the 2-year project funded by Darwin Pus, managed by SAERI. The aim of the project is to initiate the process of MSP for the Islands by preparing data, tools and analyses, and working towards a framework for MSP in the Falkland Islands. The results will inform the Falkland Islands Government and its stakeholders on how to implement MSP and make recommendations on priority zones for management. This workshop was the third and last workshop of the project that will end in July 2016. In December 2015, the MSP team submitted a paper to the Executive Council summarising the benefits that MSP could bring the islands. ExCo has agreed to the production of an MSP Plan, subject to a fine-scale framework. The workshop provided the platform for discussiofor blog postn to define this fine scale framework with local stakeholders and a couple of international experts. An MSP Plan is a strategic coordinated plan for regulating, managing and protecting the marine environment that addresses the multiple, cumulative and potentially conflicting uses of the sea, current and future, and aim to fulfill economic, ecological and social objectives.

Jude and Michael presenting the results of their breakout groups

Jude and Michael presenting the results of their breakout group.

Workshop participants included representatives from marine industries (fishing, oil, shipping), government departments (EPD, Minerals, Fisheries, Marine and Biosecurity  officers), MLAs, Falklands Conservation, Royal Navy, Wildlife Conservation Society, and recreational activities (Yacht Club, diving), SAERI, as well as three international delegates from Scotland, the shetland Islands and Ascension Island.The workshop consisted of brief presentations to show all the maps produced depicting human activities at sea and areas used by wildlife, and of cultural values (check out the MSP webGIS to look at some of the maps), alternated with  a series of sessions where participants worked on small exercises on MSP objectives and targets, shipping, conservation, Berkeley Sound management, interconnectivity between marine activities, people’s values and the environment, and MSP format, actors and roles. The participants provided great insights in the priority needs to ensure coordinated sustainable development of the islands’ maritime activities.

The HMS Clyde at sunrise

The HMS Clyde at sunrise in Port Stanley.

Commander Bill Dawson from the Royal Navy at MPA has been on the MSP project steering committee since its start and he had kindly offered to host one workshop day on board HMS Clyde to illustrate some maritime activities. The workshop participants therefore had the great opportunity to spend a whole day on board last Thursday, partly in the officers’ mess for work sessions and the rest of the time on the deck during a visit in Berkeley Sound where they witnessed ships bunkering in the same area as Sei whales foraging and vessel traffic. The crew were great hosts and made this day very useful and memorable for the workshop.

The MSP workshop group photo on board the HMS Clyde on 7 April

The MSP workshop group photo on board the HMS Clyde on 7 April.

Workshop participants on the photo are back from left: Nick Rendell (EPD), Michael Gras (DNR), Ross James (DNR), David Blockley (SAERI), Pippa Christie (FIPLA), Roddy Cordeiro (DMR), Amélie Augé (SAERI), Graham Harris (WCS), Steve Bamfield (HMS Clyde Captain), Martin Mendez (WSC), Karen Hall (JNCC) Rachel Shucksmith (University of Highlands and Islands), Jude Brown (Ascension Island Government), Emma Beaton (SAERI); Front from left: Chris Locke (Marine Officer), Paul Brickle (SAERI), Andy Stanworth (FC), Tom Blake (FIFCA), Emily Hancox (DMR), and MLA Michael Poole); on-board but missing from photo: Jackie Cotter (FIFCA), Adam Cockwell (Workboat services), Sammy Hirtle (SAERI); other participants that could not attend the HMS Clyde day: Tim Martin (FIPLA), Grant Munro (Austral Biodiversity), Joost Pompert (DNR), Roy Summer (Sulivan Shipping).

The workshop was a great success, with engaged and interested participants, and some great outcomes to help design what MSP should look like in the Falkland Islands. Some of the main outcomes in regard to MSP were a clear need for improve shipping management, of vessels visiting the islands but also in particular, transiting through the Falklands’ waters. Of particular importance was the area around the Jason Islands with a shipping route on the west of this archipelago. Identifying other areas vulnerable to shipping risks, as well as for human safety (eg. cruise ship traffic) was also found a priority. MSP was overall seen as a great tool to improve safety at sea and emergency responses, as well as coordinate management of maritime activities, now and for the future. Rachel Shucksmith from the Shetland Islands’ MSP team at the University of Highlands and Islands was an invited speaker at the workshop. She also gave a very informative and exciting public talk on the Tuesday evening, to a packed room, about the Shetlands and how they use MSP to ensure sustainable maritime development there. For more info on the Falklands’ MSP project, check out the MSP webpage.

Rachel Shucksmith from the University of Highlands and Islands giving a public presentation in Stnaley on 5 April

Rachel Shucksmith from the University of Highlands and Islands giving a public presentation on the Shetland Islands’ marine life and local management in Stanley on 5 April.

Thanks to all the participants for their enthousiasm, and to Sammy for her brilliant logistic assistance and Emma for all the note-taking!

Sammy and all the cakes; Emma ready to take notes!

Sammy and all the cakes; Emma ready to take notes!