My two weeks with the Falkland Islands

by Katie Moon

When I tell people that I went to the Falkland Islands, there are invariably two responses; either they are insanely jealous, or smile knowingly before opening another Google tab. The former is, thankfully, more common, but the latter is entirely defensible given the fact that the islands are on the other side of the world. As a PhD student from Australia working on penguin parasites, getting to the Falklands to take samples for my project seemed like a bit of pipe dream. Lucky for me, associations like the Shackleton Scholarship Fund exist to make those sorts of dreams come true. With their support, I visited the Falkland Islands in January of this year to undertake sampling in the penguin colonies that hug its coastline.


So by this time you’re probably shifting in your seat, wondering uncomfortably what I mean by ‘sampling’. One word, 1 000 001 uses. For me, sampling means taking penguin ticks from their colonies, putting them in tiny tubes filled with ethanol and doing genetic work on them. I am looking at how they move and interact across the Southern Hemisphere, and want to figure out how penguin movement effects their gene flow and evolution. I am a phylogeographer, and my penguin-tick system is brilliant because it’s a rare case of immobile, terrestrial parasite meets highly vagile, aquatic host. Not quite boy meets girl, but for us science geeks, it’s an interaction equally fit for the silver screen.

In real life, this means that I get to hang out with two of the coolest and most odd groups of species on the planet (though one is more fluffy than the other). It also means I get to go to penguin colonies all over the world (Southern Hemisphere limited of course), pull parasites off the adults and their babies (fluff-balls of poo and noise) and from around their nests. In the Falklands, it meant walking around Rockhopper, King and Gentoo Penguin colonies, grabbing ticks from under rocks, and getting investigated by the inhabitants who were clearly vexed that I wasn’t paying them enough attention.

photo3My first stop, was at Volunteer Point, where Gentoos, Magellanics and the ever popular King Penguins breed in a cacophony of feathers, feet and (you guessed it) poo. The only way to get to this part of the East Falklands, is with some talented drivers and a flock of Land Rovers. It’s hard not to see these ever present symbols of Falkland Island life as alive in their own right, especially when they race across the swampy landscape in a pack formation. Volunteer Point itself was beautiful, with Magellanic burrows skirting the beach and King and Gentoos in discrete patches behind. It rained (perhaps sleet is a better term), and although crawling through mud and poo looking for parasites isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face. Everywhere around me were penguins, all interested in me and what I was doing. They grew bolder, and came closer and closer until eventually I was just one of them, wandering about the colony. An experience I would trade for no amount of sunny days.

photo2The remainder of my stay in the Falklands was noteworthy for its brilliant weather. The sun was out, the wind was playing fairly nicely (a rarity I am told) and my site visits to The Murrel and Pebble Island (as well as a short stop at Bertha’s Beach) were made fun and easy. Rockhopper colonies were my main focus, and these were invariably perched on the sides of beautiful lichen-covered cliffs. I assume the famed yellow eyebrows of the penguins raised slightly when I turned up (tweezers in hand), but their fears were soon abated and only curiosity remained. There were plenty of ticks for my project, and a few great photos as well.

I was also lucky enough to coincide my trip with the Falkland Islands Science Symposium, which meant I got to chat to the delegates throughout most of my first week. The delegates were from all around the Pan-Americas, and brought with them impressive scientific knowledge from an incredible range of disciplines. Public seminars gave the Falkland Islanders the opportunity to hear about scientific goings-on in everything from mosses, to microbes in oxygen-depleted environments and whale conservation using phylogeography (hooray for phylogeography!).  Together we had a memorable trip out to Kidney Island to watch nesting Sooty Shearwaters en masse in the sunset (a sight to be seen indeed). I must admit, however, that the real winner for me, was the pod of Sei Whales we encountered along the way. I was in awe, but got the impression that it was just another day in the Falklands.

 My time in the Falkland Islands was brilliant, not just because I am a huge nerd (though I am) nor because I adore environments that are extreme and rare (though I do). I met great people, in particular the SAERI team who helped me through every step of the process, I saw amazing things and I got to join the small number of people on the planet that have made it out to this tiny island group. That’s not a bad way to start a year.

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Assessing the demand for science on South Georgia: consultation with Asian polar research institutes – Part 2

NARC University of MalaysiaThe South Georgia Future Science team embarked on the second leg of their trip by flying to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on February 18th. Prof. Azizan Abu Samah, Director of the National Centre for Antarctic Research (NCAR) and numerous scientists from NARC and other local institutes hosted the South Georgia Future Science team for detailed discussion on the NARC science strategy and how South Georgia may feature within it. A primary focus of the NARC Antarctic programme is the ‘connectivity between the poles and the tropics’, a theme which spans a number of disciplines from atmospheric and oceanic circulation to latitudinal gradients in biodiversity and ecosystem tolerances to environmental change. With ongoing projects at Rothera Station, Antarctic Peninsula and Signy, South Orkneys, complementary studies at South Georgia would extend this latitudinal transect into the Subantarctic, a ‘stepping stone’ between the poles and tropics. We are hopeful that South Georgia will feature in NARC’s future strategy.

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The last polar research institute that the South Georgia Future Science team visited in Asia was the National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR) in Goa, India. Director Dr. Rajan and a number of NCAOR scientists spent the day discussing NCAOR’s science strategy and the opportunities that South Georgia presented to them. NCAOR research spans the three poles, the Arctic, Antarctic and the Himalayas, as well as Indian Ocean. Atmospheric and cryospheric sciences, in addition to paleoclimate, microbiology and remote sensing feature high within the NCAOR polar science strategy. Dr. Rajan expressed a keen interest to explore the possibility of NCAOR to work within an international consortium on South Georgia. In this idealised model each institute can provide their niche expertise within a co-ordinated framework ensuring optimal utilisation of resources, logistics and expertise and generation of the best possible science. This concept is something that the South Georgia Future Science team are keen to promote and will be discussing further with representatives from each institute at a workshop in the Falkland Islands in August 2015.

Thank you again to both NARC and NCAOR for their support for the South Georgia Future Science project.

We would also like to take this opportunity to thank the UK Science and Innovation Network for co-ordinating our meetings throughout this trip. Special thanks go to Mr. Gareth Davies in Korea, Ms. Elizabeth Hogben in Japan and Dr. Rita Sharma in India.

Paul, John and Vicky are now back home from their three week trip and are busy planning their next meetings at polar research institutes within Europe and North America.

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Turks and Caicos 2ND UKOTs GIS-Workshop: Learning, Sharing, Coming Together and Building Collaborations Across Territories.

By iLaria Marengo

Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) hosted, from the 2nd to the 6th of February, the second UKOTs GIS workshop which saw the participation of representatives from the Caribbean (Anguilla, BVI, Bermuda and Cayman), Europe (Gibraltar), the South Atlantic (the project manager of the IMS-GIS data centre for Falkland Islands, Ascension, Saint Helena, Tristan da Cunha and South Georgia), Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), Environment Systems, and National Oceanography Centre (NOC). The event was fully supported and organised by the JNCC and by TCI Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs (DEMA).

The workshop entitled “understanding our islands: how to get the best out of our GIS and data” was focussed on achieving the following goals:

  • Providing members of TCI governmental departments with a training course in QGIS to allow them to become familiar with the open source program and demonstrate that it is a valid option to the proprietary and more expensive ArcGIS;
  • Identifying data priorities for TCI and finding solutions on how to address them in terms of GIS applications and data management;
  • Developing GIS and data management strategies to obtain long term benefits, such as standardisation of data, networking and data sharing, but also immediate gains, e.g. GIS and Remote Sensing based spatial analyses to support decisions on the islands’ policy priorities;
  • Looking at the main components of data management, which are people, data and systems and examine the way of tackling each one. The presentations on effective case studies delivered by each of the OTs offered “food for thought” and a starting point for discussion;
  • Drawing action plans to implement a sound data strategy in each territory and take forward the best practice of using GIS and Remote Sensing techniques as decision support tools.

The first two days of the workshop were entirely dedicated to the training in QGIS and had the participation of four TCI governmental departments: DEMA, Disaster Management, Planning and Surveying/Mapping. The training, led by Dr Katie Medcalf (Environment Systems) with the help of Dr iLaria Marengo (IMS-GIS data centre project manager), explored how to import the data, how to run basic vector analysis, how to create a map, and highlighted the best practice for structuring tabular data. In addition, practical examples of how Remote Sensing can be advantageous for evaluating environmental and ecosystem services were provided, as well as how spatial databases store and analyse geographic data more efficiently. Participants learned how GBIF can play a role for data sharing and how to upload/download data from it.

Besides the practical exercises, time was also spent discussing the current data management in TCI. Problems were identified and possible alternatives and solutions were found and translated into an action plan which should work as a starting point for the next months. The positive aspect of the first two days was the enthusiasm and the determination showed by TCI participants. Their genuine interest and desire to learn how QGIS works and how it can be advantageous to their project was a motivation for those delivering the training. TCI is currently facing two main problems: communication and data sharing among departments and consequently the lack of organisation and a data management system. The most evident and appreciated result at the end of the first two days was to see everybody discussing and finding solutions together round the table.

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The excitement and interest in GIS and data strategy increased even further when the other UKOTs joined the workshop on the 4th of February. The discussion on how to make the most out of spatial data became wider and the presentations of projects and activities carried out in the Caribbean, Gibraltar and the South Atlantic were extremely inspiring.

Stephen Warr from Gibraltar wowed the audience once again with his demonstration of the advanced use of GIS and 3D modelling for environmental and planning purposes. Many people desired to have the drone and the plane with fitted camera that Jeremy Olynik from the Cayman showed in his presentation. Both are very useful technologies for getting high resolution data of areas that are not easily accessible. It was particularly interesting to learn about outreach activities from Rozina Norris-Gumbs which involve taking GIS to the schools and hosting a GIS day every year in BVI. Andre’ from Anguilla presented a superb use of remote sensing and GIS techniques to assess ecosystem services for his island. His motto “seeing is believing” was clear: to the politicians’ eyes maps realised from validated and sound data are more effective and compelling than reports. Mandy Shailer explained to us the way in Bermuda spatial data from aerial photography offer evidence and support for conservation and planning studies. iLaria Marengo, who represented the whole SA UKOTs, described the advantages of having a metadata catalogue online and how the data strategy for the entire region tackles issues such as data accessibility and data licence agreement.

Presentations from Tara Pelembe and Steve Wilkinson (JNCC), Katie Medcalf (Environment Systems) and Alan Evans (NOC) were very important as they described how their organisations can assist the territories in bidding for grants, addressing data management issues, providing technical consultancy on spatial analyses, buying basic equipment, and accessing bathymetry data and AUV instruments for further data collection.

The final key messages were that: a data system that supports the data organisation, management and sharing is fundamental; data need to be validated and quality checked before their use; metadata allow longevity and discoverability of the associated data; people should be trained and become familiar to GIS and Remote Sensing techniques as their application as analytical tools improves considerably the way of presenting geographic information and helps to make better decisions.

Although the workshop was very intense and stretched the full day, everybody had the opportunity to enjoy for one evening a local fish fry event close to a white sandy beach and turquoise sea. On Saturday the field trip to the pine trees restoration areas and to the nursery was guided by Naqqui, a real encyclopaedia of TCI plants and history, with the logistic support of Roddy, Luke and Kathrine. Finally, Sunday was time to relax on the wonderful beaches of TCI: sunbathing, swimming, bargaining the price of conch shells and then discovering afterwards that there were plenty on the beach!


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Learning Side Scan Sonar Techniques And Sharing Knowledge Across The South Atlantic Territories

A successful and exciting week of training in the use of side scan sonar (SSS) for habitat mapping has just ended in Ascension Island. Participating in the course were, Sam Cherrett from Saint Helena , who led the course, Andy Richardson, Emma Nolan and Kate Downes (the AIMS team) from Ascension, Debs Davidson and iLaria Marengo from the Falkland Islands.

SSS is a valuable technique for the investigation of the type seabed and for the detection of different submarine features. Acoustic pings (pulses) sent by the sonar are reflected differently by sand, mud, bedrocks and artificial objects, such as metal (e.g. pipelines and wrecks). The sea state can influence the quality of the images, however, good results depend as much on a careful survey design and a proper setting of the device used.

The goal for the Ascension team was to learn how to use side scan sonar and drop down cameras, the latter for ground truthing and features/seabed verification, in order to undertake a fine scale marine  habitat classification and mapping up to 1000 metres from the coast. To provide a complete and accurate picture of the underwater environment, a series of targeted dives are also planned. These will be a valuable addition to the data retrieved and processed from the side scan sonar.

Similarly, the Falklands team came all the way to Ascension to gain essential skills, not in how to survive the equatorial heat, but how to identify seabed types in order to better understand and map marine habitats in inshore waters. Acquiring this knowledge is going to be important in making decision for the development of inshore fisheries, marine spatial planning and to support Environmental Impact Assessments.

The course completely hooked all the participants as it was cleverly planned by Sam Cherrett to focus on the practical and operational aspects and techniques of  survey planning, deployment of the side scan sonar (Starfish device and Scanline software) and processing of the images (Triton Perspective software). The days were split on the boat collecting data and in the office processing the raw data to produce images.

The areas at sea where the side scan sonar was towed were identified by the Ascension team, so that the data collected could be used for one of the deliveries of the AIMS project (supported by Darwin Initiative funding). The tows took place at PanAm, Comfortless Cove, White Rock and the Georgetown moorings. A series of tests were carried out to understand the best setting of the weight to be applied to the Starfish. Then, the drop down camera was utilised to verify 27 points which were considered particularly interesting after the processing of the images.


The seabed in the surveyed areas were found to be made by medium to coarse sand, maerl and bedrock. The green turtles, which are nesting in Ascension, were pleasant company and appeared as features in the images too.


From the work carried out on boat and afterwards in the office, the participants could learn how the side scan sonar records the data, how significant ground truthing is, how influential the conditions of the sea are, how bottom tracking can be tedious in case of a bad scan, how important team working and communication is, how boat engines are “delicate” and sun cream might not be enough to avoid sunburn!


A major success of the course was actually the capacity to work in synergy that was shown by the participants. The collaboration of everyone was the main factor that made the full week extremely productive and enjoyable. Everybody contributed positively to the course by exchanging marine biology knowledge, sharing interests in working with fisheries and spatial data, and comparing research and life experience in the three islands of the South Atlantic.

Special thanks to Ascension Island sea rescue team and Blaine Chester, skilful boatman of Swampdog.


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