Friday, 5 August 2016

Geike Slide and Hebridean Slope NCMPA Survey
Goodbye Geikie Slide

Hello once more from the Scotia, where our survey has drawn to a close. We have now begun our journey back to Aberdeen, on Scotland’s East coast, from Geikie Slide and the Hebridean Slope Nature Conservation Marine Protected Area, which is situated seaward of the Outer Hebrides to the west of Scotland.

Leaving Geike Slide and the Hebridean Slope NCMPA in our wake

All is quiet at the sieving station as we pass the Isle of Lewis (Outer Hebrides)

We have had a great few weeks out here and have collected a lot of really useful information about this Marine Protected Area. Thanks to the persistent hard work of the crew and scientists aboard, and our continuing good luck with weather, we will have  a comprehensive dataset describing the animals we have found (some of which have been mentioned and shown in previous blogs), and the seabed habitats which support them. This dataset will be used to help monitor change within this Marine Protected Area into the future.

We have collected data from 5 different survey areas (Boxes A, C, D, E and F as shown in the map). The black crosses indicate survey “stations” where we collected both box core samples and drop-frame camera transects, the blue crosses where we collected box core samples only, and the gold crosses show where we collected drop-frame camera transects only. In total, we have collected 56 box core samples and completed 58 dropframe camera transects, as well as one camera chariot transect (green line).

Survey “stations” completed at Geikie Slide and the Hebridean Slope NCMPA

We have also encountered fish, whales, dolphins and seabirds such as gannets, skuas, kittiwakes and puffins, and a seal; a sign of the productivity, and hence importance, of this site.

It is with many thanks to the captain and crew of the MRV Scotia and our Marine Scotland Science colleagues for all their efforts on this survey that we say farewell for now. Please check back with us next time for more seabed survey action!

Left to right: Marine Scotland Science Scientist in Charge Eric Armstrong and (mostly) JNCC survey scientists Hannah Carr, Ellen Last, Bethany Graves, Kent Tebbutt (Benthic Solutions Ltd), Pete Chaniotis and Joey O’Connor (in front).

By Joey O'Connor
All images copyright to JNCC & Marine Scotland Science

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Geike Slide and Hebridean Slope NCMPA Survey
Dawn of the Pteropods

As we previously mentioned, there is a vast array of creatures that have been found within the sediment samples brought up by the box corer. So far we have found: crabs and squat lobsters of varying sizes - some extremely tiny, starfish and brittlestars, many different worms (from the small and thin to larger thicker peanut worms), worm casts (heaps of sediment ejected by worms), urchins, sea cucumbers, amphipods (a type of small crustacean), cup corals, sponges, bryozoans (small filter feeders that live in colonies and look like moss), and many shells including pteropod shells.
Pteropods are a type of marine mollusc that are related to snails. Instead of crawling along a surface like the snails in your garden, they use a modified foot to swim. This allows them to hunt for food in the water column. Pteropods are an important food source for many of deep sea fish, such as the ones we have seen on the camera tows.
Pteropod shells in sandy mud sample

Some of the creatures listed above are in the snapshot of sample images below.

Left photo: Final sieved sample with starfish
Right photo: Small crabs from one of the muddy cores

Left photo: A peanut worm
Right photo: Orange urchin and cup coral

Left photo: Boulder with encrusting blue sponge
Right photo: Final sieved sample with starfish and shells

By Hannah Carr & Bethany Graves
All images copyright to JNCC & Marine Scotland Science

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

SCANS 3 - the birds

The area that we surveyed during SCANS 3 was made up of habitats that are very difficult to access in the UK. Our survey effort was centered on the shelf break, or over deep 'off-shelf' waters (3000 m at some points), with out transects taking us over the occasional seamount or bank. As such the suite of species we recorded was very different to what you might expect to see from land, or even on a more inshore survey. Some species such as northern gannet and fulmar are encountered throughout the marine environment, and we saw our fair share of those, but otherwise, we mainly encountered pelagic specialist species.

An obvious difference from surveying in inshore waters was the lack of gulls and auks. These groups make up a large proportion of the birds seen on inshore surveys, but out beyond the shelf edge they were few and far between. Puffins (usually immature birds) were seen occasionally, as were guillemots, but the only gulls we saw were the occasional kittiwake and the even more occasional lesser black-backed gull. Instead of these, the birds we encountered most frequently were various species of 'tubenose' - birds adapted for a life at sea, with a keen sense of smell to help them locate food. We saw plenty of Manx shearwaters, probably birds on foraging trips from one of their breeding colonies. We also encountered several sooty shearwaters, which were on a much longer journey, partaking in their annual loop of the north Atlantic having bred in the southern hemisphere.

Manx shearwater

Sooty shearwater

We also recorded European and Leach's storm petrels regularly. These tiny seabirds live and feed offshore for most of their lives, and during the breeding season, only return to their colonies at night, to avoid predators. Unfortunately their small size makes them difficult to photograph so you'll have to make do with this rather poor effort!

Leach's petrel

One species it was much easier to photograph was the long-tailed skua, as several of them came in to the boat to have a look. We encountered 53 of these birds in total - many more than we were expecting - the vast majority of which were immature birds. Little is known of the at-sea distribution of immature birds during the breeding season, and encountering this many in UK waters in the summer is certainly unprecedented. There is so much to still learn about seabirds and their distributions, populations and habits at sea, and hopefully, continued monitoring of seabirds at sea can help us discover more and more about them.

Long-tailed skuas

Monday, 1 August 2016

Geike Slide and Hebridean Slope NCMPA Survey
Into the (very) deep

After completing camera work on the mid-point of the Hebridean slope, it was time to begin our descent into even deeper realms. At an average depth of 1500m below sea level, sampling stations are over three times deeper than the locations previously sampled - bringing with it its own challenges, such as the amount of time it takes to get to the sea floor to collect samples.

As we commenced our first camera tow, we waited to see what kind of creatures we might encounter on arrival at the sea floor. Even the journey down was a fascinating experience, where we were faced with a thick soup of plankton in the water column dancing on the video screen in front of us. After just a few tows, we encountered a range of marine life including chimaera (a type of fish that’s related to sharks), rat tail fish, bright orange anemones, xenophyophores (the largest single-celled organism known to science - some species can grow up to 25cm wide!), beautiful sun stars and a hermit crab with a parasitic anemone on its shell.

Left photo: A starfish with a vibrant orange anemone
Right photo: A Xenophyophore, the largest single-celled organism known to science

Left photo: Pencil urchins with a burrowing anemone
Right photo: An anemone hitches a ride on the back of a hermit crab

Left photo: A blood red cushion star
Right photo: Chimaera monstrosa, also known as a rabbitfish

A menacing looking rat tail. Its eyes are glowing due to the lights on the camera system.

A breather between camera tows brought with it an exciting wildlife watching opportunity. Swimming before us was a pod of at least 20 pilot whales, including calves. We were even lucky enough to see some spy-hopping!
Pilot whales
One of the pilot whales indulging in a spot of spy-hopping

The sun sets on day one of deep-sea exploration

As the sun set on our first bout of deep-water exploration, we waited to see what further discoveries the night shift (with Betty the box corer) would uncover about this site. 

By Ellen Last & Pete Chaniotis
All images copyright to JNCC & Marine Scotland Science

Friday, 29 July 2016

SCANS 3 - searching for seabirds in little known waters

While Mark T stood on the bow, making up part of the cetacean survey team, myself and Paul French enjoyed much more comfort, in an observation box in a lofty position (8.5 m) on the monkey island, from where we carried out our seabird observations. This is our view of Mark T (on the left) as he and Darren carried out their primary observer duties.

Primary observers at work

We were collecting data using the ESAS method, to a standard that will be compatible with the ESAS database. This means that the data will contribute to a database that contains over 3 million records of seabirds, with the first data collected as long ago as 1979. In spite of the fact that a lot of seabird surveys now use digital aerial methods, the ESAS database remains a hugely valuable resource on the distribution and relative densities of seabirds at sea in north west European waters. Adding the data collected on this survey is particularly important as data are relatively sparse over much of the area that we covered on SCANS 3. The figure below shows the locations of all of the ESAS data points (each tiny grey dot), and how sparsely they are distributed in our more western waters. The black line represents the coverage achieved during the first part of SCANS 3.

The distribution of ESAS data within (and beyond) the UK EEZ, before the SCANS 3 data were entered.

As the area was so data poor, Paul and I were hoping for a few surprises. Although the hoped for rarity didn't materialize, we saw plenty of interesting birds. See the next post in the for a summary of some of the great pelagic birds that we encountered!

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

SCANS 3 - Setting the scene

Mark Tasker and Mark Lewis have traveled far beyond the shelf edge north and west of Scotland, to take part in SCANS 3. This is the third in a series of Europe-wide, large-scale ship and aerial surveys to study the distribution and abundance of cetaceans in European Atlantic waters. Mark T is part of the dedicated cetacean observation team, with Mark L, along with Paul French (who very kindly volunteered his time, as well as a substantial proportion of his stash of Werther's Originals) making the most of an opportunity to collect bird data in what is a relatively data poor part of UK waters. The cetacean data will improve our understanding of these animal's occurrence throughout the survey area, as well as giving insight into any population changes, when used alongside data collected from previous surveys in 1994 and 2005. The seabird data will be added to the ESAS (European Seabirds at Sea) database, which has long been used to inform marine management, has been used extensively in the process of delivering marine SPAs (special protection areas), and is a valuable resource that can be made available for academic or other management purposes.

The first part of the survey saw us heading north and west of the Outer Hebrides, where we steamed transects through the areas coloured beige, and numbered 7 and 8 on the map below. This was a long journey from Aberdeen, but time was well spent, calibrating our very technical survey kit, gathering data along the way, and taking the opportunity to spot some of the most remote parts of the UK, such as North Rona, and Sules Skerry and Stack.

Map of the SCANS 3 survey blocks

Sule Skerry - part of the Sule Skerry and Sule Stack SPA

After completing these areas, Mark T has headed down to survey beige area 9 (I'm sure it's a lot more interesting than that makes it sound!) with the rest of the cetacean team. Mark L and Paul made use of a port call in Cork to return to land and head back to civilization having completed as much data collection as they could within UK waters. I'll soon be posting a few more details on the work that we were doing, and some of the incredible things that we saw.

Watch this space!

Monday, 25 July 2016

It’s all about Betty
We have now completed our first four night shifts of box coring within the Geikie Slide and the Hebridean Slope Nature Conservation MPA. We have affectionately named our box corer companion Betty. Betty is a piece of equipment that can be used in deep-sea muds to extract a sample of the seabed in an intact state, retaining the structure of the sediment, and giving us a ‘snapshot’ of the seabed hundreds of meters below sea level (you can see a picture of Betty being deployed on the previous blog entry).
We have been sampling at a range of depths from 600 to 950 meters - the deeper areas can sometimes take half an hour for Betty to reach the seabed. Once Betty returns to the surface we wait with baited breath to see whether she has managed to collect a valid sample. When this gets the thumbs up, the team can start processing. Processing can take up to three hours depending on the habitat type - some of the mud we are encountering is very thick and sticky! The top 15cm of sediment is extracted from Betty and goes through an automated siever called the Wilson Auto Siever (WAS). We also start to sieve by hand to speed up the process. This removes fine material (i.e. mud and clay), leaving us with the important critters that were living both on and in the seabed. These will be sent off to a lab for identification once we return to dry land.
You may think the night shift staff drew the short straw having to work from midnight to midday, but there are actually some positives to sieving on deck through the night
  1. being in the fresh sea air;
  2. seeing the sun both set and rise;
  3. enjoying your morning coffee accompanied by whales, seabirds and sunfish;
  4. finding cool deep-sea animals in the samples.
More on these in our next blog!                                                                                                  
The night shift staff doing what they do best: sieving!
© JNCC/MSS (2016)
Two sunfish surrounded by Fulmars on the surface.
© JNCC/MSS (2016)
A baleen whale sighted in the distance.
© JNCC/MSS (2016)