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Gear 7
 
It’s doesn’t happen that often but sometimes when sticking your neck out in the Southern Ocean you just get plain lucky.
Accepting a science based charter to the South Sandwich Islands was always a huge gamble. This semi-active volcanic arc of seven main islands and their outlyers begins in the north with the impressive volcanic cone of Zavodovski, 300 miles southeast from the southern tip of South Georgia. The chain lies right in the teeth of travelling depressions that form in the Drake Passage below the toe of South America and is notorious for gale force winds, ice risk and generally miserable conditions. It is no tourist destination for sure.
 
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The southern most island aptly named South Thule is 200 miles south of Zavodovski and sits just above 60 degrees south, on the edge of the winter sea ice band around the Antarctic continent. It is not quite in the Antarctic Treaty territory so the UK owns this stretch of hostile real estate which together with South Georgia is officially called the UK Overseas Territory of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
 
Partly discovered and charted by Captain James Cook in 1775 and partly by the Russian explorer Captain Thaddeus von Bellingshausen in 1819 the islands have hosted only a handful of visitors since. Attempts at sealing and shore based whaling in the 19th and into the 20th century were unsuccessful due mainly to a lack of natural harbours and not least of all the ferocious weather conditions. In recent years a few science expeditions have landed by ship with helicopter support or via expedition yachts to make base line surveys of the wildlife – Zavodovski boasts the largest wildlife aggregation of any vertebrate species anywhere in the world with over 1.3 million pairs of Chinstrap penguins. Volcanism is also an obvious focus, with the island chain lying on a shallow submarine ledge with a deep water trench immediately to the east. Zavodovski and Saunders, an island in the middle of the chain erupted violently in 2016. This eruption was picked up by satellite imagery, but until we arrived in January this year, no one had been back to see the effects on those penguin colonies. Were they even there?
 
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After a five and half day sail from Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, pleasantly running down wind often wing and wing on our twin poles, all the while towing a hydrophone logging whale song for the Happy Whale organization, we arrived at Saunders Island and were able to hang in to an exposed bay for three days allowing the researchers to survey and sample at relative leisure. The landings were ‘wet’; in our Typhoon dry suits and PFD’s. This involved jumping out in the surf but still able to turn the Bombard C5 inflatable around on the beach. This was a baptism only as more difficult landings were to come on the other islands.
 
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The two volcanologists from University College London (Team Volcano) collected rock samples and measured CO2 and SO2 gases with drones flying into the plume always present from the top of the crater. Getting to the rim was out of the question though as high winds and cloud persisted. A two man team from the University of Maine Climate Change Institute (Team Ice) took ice cores on the glacier and water and snow samples while ‘Team Penguin’ from Oxford censused the entire island of Chinstraps and Adelie penguins with drones in addition to collecting penguin poo and blood samples for DNA analysis, plus satellite tagging twenty chinstraps to record foraging range. Dr. Tom Hart, who had made three previous trips to the islands and was the science coordinator for this trip was the pioneer of a system developed over the last decade in placing hunting camera traps in penguin colonies to monitor activity year round. One of the two cameras on Saunders survived the eruption in 2016 and the time code nailed the date down to between April 4th and 9th as the hourly images went black!
 
In an eight day window we repeated these surveys on Thule Island in the South Thule group (one of the few ‘dry’ landings), Bellinghausen Island where we swam ashore and got towed back out through the surf, and on Candlemas Island further north where we had to abort one landing, but managed it the next day, again swimming in and being towed out in breaking surf. Our last objective was to survey Zavodovski, the most difficult landing, but the sea was so chaotic around this tiny island of only three kilometers in diameter it was impossible to safely launch the Bombard C5 off the deck. Instead, Team Penguin were able to survey the entire Chinstrap colony on all sides of the island with drones – a remarkable achievement, not least off all making hand recoveries in a big swell and a 25 knot wind.
 
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Thereafter we set sail and high tailed it upwind to the southern tip of South Georgia in a favorable weather window, and then spent a relaxing 10 days along the coast making more surveys, collecting ice and biological samples, changing camera trap batteries and memory chips and fitting in a bit of tourism.
 
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The scientists reckon we achieved 90% of our objectives on what was a most cost effective formula in using a small sailing yacht in one of the most difficult areas of study in the world. That translates to an A+ report card for Pelagic Australis in the Southern Ocean School of Hard Knocks.
 
Photo credits: Skip Novak Pelagic Expeditions
 
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