Life Aboard Ship, Dispatches From South of the "Roaring Forties"
June 23, 2004
Bouvet Island at dawn.
We are at Bouvet Island at 54 26 S, 3 24 E.
We arrived this morning after a long transit (4 days, more than 1000 miles) from Bristol Island (South Sandwich Islands) and a fruitless search for flat bottom where we could make a deep tow. We plotted our course north of the fracture zone that runs straight from to Bouvet, but apparently not far enough north, because it has been continuous rough bottom for more than a thousand miles.
I'm feeling kind of discouraged, because I really expected to be able to collect on the way here. With 20/20 hindsight, it's clear that we should have picked the one or two flat spots of 5-6 miles and turned north and south to see how far they extended. But, we thought that it would flatten out and it was not necessary to take the extra time to do that. Wrong! There are no good bathymetric charts for this entire region - and why should there be? Hardly anyone is interested in it. We found that the navigational chart for Bristol Island in the South Sandwiches was also inaccurate by several miles on one side of the island.
On the way here I spent quite a bit of time either in the bow or on the bridge, armed with binoculars and camera, watching for birds and mammals. While we were in the ice pack, we saw quite a few penguins, including several emperors around Bristol Island; they do not normally occur this far north. They are the largest penguin, almost four feet tall, and are quite striking, with orange patches on the neck. I got photos of them both standing up and sliding along the ice on their bellies. They don't look very fat when standing, but on their stomachs they look really funny, as though they are lying in a large, white enamel dishpan.
Still, it is a remarkably efficient mode of propulsion, just sliding along the ice on their stomach, and they go quite fast. If you go to the ICEFISH official cruise web page (www.icefish.neu.edu), you can see two of the pictures I took of them. On the way here, we saw occasional penguins (chinstraps, I believe) and although we were out of the ice pack, quite a few icebergs. One of them that we passed fairly closely had several hundred penguins on it (see photo).
Penguins are interesting whether they are on land or in the water, but in the water they are particularly worth watching. When not swimming, they look rather like loons, with a long body and the head and neck sticking up in front. When they swim at the surface it's sort of like a human doing the breaststroke - their backs appear, disappear, appear, and disappear continually. If it wasn't so hard to get a picture of them, I would have been able to put one in this bulletin! When I took the photo included with this Bulletin, we were able to watch some climb up onto the berg. We could not figure out how they managed, because the berg had vertical sides for at least ten feet, and we saw penguins leap out of the water and (apparently) use their beaks and claws to hang on and climb straight up the ice.
There is supposed to be large penguin colony on Bouvet, so perhaps I will get the chance to keep trying. At least with a digital camera you can just keep shooting and deleting! We saw very few mammals, though, perhaps because of the season. Although I did not see it, I was told we got our second whale sighting of the cruise, and I did see three crabeater seals that just popped out of the water right in front of the ship and proceeded to hump their way across the ice, pausing to look at the ship. I wonder what they think of the ship? Probably not much. They have no reason to fear it; it's probably a funny colored iceberg or something.
The fauna of Bouvet, as I wrote in the last Bulletin, is very poorly known.
In 1971, the island, which was named for a French naval officer who discovered
it in 1739, and its territorial waters were designated a nature reserve. It
is a territory of Norway, which since 1977 has run an automated meteorological
The PALMER is out of pack ice now, but the radar screen shows all the icebergs in the vicinity!
The Antarctic Pilot explicitly calls it the most isolated island on earth, being more than 1000 miles from the nearest land of any sort (other than its own offshore rocks). Because of its isolation, not many research ships visit it, and because there is no human facility on the island, there is no reason for anyone to visit it. There are no commercial fisheries nearby, although I understand that there is great interest in the results of our explorations. I think it's possible that our sampling here (assuming we are successful, not necessarily a given) will be the most significant accomplishment of the cruise, because there are so few samples from this area.
We just finished our first trawl here (a Blake trawl); it caught only four fish in half an hour on the bottom. Of course, it is a very small trawl and has a lot of stuff in front of the mouth so avoidance by larger fishes is undoubtedly common. We fished it at 460 m depth, and it caught three small grenadier (for a photo of a grenadier see my earlier Bulletin on abyssal fishes) and only one icefish, but many invertebrates, including large sea cucumbers, starfish, brittle stars, and other bottom animals. I hope we do better with the rest of our trawls. We'll be here for a full week before leaving for Tristan da Cunha, so we'll have time to work that out for sure.