On Board the SA Agulhas 2: From sea bird spotters to humpback whales, this ship requires all hands on deck

2018-07-12 06:54
SA Agulhas II in Cape Town Harbour. (Kelly Anderson, News24)

SA Agulhas II in Cape Town Harbour. (Kelly Anderson, News24)

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Join Melanie Gosling as she writes from on board South Africa's state-of-the-art marine research ship, the SA Agulhas ll.

Gone is the placid ocean of the last two days, as we head towards Cape Agulhas through bumpy seas under grey skies.

The spray is flying and the decks wet, and every now and then it sounds as if rain is hitting the porthole windows.

If it were not for the "sticky" plastic mesh on all the tables, laptops and coffee cups would slide to the floor.

All the crew and scientific staff are going about their business as if not much has changed, but some of the journalists are laid low with seasickness.

Up on the very top of the ship, in a glassed-in room known as the observation box or "monkey island", a few stalwarts were still at work on Thursday morning.

READ: On board the SA Agulhas II: Farewell to 5m swells as young scientists finally stretch their sea legs

They are known as the top predator team and spend their time in this observation room on the look out for whales, sharks and seabirds. Every sighting is recorded, with the species, the number seen and the position.

The seabird spotters have a nifty way of creating a virtual demarcation of the area in which birds are counted: they hold up a thumb so the tip touches the horizon, and any birds skimming across the ocean below their finger nail is counted, in a 180 degree range.

Bruce Dyer, a seabird expert, explained that some seabirds are known to be ship followers, so to avoid counting these birds twice, they ignore any birds that approach from behind.

39 sightings of humpback whales

There is not enough space for all five spotters inside the observation room, and it's cold work outside.

Marine mammal spotter Steven McCue is prepared: sunglasses, cap, and a bandana over his cap and face to hold the cap on in the wind and to protect his face.

On Wednesday, offshore of East London, they had 39 sightings of humpback whales, each sighting consisting of between two and six animals.

"We think this is a corridor for humpbacks moving north towards Mozambique to their breeding areas. We are not sure why they prefer that area. We've done some tagging of humpbacks, 15 tags in the last four years, but unfortunately the tags last only for a month. The longest we had one stay on was three months," McCue said.

READ: On board the SA Agulhas 2: Hi-tech labs, little white dogs and potential stowaways

It always seems a bit strange that such enormous creatures as whales feed on such tiny creatures as plankton.

Researchers on board do regular plankton sampling on the voyage, catching it in bongo nets, two huge conical nets attached to rings, shaped something like windsocks on airfields. These are winched up, dropped overboard, and dragged behind the ship. The nets have minute holes, just 200 microns wide, so they trap anything bigger than that.

'One hand for yourself and one hand for the ship'

There is an instrument between the two nets that measures sea temperature, depth, how much water has passed through the nets and the speed of the flow, so researchers can estimate the amount of plankton in a cubic metre of the ocean where it was sampled.

Looking at plankton through a microscope is fascinating. Some of the tiny organisms, called euphausiids, look rather like minute, perfectly-formed shrimps.

Biological technician Yandiswa Mdazuka adds a small amount of preservative to the samples, which are bottled, labeled and kept for later study.

ALSO READ: On board the SA Agulhas 2: Ski Monkey paves the way to study the Indian Ocean

There are plenty of notices on the ship, most to do with work or safety, but there are a few that are rather quaint. One in the observation room tells researchers that "shorts, hot pants, bikinis, vests etc" can be worn only in "extreme cases", ending with bold print and capital letters: "Do Not Walk Around the Vessel Half Naked."

The skies are leaden and the ship is rocking and rolling. Captain Knowledge Bhengu said in his safety briefing that we must always hold on to railings when walking around the vessel.

"The rule is: one hand for yourself and one hand for the ship."

It might be a case of two hands for the ship today.
*Melanie Gosling will be filing a series of environmental articles from on board the SA Agulhas 2 research vessel.

Read more on:    green  |  environment  |  maritime

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