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2015: LIFE Baħar Expedition

Documenting marine areas to be protected in Malta

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Diaries

At only two days away from the end of this year´s campaign we´ve decided to take advantage of the short time left. The area 4 is very large and there is plenty to survey so we perform seven ROV dives. The temperatures peak and the fans spin at full speed. After 26 ROV dives in the area, the result shows the wide biodiversity that exists in the circalittoral strip of Eastern Malta, where maërl habitats alternate with mud, gravel and rubble. We´ve also documented areas with emerging boulderswith a variety of species.

Today, Oceana set sail to Area number 4 which is located in the South East of Malta. The journey from Mgarr Harbour to the first area that was surveyed (around 1 NM from the coastline) took roughly two and a half hours. The crew managed to complete the ROV survey in six different sites under the scorching sun. The main features in these surveyed sites were the rhodoliths grounds and maërl beds. More surveys will be performed in Area 4 in the coming days, so stay tuned for more!

One of the main objectives of this campaign is to find sea caves. At depths of up to 50 m surveys can be carried out by SCUBA diving; four divers document in videos and photographs everything that is found. After a two-hour sail we got to the first area to be surveyed today. Two safety divers and two cameramen got ready for the action. Safety divers bring along notebooks, sample containers and sometimes an extra camera in case it´s needed; we also take buoys and reels, as buoys are used whenever we find a cave, so we can easily spot the exact GPS location of the cave from the surface.

Today Ursula and Dominique Eichenberger from Drittes Foundation paid us the most pleasant visit, which came along with two interesting dives. The first survey was carried out in a not very deep area where we had previously found rhodoliths, but this time what we found was mud withemerging rocks. We could also see crinoid aggregations, sea pens and corals such as Dendrophyllia ramea, scorpionfish, lobsters and even a small-spotted catshark (Scyliorhinus canicula).

Good news: today there was no mud at all! The bad news is that neither did we see rocks or corals or sharks (of any colour) nor any other type of marine animal. At least it was all for a good cause, since the Ranger stayed berthed to welcome some distinguished visitors: in the morning Ms. Teresa Catelani, EU Monitor for the European Commission, paid us a visit and in the afternoon it was Mr. Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

Ham, cherry tomatoes and arugula Pizza recipe

20 min                  medium              14 servings

Ingredients:

Puff pastry (3) //sliced ham//arugula//cherry tomatoes – 3 boxes//2 endives//Spring onion//olive oil//salt and pepper//Parmesan cheese.

One day more with us, no-scientists, watching how the actual scientists work searching on the mud, sand and rocks to find “something” we might have ignored for sure, but that now we stop to watch because it has left them all in awe, so we understand “it” is what we were actually looking for. It is worth taking a moment and listen to all what our colleagues have to say about “it”, that way we get to learn day by day a little bit more about the ocean.

New sea, new species and new habitats, but threats are common and easily recognizable. My week joining the Life Bahar Malta Expedition onboard the Oceana Ranger is almost done. It has been very exciting being sailing and conducting surveys on this beautiful catamaran. The biodiversity in the Mediterranean is far different from the Baltic´s, the region I normally work with. The habitats and species are all new to me, so I have been trying to listen and learn from Ricardo Aguilar and Helena Alvarez who are experts on the area.

Today, July 10th, Mother Nature halted some of our work, due to high winds and swell. Nevertheless, we performed some dives next to shore in a calmer area of Gozo. Today´s divers were Jesus, Helena, Kike and Minguell. Discoveries were slim, but the exercise went very smoothly, followed by an early return to port. As the forecast shows, tomorrow should be a better day. It is worth mentioning that Christina from the Danish camp has joined the Ranger today.

Five weeks ago we began this at-sea campaign. Days pass by, immersed deep in the environments of the continental shelf and the dark slopes surrounding the islands of Malta. For several months, the graphic information obtained will be carefully analyzed to produce a detailed report. This is how Oceana contributes – providing important data that will later help to protect at least 10% of Malta´s coastal and marine areas by 2020.

The first immersion is made by the divers, and we document the caves to see what we can find. We are at the exact same spot as the last dive. This is a crack visible from the surface, a cut in the wall 200m deep that splits into two paths; during the last dive we explored the left path, now it is the right´s turn. We went over the wall for 1 hour and 41mins and found 4 caves between the surface and the first 25m deep, some of them very narrow.

Jesus gets up really early to go running before we all start working at 7:30. Cris sometimes has a swim in the morning in a small cove nearby. Pisha drinks a cup of coffee for breakfast (with plenty of condensed milk). Kike hates onions. Tomas is a vegetarian. Yaiza just returned from the Caribbean and knows how to make macramé. Ramón studies English in his leisure time. Carlos hates jelly. When James was 28, he created a gold mining company in Africa, where he lived for 10 years. Albert is always hungry.  The captain´s mother is Italian. Riki makes a superb impression of Donald Duck.

Since in these diaries we find nautical terms of certain complexity that may result in a lack of understanding from the readers about the events taking place during the expedition, and also driven by the conviction that telling various at-sea events in a “journal” could be an arduous task for both the author and the reader, I hereby, doomed by the monotonous fate, clarify some nautical terms for earthlings.

EARTHLING
Hominids that mainly live in static places away from anything that looks like a boat.

Since the Ranger has an American flag and today is America´s Independence day, the campaign´s Director granted us the day off and a roasted suckling pig along with some “Rivera del Duero” wine. Ah, such a nice time we had… No, just kidding. I think today we have “eaten” more mud than in the whole month of June; two long immersions and only a couple of rocks greeted us. Maybe some living soul, I could not really tell as all in my head is full with mud. I know I said this happens and this is equally important to scientific research.

Today is a quiet day, so I would like to speak of what is not seen, of what no pictures are taken or shown. It takes several months from both the Logistics and Science department to prepare the Ranger for an expedition like this. A lot of people work from the office making our every day on board possible; this is a significant support unnoticed by the media because the Ranger is that good-looking boy who gets all the attention, even admiration I dare say. Without that work and support, it´s unlikely we´d be here today.

Is it a turtle? Nope. A turtle in trouble! The ROV found a turtle at a depth of 8 meters with a sack caught on its fin. Somebody help! Poor little thing! An environmental expedition encounters a turtle that gives the impression of being ready for a sack race.

Jesús—in charge of logistics, captain and handyman—jumps off the boat only equipped with some scissors (and his clothes of course) and frees the turtle! He smiles back at us while posing in every imaginable way to all the cameras flashing at him. The turtle is safe and sound.

This is the 2nd day of our overnight research expedition. My watch starts early with the alarm going off at 02:00. A quick cup of joe (coffee) and away we go. Thomas had the watch before mine so he fills me in on his findings of the big fishing trawler two miles off our port bow, which quickly became our starboard bow, as we drift and slip and slide in the silence of the night.

It all starts here. The discovery of new species or not described to a certain area or depth range, the documentation of threats to marine life, or the seed for a new Marine Protected Area. It all starts by knowing what lies there, where it is and its conservation status. Today I joined Malta´s campaign to work documenting these bottoms, most of them unexplored until today. The lack of information often represents a problem when trying to apply the necessary protective measures and, therefore, this is the first and indispensable step to achieve significant goals.

Today the ROV only had one immersion as the following two days will be fully dedicated to sampling, so we have today´s afternoon for resting a bit while drifting across the sea. In today´s immersion which was in an area we have visited before, we found an amphora that who knows for how long it has been there or where it comes from. This break helped us to renew our spirits, so tomorrow we are well-rested. Quiet evenings like these are quite a treat we´re all thankful for!

Today we were amazed by the huge eyes of a small group of amphipods that came inside a sponge we collected. Our eyes looked pretty much like those of the amphipods, being wide open with amazement as we found so much life in the sampled bottoms along with many vulnerable ecosystems and species of interest. The dives are not disappointing us. On board, we review the tapes, photograph the samples and start discussions on the identification of the observed species, and on their distribution in the Mediterranean or even across the Atlantic.

Yesterday was an intense day where our divers and underwater cameras had the opportunity to document interesting marine ecosystems. Despite that today was the ROV´s turn to get wet, we had to turn around due to the rough weather conditions, without being able to carry out the dives scheduled for today. Most of us took advantage to update our everyday work, leaving enough time to record aerial shots of a rugged coastline with crystal-clear waters.

Today the 26th of June was a special day. In addition to having Julian from the University of Malta, we had the Oceana's CEO Andy Sharpless. We had a nice ROV dive, followed by a real nice dive by the Ranger crew which included Yaiza as a present for her 26th birthday. Andy has delivered a very nice report on Oceana's status and achievements translated later by Ricardo, and so ended another successful day for the Ranger.

Well, now we can tell. Last Saturday (June 20th), we had a special visit. Some might have already seen it in the media outlets and most of you reading know what I mean. June 20 diary facts are true, but it is not the whole truth of what happened that day in the Ranger. First we had to officially release the news since we could not tell a word before the release. Taking advantage of the fact that today the waves are too high to sail, I hereby certify for the record  that Elsa Pataky and Chris Hemsworth were onboard the Ranger.

SALMOREJO
Difficulty – low

20 min 14 servings

Ingredients:

2kg tomatoes //350g dried bread // 200g olive oil //3 garlic cloves // a pinch of salt // Spanish ham// quail eggs or chicken eggs

1. Clean and mash the tomatoes, strain to remove the skin and seeds, mash again adding the bread, oil, garlic and salt.
2. Decorate with boiled eggs (chicken or quail), diced ham and olive oil droplets.

It only takes a quick glance at a given spot on the way to fully change the day in just a moment.
In Rabat (Gozo),  we came across a wall with this phrase, or maybe it was a message in a bottle:

"We cannot change the wind but we can adjust the sails"

© OCEANA/ Carlos Minguell

The Mediterranean was finally calm enough to let us rummage through its depths. Two immersions looking for reefs were our treat for the day. Gozo´s surface is rather pretty, but there´s still way too much to find out on its bottoms. On the first immersion we found detritic muds on the bottom and many interesting species. The second one was more exciting, with new habitats we hadn´t documented before that are perfect candidates to be protected as a ‘Reef Habitat’ within the Red Natura 2000 network. We also collected some samples of sponges and gorgonians using the ROV.

As the weather forecast was hovering between awful and worse, our campaign director decided not to sail today as working conditions were too rough. So we took advantage of our day off as people normally do: oversleeping, enjoying a quiet breakfast and doing some sightseeing. We visited the northern part of the island were the waves were breaking violently; luckily we stayed inshore today.

 

We are almost at the limit of the wind speed we can work with. We tried to work in a sheltered area, next to a cape at the south of Gozo. We could feel the wind speed as it was moving the boat at about 0.7 knots, which was not ideal. When using the ROV to carry out the transects to document the bottom, and to stop at the most interesting areas, the wind speed is ideally lower than 0.3 or 0.4 knots. We spent an hour with the ROV in this coastal area and found some rocks and sandy bottoms at about 100m deep.

It was seven in the morning when we started what would become a good day for everyone. A new working day awaited us with the uncertainty of not knowing if sea conditions would let us send the ROV down to a significant depth. But we got lucky and could document interesting detrital mud bottoms with rocky outcrops.

It allows us to see fantastic things in areas no man has visited before. It brings small gifts from the seabed, so we can learn a bit more about the waters that surround us. Because no matter how far away it is, it always obeys our instructions. And although it has no feelings, we always want it back on board every time we deploy it into the water. Because it's a crew member. For the ROV.

When we reached the ROV immersion spot, the wind increased slightly. The ROV was about 780m deep, so as the wind was blowing harder and the waves came before expected, we suspended the immersion and began to lift the ROV back to the surface with no major problems. Our journey turned complicated as the waves were too big. Shortly after leaving the port, we came across a fishing gear. The buoys are usually plastic bottles hard to identify, and the wind blows hard enough to tauten the ropes leaving them on the surface.

Yes, the depths of the oceans and the life they hold are simply breath taking; dolphins, turtles and all the marine life that captivates us. We see many beautiful things but sadly they are never alone: there´s also pollution, plastic bags, cans, boxes and ropes in EVERY immersion we carry out, but they´re also present on the surface. Up to 1000 meters deep we ALWAYS find plastics and fishing lines even trawl lines and all kinds of waste. If we do not develop a proper model of production and waste management, the life we ​​see today will soon be gone.

We saw it coming, and eventually it happened. Today we were about to lose the ROV; it was a rather nail-biting situation, the umbilical cable and the ballast were hooked on everywhere. The ROV itself was trapped with little mobility under a rocky ledge of the walls of the bottoms we are investigating. But we managed to get everything back onboard, so we can say we´ve been lucky. I just don´t think the ROV, that ended up with a broken arm because of the efforts to free itself, feels the same way though.

After the storm that hit the island yesterday, we set off determined to carry out two dives in Comino Island sheltered from the swell.
Our goal, to document two ecosystems included in the Habitats Directive: sandbanks and underwater caves. Our day finished with dozens of images of species that will contribute to improving the protection of these Mediterranean submerged paradises.

© OCEANA / Carlos Minguell

Today we did (in my opinion) what one must do while in Gozo: enjoy the sea and the landscape. The wind was blowing too hard to go out sailing, so, after so many days of non-stop hard work, the moment for a windy day off in Gozo finally came. As a respectable bunch of tourists, we rented a 4x4 convertible and set off to the famous Blue Hole. It was simply astonishing, and the water temperature was just perfect to cope with the Mediterranean hot temperature in the island.

It was an early morning for some of us on Friday the 12th of June. Departure was scheduled at 06:00 am. We arrived at the site of our daily research location and lowered the ROV. Some long hours of research led to the ever awaited moment of “return to base” call. As wind was favorable, the crew and I hoisted sails. To my disappointment and reconfirmation, although they make great work platforms, sailing catamarans close to the wind is not very efficient. Shortly we abandoned the idea and motored back to port.

When I was asked by our Science Director Ricardo Aguilar last winter if I wanted to join on-board the Ranger for Oceana´s Malta expedition it was very difficult not to sound overly excited (which I probably did) when saying yes. Because I REALLY wanted to go on-board the Ranger. And, here I am! Finally! Sailing and doing field work for the second day now. And, I have to say, it is as exciting as I thought it would be.

Today was a day full of mud, vast plains, and more mud. Days like these are quiet for sailors, as they do not have to frantically lift up the umbilical cable before the imminent encounter with a 100-meter wall. That lets us spend the breaks quietly and observe what the robot sees. Today, our immersion was welcomed by a nice and rare squid, whose large eyes reflected the ROV, what an incredible picture!

Work is hard but we know there´ll be an immense payoff

Hidden beneath the giant´s unpredictable skin and guarded by Neptune himself.
Protected by unfathomable chains and kept in a silver glitter trunk and smells of the sea.

Keep going crew!! The reward is shared on the Ranger´s deck when the sun sets in Gozo Island.

© OCEANA / Carlos Minguell

The Habitats Directive lists a number of marine habitats present in European waters, identified as being of “Community interest”. These are: shallow sand banks, seagrass meadows, reefs, underwater caves and several formations originated by gas emissions. Member States are required by this Directive to determine the presence of these habitats in their waters and protect them. In Malta, under the LIFE + BAHAR for N2K project, we will work on three of them: reefs, sandbanks and caves.

Last night FC Barcelona won the Champions league. That is the only interesting event I can recall from the last 24 hours that hasn’t been as exciting as I would have expected. Still, the ROV went over more than one kilometer -  at depths of 954m -this might appear easy, but it is actually tough work to go through. But days like these come along: tons of mud, a lot of stones and barely an animal to spot.

At 7:00 am, the crew starts appearing on deck; by 7:30 we are ready to throw the lines and leave the harbour. We head northwest, surrounding the island near its cliffs. Half an hour later, everything is ready to put the ROV into the water. The first dive is carried out without too much trouble, some wind and some rain at the beginning, but nothing to worry about. Nonetheless, things become a bit complicated right after collecting a sample in the second dive. The ballast that holds the ROV´s umbilical cable must have gotten entangled with a rock.

Right after breakfast, the Ranger engines begin to roar, indicating we are heading to a new spot; dolphins make a great morning company until we finally got to the point of immersion (in the channel´s area). Once our vessel´s gear stops, each crew member takes their position to launch the ROV into the water: checking the pole, taking care of the umbilical cable, confirming the system works, recording and confirming we are in the right spot.

Right after breakfast, the Ranger engines begin to roar, indicating we are heading to a new spot; dolphins make a great morning company until we finally got to the point of immersion (in the channel´s area). Once our vessel´s gear stops, each crew member takes their position to launch the ROV into the water: checking the pole, taking care of the umbilical cable, confirming the system works, recording and confirming we are in the right spot.

Hello, and welcome to the diaries of an expedition by Oceana. I will try and give everyone a picture of what it is like to be part of such an exciting adventure. My part in this expedition is a small, but I would like to think important, part. I will be the engineer/first mate aboard this 71 ft. catamaran. Maintaining, repairing, and sailing this boat will be my priorities.

It’s almost 9:00 p.m. and we’re back at port. Today we completed two dives with the ROV in one of the areas identified for research during the oceanography expeditions included in the LIFE + BAHAR for N2K project. This area is located to the north of the island of Gozo, about an hour’s sail away, and we worked at depths between 300 and 500 metres. Perfect weather for this type of work, given the difficulties that having a robot in the water implies; it’s impossible if the waves are too high or the current too strong.

Today the Ranger’s 2015 campaign in the Mediterranean Sea begins. It is a two-month campaign mapping the underwater world surrounding Malta in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea. I'm sure there will be unexpected discoveries; amazing images and videos of marine life; laughter with the crew; and magical encounters with cetaceans at sea. However, this is not about the experiences. It’s an important research project and today is its first day. It's the day when you realize you can make a difference.

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