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2016: LIFE BaĦAR Expedition

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Diaries

Last day of the campaign, whether we like it or not. I tried to arrange to stay another month, but they tell me that it’s impossible. They have no heart! Thirty dives, with Carlos and Enrique carrying the cameras, Juan as chief diver I, Aaron as chief diver II, and Cris, the cook who became a diver (or was it the other way round?). One hundred and twelve ROV dives (that’s right, 112!) with Albert at the controls of the ROV and David his ROV copilot (congratulations to the ROV team, right David?) and 60 samples of different specimens.

Today we are already close to the end of the campaign. You can feel it in the atmosphere, which is a mixture of restlessness and sadness and trying to enjoy these last moments. Today involved diving in caves, with the divers excited and focused on their last dives, and us in the zodiak sailing below the wonderful cliffs and vertical, layered walls, with their holes and sparse vegetation, shelter for the shearwaters and gulls ... breathtaking slopes ...

Until a few years ago, the diaries were written almost exclusively by the scientists on board. As expected, we focused on the ROV dives carried out or those by the divers, we documented species and habitats, whale sightings, birds, turtles and rubbish on the surface. Occasionally, a colleague would offer to write and would give you a break and offer a new point of view of the campaign. Perhaps it would be an ROV technician, one of the divers or the cook. Now, and from quite recently, this method has become the norm and everyone on board writes diaries.

Hello again, I want to take advantage of this, my last diary of this expedition, to explain the reason for so much effort, both human and financial, and the enthusiasm and total dedication that we all share. You might wonder why the MPAs are created and whether it is worth it. I asked myself the same question at one time ... Over many years, I have been able to get to know many protected areas first hand, and I can confirm that they are not just a good idea, but that these days they are necessary, absolutely essential.

After ten days on board the Ranger, I can only say that it’s been a wonderful experience to share my hours of work and rest with the entire crew. The work, the Ranger, the people, all of it ... Fantastic!!!

The sea and the sky might be the two halves of the same sphere. And we seafarers are used to sailing the sometimes unpredictable surface that separates them. In this campaign I have learned something about observing the part of the sphere that we cannot see with just our eyes. And the similarities (and obviously the differences) between the two halves are striking. But today I’m going to talk about the half we can see simply by looking up, and so observe its fauna: the clouds.

The days go by and the end of the campaign approaches. There is little less than a week left but you have to control the urge to return home, because the accidents occur when you let your guard down. If sailing in the ocean and past campaigns have taught me anything it is to begin and end at the same pace. I have come across people who give it their all on the first day of a voyage. They often fall victim to the fatigue of the sea and are all too soon defeated, especially in bad weather.

Last night I was left astonished with such beautiful scenery - just like from a romantic movie – a giant red moon rising over Malta's shadow, welcomed by fireworks on both edges of the island. The Ranger at night can be like a 5 Million-Star Hotel: a view of the Milky Way and falling stars at sea is breathtaking. Was it calm before the storm?

You can still appreciate the moisture of the night absorbed by the cliffs of Dwejra: green, towering, plunging into a calm sea. They are a sight for sore eyes after so much land scorched by the summer sun. We forget about the Ranger, and jump into the water with a coin under our tongues as payment for the ferryman who must open the door to the underworld for us; an unexpected and incredible route via an endless crack, with vaulted ceiling and collapsed walls resting on a distant bed of fine white sand.

Calm sea, hot, but not muggy, and two dives in search of caves. I think most of the people on the expedition would settle for every day being like this one. The first dive was nothing special, but the second was interesting: when trying to go round a cape shortly after setting off, the current began to grow until we were virtually not going forwards, despite kicking fiercely with our flippers to help the electric torpedo that pulls us along under the water. We had to descend to -30m to make progress against the current, following the tortuous relief of the seabed.

This is my last day and the truth is that today is a fairly routine day.

The entire crew is working hooked up to a yellow cord which they call the “umbilical” (yuck!).

The captain blinks vigorously trying to erase the drawing of the plotter from his pupils and keep the Ranger on a straight heading and at constant speed, and with phrases like “South, South-east 02, 01”, he survives on the basis of stretching exercises and French classes for psychopaths.

Rubén with his 2 up, 3 down, full speed ahead!!!!!!, power ball and pennyroyals. Very strange ...

At last we receive an unusual visitor: a military boat. It was half way through the dive – an exciting dive, one of those that tests the mind – speaking clearly, thinking about what you’ll find but never finding it, because there’s nothing but mud, mud, mud and more mud!

Today is my first full day at the open sea and my turn to write the diary. I boarded the legendary Ranger full of excitement and anticipation. The adventure has started! I joined the crew but as a landlubber until now I mainly observe and learn how to behave and move onboard without injuring my head. The vessel is permanently in motion and has its own practical order and logic: every object has a handy, fixed and labeled place, every crew member a task assigned, there is no unnecessary movement. The boat is a living creature herself.

Only a few days remain on board the Ranger. On the twenty-third of this month I’ll finish with the campaign in Malta to go and join the campaign in the North Sea. Today Aaron has arrived, our new colleague who will take on the responsibility for diving on board. The professionalism and eagerness to work make the handover quick and easy.

All that’s left is for me is to say goodbye to this diary that I am writing now, voluntarily and under no pressure from the campaigner, and to wish all the best to the colleagues with whom I’ve shared so many things during these two months.

A blue-coloured vastness, protagonist of impossible dreams – that’s the ocean. A massive body of salt water with an infinite range of properties: as cold as -2°C at the poles, or as hot as 35°C in tropical waters; profoundly powerful with waves higher than 25 m, or as calm as a small pond. It’s hard to believe that during the last ice age, 14,000 years ago, the sea level was about 120 metres below where it is today.

Today is apparently the first of three days with winds of over 20 knots, at least that’s what the wise weather forecasting programmes tell us. For this reason, we woke up earlier than usual to make the most of the day. At half past five we began what would turn out to be a good day. After planning today’s dive, we headed towards the steep cliffs. Today once again we entered the beautiful caves of the island of Gozo, to document these environments, full of invertebrates and sessile organisms that live out their life cycles in complete darkness.

Today in my diary, I want to talk about a parallel journey I’ve experienced reading Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, a novel by Jules Verne, who back in 1870 described quite accurately the nature and geography of deep-sea areas. Captain Nemo and his crew sail on-board Submarine Nautilus, where, through the aid of fishing lamps, his motivated and naturalistic crew discover and recount in detail and charisma ecosystems and related species.  

It is 3 am, and for me a new day has already started. The rest of the staff are sleeping peacefully, rocked gently by the waves on a calm summer night, which has allowed us to float adrift to the east of Malta after finishing work with the ROVs. I say “goodnight” to my colleague who has been on watch and is eager to grab a few minutes of sleep in the quiet of the night, but not before informing me about what has happened during his two hours on duty.

Today it’s Sunday and the beaches are full of bathers cooling off and splashing around in the sea and enjoying a cold beer. But it isn’t all so rosy at the beach; heatstroke, large crowds of people, jellyfish in the waters. But far from the beach, there are member of the human species surviving on a big aluminum box, trying to cool themselves down with big buckets of water and put themselves out of their misery by standing in front of the fans. I should also mention the humidity level here is high here.

Today the Campaigner who schedules the diary entries got it right for me! One of my diary entries finally falls on a diving day! I think having shared 20m2 for 45 days with me has softened her heart. Today, besides diving, I also went shopping with Cristina the Great Chef and then, in the evening, we carried out some ROV dives. As the night was approaching, the ROV dive ended up being a night-time one, so we had to really look carefully for the tiny animals in sea bed full of seagrass and algae.

Today we slept hove-to, very close to a huge anchorage of enormous ships. At night, apart from the light of the stars, we were accompanied by the lights of the boats, which gave the appearance of cities in the middle of nowhere. The weather is good and my first night in these new circumstances has been a success. After a tasty and varied breakfast to recharge our batteries at seven, we set a course for the position of the first ROV dive. Sailors, ROV technicians, first officer, captain and campaigner all work together to make the manoeuvre a success, again and again... seven times.

Although we’ve passed the half-way stage of this expedition, we still have the same excitement and energy as we did on the first day. Today has been a hot day with the sun shining and the sea rather choppy. But nothing can stop the Ranger from carrying marching on with this exciting expedition. Today we had perfect conditions to put the ROV back in the water to explore the seafloor.

The good thing about there being so many of us on-board here is that everyone is a specialist in something, so you get the chance to learn a great deal of things: like sailing, controlling the ROV, mechanics, marine biology, photography, diving and cooking. On-board the Ranger you never stop learning!

 

You get a totally different feeling when you start work on a day like today - opening the Ranger door to see the sea sparkling in front of you and a horizon stretching far and wide, and when you feel the warm early-morning sun on you after a serene and silent night’s sleep under a summer sky filled with stars.

Today has been full of sightings, both on the sea surface and deep down. We’re in an area far from the coast, studying rocky sea beds that go from 300 to 700 metres deep. We’re looking for corals and other species that live in these reefs and, if truth be told, we’re having a lot of luck with what we’re finding! Today we have carried out two dives where we discovered one of the most stunning white coral reefs I’ve ever seen in these waters. There were lots of healthy and well developed Madrepora oculata but they are at risk due to fishing lines.

The weeks are going by and each day we are experiencing something new or learning something new, making this expedition a very rewarding experience indeed. We’ve managed to swim at the same pace as jellyfish, see the way rays “fly” and witness the hatching of cuttlefish eggs. I reassure myself again that these waters, at 1,500m depth, hold a high degree of biodiversity. These waters are home to over 12,000 animal species and to over 1,300 varieties of microalgae, of which 22% are endemic.

Today, we continued to sample an anchoring spot, to the east of Malta, an area common with big vessels. Despite the big impacts the area suffers from such vessels, the marine environment is sneaking through bringing with it beautiful bundles of calcareous algae, green algae, and occasionally, structured mud with a high presence of some protected species. Nevertheles, you can see the impact that anchors of cargo ships, gas carriers, and tug boats have had on the area, which have destroyed these fragile habitats. We must film this in order to find a solution.

We are anchored here in Marsaskala. Today we’ll be working on an anchoring spot for cargo ships, just in front of Marsaskala. It’s an area that you can see has been affected by some anchoring and bunkering. However, we still come across interesting spots to film. So much so that yesterday afternoon the ROV filmed something unusual towards one side and then the radar started to draw a big square-like shape. The ROV controllers steered the ROV in that direction with the captain trying to follow the same path so we could take photos of whatever we found there.

I say that we’re back sailing again as we’ve been in habour for 2 days, and not because of bad weather. We got a plastic line, the type fishermen use, stuck in the engine. It broke an engine part so we had to head back to the habour and repair it.

This morning began with a sense of anticipation, with everyone on board eager to see the broken motor of the Ranger fixed, and get back out to work at sea. Yesterday the captain managed to secure the replacement part we needed (after an adventure to a tiny village on the island of Malta) - but we needed to see whether it would fit, and, once in place, would have the Ranger up and running again.

People are talking and commenting about it; there’s a rumour going around that today we’ll do a dive from the coast! For technical reasons, we couldn’t go out to sea using the boat, so we hired a car and set off to the north area of the island to carry out a dive in a cave that we had seen already.

The sea was quite choppy so access to the cave was quite difficult but nothing compared to a military dive (as I have done), which are quick and agile.

Just when everything was going fine, the ROV in and out of the water, rocky ocean floors, fish, sharks, sponges and coral reefs - getting into the swing of things - when all of a sudden we hear, “watch out there’s a rope in the water”. We thought that nothing too bad had happened to the Ranger as it can deal with all sorts of mishaps, but not this time. Half way into the dive, the rope we hadn’t seen got tangled up in the propellers, leaving us frustrated.

Against all odds, at least my own, the campaigner on-board has told me it’s my turn to write the diary on a day when we’ve been to work according to plan. Let’s see what I can moan about now. Well, anyway, conditions at sea improved compared to Friday, we carried out 3 dives with the ROV with any problems – we even managed to get a sample of a starfish and we’re now trying to identify the type of starfish it is.

There are 14 of us on-board here in Gozo so it’s important to have a moment to ourselves to unwind. Most of the crew here does that by doing some kind of sport. When we sleep at port, we run and/or swim before the working day starts. And if there’s a spare moment when we’re out sailing or at-sea we do workouts using the big rubber bands (you can do so many different exercises with them!). These are just a couple of ways we stay in shape and relax during our time on the expedition.

Today has been full of visits on-board the Ranger. The kind of visits that come and go, the kind that surprise you and the ones you long for. This morning, we had an unusual visit as a voice on-board shouted out loud, “Kike there’s a strange bird on the bow”! A huge, brown-coloured bird walked right in front of us; it was a purple heron, normally found in freshwater wetlands but had decided to venture offshore.

Normally there are 13 crew members on-board the Ranger, which means that each one of us will write four diary entries during the two-month Malta expedition. That is enough to be able to tell you things about the expedition from many different perspectives. In my last diary entry, I gave you a summary on how things had been going. I’m not going to talk about the miles we’ve traveled but rather the dives we’ve carried out and how productive the campaign is turning out to be.

I’m starting my diary entry sitting on the bow of the Ranger, looking towards the horizon, ten miles from the coast of Gozo, with the ROV in 500-metre-deep water. It’s a little break from spending hours labeling all the hundreds of videos we’ve made over the last few days. I still have such vivid memories of the dive we did yesterday – one of the most beautiful dives out of the many I’ve done in this sea. I feel like an explorer who’s out looking for biological treasures hidden between grottos and caves in the Mediterranean.

All research methods involve some degree of impact on the environment and all researchers are aware of that. Although it is practically impossible to cause no harm at all, for example, when lifting sediments, the sampling we do with the ROV is the least intrusive method there is to study the deep sea. Even so, an image is sometimes not enough to distinguish one species from another as some vary ever so slightly, like for example, in details of structure or polyps. In such cases, taking a specimen sample to study later on in more detail either on-board or in a lab is therefore necessary.

A day on-deck unfolds like the sea itself. This morning the groundswell from the last few days was still washing around, with big, slow and unruly waves that are not entirely on our side for using the ROV properly. As the day went by, the sea calmed, just like our energy levels. In the last moments of the dive, with sunset on the horizon, the sea started to flatten out, looking serene, grey and soft. The day is almost coming to an end and the bad weather is now behind us.

So, today it’s my turn to write the on-board diary.

Just a couple of words on superstitions. In the olden days, and, not so long ago in fact, due to a lack of information and knowledge, almost everyone who worked with or related to nature used to be superstitious to be able to answer to and deal with Mother Nature.

“People who do not know that a sailboat is a living creature will never understand anything about boats and the sea”.

A fine phrase from a fine seaman like Moitessier. It sums up perfectly those who live and care for boats, which is not something everyone will understand.  Although the Ranger only takes to water for campaign work, I am lucky enough to be able to share with it both the good and bad times during the months when it is docked, which is also the best chance to get yourself familiarized – from top to bottom – with a boat.

Hi!

My name’s Jorge Blanco and I’m a GIS (Geographic Information Systems) Analyst at Oceana. Bad weather has forced us to stay at port again so we make the most of that time to carry out “office work”. For me, that means working on the results from the MultiBeam coordination meeting that took place yesterday in Valletta. But first of all, what exactly is a MultiBeam? Well, it’s the process through which we obtain a high-definition “image” of the ocean floor.

Today, after two days of bad weather, we took on the wind and decided to set off towards the north of the Island of Gozo to do some snorkeling dives in search of sand banks. I had forgot to tell you that as well as do the cooking on-board I also accompany the videographer, Enrique Talledo. He’s outstanding what he does and an even better person and I have the privilege of accompanying him to where he wants to go – to where his eyes stop scanning and the camera starts filming.

Here I am joining the Oceana and LIFE BaĦAR Malta expedition, as part of the ROV team!

After a few days with the ROV on-deck to carry out some repairs on the umbilical cable – one of the most important parts of this little robot – it was time to test it in the water. But first we did the usual pre-dive checks that we do before any dive to see that it works properly and then we were ready to get it back into the water!

Our little robot followed our commands to use its propellers, hydraulic-powered robotic arm and then “lights, camera, action”!

There’s not much to say when the wind keeps you at port all day. Before midday I managed to finish the work I had pending; sorting and classifying photos and making back-up copies. I also had a swim in the sea after the wind had swept away an “army” of jellyfish offshore. The wind had to be good for something! To be honest, thanks to the strong winds, I was able to watch Spain play in Euro 2016. If the weather goes our way and depending on when my next entry is scheduled for, I hope my next diary entry will be a lot more interesting!

 

Today we headed off for the spectacular sea cliffs to the north of the island. We cast off from the port quite late… and just in time to see the typical little Mediterranean boats, yachts and motor boats, whose captains are not the most conscientious of skippers.  And as we passed the small island of Comino, we glimpsed the hordes of boats in the small bays including some yachts side-by-side in a small space in the bay.

At 6.45am the alarm goes off and a new day of researching the depths of the ocean floors where no sun light gets to. It’s a universe full of creatures that adapt to life at such depths.

At around 300ms down, the ROV manages to captures fantastic images of a bed of sub-fossil brachiopods. Little did we expect that, later on, we’d have some bad luck with the ROV cable when it got damaged after getting stuck in one of the Ranger’s propellers.

I’ve just recently joined the expedition in Malta and today we’ve set sail towards one of the furthest research areas we’ll be going to, where we’ll be for the next three days.

The weather, together with good sea conditions means it’s a perfect day to be sailing for 4 hours to reach our first sampling area.

I had been missing something for over two years. When I counted I always missed out counting the number 8 as it had left me feeling empty inside.

I have to say that I quite like the way eight (ocho) sounds in Spanish and other words that rhyme with it. But when my friends from Oceana called me one day to ask if I wanted to go on the Ranger again and when I got back on to the deck and saw this yellow “eight” glowing at me, I thought, “there it is, that huge 8-shaped umbilical cord was what I was missing all along”.

 

From a boss’s point of view – and that is indeed my role on-board – it’s been a quiet day. At least that is what I can say for the amount of attention I needed to pay to the controls today. We’ve also wind sailed today (and we went a lot faster than we would with the motor on), which is something we haven’t managed to do since crossing from Barcelona to Ragusa, Sicily.

Hi everyone! I’m Rubén, a crew member onboard the Ranger. Our day-to-work on deck starts early. A good washing-down with buckets of water followed by a few checks and then on to untie the mooring lines. The time spent sailing to our work areas we use to rest, chat or simply observe the ocean and the clouds. We’re being lucky with the weather – although I expected less rain that what we’ve had: it’s rained a few times this week at-sea.

Today we have gone from being in a rocky area with the most densely-covered seafloor we have ever seen in all over dives to going on to a dive in a sandy seabed with hardly any signs of life. Yet we always find something to surprise us – a meat-eating sponge here, a new echinoderm there and a fish that we didn´t expect at all to see in these waters.

I’m starting my small contribution to the diaries on-board the Ranger with a lot of energy. It’s a pleasure to introduce myself – I’m Cris - the chef on this expedition and it’s my second year with Oceana on the Bahar Life project in Malta. So, let me tell you a little about the day - my point of view -, from my little kitchen on the port side of the stern on the catamaran.

The footsteps above deck and the sound of dolphins chirping make waking up that bit easier. But today I can stay in bed a bit longer as we’re on our way south to spend 3 days out at-sea. Five minutes later and there’s another bout of noises above my head – this time it doesn’t sound like a dolphin but its “voice” makes me think I guessed right – a turtle!

After a long time sailing, we got back to work: the ROV, cameras and all-hands-on-deck! Rocks, soft corals (gorgonians) and other living creatures have made us really enjoy the dives today!

 

Being an underwater photographer is fun – but sometimes brings a bit of misfortune – like on diving day today when I wasn’t able to dive myself. But our campaigner has insisted I do this so here I am with a cold but ready to give it a go.

We’ve had a grey and rainy day today with enough morning wind to make us change our initial plans for the ROV into a dive to hunt for caves along an amazing cliff off the south of the island.

The vessel is restricted in her ability to maneuver.

That’s what Pere, the Captain, tells us as we work from one maneuver to another while at the same time gracefully lecturing us on international maritime norms.

My name is Marta and I’m a sailor on board the Ranger. We had a wonderful sail here, heading southeast from the Iberian Peninsula to Malta. My work has been focused on taking care of the boat and checking on the ROV as it goes in and out of the water.

Winds from the south-east and north-west met and mixed today near Malta. This is a joy for the sailing boat but a problem for the Ranger as the wind is too strong and the waves are too high to manoeuvre the ROV. We opted to work along the coast so we could continue with the mapping of sandbanks, one of the key habitats we are working on along the Maltese bays before these bays get too crowded for the summer season.

It's been a choppy day today. We saw the bad weather coming in but we still took the risk of going out ten nautical miles early on this morning, at 6am, to fully make the most of the few hours available before the forecasted winds arrived. After an hour of transect along the bed with the robot, we were forced to bring it on board and find shelter, mid-morning, with the whole day ahead of us.

The first ROV immersions of this 2016 campaign have been carried out in a fossil reef with stone sponges.

This reef, discovered last year, promises to be a great deal bigger than what we have previously seen. It's a habitat replete with nooks and crannies, where dozens of species of crustaceans, molluscs, coral, fish and numerous other sea inhabitants shelter and feed, and it’s also one of the biggest natural assets discovered in Maltese waters, as well as being one of a kind in the Mediterranean.

As we set sail out on our new expedition today, those fond, vivid memories from last year’s expedition came floating back to us all on board. The weather was on our side too – just the right combination of a light breeze, pleasant temperature and a 10-metre visibility which is characteristic of the waters we’re currently in.

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