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Bay of Biscay 2008 Expedition

On June 1st, the Oceana Ranger initiated its 2008 Expedition in Vigo, after sailing in the waters of Portugal,Gulf of Cádiz and the Alboran Sea.


SeahorseWe found this little guy in Galicia, Spain during our 2008 at-sea Oceana Ranger expedition.

Here’s a fun fact about seahorses: the males are the ones who get pregnant and seahorse babies are born inside the male pouch.

But here are some not so fun facts about seahorses, which are fished for use in traditional medicines throughout Asia and aquariums: Overfishing, pollution, climate change and habitat depletion have severely depleted seahorse populations.

The 2004 CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) convention provided international protection to seahorses  by setting a minimum catch size allowing them to reproduce while allowing some fishing - though Indonesia, Japan, Norway, and South Korea opted out of the trade rules at the time.

Today we continued with the campaign by making two Rov immersions and one with divers. Ana Leiva (director of Fundación Biodiversidad) and Juanjo came with us. This was because they showed great interest in finding out what a day of work on the Ranger was like and our activities and the information we are collecting on Bay of Biscay habitats and species. Marta Madina, Oceana's director of communications, also came with us.

We started the day sounding the canyon near the Castro Verde seamount to later sail toward the coastal area between Punta El Mariano and Punta la Code (between Islares and Castro Urdiales) where divers went on a shallow dive (between 6 and 15 meters deep).

We started the day sighting a group of 3 common dolphins (Delphinus delphis), about 7 nautical miles sailing toward Cabo Matxitxako.

It was once again a day of intense work with the Rov. We made the two dives in the same canyon off "Las Palomas" oil rig on a muddy bottom with some scattered rocks.

Today was an intense day of work with Rov. During the first dive, in the canyon off Ondarroa, we documented a muddy bottom where the following creatures dwell: prawns of the genus Pleisonika, octopi (Eledone cirrhosa), catsharks (Sciliorhinus canicula), four-spotted megrims (Lepidorhombus boscii), silver pout (Gadiculus argenteus) and color tube anemones (Cerianthus membranaceus). These last ones formed abundant bunches.

Taking advantage of the fact that yesterday was a day off, the Rov's technicians joined the two umbilicals, so we went out cheery. We wanted to submerge the robot at a greater depth. Unfortunately, an approximately 20 knot W wind forced us to stay close to shore, so we did the tests with the Rov off of Zumaia at approximately 1 nautical mile.

In spite of having the day off, many of us had pending work. So at a more relaxed pace, at any part of the ship you could find someone doing maintenance work on the scuba gear, checking the Rov's operating status and welding the umbilical, organizing photos, doing the timing for the recordings, identifying some of the species found or finishing up reports.

Others decided to spend the day seeing new places and via the Road to Santiago. They reached Deba, crossing fields and thickly wooded areas.

We’ve been at sea for almost two months with this campaign and have sailed for many miles –northern miles- although the truth is that we’ve been quite lucky with the weather and have been able to work practically every day. Slight winds and calm seas rocking us gently. The divers must dance to the rhythm of the currents that move them from side to side. The “heavy seas” remind us that, many miles away from here, the weather is more like winter, either more Cantabrian or more Atlantic, but definitely “more northern.”

In the morning, we returned to the canyon facing the Orio estuary to document the seabed with the help of ROV.

Before getting there, 10.5 nautical miles from the coast and in waters with a temperature of 21ºC, we spotted a Portuguese man o’war.

At last, the ROV is up and running and we plan on working all day with it off two seamounts, one in front of Ondarroa and the other facing the Orio estuary.

We pass by two trawlers, from Gijon and Vigo, on our way to the canyons, working in waters 7 and 10 miles from the coast. This destructive fishing technique seriously damages benthic ecosystems and uses non-selective fishing gear that is detrimental to traditional fishing communities.

This morning, we departed from Zumaia to dive off the coast between the ports of Mutriku and Ondarroa. We left at 9 a.m., a bit later than usual, because we had to change crews.

Juan Sigler (support diver) and Sergio Gosálvez (underwater photographer) have left, and Jorge Candán and Pilar Barros are once again aboard the Ranger.

We left early to reach the canyons before the wind picked up so we could work comfortably, without the boat moving too much. We reached the Potera Arrechu seamount and surveyed the area but did not find any significant changes in depth. A group of 15 common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) appeared directly over the seamount and played with the bow.

We spent the day working on the Gaztelugatxe protected biotope, the only marine protected area in the Basque Country, apart from the Mundaka estuary that is within the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve.

We carried out two dives off the two islands within the protected area, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe and Aketze.

On the first island, there is an old church from the tenth century that must have been a monastery for the Knights Templar. The Aketze islote is isolated and is a sanctuary for marine birds.

Today was a very special day. We didn’t go sailing, but instead, we’ve spent the morning in port, in Getxo, doing some cleaning and maintenance work. In the afternoon, we went up the Bilbao estuary to the maritime museum, escorted by Unai Basurko and his regatta team.

We depart early from Getxo to carry out two dives with the divers, one north of the Villano Islote and another off the Culebra seamount, located on the Meñacoz coast.

We have been very lucky with the weather, so far. Sunny days and slight winds have allowed us to work comfortably.

On the Villano Islote, atop a rocky seabed, we find anemones (Aiptasia mutabilis), groups of nudibranchs (Hipselodoris tricolor), various sea slugs (vaquitas suizas ) and Eudendrium hydrozoans, off which various species of nudibranchs are feeding.

Finally, the ROV technicians couldn’t solve the problem and decided the best option was to take it to Barcelona, because it would be easier to solve technical problems there. Joan and Manuel left with the ROV and we continued our work with the divers in shallow waters.

We started the day with a dive off the Callejos de Bamboa seamount atop large blocks of rock on a sandy-muddy seabed.

We returned to Sonabia in order to document the sea floors in that area. We carried out the first dive off Cotonera Island, in front of Islares, where there are various rock formations atop a sandy seabed. The top part of the rock formations was covered in Cystoseira algae and we found other species on the rocky walls, including Berthella sp., Echinaster sepositus, Hypselodoris tricolor and Alcyonium glomeratum.

We say goodbye to Santander under cloudy skies and set sail towards our next port, Castro Urdiales.

During the first dive, off the Morcejonera rock in front of Ris beach, the flat seabed was comprised of sand and small rocks. The rocky area was covered with Cystoseira algae. We also spot some areas covered with Gelidium algae.

On the overhangs, we find different species of sponges and the sea urchin, Paracentrotus lividus. Amongst the fish species, there were conger eels (Conger conger) and Ballan wrasse (Labrus bergylta).

Joan and Manuel continue working to solve the ROV’s problems, but for now, we still can’t document deep seabeds.

Since the weather conditions outside the bay do not allow the divers to work, we stay in port and carry out some maintenance work on the equipment.

Pablo López, a biologist who works in the Santander Marine Museum, let us know that a grey seal (Halichoerus gripus) had entered the bay and was resting on a ramp at the Marina del Cantábrico, so we took the small boat and headed over to the port to photograph and document it.

We set sail at 8:20 from Santander in search of the seamounts near the city in order to dive and document the seabeds, although the sky was clouded over and the wind was causing some waves.

We’ve had problems with the ROV and we’re waiting for some spare parts to arrive from Barcelona. So, the work for today was planned for the divers only.

First thing in the morning, we returned to the Llanes Canyon and submerged the ROV up to 240 meters depth. We documented the flat, sandy seabed with low density of organisms. Although we did find various specimens of the anemone Actinauge richardi, holothurians Eostichopus regalis and sea urchins Echinus acutus. It seems especially important that we are recording few fish sightings during the entire campaign off the Cantabrian coast.

We begin the day by planning a dive in front of Cape Peñas, but we had to suspend it due to the wind and rough seas, and decided to set sail to Cantabria.

We recorded the depth at various points around Llanes Canyon in order to get an idea of the morphology of the seabed and identify possible dive spots.

We set sail from the port of Gijón at 7 in the morning and headed towards the Avilés Canyon in order to find and document the white coral. When we reach the canyon, facing Cape Peñas, almost 9 miles from the coast, we submerge the ROV and border the southern coast of the canyon.

Here, we find various colonies of white coral (Madrepora oculata) on the steep, rocky seabed at more than 200 meters depth, as well as a many sponges, anemones and gorgonians.

What a day. Peñas Cape has surprised us with a forest of cup sponges (Phakellia ventilabrum) at only 25 meters depth. The divers dove off the Merendálvarez reef, NNE of the cape, and recognised it because they’ve seen it so many times on the seabeds we’ve filmed with the ROV, always at 80-100 meters depth.

They filmed and photographed it, documenting the enormous amount of deep-sea sponges we found in this area. Close to this location, but at 70-80 meters depth, we are once again thrilled to see the richness of the seabeds comprised of corals, sponges and large fish.

The objective today is to film in the Fría Cove where hake is fished (Merluccius merluccius) near the Avilés Canyon, and the fishermen’s association of Cudillero has requested we document the area.

We find clouds of silvery pouts (Galiculus argenteus), a small fish that constitutes the main diet for hake in this area. There is quite a large amount, so the hake have enough food, but we were not lucky enough to find them this time. Later, we head towards Peñas Cape once again in order to submerge the robot at 80-90 meters depth and document the NW area.

Today, we tried to find the white coral again. The current has made it impossible to combine the movement of the boat with the current at 200 meters depth, where the ROV was located. The boat would continuously be dragged away from the ROV and it was impossible to follow the route we had planned. We carry out two dives, without success.

We reach the Avilés Canyon, 17 miles northwest of Gijón. The canyon drops to almost 2000 meters depth and is one of the deepest in the world, only 8 miles from the mouth of the Avilés estuary or ria. Ye el paraisu de los "Kraken", in other words, it is one of the few places in the world where the Architeuthis dux or giant squid can be found.

Today we are going to do research in the Avilés Canyon. For hours, we zigzag with the boat in order to create a complete profile of the seabed with the computers on board. That way we can decide which area we are going to film. The steeper the slope, the more species we are likely to find, because specific species appear as depth increases or decreases.

We head out looking for 3 seamounts that appear on the nautical chart. They drop approximately 150 meters under the water in an area with a total depth of 1000 meters. Like other times, after various hours of searching, we can’t find two of them. It’s really frustrating because we’ve lost valuable time. At least we sighted a group of bottlenose dolphin, at least 10, and the day wasn’t lost completely.

Today was our last day in Galician waters. We take a couple of dives with the ROV, on a seamount 30 miles from the coast and on a continental shelf 25 miles from Ribadeo. These distances require almost 4 hours of sailing, so we leave the port of Viveiro at 6 a.m. Luckily, the weather looks good and we will have perfect working conditions.

At 8:00, as we are leaving the Ria de Viveiro, we start the day off with a large group of common dolphins –around 25-, calm seas and gentle sailing towards the mouth of the estuary. We are lucky enough to see a young dolphin jumping vigorously, lifting his entire body out of the water. It's a shame we didn’t get it on film.

We continue east along the Galician coast and head to the Niebla seamount, 6.7 miles off Cape Ortegal, at 100 meters depth. With the help of Olex, the programme that helps us establish a bathymetric profile of the seabed, we verify that the depths that appear on the charts are not correct. It is actually much deeper. Furthermore, the chart also indicates that the seamount has a peak 59 meters from the surface, although we finally decide it is an error because we cannot find it.

Many of you will not remember, or were not born yet, but years ago, some of us worked hard on a document called "La Carta de Cedeira." This text requested the banning of bottom trawling, the creation of marine reserves and support for sustainable fisheries. This would not have been significant if it weren’t for the fact that the document was signed by most of the fleets operating in the Cantabrian and Galician Atlantic.

ur second day filming the Bermeo seamount was very special. Three Minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) have accompanied our boat for more than 1 hour, getting as close as 2-3 meters from us. They were feeding, two large and one small whale, which is the one that came close to us various times. The adults were less curious. This seamount is a hot spot for marine life in the area. We’ve spotted schools of fish, dolphins, marine birds, and even the Minke whales, feeding.

We departed from Malpica and headed towards the Baldaio bank, only 3 miles off the coast. The divers are going to dive in the main canal that divides the bank in two sections. We must take into account that there will probably be strong currents. The minimum depth at this bank, measured during the lowest tide of the year, is 9 meters. The immersion will be carried out between 10 and 23 meters. Later, we head towards the Bermeo bank, 4.5 miles off Fruseira Point. At 14:00, we already have the ROV in the water.

We carried out two immersions with the ROV and two dives with the divers, covering the west, north and southeast coasts of the islands, so we’ve seen a variety of seabeds today. It’s a shame, though, that the dives with the ROV have been shorter than planned -we usually go for 3 hours- and we had to take it out of the water because we found an abandoned net in front of us, hooked on to a rock. If the ROV gets tangled in the net, we may not be able to disentangle it and, at these depths, we risk losing the ROV altogether. That is why nets, lines, ropes, anchorages, traps, etc. that we frequently find abandoned along the way are a threat to both the film crew (ROV and divers) and the environment in which they are found.

That’s the North for you. Force 6 winds mean we are stuck at port. We certainly can’t work in these conditions, but some purseiners are heading out. We spend the day in port and many locals come by, interested in our ship and the work we are doing in the area.

We are now near the Sisargas Islands, a groups of islands that were not included in the National Park of the Atlantic Islands. As such, the sea bottoms are not protected and fishing activities around the islands are not regulated according to environmental interests. The distance that separates these islands from the ones included in the National Park is significant. This seems to be one of the reasons why they were not included, because managing this whole area would be quite difficult. So we begin to document these bottoms, in order to prove they require protection.

Today, we will be filming in a seamount known as Villar de Fuertes, 12 miles off the Muros estuary. We submerge the ROV to 100 meters and find a large concentration of Venus’ girdles in the first 15 meters (Cestum veneris), a ctenophore than can reach up to 1.5 meters in length. We also spot a few salps (Salpa maxima). For three hours, we filmed a wide variety of species on sandy rippled bottoms and rock bottoms brimming with life.

We departed at 6:00 a.m. from Portosín port. We headed towards an unnamed seamount located quite near the Villar de Fuertes mount. We want to get there early to avoid the north winds that pick up in the afternoon and force us to stop working. The seamount is very steep on its southern slope. Here, we find a sandy bottom first, then a rocky bottom harbouring a wide variety of species: holothurians, sea urchins, sponges, various types of fish, including a monkfish on the prowl, streaked gurnards, scorpionfish, bluemouth rockfish, etc. The rocks seem to be completely covered in brachipods and red, white and even green jewel anemones (Corynactis viridis). And a lot of black coral (Antipathes sp.), which has practically disappeared from all of its shallow habitats because it is harvested to make jewellery. We also spot a dead common dolphin, in advanced state of decomposition, covered in sea urchins taking advantage of the meal. After we finished with the ROV, we submerged the CTD, a machine that allows us to measure salinity, light, chlorophyll, turbidity and water temperature.

At last we were able to get some work done. After two days in port, we were beginning to get nervous. We fixed the crane and are working on the ROV. The divers are documenting some fantastic gorgonians at 40m depth, at last. Bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins and even a basking shark measuring over 4 meters (Cetorhinus maximus) has escaped our cameras, so we have to be much quicker next time.

Although the weather predictions said we were going to have three bad days due to strong winds, this morning is totally calm. We decide to head towards Salvora again and dive on the south side of the island, off a rock known as “piedra Pegar”.

We spot a group of common dolphins on the way (Delphinus delphis), as well as some yellow-legged gulls (Larus cachinnans) and gannets (Sula bassana) that seem to be having a fish feast as they dive head-on into the water.

We woke to strong winds coming from the northeast, but we attempted to go out anyway to verify if the seas were calmer outside the estuary. As we were heading towards Salvora, we notice that the conditions are good inside the estuary, in case we can’t go out to sea. Luckily, the island affords some protection so the seas are quite calm and we are able to get some work done.

We are doing very well with the filming. We’ve found amazing sea bottoms comprised of laminaria and maërl, harbouring as much life as any tropical forest. It’s worth it, even though we’ve worked 12 hours straight, without resting, only taking 15 or 20 minutes for lunch. Yesterday we had to postpone our work for more than one hour because a dolphin fell in love with the ROV and we couldn’t continue filming. The cameras did film the dolphin, though, and it was love at first sight.

Last night we went to sleep believing today would be completely different than what it turned out to be. The weather predictions made us believe we were not going to be able to film at all. The predicted force 5 winds meant the conditions would be unsafe for both personnel and equipment. Handling a 150 kg robot on board a catamaran is not easy.

Preparing our day.

We received the dry suits, because you can’t dive in these waters without them, departed from the port of Sanxenxo and headed towards Ons Island (in the National Park of the Atlantic Islands). We were delighted to find the seas were calm. During a one-hour dive, the 4 divers were able to document a wide variety of species facing Melida beach in Ons. These included, amongst others:

After an 8-day crossing and 3 days in port preparing the ship in Vigo, we finally took the first images of what promised to be very interesting sea floors.

We departed from the Real Club Nautico in Vigo at midday, after having received and distributed all the material necessary for the campaign: diving equipment and cameras, books and guides about undersea nature and the ROV itself, as well as the divers, scientists and technicians in charge of handling all of this. The team consisted of 14 people, each one with specific responsibilities. The desire to enjoy ourselves and work hard was shared by all, though.

We quickly fell back into the routine of the Ranger after a daylong respite in Gibraltar. While at sea, the ship requires 24-hours-a-day maintenance and if not for a strict schedule, it simply would not be able to operate.

After two and a half days at sea, a familiar image appeared in the distance. At first I was confused as to why the Rock of Gibraltar seemed so familiar. I had certainly never been there before nor could I recall a time ever studying the landscape. Then I remembered that shortly before leaving for the Ranger, Oceana´s Chief Scientist Dr. Michael Hirshfield remarked, “Oh, you´re stopping in Gibraltar? You know that rock inspired the Prudential logo.” What a testament to modern day marketing that the logo of a company I had never used could be so ingrained in my subconscious.

As I´m sure fans of reality television already know, there is certain entertainment value in throwing together a group of people from all walks of life and asking them to live together in cramped quarters with little contact to the outside world. Such is life aboard the Oceana Ranger.

We left Valencia this morning a little after nine, chuffing out of the harbor into a blustery headwind. Maureen and I sat on the prow, watching Valencia slip away behind us. The yachts and racing catamarans quickly disappeared, leaving a skyline of orange, black and red cranes framing the coastline. Valencia is a major port for international shipping, and as soon as we were underway I saw two massive cargo ships creeping across the horizon. They were like bouyant whales, exposed gullets crammed with a giant´s Legoland of interlocked cargo compartments.

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