Tuesday, 30 September 2008

A retraction

If you've previously read the post below, please re-read it after the edit I have made to it.

I made a number of grave errors in judgement and assumptions about things that were not the case.

We have, incidentally, picked up speed, so it looks like we will be back on "action stations" on the way into Mauritius starting around 1AM tonight, although CTD dips will only be to 1,500m to save time.

Monday, 29 September 2008

A belated update and a hard lesson

A few days ago now (27th September) we did a trawl on the Hydra Seamount between Madagascar and the southernmost islands of the Seychelles (the Farquhar Group) I mentioned in the previous post. To the left, you can see some of the catch - mainly a scorpaenid that I think is Setarches guentheri (we caught around about 200 of them), but if you look carefully, you'll see some other species. As I mentioned before, seamounts are expected to harbour unknown biodiversity, so it can be quite exciting to see what comes up. I don't think there was anything new, but one of the species didn't match what was in the book very well (the best ID I could give it was Paracallionymus costatus), so perhaps it is something new; I called it "cf. costatus" to indicate that someone should look at the specimens more carefully at a later date. It was rather a pretty fish with some surprisingly bright pink and yellow stripes on it, particularly on the head, and long filaments out of the top of its dorsal fin - many dragonets (Family Callionymidae) are very pretty fishes; they're fun to look at.

EDIT: Some of the more enthusiastic blog-watchers will have seen a long diatribe about data loss here, which I have removed. It turns out that in actual fact absolutely no data was lost, and it was a trail of bad assumptions by myself and insufficient speaking to the right people. Sometimes on a ship it just takes a while to get everything sorted out. It makes me extremely happy that we haven't lost any data and also very apologetic to those whose characters I may have maligned through the previous version of this post.

I did consider how this may make the entire cruise and the people on it look before posting, but in the heat of the moment (and I was pretty stirred up about it) I considered it (obviously retrospectively a bad call) a realistic reflection of the kind of problems one comes across on a cruise.

In my mind, the blog is supposed to be a fairly realistic visit into life on a cruise ship - and that means challenges as well as successes. I mean it as a personal account of this trip, not as an official account of the cruise (posts about lemurs, for example, have absolutely nothing to do with a cruise, yet they are interesting).

I guess that's the difference between being part of a team and being a "neutral third party". Journalists can get away with running in, writing what they see and getting out again - but if you're part of the team, you also have to consider how the other people in the team may react to what you write more than you might under other circumstances. You have to work with them again, and a ship is a very small, close-knit community!

These messages are posted by named individuals, not as an anonymous "official" account of the cruise. They're subject to errors, and are written and edited by the person that writes them, and are thus subject to that individual's foibles. For the most part, mine.

Lesson learnt? Speak to everyone, not just one person, or, even better, head to the top of the team and ask them to look into it before assuming that because team member x can't find something, it is gone and lost. Someone else may know where it is, and team member x may not have asked them.

However, I think, once stripped of the "blame", the previous message still contained some useful points for processing large trawl catches with a lot of unknown species, and I've added a couple of generally good pointers for life in general.
In any case, I would like to again apologise to everyone for that version of the post, and to note that I also felt terrible about it - I was awake at the time, and should have personally checked the trawl sheet to make sure it was being updated with the names as they were determined, which I did not do, and coincidentally, spent most of the time whilst I was writing the previous post (and a long time afterwards) kicking myself over this. I've experienced data loss before, and it's something I vowed to myself then would never happen again.

Here are some pictures of some of the things we found:

Inger-Marie Beck with Antigonia hulleyi.

The trawl had quite a few Zeiform fishes in it.

We caught 17 tinselfishes (Xenolepidichthys dalglieshi), one of two species in the Family Grammicolepididae [If I have my Latin/Greek right, a rough translation of Xenolepidichthys is "strange-scaled fish"] on this trawl - which vindicates my identification of some post-larval fisheswhich we have caught in pelagic trawls several times as being in this family; I made the ID based on the unusually elongated scales. The smallest of the specimens we caught (see left) looks similar enough to the postlarvae that we caught previously that I can see the connection quite clearly; the fish change shape fairly drastically during adulthood.

To the left, you can see the shape of the adults alongside the juvenile pictured above (lying on the somewhat larger juvenile), and to the right, a macro photo of the unusual scales.

We also caught some Zenion. They're rather small, and the definitive character, anal fin rays, was painful to count as the fins just didn't want to stay out. They don't have a common name, but I've always thought they should be called "opal fish", as the body has the most amazing opalescent reflective patches when they catch the light just right. Trying to photograph it is decidedly tricky! The picture on the left has been heavily edited to try and get the colours to come out. Below, you can see the whole fish - this picture doesn't do these creatures any justice. I imagine they are absolutely stunning when swimming around.

This fish is Zenopsis conchifer. If you look at the large version of the picture (click on it) you should be able to see the large "bucklers" (enlarged scales) along the dorsal and anal fin bases.
These fish, common to most in the Order Zeiformes, have extremely protrusible mouths. They're apparently mainly ambush predators that sneak up to prey items very slowly, undulating their dorsal and anal fins before shooting out their mouths and vacuuming the tasty morsel into their capacious maws! We caught two other zeiform species, Allocyttus verrucosus and Cyttopsis rosea.

Hydra Seamount is about here.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Last station

We're currently finishing off the last station of the Madagascar leg, just south of the Farquhar Island group - the southernmost part of the Seychelles, northeast of Madagascar. We'll be going closer to one of the islands in about an hour or two to have a look at it. Sigbjørn is threatening to do another trawl there, after which, we'll turn south and steam to Mauritius - a lot of just plain sailing with no oceanographic surveying.

This will give me a chance to play "catch up" on a couple of items for the blog, which I will get to after I've had some sleep.

There is also a small possibility we'll do a line of stations into Mauritius to take some of the pressure off the next leg, which has a mere three days to do a very detailed survey around Mauritius - but it all depends on how kind the wind, currents and waves are to us, and what kind of speed we can make. We should arrive in Port St. Louis on the 1st.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Fun with pressure

Two things about the sea. It's very big. And it's very deep.

The expanse of the sea isn't something I'm going to talk about in this post. This post is all about depth!

On average, the sea is about 2km deep. That's 2,000m of water. On land, or in the air, 2,000m doesn't seem very far, or cause much of a change. But water is heavy. For each 10 meters you go down, the pressure increases by the earth's atmosphere again. So, at 2,000m you have (a bit more than, because seawater weighs more than 1kg per litre because of the salt in it) 200 atmospheres of pressure.

We survey as deeply as we can with the CTD - we're often in water over 4,000m deep, but we only have about 3,000m of wire on our CTD winch, which limits the depth to which we can send the CTD.

Yesterday night, I thought I'd try a fairly classic sort of experiment with the CTD that would illustrate the amounts of pressure we're talking about here. As one of the CTD casts during my shift was due to reach 3,000m, I thought I should find something and put it on the CTD and see what happens. Polystyrene cups are full of air - air that high pressure can squeeze out.

A friend of mine wondered what would happen to an apple- she thought that apples were kind of "foamy", but I suspected they were really pretty much solid and full of fluid; solids and fluids are more or less incompressible (at least compared to gases). So I attached an apple to the CTD too.
The enquiring mind of a scientist is unhappy to rely on conjecture when there is a chance to get some empirical evidence!

Henning made a cunning sample vessel out of a 2l plastic jar and tied it on, once he saw the ziplock bag I was planning to use; he said I'd get better results with a jar. The apple went in my ziplock contraption.

The apple made it back, but sadly, the first trial with the cups went missing... I guess the knots on the jar didn't hold!

So, we tried again, this time with more rope, more holes and a more cunning way of fastening things. Henning even made sure that the lid would stay on by threading string through there too.

Second time lucky!

Anyway, here are some fairly dramatic before and after shots:

To the left, you can see my neatest effort in terms of hand-writing (still terrible), and what things looked like before going to 3,000m.

Alongside the polystyrene cup is a small piece of flat polystyrene I found lying around. I wrote "Pressure" on it.

I thought the calipers looked sufficiently "scientific" and they also give you a scale to refer to...!

To the left, you can see what happened to them after briefly visiting 3,000m - and an un-treated cup to compare it with! Honey, I shrunk the polystyrene cup!

I tried several cups, as you can see on the left (compare with the un-treated cup also in the picture)

The flat piece of polystyrene doesn't look so impressive in the pictures above, but it got seriously squashed. Here is me holding it sideways with an unshrunken piece of polystyrene from the same place.

The one that went to 3,000m is the one at the bottom.

So, what about the apple? No real change, although it did feel slightly more squashy. (The other change was me getting more cunning with flash placement).

< Before
After >

So, there you have it. The sea is deep. And it's pretty squishy down there if you contain compressible airspaces!

I thought I'd add something of educational interest to the post. So...

Is this just an amusing quirk? What's the relevance to anything?

Well, think for a moment about fish. Particularly fish that might migrate up and down in the water column (something a lot of them do). As you may or may not know, many fishes have something called a "swimbladder" they use to achieve neutral buoyancy; by filling it with more or less air, they can displace an amount of water roughly equal to their mass, and so become neutrally buoyant (float in the water column, neither going up or sinking) and hover, without expending energy on swimming, much like divers can with their BCDs. There are two basic types of swimbladder, one with a tube connected to the outside [physostomous], and one without [physoclistous]. The latter have to excrete gas into this closed sack, using a structure called the rete mirabile, and remove gases using a similar structure, the oval window. The gas moved is primarily oxygen.

There are two potential problems you then run into. The first is going up too fast; as there is no easy way to "dump" large amounts of the gas inside (at least not in physoclistous species). This means that fish swimming at great speed towards the surface (or getting dragged that way by a trawl) risk severe internal injury as the gas bladder expands far beyond its normal size. Fishes with large swimbladders tend not to change depth particularly fast - and fish that change depth quickly tend not to have large swimbladders, or none at all.

The second problem is that of partial pressure. As you get deeper and deeper, you have to develop a higher and higher partial pressure of oxygen in the rete mirabile in order to "pump" more oxygen into the swimbladder in order to inflate it. There is a physiological limit to how high this pressure can be, so fishes that live deep in the ocean have evolved other ways of maintaining neutral buoyancy, like having very reduced skeletons (bone and cartilage are heavy), light tissues (not much heavy muscle) and lots of oils (which are less dense than water and float) stored in various tissues.

Anything with an airspace inside needs to worry about big pressure changes like this; if you've ever felt uncomfortable in an airplane or car as you go up or down (that "stuffy' feeling in your ears) - that comes from just a fraction of a change of one atmosphere. Those cups were subjected to a change many hundreds of times bigger than this!

Incidentally, if you didn't know, the biggest migration on the planet is not the wildebeest in East Africa, which you've probably seen on TV. It actually happens every single night in the ocean, when literally billions of tons of organisms rise from the depths up into the shallows to feed. This community can clearly be seen on sonar and this is termed by those operating sonar as the "deep scattering layer". During the day, it sits at around 400m or deeper, but moves up into the surface waters at night. This article on lanternfishes, a major constituent of the deep scattering layer, will let you know more about this "diel vertical migration" (and a lot about myctophids) if you are interested!

Oh, and the CTD station where I did this was about here.

Some more cool fishes

We've caught some more pretty neat fishes recently.

Below is the mouth of a ponyfish (Family Leiognathidae), which I think is Equulites elongatus. This species is much more slender than most of the other species in the family; they are also not easy to identify, as so many groups seem to be! The keys for this group also frequently seem to depend only on characters of male fish (the sort of key couplet I hate, along with relative statements like "moderately long", which might make sense if you work with the group regularly, but are more or less meaningless if you just have one specimen, or couplets that only apply to adults and you have a juvenile).

Interestingly, ponyfishes are bioluminescent. They have a layer of tissue containing bioluminescent bacteria wrapped around their gut. It is thought that they use this light, which shines out of transluscent patches on their bodies, to confuse predators, particularly at night in the shallow waters they frequently inhabit, where moonlight shining through the water would otherwise silhouette them strongly. They also seem to show differences between species and sexes, so the light is probably useful for the fish in several ways.

Ponyfishes are fairly important in many tropical countries as a food source; they apparently dry fairly easily, allowing them to be transported and traded as a good source of protein.

Most of the fishes in this group have mouths that are not only protrusible, but extremely so!

Take a look:
Mouth closed (sorry about the label - I cropped this out of a fish pic I took from genetic/stable isotope sampling - somehow, I didn't think to take a picture of the specimen with the mouth closed!).

And... Open!

As neat as that mouth is, the next fish is even more great.

We caught a fairly large flatfish postlarva/juvenile in a pelagic trawl - I noticed it had an extraordinarily long fin ray, so I felt I just had to take some photos! We tried to key it out - we suspect it's in the Family Bothidae, and it may be a Laeops of some sort. Anyway, onto the pictures!

Note the really long fin ray sticking out of the head (the whitish filament).

Here's a close-up of the head. If you look carefully, you can see the upper end of the eye that is migrating around to this side of the body (grey-ish patch above the eye you can clearly see). Yes, you can indeed see its brain and spinal cord, as well as its guts.

I first took pictures of it lying the wrong way around (as if it was a right-eyed flounder), and then took another look at it and realised my mistake! It was quite big and about 3/4 filled the petri dish I put it in to photograph it under a little water to get rid of some of the annoying glistening highlights you get off wet fish (the reason you normally put them in a tank to photograph). These are, however, the right way around. If you ever find yourself having to photograph developing flatfish and want to know which way is the right way up, check which eye is closer to the top of the head - that's going to be the "bottom". All kinds of interesting bone development will probably happen after the eye passes onto the left side of the head.

We caught these fishes about here.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Lemur adventures

Last time I was on a cruise in the waters around Madagascar for several weeks, I didn't see a single lemur or chameleon. In fact, I spent all of about 3 hours on dry land if memory serves! This meant that a second visit to Madagascar without seeing any would make me extremely bleak. Tommy said that there was some kind of lemur park close to Toamasina, so, at 8 in the morning, after a few moments trying to find Jéssica unsuccessfully to drag her along, Bradley and I more or less ran to the port gates, met up with Tommy, and then found out that not only did he not know where the lemur place was, he couldn't remember its name. And neither Bradley nor I had thought to bring the printout of the locally relevant chapter of the Lonely Planet guide to Madagascar I had purchased, downloaded and printed out the day before. Oops.

I was press-ganged into attempting to communicate with the bicycle taxi drivers near the port in my limited French. I supposed that the French word for lemurs was lemuriens (a group in one of my favoured musical genres is called "Lemurians". Interestingly enough that name has more to do with a hypothetical sunken continent than the primitive primates). Unfortunately, my French was met with fairly blank expressions, as was the word "lemuriens"; I suspect these guys didn't really speak much French. Tommy tried showing them a bank note with a lemur on it. Eventually they were saying "Maki! Maki!", so we assumed this must be the Malagasy word for lemur, and thought we would shortly be amidst a whole stack of lemurs. Maki is actually one of the Malagasy names for the ringtail lemur. Incidentally, for future reference, the Malagasy word for lemur is gidro.

Alas, this was not to be the case. We travelled in several directions around town, doubling back on ourselves at one point. The bicycle taxi is quite the experience, particularly when the guy doing all the hard work manages to get his flip-flop stuck in the chain, loosing the flip-flop and having the chain come loose. This lead to a fairly swift reduction in speed, the surprisingly speedy fixing of the chain and subsequent retrieval of the errant flip-flop. Tommy also heartily recommended the pousse-pousses (hand drawn rickshaws) as a rather unusual method of getting around.

Eventually, we came to a market area, and the bicycle taxi drivers triumphantly pulled up outside of a shop - I had something of a sinking feeling when I noticed that right in front of us was a shopfront, prominently featuring lemurs called... you guessed it... Maki Company! It was closed, but there were people inside - the clothes looked quite cool. They showed no real inclination to open up (presumably they opened at 9 and it was only 8:30), so we decided to wander past the market and hunt down a taxi. This time, one with an engine, reasoning that a lemur park must be some way away from the center of town. Tommy bought a lifetime's supply of vanilla from a stall-holder on our meander past.

We eventually found an impromptu taxi rank outside a petrol station, and tried to get ourselves understood. Again, this group didn't seem too hot on the old French (in fact, their French was worse than mine - but then French is not the national language of Madagascar). Eventually, we seemed to get ourselves understood and enquired about the price. First 5,000 Ariary was mentioned. As it had just cost us about 15,000 Ariary to come a fairly short distance on 3 bicycle taxis, and I overheard them saying something about 12 kilometers outside town, this seemed wrong, so I pressed the issue. We made ourselves understood that we wanted a return trip. Eventually, one of the petrol station attendants was saying "5,000 times ten" in French, so I asked "cinquante mille" (50,000)? This was met with fairly blank stares again, cluing me into the scary fact that I might actually know more French than they did. Finally, we decided both the taxi driver and ourselves were on more or less the same page regarding payment. We just hoped we were going to the right place! As taxis in Madagascar seem to do, the first thing our driver did was get fuel for the journey (they seem to sit around empty, and work on tiny amounts of fuel at at time - literally buying enough for the trip).

Now that we knew the taxi was going to cost us 50,000 Ariary, we suspected that the wildlife park might be quite pricey, particularly after my experiences of parks in East Africa and their dollar-rates for tourists, so we asked the driver to stop at the bank. Tommy and I withdrew money from an ATM (note: some ATMs in Madagascar accept both Mastercard and Visa for cash withdrawals - only Visa work in Tanzania, where Mastercard is generally frowned upon - annoying as my South African card is Mastercard). Bradley decided to exchange some dollars and that took a while longer.

On the way out of the bank, we spotted John Bemiasa and some of the other Malagasy people from the ship and asked him to please make sure that we were actually being taken to the right place - it turned out that we were. The three of us breathed a big sigh of relief, climbed back into the very rickety old French car (I didn't note if it was a Peugeot or Renault; I suspect the latter - there are also some very old Citroens still running around), and off we went. It was rather interesting getting out, as none of the doors had door latches on the inside; my door had to be lifted into just the right position before it would close.

As we drove along I noticed that, just like in the market place, everything that does one kind of activity seems to cluster. So, you'd have an area that sold wood, another that sold roofing materials another that sold furniture and so on. One village on the route seemed to specialise in collecting and selling river sand, whilst the next one along seemed to specialise in breaking rocks (by hand using either another rock or a large hammer) into gravel.

After going quite some distance along some at times rather bumpy roads, with several loud jarring crashes on the underside of the car, and asking the driver to actually go in the direction the signs pointed in, we eventually arrived at our destination, Parc Zoologique Ivoloina.

Lemur time!

First, we paid the very reasonable 10,000 Ariary each, and grabbed some drinks - after a long drive in the very hot car, and each nursing some degree of hangover from the drinks the previous day, all of us were rather keen to get something down our throats! Then we entered the park; we took a walk along a little path next to a lake, and finally ended up in the area of the park with lemurs. Ivoloina boasts around 10 species of lemurs and some other assorted wildlife; around 5 species are allowed to roam around the park at their leisure, whilst the rest are in cages. I was surprised how much noise the lemurs made; the black and white ruffed lemurs were particularly loud screamers; one of the smaller "bamboo lemur" species made extremely cute little whiny noises - and a whole range in between, depending on the species!

Anyway, I feel it is high time for a load of gratuitous lemur pictures:

I rather like the way one of these lemurs is hiding its face with its long tail. These are crowned lemurs, Eulemur coronatus.

This is a black and white ruffed lemur, Varecia variegata. These were the largest (and noisiest!) lemurs at Ivoloina. Lemurs are also rather active creatures, at least when they're awake, so quite a few of the pictures I took suffered from a little motion blur.

Stabbing lemurs in the face with a banana is strictly forbidden at Ivoloina...

Some lemur species occasionally get up on their hind legs and run along, and look overly-cute doing it.
These are white-fronted brown lemurs, Eulemur fulvus albifrons. Apparently, only the males have white colouration. Interestingly, lemurs tend to live in female-dominated groups.

You'll have to look at the larger version to see it (click the picture), but I think this individual has a rather smug expression on his face - a result of a lucky combination of him chewing on a piece of fruit and clicking the shutter at just the right moment. Or perhaps it's smiling at yet another blasted tourist and their camera!

I imagine this lemur hawking this bottle of water to passing tourists - Tommy happened to put it down, and this lemur came to check it out. The lemurs at Ivoloina are extremely tame; you can get surprisingly close to many of them. I imagine if you sat still for long enough, you might well find one climbing on you!

Lemurs have rather long tails!

So, what do you like to do?
Oh, you know, hang out...

By the side of the lake there were several of these unusually-shaped spiders. This is a crop from the original. If I'd had more time, I would have whipped out a flash, macro lens, tripod and 2x teleconverter. Here, I just used the 24-105 and rocked in and out until it looked more or less in focus and grabbed the shot.

There was an enclosure with at least one chameleon in it. They can be rather tricky to spot! They're fascinating animals to watch as they creep along very slowly, gently rocking, with their turret-like eyes swinging around. The enclosure was marked "panther chameleons", so I assume this is a member of that species (Furcifer pardalis).
Madagascar has a strong tradition of taboos, or fady. Chameleons are often the subject of fady, and touching them is generally forbidden by these traditions.

Some radiated tortoises.

The park also had a lot of labelled plants dotted around; this is the orchid from which we obtain vanilla. I'm a big fan of things that have labels attached so you know what they are. It would make my life a lot easier if everything in our nets was already labelled too!

Grass? What's so exciting about grass? Quite a lot if it's got a snake in!

On the way back, I tried shooting some random pictures out of the window, but they generally came out quite poorly - I stupidly didn't think to increase the shutter speed at the time, so they were blurry in the foreground and also generally terribly framed. Some of the least bad of them are in the section above the lemur pictures. (There was a time, not all that long ago, when such actions were almost reflexive - those reflexes have dulled after my camera has languished in a bag, unopened for rather large spans of time).

So, finally! Lemurs and chameleons in Madagascar! Yes!

I could happily have spent the whole day there, watching the lemurs and photographing them, but time was pressing. I had originally expected to get back to the ship by around 10, as there were tours scheduled, but with the unexpected length of time (and adventurous routing) to get to Ivoloina and back, we only made it back to the ship around 12:15 (the walk from the port gate is also rather long). This caused a certain amount of (not unreasonable) bleakness amongst those who had been left to deal with the "chaos" of the morning tour groups; in any case, I tried to make sure the rest of the team got off the ship in the afternoon and got to see a bit of the town at least, which they did.

However, having spent a previous cruise confined to the ship or lecture theatre for PR or technical support purposes whilst most of the rest of the party swanned around various exotic locales, I had decided that, for once, I would bend the rules a little and go and do something I had wanted to do for so long! The death stares, I feel, were ultimately worth it... The experience left me feeling rather less drained that I had felt after so long on the ship. I'm ready for the next section!

Friday, 19 September 2008

The Big Launch

On the 17th, we had a major function on board the ship, with invited guests from several Ministries in Madagascar and other more local dignitaries and representatives of various NGOs and other organisations. Unfortunately, due to an event of national importance, the death of Rado, who I am told is one of Madagascar's most treasured poets, as well as being gifted in other artistic disciplines, several of the high profile guests were unable to attend as there were functions in the capital, Antananarivo, to celebrate his life and mourn his passing that required their attendance.

Whilst that made the mood slightly more sombre than it might otherwise have been it was still, I feel, a very successful event. We started the day with breakfast around 7:30am, after which it was non-stop action until about 6PM! The first task of the day was to decorate the ship, and assist the crew in setting out various tables and chairs and so on. After a lot of fairly frantic activity, the ship was ready to receive the invited guests. On the left, you can see a scrum of journalists crammed into the acoustics lab, whilst the function of the various displays and instrumentation are explained.

At around 8am, a group of journalists arrived for a tour of the ship and to hear about our work; we had a press release in both English and French, prepared by our Media Consultant, Claire Attwood. All of them opted for the French version! John Bemiasa (standing in the picture to the left, talking to the journalists), translated Jens-Otto Krakstad and Raymond Roman's presentations about the cruise. Some of them also returned for the function later in the day; we had people from local and national newspapers, along with television and radio crews.

Groups of ten (and sometimes far more - which were difficult to accommodate in the cramped confines of the interior of the ship) were lead on tours of the ship, starting in the bridge to see some of the equipment up there, after which they went down to the acoustics laboratory to learn about acoustic fish surveys and some aspects of the oceanography we are studying on the cruise with Jens-Otto Krakstad and Raymond Roman respectively explaining each of them. Subsequently, the groups were lead down to me in the "dry lab", where, with a quick detour past the CTD to explain its functioning and so they could actually see this piece of equipment that is so central to so much of the work we are doing aboard the Nansen. After explaining a little about what the CTD is and what it does for us, I took the groups into the dry lab to explain how the various water samples we take with the rosette attached to the CTD are processed. I imagine that curious blog-readers are also anxious to learn more about these three mysterious letters and I promise that all will be revealed before the ship docks in Mauritius! To the left, you can see some of the decor. The orange floats are surprisingly heavy and hard - I smacked my head on them several times! Around the upper levels, we had flags from all the countries participating in the project, with the flags of Madagascar and Norway behind the podium, with the UN flag decorating the front.

After my quick summary of the practical aspects of physical and chemical oceanography, the tour groups headed next door, where Bradley Flynn explained his role in zooplankton sampling with the multinet and then the groups were handed over to Jéssica to explain the trawling work, along with genetic and stable isotope analysis. After this, the tour groups had a well-earned rest from having tons of science thrown at them; they were taken out of the back door and handed over to the Captain and senior officers who hosted them on the aft deck with tasty treats and beverages, whilst the other guests were lead through the ship. To the left, Bradley and Irene explain zooplankton sampling to a small group.

After all the guests had an opportunity to see and experience some of the work we do on board, the function was called to order by the Master of Ceremonies, Hajanirina Razafindrainibe, who is the ASCLME Steering Committee member for Madagascar, and there were a series of speeches by various dignitaries after Jens-Otto Krakstad, the Norwegian Cruise Leader, welcomed everyone on board and explained a little about the cruise and its objectives. At this stage, I was busy behind the scenes, doing crazy last minute (second?) organisation, so I am not sure of exactly who spoke and when, but I will get the details and update this post as soon as I can.

This seems to happen to me quite frequently on cruises - on this particular day, I had at least 3 separate roles - organiser of random things, photojournalist and tourist attraction! These are all more or less mutually exclusive roles, so none of them got my full attention, and it was fairly frantic at times; I do, however, seem to thrive under such conditions!

I spent most of the morning putting together a revolving slide show of many of the interesting things we've seen and done aboard the ship - faithful blog-watchers will have seen most of the images (if not all of them!) before. I attempted to add titles to the pictures in both English and French, but ultimately, the translation was proving far too slow, and I stopped after a while. I also suspect many of them were hilariously bad! Haja spent the morning answering calls on the three cellphones she had with her, and of course, everyone was busy preparing either talks, their showcase areas or the public areas of the ship for the event. To the left, you can see a podium the crew built, with the UN flag in front, the Norwegian flag to the left and the flag of Madagascar to the right.

The most frantic part of the day, for me at least, was whilst the speeches were happening; Tommy and I had to prepare personalised letters of thanks from the project for each of the 5 dignitaries who were receiving scale models of the Dr. Fridtjof Nansen prepared by a company in Cape Town. This meant careful attention to spelling, as we both find the spelling of Malagasy surnames rather challenging! And it had to be done before the models needed to be presented, which we kept thinking was any minute. In the end, Haja decided that people needed a break after the long series of speeches and they were handed over by Haja and Tommy in a separate little presentation ceremony after the guests had a chance to mingle and enjoy the food and drink. At this stage, I was running around snapping pictures left, right and center!

To the left, Tommy Bornman with one of the models, as well as a cameraman from a TV station. It's always interesting trying to compete with a whole gaggle of other people trying to "get the shot", but without being pushy or getting in the way. Of course, this means you sometimes get sub-optimal pictures, but I'm sure that getting exposure on national television is rather more of a PR bonanza that a couple of nice pictures we can use on our website or in a report!

Assembled dignitaries along with Jens-Otto Krakstad and John Bemiasa. Further labels to follow!

Science team, MK II. Left to right, more or less as you come to them, Jaques Phillipe, Irene Rasoamananto, Thomas Razafimanambina, Norososa Bakary ("Mama"), Raymond Roman, Jéssica Escobar, Jens-Otto Krakstad, Magne Olsen (crouching), James Stapley, Bradley Flynn; more or less in line with each other, at back, John Bemiasa, in front, Roger and finally Carel Oosthuizen. Not pictured are the instrument technicians Jan Frode Wilhemsen and Kåre Tveit. Science team MK I was minus all the Malagasy scientists and Carel, plus Arrie Klopper and Sean Fennessy.

To the left, almost everyone on board the Nansen up until Toamasina, some of whom are hiding behind other people!
Not in the picture for some reason are the Steward and the two Namibian cadets. I'll try and name everyone in the picture a bit later (when I revisit this post to label the dignitaries).

I have (quite literally) hundreds more pictures, thanks to my brand new Canon EOS 5D, which Tommy kindly brought to me as hand luggage all the way from South Africa, through a ridiculous routing that had him going via Reunion to get to Toamasina and past officious customs agents! The rest of Tommy's luggage didn't even make it to Toamasina (it finally arrived in Antananarivo on the day the ship left) - so Tommy had a chronic shortage of clothing and we lacked the refills of some supplies that ran out - and now, he's had to fly the 50kg of excess luggage all the way back to South Africa - and then to Mauritius...! Thank you very much, South African Airways!


The internet died. As did the engines!

We're currently just drifting, as there was some kind of oil leak; the ship will be unpowered for about an hour and a half whilst the oil leak is fixed.

My good intentions of putting up a whole load of new blog posts last night were demolished when the ship turned around at the end of the last CTD line and headed inshore; for whatever reason, the satellite dish didn't like that direction and couldn't acquire the satellite again until this morning sometime. After about an hour of waiting, I gave up, and partook in movie night, complete with popcorn which I'd cunningly packed for just such an occasion! Now we have internet again, I can resume my posting - the blogger backend system I use to write these posts really needs to be online to work properly. In the end, I had nearly 12 hours of lying in my bed - sadly not all of it sleeping; I have now become a rather light sleeper, so any time someone else in the cabin gets up to do something, I wake up too! Not to mention one of my cabin mates was gently snoring...!

In any case, updates are still coming, and will be posted as and when I get a chance to write them. Right now is looking good!

Time for some serious updates...!

Well, it's been a busy few days and some time since the last blog update, for which I apologise - so I feel it is high time to do some updating about the events of the last few days, so stay tuned for some bumper edition blog posts!

The Nansen arrived in port at Toamasina/Tamatave on the evening of the 16th of September. We were all, I think, very happy to reach dry land after quite some time at sea and to get off and stretch our legs - and see something other than the same fairly cramped spaces on the ship and miles and miles of blue (or, if it was rough, blue and white!) water. The vessel docked about here, with pride-of-place in front of the port control building.

In the hours we spent languishing around, waiting for permission to dock (we spent about 5 hours just waiting around in the bay), we cleaned the ship. The crew spent the previous days finding and eliminating any rusty patches they could reach on board the vessel, even climbing up onto the cranes to give them a thorough scrub, either using elbow grease, rust remover or paint! The science team (well, the junior members of it - it seems Norwegian scientists and local cruise leaders are exempt - the perks of seniority!) spent some time turning working spaces into clean, neat and tidy showcases. Jéssica's team capitalised on her penchant for orderliness and tidied away the clutter of day-to-day working operations, leaving open spaces so you could actually see lab benches for once! My team was then tasked with the actual cleaning of these workspaces, so we mopped and scrubbed the floors (and, in places, the walls too!) and worksurfaces - particularly those that were covered in fish at some stage. We even washed the rugs that were scattered around the labs. I don't think the floors have been that clean in some time! We used some sort of bio-degradable detergent made from plant oils and, as a result, things smelt rather like linseed oil around here for a while - but I think that is a considerable improvement over old fish!

Once all of the port formalities (customs and immigration) were completed, most of the people aboard the Nansen ended up going ashore and visiting a local hang-out called "Neptune's" in town. As nice as it was to get off the ship and have a few quiet beverages, it was rather marred by the presence of a gaggle of ladies-of-the-night who were not at all subtle in their intentions (or attentions). It was actually rather difficult to dissuade them and it somewhat dampened my spirits on the two occasions we went there; this seems to be the "best" place in Toamasina to go out, hence our return visit the next evening. So, if you find yourself here, you know what to expect.

We were all rather excited to find they served cocktails, particularly Jéssica who had been dying for a Margarita almost since we left Durban! Unfortunately for Jéssica, they didn't know how to make one. And, it turns out, they don't seem to quite know how to make some of the cocktails on the menu either. Tequila Sunrises were rather unlike the way they should be - indeed, most of the ones I saw made (or sampled) didn't even have orange juice in them and they were shaken with large amounts of grenadine to leave something rather unlike any Tequila Sunrise you have ever seen (or tasted) before - the base fruit juice seemed to be pineapple. I seriously considered showing them how it's done, but I couldn't see any orange juice behind the bar, so I ultimately chose not to! Ultimately, I think travel is about novel experiences - and these were certainly novel!

It was great to spend time with scientists and crew outside of the ship - and, whilst I've mentioned some negative points in the paragraph above, it wasn't a total disaster, and they will be evenings I will look back on for some time to come with (mostly) fond memories!

Next up: the Launch event and tours!

Photos courtesy Tommy Bornman (1), James Stapley (3).

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