December 6, 2018
Day 14: Onboard communicator, Bethany Green
Eric Woehler is the head of the seabird and marine mammal observation team onboard RV Investigator. The team is supporting a supplementary project which uses spare ship capacity and compliments the primary voyage research to maximise the scientific value of the time spent at sea. In the past 13 days, the team has recorded 38 bird species, including several rare and threatened species.
“The program we are running is a daily voyage of discovery,” Eric said.
“Although we have some idea about the birds we are likely to find due to the fact that we are close to Tasmania – including Short-tailed Shearwaters and Shy Albatross which has two breeding locations within 50 kilometres of our current location – we have also encountered species such as Arctic Jaegers that have migrated down to escape the harsh Arctic winter, and the Wandering Albatross, which could have come from one of eight or 10 breeding locations in the Southern Hemisphere.”
Eric said that before the voyage he had put together a ‘mental shopping list’ of 40 species of bird it would be reasonable to observe. He didn’t expect that after a mere 13 days they would have already observed 38 species.
“Quite a few of those are species I never expected to see,” Eric said. “The Australian Shelduck, for example, which we saw last Saturday. This species is often seen in coastal lagoons or farm dams: you certainly wouldn’t expect to see a couple of ducks 50 miles off the coast, flying in a south easterly direction with the next bit of land in that direction being Macquarie Island.
“This just reinforces the fact that we don’t know what we are going to see at any given moment – beyond the next wave, the next hour, or the next day. It is unpredictable, and there is a sense of discovery with each passing day. We spend 15 hours a day in the Monkey Bridge watching the ocean, and every hour brings something new. If we knew what birds we are going to see on any given day, it would be boring.”
The primary focus of the voyage has been collecting deep-tow camera footage of the Tasmanian deep seamounts. Several beam trawls and ocean profiler drops have also taken place. This means the vessel is not travelling very fast, or very far, and acts as a ‘magnet’ of sorts for many of the seabird species in the area who are used to fishing vessels working in the area, and come to check out the vessel hoping for a bite to eat.
“On some days, we have had four or five hundred birds sitting within 500 metres of the vessel” Eric said, “that is a once in a lifetime experience.”
Many of the species we observe are threatened or endangered. Many of our sightings have been within Huon and Tasman Fracture Marine Parks – these marine parks protect key foraging grounds for oceanic seabirds such as the Shy Albatross.
We are very privileged to see these birds at all, let alone in the numbers that we are seeing them and as close they are to the ship. We are incredibly privileged to see this.
Eric has been undertaking seabird observation and going to sea for just under 40 years, and he says the excitement never wears off.
“I am just as excited to step foot on this ship, as I was to step foot on my first ship heading south in 1980. It’s a real privilege. It is also a privilege to share this experience with my students who are a part of my team. This is a potentially a life altering experience that may guide them into a career around seabirds, marine mammal surveys, or research onboard a vessel in some shape or form."