Science - January 6, 2010

Getting closer to Darwin

Mardik Leopold, seabird biologist of the Institute for Marine Resources & Ecosystem Studies (IMARES) in Wageningen, sailed for three weeks on the Stad Amsterdam. With his wife and two children, he boarded the clipper in Buenos Aires to journey along the same course as Darwin did in the Beagle. This write-up, interspersed with snippets from Leopold's blog on the IMARES' website, looks back on his trip.

Commerson’s Dolphins at the prow of the Stad Amsterdam in the Straits of Magelhaen
Buenos Aires, 28 October: It appears to us this morning, looking out from our hotel and according to the VPRO-site, that the Stad Amsterdam lies further down the quay. I nip down to it and acquainted myself with, among others, Redmond O'Hanlon, who exclaims: 'Ah, you're the birdman! Great, excellent, I'm going to join you in your box!' Well, uh, yes, but he's getting the second ring seat... We can't wait; we'll actually be getting on board this evening.
Did you get closer to Darwin?
'Absolutely. I've prepared for this by reading everything I could lay my hands on about Darwin and his journey. You don't want to be caught tongue-tight on board; you should know what's going on by and large. Darwin should be compulsory study material for biologists, but strangely, that's not the case. There isn't any lecture on Darwin or its likes in the biology course.
'The trip brought us to places where it all happened before. Being there makes you feel a little musty. You see the fossil footprints which Darwin saw. It's almost impossible to figure anything out of those, but Darwin did that! We all know that he was an extraordinary man. But he must had been terribly brilliant. There ought to be more of such people. Of course, he had time: five years of travel and then another twenty years to work all that out. But still...'
What scientific tasks did you carry out on the Stad Amsterdam?
'Much of the actual work I'd planned didn't get done. The logistics were different from what I had expected. The research which we had wanted to do - studying the relationship between plankton and seabirds - did not fit into the programme. We wanted to go to an interesting area of the waters with much plankton. That would take half a day of sailing, but we couldn't do that. The boat was more like a taxi which brought passengers as the crow flies from point A to point B. It kept close to the shore. But we did make some interesting sightings which I'm very pleased about.
The Straits of Magelhaen, 18 November:
When it starts to get narrower, the waters rush into eddies because of the tides. It is here that hundreds of Commerson's dolphins are found. These rampageous animals take advantage of the strong currents to hunt. (For fishes which are less able to manage in this situation?) Swarms of stern birds watch these manoeuvres from above, waiting for a chance to steal a fish or two. How lucky can you get? Very little is known about these dolphins. This day will leave some marks in the name of science!
Have you spotted many birds?
'Every day from six in the morning to nine in the evening, I counted birds from our specially built bird cabinet at the front of the boat. We sailed in a north-southerly direction and were at any place only once. A metre missed is a metre you'd never see again. That motivated us to sit outside day and night, so to speak. Even taking a break to eat was a hindrance. The best way to observe birds out at sea is to force yourself to write down every little detail you see. You will then end up with numbers about concentrations of seabirds which you can use to draw up density charts. That wasn't all that exciting since I'm not a Darwin figure who journeyed into uncharted waters. Much has already been written about. But you do come across new things, and that's like the icing on the cake.
Can you name one of these cake icings?
'To me, every day was a surprise. I saw new things every day. The most fascinating is the King Albatross, of course. I knew this one already. The prions were new for me. There are many of these in the Southern Ocean. They are related to the albatross family. A bird hobbyist would love those. Of scientific interest are the sightings of the shearwaters and penguins at the Valdes Peninsula, the Commerson's dolphins in the Straits of Magelhaen and the behaviour of the brown-headed seagulls in the harbour of Puerto Madryn. That has resulted in three scientific articles. I'd returned home before from some vacations with less.
7 November: The northern shearwaters (from Great Britain) and big shearwaters (from Tristan da Cunha) keep flying around in search of food. The 'suppliers' here are the penguins which cause fishes from underneath to surface and to become within reach of the shearwaters. Since very little is known about this part of the ocean, we are sailing right inside a knowledge gap. Times like these are not bad....
'Compared to the hardships faced by Darwin during his journey, this is a cruise, you said before your departure. Was it really a pleasure trip?
'Absolutely. Luck was with us and we had beautiful weather. Of the three weeks, only two half days were wasted because of the wind. That's peanuts. Reading the stories of Darwin, you'd see that he was worse off. The Stad Amsterdam is, above all, sixty metres long. The Beagle was only 26 metres, more like a nutshell.
'This boat is a very social thing. The crew is used to entertaining people. If the children had had a rather rickety day, the crew would shower them with attention, play a game with them or give them a tour.'
1 November: Halfway through the day, I am ordered to leave my cabinet to take a compulsory coffee break. My birthday isn't allowed to slip by unnoticed. There is cake and a birthday plate with 'Happy Birthday' squeezed across it in chocolate.
How was the trip affected by that fatal car accident, which resulted in the death of a crew member and badly injured two others?
'The journey lost its innocence. You're no longer carefree in a world in which this has happened. The first reaction was: this is too much; we're quitting. But that was the first reaction. After some time, the decision was made to carry on anyway. I didn't have to, and was luckily not involved in making that decision. It was something which the boat's management and Hilversum had to deal with.  The accident had certainly left its mark. Not just on the programme. There were many arrangements to be made. And these were made well. We were kept informed of developments all the time.'
Puerto Madryn, 11 November: From the corner of my eye, I see a gull by the lights of the ship plucking something out of the water. It appears that hundreds of seagulls are foraging for food by the lights of our boat, those of a trawler next to us and the quay lights. Brown-headed seagulls. We observed these closer the next day and evening. Not a bird is to be seen the entire day, but in the evening, about four hundred of them circle busily, foraging again. So that's the pattern!
The Year of Darwin is over. What has it given you?
'I have made friends. The journey, of course, and besides that, the many books which I've read to get to know Darwin. In Puerto Madryn, my big hero came on board for a while. Pablo Yorio, a local seabird expert, had boarded the boat to visit one of his PhD students. I thought to myself: look who's here, I know him! I've read some twenty pieces by him. He was very interested in what I had to say about the brown-headed seagulls. This seabird biologist has never been out to sea because he doesn't have the facilities to do so. He researches into seabird colonies on land. We had a lot to tell each other. I'll be writing an article with him about seagulls. Doing this with my own hero. Isn't that fantastic!'