Science - October 21, 2009

'You can't see a thing with all that canvas in front of you'

This week, Imares sea-bird biologist Mardik Leopold boarded the Stad Amsterdam clipper in Buenos Aires. Leopold will be following in the footsteps of Charles Darwin, taking the route the Beagle took. Resource spoke to him just before he left.

Do you have sea legs?
'Well, more so than Darwin at any rate. I am a marine ornithologist and my work means I spend six to eight weeks a year at sea. I do get seasick but only when the sea is so rough I can't work any more.' 
How did you get to be on this ship?
'Through my wife, Katja Philippart. She works for the NIOZ, the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research. Imares, where I work, shares a building with them on Texel. The VPRO came to the NIOZ for the Beagle project. Katja is a plankton biologist and studies the lowest link in the marine food chain. My work deals with the top of the food chain. We submitted a joint plan to the VPRO.'
What are you going to do?
'We are going to investigate whether there is a direct link between plankton production and the presence of sea birds. There are several steps between phytoplankton, the grass of this ecosystem as it were, and sea birds. People often think there is a definite relationship but that is just textbook knowledge.  We are going to see if it's really the case. The boat will be pulling along all kinds of equipment. This will tell us about the water temperature, the salt concentration and the fluorescence. Fluorescence indicates the presence of phytoplankton. We will also get NASA satellite images every day showing the concentration of chlorophyll in the sea, as that is something you can see from space. At the same time I will be counting sea birds and looking at what they do.'
The children are going too. Is that allowed?
'Tom and Kyra are nine and ten. You can't leave them behind for five weeks. I spent two hours last weekend making photocopies so that we could take five weeks' worth of school work. The children are on their autumn break this week. Or rather, they're not. They can easily do five weeks' worth of sums, language, geography and history in one week.'
According to the VPRO, Darwin went on 'the most important journey ever'. Does that apply to you too?
'We shall have to see. The research facilities are not optimal. I would have preferred an ordinary boat to a sailing ship. It's very romantic with the sails up but you can't see a thing with all that canvas in front of you.'
Read anything about Darwin recently?
'Of course. Several books. I started The Origin of Species twice in the past, but it's very heavy-going. The same can be said for his accounts of his travels. On the other hand, This thing of darkness by Harry Thompson is a real page turner. He focuses on the human interest aspect of the Beagle's journey. The things the crew had to put up with are unbelievable. What we are doing is a sheltered pleasure cruise compared with that.'
The VPRO's programme has been criticized. It is said to be too confusing, too superficial and not scientific enough. What do you think?
I agree. I find that short and fast approach extremely irritating. But I think you can assume they know how to make programmes at the VPRO and know what the target group wants. We should defer to that. I would like to go into things in more detail but the question is whether we will get time for that.'