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Marion Relief Voyage 2019 – memoirs of a SAEON intern

By Nasreen Burgher, SAEON Egagasini Node
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Initiated in 2013 by Dr Charles von der Meden, SAEON’s biennial monitoring study is designed to keep track of long-term variation in the benthic community surrounding Marion Island.

The study follows the work of Professor George Branch and his colleagues from the University of Cape Town (UCT), who surveyed and photographed the area in 1988.

Using SAEON’s Ski-Monkey III benthic camera system, seafloor photographs and videos are collected at set locations. These are later analysed to compare the area as it looked like 25 years ago with the present day to determine and monitor changes in the benthic community.

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The oceanography team perform checks on the SkiMonkey III benthic camera system before deployment (Photo: Grant van der Heever)

Marion Relief Voyage 2019

Our adventures on the research vessel SA Agulhas II began after a delayed start and a brief bout of seasickness. I formed part of the UCT oceanography team, which also included UCT master’s students Thobile Dlamini and Liisa Shangheta, and SAEON’s Grant van der Heever, who led the team.

Although labelled the oceanography team, our activities revolved around benthic biodiversity work using the SkiMonkey III. With working days being dependent on the weather, the SkiMonkey III took six days to complete all ten stations. We experienced several technical issues but, with Grant as our trusted leader, we overcame all challenges!

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Final checks on the SkiMonkey III benthic camera system before deployment (Photo: Grant van der Heever)

Sampling the crystal-clear waters of Marion Island on the hike to Ship’s Cove (Photo: Grant van der Heever)

For each station the camera was towed gradually along a transect, capturing numerous still photographs and video footage between depths of 70 and 400 metres. Additionally, the Egagasini Node’s new drop camera system was tested for the first time on this cruise down to a depth of 1 200 metres.

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Highlights of the benthic community surrounding Marion Island at depths of between 70 and 400 metres (Photos: Grant van der Heever)

A weekend on Marion Island

With a thirty-minute notice before our departure for the island, the UCT oceanography team and the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) intern, Tabile Maseti, rushed to pack our overnight bags. Due to bad flying weather, we were extremely lucky to spend an entire weekend on the island.

The climate on Marion Island was something to get accustomed to with the weather constantly changing and a continuous howling wind. We were privileged to explore several areas on the island. Shown around by various scientists, including the sealers and whalers, and the terrestrial, wind and weather specialist, we were allowed a brief glimpse into their duties, responsibilities and everyday lives on the island.

Our experiences included a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be only metres away from king penguins, elephant seals and Sub-Antarctic fur seals. Grant even got to touch a lounging elephant seal! Additionally, Tabile and I had the opportunity to see killer whales up close.

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The oceanography team and DEA intern Tabile Maseti explore Marion Island (Photo: Grant van der Heever)

King penguins encountered at Ship’s Cove on Marion Island (Photo: Grant van der Heever)

This exciting and rewarding experience would not have been possible without the efforts of my supervisor, Professor Juliet Hermes (SAEON), as well as Dr Lara Atkinson (SAEON) and Chief Scientist Mthuthuzeli Gulekana (DEA). Special thanks go to Grant van der Heever for mentoring me on this cruise, as well as to the rest of the UCT oceanography team and the scientists on the cruise, who were eager to share their skills and knowledge.

Additionally, I would like to thank the captain and crew of the SA Agulhas II.

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