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Back in the French Antarctic and Southern Lands!

My departure for the French Antarctic and Southern Lands, from Reunion Island where I spent a few days, finally happened, on November 7th. I am indeed very lucky to go back to Kerguelen, for what we call a summer campaign, to carry out fieldwork for my PhD at Deakin, in collaboration with the Centre d’Etudes Biologiques de Chizé. I am leaving for three months, 2 of which I will spend on the island, to work on the foraging ecology of Gentoo penguins and Kerguelen shags. What an opportunity for me as I was dreaming of coming back to Kerguelen after working there as a field assistant in 2011/2012!

The Marion Dufresne left as I said on the 7th. It took us 5 days to reach the Crozet Archipelago. Around 10 am on the 12th, we sighted the first islands, playing hide and seek in the fog in a magical atmosphere. After a few days of navigation, more or less boring for some as we see no land at all, it is always a big moment! Some discover their new “home” with emotion; for others, it is just an intermediary step that is welcome – especially those who are sea sick – the sea was pretty rough indeed, with waves reaching 6 to 8 meters. The logistical operations lasted 3 days. The weather complicated things, as often in these regions of the world, with sometimes strong winds preventing the helicopter from flying and dense fog which led to the cancellation of some of the flights and experiment and maintenance operations, in Pointe Basse specifically, north of the island! If necessary, it was a good reminder that here, it is not us who decide, but nature!

Despite of that, we got lucky enough to be able to disembark on Crozet! I was very excited, especially because I could not set foot on the island the first time I went 3 years ago! We also got to eat a proper meal on base, instead of just sandwiches! The chef had worked really hard! I got to walk around the Alfred Faure base but so most exciting part was to go down to the king penguin colony in Baie du Marin! Like most people, I couldn’t wait to see it! 12 000 pairs of penguins, that we could hear and smell before arriving, live and breed in this area, surrounded by predators  like skuas, and opportunists like kelp gulls and giant petrels, always waiting for something to grab and eat. There were also chionis, small white birds, to finish the left overs! For some, it was also the opportunity to observe their first elephant seals, resting amongst penguins. What an incredible sight! More so because those animals do their things, ignoring our presence altogether. This colony reminded me of the one in Ratmanoff on Kerguelen – which is much bigger and has a different configuration – where I had spent almost a month. The wind started blowing quite strongly before we left! It was a good introduction for the ones who discovered the French Antarctic and Southern Lands for the first time so they could know what to expect during their fieldwork!

From the anchored boat, we could also spot king penguins swimming next to the boat, checking it out, but also killer whales! Every one was waiting and keeping an eye out hoping for them to show up during the whole logistical operations. They stayed quite far but it was still a very exciting encounter! As far as landscapes go, on top of Possession Island – a volcanic island where the Alfred Faure base is built – we also saw East Island not that far away, sometimes completely out of the clouds, with its bare substrate, its summits covered with a bit of snow, its steep cliffs and ragged coast. A ton of prions, small grey and white birds, were flying around before coming back to land for the night, in a nice light at the end of the day we left. Those landscapes reminded everybody National Geographic, except that for once it was happening in front of our very eyes. After that, on the 14th, we started navigating towards Kerguelen.

For the « bird people » like me, the boat trip is never boring ! We indeed have to count birds, 10 minutes every hour – and marine mammals if we get to spot them then. It is always fabulous to look at the birds flying effortlessly around the boat, getting so close sometimes! After leaving Reunion Island and for a couple of days, we mostly see tropical species but it is usually quiet and then we start seeing the first white-chinned petrels, which is a sign that we are entering the subantarctic area. After that, we see the first albatrosses – on this boat trip, the first we saw was a wandering albatross – which every one is waiting for with excitement, for the ones who have never seen those birds as well as for the ones who rediscover them. They are so much bigger than all others, we recognize them immediately without a doubt! Then the list of spotted albatrosses diversifies: black-browed, shy, yellow-nosed and grey-headed albatrosses! Closer to coast, we can also see prions, strom-petrels, shags and gulls, Cape petrels, white-headed petrel and much more! In terms of marine mammals, we saw a few blows without being too sure what species they belong to but we also saw humpback whales, pilot whales or false killer whales, dolphins… And a very rare and incredible observation: a hammerhead swimming at the surface!

 

On top of those counts, there’re plenty of things happening on the boat – training, meetings, conferences, games, « stamping sessions » (philately is quite a big thing here). For the photographers, there are always good shooting opportunities, of birds or landscapes when we get closer from the coast!  It is very interesting to go talk to everyone and discover other specialties! There are divers, botanists, entomologists, geologists, National Park staff, cat and bird people, logisticians, guys from the army, boat crew and more! And we also had on board the newly chosen Administrator of the French Antarctic and Southern Lands, for her first rotation starting her job. We each got the opportunity to talk about our research program with her during a meal with a few of us at a time; that’s it for now! I’ll soon talk about our arrival on Kerguelen, in a few days!

18 11 2014 sur le marion bras de la fonderie 5 bordermaker bordermaker

17 11 14 sur le marion helico a la dz en baie du repos bordermaker bordermaker

17 11 14 depuis le marion iles nuageuses cartes 6 bordermaker bordermaker

13 11 2014 baie du marin la manchotiere et le marion au mouillage 10 bordermaker bordermaker

17 11 14 depuis le marion ile de croy 41 bordermaker bordermaker

Possums and vollies !

Possum

Joey ringtail possums

I have been meaning to write about an activity I started a few months ago before leaving Australia and that I am looking forward to resume upon return from Kerguelen: volunteering for Wildlife Victoria, an organisation which aims at protecting native species! One of their volunteers, Melanie, who came to assist me in the field for my research on little penguins, introduced me to them and gave me the drive to help! This organisation, based on public participation, is meant to help native animals in distress – for various reasons, mostly interactions with us! These animals include kangaroos, koalas, echidnas, possums, wombats, lorikeets, flying foxes and much more! In most of the rescues I do, the animals have been hit by cars or attacked by pets. The call center receives calls from members of the public, from every day and night, including week ends and then send text messages to their closest volunteers to ask whether or not they are free to go help. When we answer positively, we are assigned the case and contact the member of the public to confirm rescue details and give them an ETA. To increase the chance of survival of these animals, we need to act fast! Most of the time, we judge on spot whether it is necessary to intervene, and whether it is safe to do so, for the animals as well as for the people involved. Once the animal is caught, we drive them to the vet, most of the time, where it receives the necessary care and is thereafter taken to a carer that will host it at home during the time it needs to recover or become independent, especially for the orphans – mostly for marsupials who keep their young in their pouch. This can mean months of dedication and hard work, especially when joeys need to receive hourly feed for example. I really admire these loving people who care for these animals as a full-time job, making them part of their family! In this context, I met with Julie, a carer who has become my advisor when I have questions regarding my rescues. Unfortunately, I don’t usually have the time to do more than a couple of rescues a week but she’s always available to help! She also taught me how to handle possums and kangaroos, including how to feed and toilet them. It always fascinating to be in contact with animals we are not used to, especially for me these marsupials who are such an Australian icon and stay pretty exotic! I also can’t wait to work with flying foxes – the bats that cross the Melbourne sky at night and look so big. Thanks to Wildlife Victoria, I got my rabies shots for free and I am now able to work with bats ! Being volunteer for such an organisation can be a sad hobby because we can’t always save the animals we rescue but it is so rewarding at times especially when we get to save joeys, which mother was dead or died during the rescue, I find! We also get to release animals in the wild when it is back in shape after its stay at the vet or the carer, which is always a nice experience ! In a urban environment like Melbourne, it is always nice to know that we can still make a difference and increase native animals’ well being !

Zosterops à dos gris

Young silvereye

 

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