Whales, Orcas and Life on Saoirse and in the Golfo Tres Montes

Blogpost by Will Darwin

We’re having a very exciting time out here! On one of our first days at sea we saw a Blue whale, the biggest animal in the world. It was incredible. Since then we’ve seen Dusky dolphins, sea lions and two separate Killer whale packs! We’ve got some great hydrophone recordings thanks to the Ocean Sonics icListen hydrophones we’ve been using. Listen to the Orca recording below as an example.

The second Orca group we think were actually feeding when we saw them: Keri has a photo of what seems like seal intestines hanging from one of the Orca’s fin, and we could hear them using echolocation on the hydrophone. Sadly we haven’t found any Sei whales yet, but we have found a few new corpses on beaches. Keri thinks the timing may be slightly off.

The drone (a DJI Mavic 2 Pro) has been extremely useful so far, it can get to animals miles away and take detailed photos and footage, which Izzi (the trip’s marine behaviour expert) has been using to identify behaviours and groupings. We’ve also been using the drone to map the various beaches and coves where the Sei whale corpses are found, so we can monitor how they change over time. I managed to get additional LIDAR/photogrammetry gear (which can be used for getting accurate measurements of whale lengths from photos) working on one of the drones after hours of soldering and programming, but annoyingly so far it doesn’t seem to be very accurate. I think it will need calibration/tweaking to become accurate enough to give useful scientific data. Its’s 5% or so out at the moment, and the drone’s inbuilt altimeter seems to be giving slightly better results. Maybe I’ll have a play with it when we get back to Puerto Eden and internet. I managed to crash the drone once (that tree came out of nowhere!), but luckily it walked away with only a broken propeller. Landing on the boat can be pretty hairy in the wind & swell, but my well-trained team of assistants (Greg and Annika) armed with face masks and gloves have brought it to safety every time.

Life on board is good fun. We anchor up in shelter every night and spend most days cruising around the local area until someone sees something interesting (like a whale), at which point everyone frantically runs up onto deck and into the dingy to film, take photos and drop the hydrophone in the water. The other day we walked to a lighthouse which was a great all day hike, but other than that we haven’t spent much time on land. We also take samples from the water every now and again. Usually plankton but we also have a few samples of krill, crabs and munida, which are basically tiny lobsters. Keri dropped a jar of munida and they all went flying – there’s still one missing on the boat somewhere which will presumably start rotting soon!

We’ve got a few days left out here, then we’re coming back to Puerto Edén. My original post-trip idea was to head straight off north somewhere warmer, but I’ve had an interesting change of plans. I was looking over a map of Patagonia that Annika lent me, and I found a whole area named after Charles Darwin (a proud relation) near the Straight of Magellan – there’s Darwin Island, Mount Darwin and an entire Darwin Range, where the Beagle passed through. I thought I should probably visit these seeing as I’m in the area (kind of). It’s all miles away from any kind of roads or civilization so the only way to get there is by boat. In a fortunate turn of events it turns out Keri and Greg are sailing there mid-January with a couple of friends, and have kindly agreed to bring me along if I help out on board (and give them some drone flying lessons!). I’m currently reading the Voyage of the Beagle to get me in the mood…

Saoirse is back in business!

Blog post by Isabella Clegg

We have some very good news to share with you – the Saoirse is well and truly back in business!

Earlier this year, Saoirse suffered some mechanical problems and spent her winter hauled out in the dockyard in Puerto Natales. Unfortunately this caused a few delays to our trip to Golfo Tres Montes, which was originally planned for May 2018, then postponed to October 2018, and then finally rearranged for November 2018. We are incredibly grateful for the continued patience and support of the Blue Marine Foundation, the trip’s principal funder, through this testing time!

Thanks to the tireless work of Greg and Keri to get the Saoirse back on top form, we are happy to report that we are now underway and in full swing of data collection in Golfo Tres Montes, currently anchored at Caleta Buena for a couple of days.

The purpose of this trip is to complete an overview of all the marine life living in Golfo Tres Montes, focussing on the cetaceans’ behaviour, the biodiversity in the area, and looking at this from an innovative new angle using drones. Our objective is to fill in the pieces to the puzzle that we started building years ago, using the data from our repeated expeditions up here each year. Integrating and evaluating this huge collection of multi-disciplinary data will help us move to the next stage of the process: putting forward the evidence to the government and propose this region as a Marine Protected Area.

On board we have Greg and Keri of course, expertly guiding us through the gulfs, straights and narrows of this complex area. Annika is a German film-maker and incredible cook, and is using her experience of sailing on the Saoirse 4 years ago to help crew the trip. We are all already a few pounds heavier, and many degrees happier, from her wonderful cooking!

Dr Isabella Clegg is a marine mammal scientist, with a speciality in cetacean behaviour. She leads the “on-effort” watches for cetaceans, and measures the frequency and durations of each behaviour of the cetaceans we see, so that we can understand how the animals are using this area- are they feeding, breeding, or just passing through?

Will Darwin is a drone pilot, and is flying our two new drones donated by the wonderful Blue Marine Foundation. Will is also the resident techie and has been essential in resolving all problems with computers, Wifi, hydrophones, and cameras!

So we are a strong team of 5 accompanied of course by Pichi the dolphin dog, who is keeping our spirits up during the day and warming our feet under the table in the evenings.

We will bring you an update very soon about the first cetaceans we see and the data we manage to collect!

A ROVin’

500 metres is a very long way down. We humans walk around with about 10, 000 metres of air on top of us. Its called the atmosphere. We dont feel anything abnormal about that, as that air pressure is what we have become used to since long before we can remember. Since a few years back though, a certain curiosity attaching itself to our fantastic brains has managed to engineer ways of looking beneath the sea surface where much of the workings of our life support system lie hidden. Free-diving island cultures such as the Hawaiians had found ways to insert themselves directly into the larder by hooking and spearing fish, gaining their livelihood directly by holding their breath long enough to outwit each fish that swam too close to their field of vision. Balance was inherent in such as system. Since the industrial revolution, fuelled by long dormant energy reserves, we have found ways to sense remotely and kill on a massive scale what they had seen and hunted experientially with their own eyes. Without conscience, we have used our new capacity to defraud the depths of its life giving capacity without regard to the eventual effect of our actions on our own future. Here perhaps, is where scientific curiosity may come to our aid. Science is now very much involved with penetrating and understanding the workings of our ecosystem, to expand our consciousness of our own place inside of it. If we can use science, decoupled from destructive technology, we may just have a chance, as a species, to survive.

The sea is very resistant to giving up its secrets though, due to the fact that the pressure below its surface increases by one atmosphere every 10 metres of depth. 500 metres therefore is subject to a pressure 50 times as great as the pressure at which we function without fear of sensing anything abnormal. The ROV (Remote Operated Vehicle) is a fabulous looking machine, connected with all its umbilicals to the support vessel “Noctiluca”, it has eyes and ears that can send us images and sounds, it has an arm that can grab at things, it can swim in three dimensions at our command. It can neither taste, nor smell. It fears nothing. It is we who fear.

Full of hope, we watched Noctiluca slide smoothly away from Saoirse out of our snug little harbour. Years of effort are centred around this one moment – its like looking for gold, the gold in this case being a snapshot of what sort of life exists (if any) at these inhospitable depths. On a personal level, it is like looking for life on Mars, even if we find none in that place it does not mean that it does not exist, for life is everywhere and it will later prove to be balanced around that singular point which appears to be void of it. The only way we can really fail is not to try to look.

Hoping that they would be out the full day, I turn my attention to the plethora of activities that must go on to ensure the smooth running of the mission. Mostly, this is all about doing dishes and vacuuming the floor. Halfway through firing up the vacuum cleaner though, we hear the sound of Noctiluca returning and I lurch up on deck to see Fossi looking dejected as they moor back alongside. “We are getting shocks off the frame of the ROV, we got it down a little ways but then the cable drum also became live. No way to operate the machine like that!” Suddenly the ROV has become our enemy, threatening to kill anyone who touches it. They had managed to retrieve it, but it appeared a lengthy diagnosis would be called for.

To cut a long story short, the ROV resisted our best efforts to repair it for some days, whilst Vreni and Mette took advantage of the boat time by continuing with more exploratory scuba dives in the immediate vicinity of the boat. Right at the end of our tether, on the last two days of the expedition, Fossi returned triumphant in the Noctiluca from Canal Messier. The ROV had finally reached the end of its own tether and brought back images and video down to -480m. We excitedly parsed through the video that evening. The ROV had dived down a near vertical rock wall: indeed there was life down there, less and less as the thin beam of light descended the wall, but certainly intriguing enough to come back (with better luck!) for a more detailed inspection.

April 29 we hitched the Noctiluca alongside Saoirse and side-towed our way slowly back to Puerto Eden to finish out the trip. A little undignified perhaps, but we were all relieved to bring the boat safely home at last. Not only that, but a good result “in the can!”

A ROVing We Will Go

Dr. Vreni Haussermann oversees a ROV exploratory trip to the Messier channel, (the deepest channel in the world outside of Antarctica) using SRV Saoirse as a base to launch the MV Noctiluca with the ROV and equipment. Photo- K.Pashuk

The Perfect storm…..Since then, we have remained stuck. At first I thought, “That’s it, expedition is over”. With the boat disabled the gut reaction is to go into survival mode and put into action your “get home at all cost” plan, if you have one that is.
After a bit of a cooling off period though it was blessing-counting time. First amongst those, we were perfectly safe for the foreseeable future; boat tied in to a snug cove, lots of food (even some beer left!), lots of fuel, dolphins and seals, even the occasional otter cavorting prettily in the bay, fine scenery and lots of fresh air. All other boat systems working perfectly, which almost never happens on any boat. We had also managed to get ourselves stuck in almost the perfect position, even if somewhat immobile, to still be able to support the activities of the ROV by acting as base camp. After a flurry of emails and phone calls to Vreni and the ROV team ready to board the ferry in Puerto Natales, we managed to convince them that we could still pull off almost all of the remaining expedition goals and return safe to Puerto Eden.
That’s when Patagonia itself stepped in to assert its hegemony over the paltry affairs of men.
“I suppose you already know this, but the ferry hit a rock and had to return to Puerto Natales” came an email from Vreni and her team the next day. Another round of phone calls confirmed it. At the beginning of the voyage from Puerto Natales, the ferry must navigate a very narrow passage called Canal Kirke through which floods a current of up to ten knots, complete with a maelstrom of whirlpools and back-eddies . Prone also to violent crosswinds and williwaws, it has already claimed one ferry which sank a few years back when a rock in the centre of the channel opened up a fissure in the hull of one of the Navimag Ferries which forms part of the essential connection to the north of Chile. This time, the new ferry had side-swiped an island to one side of the narrows, putting several holes in its hull. It had limped back to Natales to be repaired, thus stranding our ROV team 350 miles south of us. All other ferry sailings were canceled for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile the ROV and its support launch “Noctiluca” was still stuck 600 miles north in Puerto Montt, waiting for its ride down to Puerto Eden. Clearly there was going to be some waiting to do. Rodrigo, one of our divers from the first part of the trip was getting anxious to get home and this is certainly no place from which one can just whistle up a taxi; we hadn’t even seen so much as one other boat for some weeks.
Some days later, during a particularly nasty windstorm, we woke to the rumblings of a several- hundred horsepower engine churning the waters of our placid little inlet. Around the corner came a tug towing an enormous salmon-farm barge, looking for shelter in the bay. Rodrigo was off like a shot, and the barge captain agreed to give him a lift as far as Puerto Eden from where he could wait for the next ferry, if one ever arrived.
Meanwhile the ROV team in Puerto Natales had managed to find a small tourist boat who would take them to Puerto Eden, and they duly arrived there, albeit without any fuel for “Noctiluca”. Gasoline in these parts is like gold, and is used almost the instant it arrives for the local people to pursue their shell-fish harvest, both an economic and subsistent way of life. Taking up residence in a house we have rented there, Vreni, Fossi and their two kids settled in to wait for the arrival of Noctiluca and the ROV. A week later it was delivered on a ship of opportunity, undergoing tests in the local bay. But how to get it the last 40 miles to where we waited?
Vreni and Fossi canvassed around the tiny community a found a boat which just might make the trip. Them, and the 800 litres of gasoline which had by now arrived on the replacement ferry from Puerto Natales. Shoe-horning themselves into the rustic little wooden vessel, they tied Noctiluca with the ROV on behind and headed up into the English Narrows, but the wind again stiffened against them and they were obliged to shelter not far out of Puerto Eden. By the next night, we were beginning to get worried for them, as we had overheard a flurry of talk on the radio which seemed to us to indicate another suite of problems assailing them in the windy dark. We learned later that the little towboat had not been able to make more than 3 kn against the wind, had taken on water and somehow the rudder had become stuck hard-over to one side. They had circled around out of control for a while in the darkness, another fishing boat had arrived to assist the tow-boat and they cut the Noctiluca free to finish the journey under its own power. Much later, we heard that this little towboat had actually sunk from unknown causes on its mooring, not long after returning to Puerto Eden.
Well, we were all together at last, on location for one of the world’s most unique film shoots; the quest to get video from the depths of the Messier Channel. AROV-in’ we will go!

The Propeller

The Propellor

All was going well, until about 10 days ago. Elated by finishing off the transect dives in Canal Martinez we turned Saoirse’s bow south to rendezvous with the next stage of the expedition. As I have previously mentioned, Canal Messier and Canal Baker have some extremely deep spots in them. The chart shows measured depths of almost 1400 metres in a channel only a couple of miles wide. The astonishing scale off the drop-offs evident in the vertiginous cliffs bordering these channels must therefore be mirrored below the dark sea-surface. Though these transect dives can give us some hints, what lives down there, nobody knows.

These depths are far in excess of what can be reached by human divers; enter, the robot. The Huinay Foundation based in Comau Fiord owns a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) capable of diving to 500m, only a third of the depth of this, the deepest channel in the world. We were to finish out the transect dives, head south with all speed to Puerto Eden to rendezvous with the rest of the scientific team from the Huinay foundation who would arrive by ferry from Puerto Natales with food and fuel. Another ship toting the ROV and its own support boat would then arrive from Puerto Montt and we would tow the entire shebang 50 miles back up into the Messier Channel to deploy the ROV into the abyss to obtain the first look into a place on earth yet to be seen by human eyes. That was what was supposed to happen. One can certainly approach these things with optimism, but unfortunately for us, this part of the world pays no regard to the level of synchronicity required for a plan like that to work.

As we manoeuvred Saoirse into Caleta Conner, 40 miles or so north of Puerto Eden to take a final rest break before the onslaught, backing as usual into the tight confines of a typical Patagonian anchorage, I was just about to tie a mooring line to a large rock when Keri’s voice cut in on the radio with a terse command. “Get that line on now, I cant drive the boat, propeller seems to be stuck!”

“What do you mean, stuck” I replied with equal terseness, “That cant even happen”

Sure enough though, I returned to Saoirse and found that the Hundested variable pitch propeller seemed to be locked in full reverse. All attempts to free it from inside and outside the boat using the divers just seemed to make it worse. Saoirse, for all intents and purposes, was now immobilized. We were, well, STUCK.

Divers Below

Sea Anenomies

The Navimag Ferry, one of only two options for getting to Puerto Eden, arrives only a day late after grinding its way down for 2 ½ days from Puerto Mont. We have hired a local boat to meet it, as our dinghy will be too small to receive the cargo this time. To be retrieved this time around are the dive team who will be making a series of transect dives in Canal Martinez, some 100 miles north of us. Luckily for us the ferry arrives in daylight, a grand melee of local boats clusters around its massive stern door as it is lowered into the sea. From my dinghy I scan the ramp for new arrivals and there appears Mette and Aris from Huinay Foundation and Rodrigo from Buceando Chile along with the usual mountain of dive gear. It disappears on the cargo boat into the rain in the direction of Saoirse; I follow with the congenial team, chatting enthusiastically over the adventure to come. We will be the support boat for the dive team who will descend with scuba gear into the turbid depths of the fiord at as many and as varied points as we can manage over the next week. They will be toting a one metre square frame with a camera mounted atop it. Starting at 21m depth they will make their way to the surface taking 70 snapshots at prescribed intervals of the benthic fauna which attaches itself to the rocks below the surface. These photos are later sent to the lab for analysis. Sounds simple, eh?

The confluence of Rio Baker with the fiord system of Patagonia is a place of fantastic natural power. I have spent my life in these kinds of places, but the energy at work here surpasses most. Rio Baker surges its way between the heights of the Northern and Southern Patagonian Ice Caps, returning all the airborne water which has stacked up against the Andean mountain chain from the Pacific Ocean. This water crystallises into glacial ice and is now in the process of grinding the mighty Cretaceous-Miocene granites of the Patagonian Batholith into a fine rock flour which flows out into the abyssal profundities of Canal Baker and Canal Messier, reaching almost a mile deep.
On a human scale though, all this is a mere annoyance. All that glacial silt turns the water into a green milky soup in which the divers have to contend with zero visibility and numbing temperatures just in order to try to penetrate the top few metres and count the number of life forms which cling to the sides of the fiords.

The insane topography of these channels, and the weather conditions engendered by them is of course responsible for the extreme feeling and actuality of isolation encountered here. Truly, the sense of aloneness surpasses even that of Antarctica at times. Scuba diving is a well populated sport, but when the divers leave the surface here, their sphere of consciousness extends only to the distance between themselves, the tape that measures their progress across the sea floor and the searingly bright lights needed to penetrate the blackness of the water. Their life expectancy is limited to the availability of the next few breaths. Their lifeline extends to me on the surface, thence to Saoirse nearby, and ends right there. There is no other backup. This is what makes me focus on the bubbles of spent air which surface on each hour-long dive; so long as they keep coming in their regular pattern I have little to worry about. This lifeline in place, they are then free to focus all their attention on the job at hand, extracting the most productive work out of their next 1000 breaths as possible. Imagine then, if we all used this philosophy, all of our lives, how much good work could be done using each breath to its fullest advantage; to come to know the world.

I have a uniquely privileged place in all this, to be able to hear the first-hand results of the dive. Whoops and high fives indicate an abundance of beautiful things to see, though I myself have seen nothing of what they describe. A marked enthusiasm for getting back in the boat usually means that there was nothing much to see. This is not however a lack of result. In life, as in music, the pauses are every bit as important as the sounds which make up our experience of it.