Even after sending reams of (French) documents to the Institute Polar Emile Victor (IPEV) over the past six months, I had a slight unease that I would arrive at the security gate at Le Port (Reunion Island) and discover that I was not on the passenger manifesto for the Marion Dufresne. But my fears were unfounded, and returning the rental car and boarding the ship were both straightforward.
The Marion Dufresne II is a 120.5 metre-long French research ship, based at Reunion Island and used to service the three French subantarctic island groups of Crozet, Kerguelen and Amsterdam/St Paul, among other sites. The three island groups along with Terre Adélie (the French Antarctic sector) are collectively known as Terres Australes et Antarctiques Françaises (TAAF), and are usually visited by the Marion Dufresne in the sequence listed above. The Crozet Islands are due south of Reunion, and so for the next 5 days we steamed south into increasingly colder seas.
The vessel was launched in 1995, has a complement of 40 officers and crew, and can take up to 110 passengers (in 59 cabins). There were only 43 passengers to start with – mostly scientific personnel, but also a few IPEV and TAAF support staff, and 12 passengers who had paid for the right to have their names on a waiting list for several years and to battle mal de mer to visit some of the remotest specks of land (and French territory) on the planet.
Reunion Island lies at 21 degrees south, and the sea was a tropical 28 degrees when we departed Le Port an hour or so before dusk on 8 December. By the time we reached the Crozet Islands (which lie at a similar latitude to Invercargill) we had crossed the Subtropical Convergence and were approaching the Polar Front, and the water was about 5 degrees Celsius. The Polar Front lies about 10 degrees further north in the southern Indian Ocean than it does south of New Zealand, and so the climate and vegetation on the Crozet Islands (and Kerguelen) is more similar to Macquarie Island at 55 degrees south than it is to Stewart Island or Southland.
Life on board the Marion Dufresne is very comfortable. The twin cabins all have an en suite and a port hole (sea view), and the lunches and dinners are excellent. Both are served at the table, and are followed by an impressive platter of French cheeses.
The main focus of my daily routine at sea was hourly counts of seabirds and whales, shared with Charly. Each count takes about 15 minutes (10 minutes looking forward from the bridge, followed by a quick check from the stern), and when there is interesting wildlife about it is easy to spend much of the day on the bridge or outside decks. We started with tropical seabirds (the most numerous being the endemic Barau’s petrels that I had seen on their breeding grounds in the mountains of Reunion Island), but two days after leaving Reunion Island the ocean was almost empty. The only species seen on 10 December was great-winged petrel (closely related to the New Zealand grey-faced petrel), and fewer than 10 individuals were seen the whole day. But by 12 December (the day before we reached Crozet) we saw 18 species (all either albatrosses or petrels) and over 500 individuals were counted during the ten-minute counts. The weather was wilder also, with a 40 knot westerly whipping the tops off the waves.
For the bird nerds among you, some of the highlights during the cruise (north to south) were tropical shearwater, wedge-tailed shearwater, brown noddy, white-tailed tropicbird, sooty tern, Bulwer’s petrel, soft-plumaged petrel, Amsterdam albatross, Indian Ocean yellow-nosed mollymawk, sooty albatross, grey-headed mollymawk, light-mantled sooty albatross and three species of storm petrel (black-bellied, Wilson’s and grey-backed). No penguins were seen until the morning we arrived at the Crozet Islands, and the only whales seen were about a dozen sperm whales and a single fin whale.
Te Papa curator of vertebrates Dr Colin Miskelly’s participation in seabird research programmes on the French subantarctic island groups of Crozet and Kerguelen was at the invitation of Dr Charly Bost of the CEBC laboratory (Chizé) of CNRS (Centre National de la Recherché Scientifique), France, and was supported by the Institut Polar Français Paul Emile Victor and Te Papa.
Subsequent blogs in this series