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Benthic Monitor

RAF divers deploy to Ascension Island to perform a very worthwhile underwater task. ‘And then to top it all, a Manta Ray with a wingspan of over 6m treated the team to a ‘flypast’ photo opportunity… it doesn’t get much better than that!’ By Flt Lt K O’Neill.

Kev and Nick at work during one of the endemic fish surveysPowerhouse Reef has abundant marinelife.The 'Benthic Monitor Team' Ascension Island in the South Atlantic is a popular military diving destination, but Exercise ‘BENTHIC MONITOR 2004’ took RAF diving to new depths. A major multi-unit expedition, personnel were drawn from all corners of the airforce with RAF Halton taking the lead.

The aims of the expedition were, as suggested by the title (‘Benthic’ – the flora and fauna of the sea), to carry out marine research whilst pursuing the aims of Adventurous Training. To that end, a number of scientific projects were undertaken in support of ongoing studies by the Ascension Island Government Conservation Officer. The expedition members were to gather data on numbers, distribution and relative sizes of endemic and common fish species at selected sites around the Island; to record sightings of and where possible, humanely capture Hawksbill Turtles for measuring, tagging, micro-chipping and DNA sampling before releasing them back to the wild and finally to record and identify the cetaceans (dolphins and porpoises) sighted during diving activities. BSAC Diver training was programmed into the diving schedule and finally, the team planned to deliver a presentation to the pupils of Two Boats School, the only school on Ascension Island, where the children could be given a greater awareness of the their unique marine environment and to help foster a sense of responsibility for their unique marine ecosystem.

Despite many administrative challenges encountered along the way, and changes in nominated personnel due to changing primary duty commitments, the expedition was a great success. This was due to the willingness of all to overcome potential problems as they arose and a clear determination to get the very most from the opportunities presented throughout the expedition. The team gelled together at a very early stage and acted as a strong and mutually supportive team throughout. It was great to see how people with different skills and personalities can come together in support of the expedition’s aims and ensure that they were met in full.

Pre-Expedition contact with the Ascension Island Government Conservation Officer, Tara George, was of immense help in formulating the research aims of the Expedition. Also, by happy coincidence, the St Helena Marine Biologist, Emma Bennett happened to be on Ascension Island throughout the Expedition and her advice and guidance on scientific methodology was invaluable. Emma even joined the survey team for one of the research dives as a guest of the group and it was great to confirm that the team had been carrying out the work in accordance with her exacting instructions. But in true RAF tradition, we took her original plan and equipment and made it better! The survey method involved laying a 50m datum line parallel to the shore at a pre-determined depth, and then swimming up and down it recording the numbers and size of target species as we went. The very buoyant blue nylon rope supplied for the datum line was quickly renamed ‘the blue rope of death’ (because of it’s amazing ability to wrap round the diver’s legs while being deployed) and was soon relegated to the nearest skip and a diver’s reel and line used instead. The new plan called for slick and efficient work underwater and the team soon had the drills squared away with the data pouring in to the research coordinator.

We also had to come up with a plan for the humane capture of Hawksbill Turtles underwater (the only way to do this is by hand!). This species does not nest on Ascension and very little is known about their migratory habits. The present study involves the tagging and micro-chipping individual turtles and then tracing their subsequent movements. Given that the turtles have developed their ‘escape and evasion’ tactics to avoid being eaten by sharks over millions of years, this was not as easy in practice as first thought. Only 4 Hawksbills had been successfully tagged in the 2 years that the study has been running. We took up the challenge and soon devised a tactic that paid off catching and tagging 4 more turtles during the expedition. The Exped Minibus door was soon adorned with 4 turtle silhouettes!

And to complete the expedition hat-trick, we had dolphins of various species with us almost every day and they were not shy about approaching the divers underwater with one female bringing her calf for a look at the strange bubbly people! And then to top it all, a Manta Ray with a wingspan of over 6m treated the team to a ‘flypast’ photo opportunity… it doesn’t get much better than that!

The Expedition closed with a presentation to the pupils of Two Boats School where the previous combat experience of Toria Rackham, ex RAF Halton now RAF High Wycombe (who was a primary school teacher in a previous life), shone through. The staff and pupils were very receptive to the presentation on the Ascension Marine Ecosystem and demonstration of diving equipment provided by the team. It was clear that many of the young people had well-established knowledge of the local fish species and gave the team an interesting introduction to the unique local names by which these fish are known! It was great fun and one of the highlights of the trip. Not surprisingly, the school doesn’t get many visitors and they really made us feel welcome.

The only dangerous encounter with wildlife occurred during the clean up phase of the last day. The Diving Officer, Paul Avent of RAF Neatishead, returned from snorkelling to scrub the algae from the bottom of the boats when he experienced a sharp pain in his ear. Putting it down to a minor ear infection routinely suffered by divers he didn’t give it much thought, but it increased in intensity over the next few hours until he resorted to the old ‘have a dig about with a cotton bud’ remedy. But to no avail, the pain just got worse. Courtney suggested giving it a squirt of alcohol-based ear drops to try and relieve the symptoms but when Paul leant over and the drops went in….. a small crab climbed out!

Overall, it was a very demanding but rewarding expedition. Several divers increased their diving qualifications during the trip and the research team were so successful that we managed to gather more scientific data (and double the number of turtles tagged!) over 10 days than the Island Conservation Group had been able to gather over the previous 2 years. The data will be invaluable in building a case for the formal establishment of a Marine Protection Area on the Island, the only place in the world that some of these species are found.

K M O’NEILL

Flt Lt

Expedition Leader – ‘BENTHIC MONITOR 2004’