Five hundred kilometres south of the Maldives, in the heart of British Indian Ocean territory, you’ll find the Chagos Archipelago.
Home to the largest ‘no-take’ Marine Protected Area in the world, spanning an area the size of France, it is famed for the pristine coral reefs that fringe the 60 or so islands and a diverse marine ecosystem, most notably the sharks and rays that provide the National Geographic glamour. But very little is known about the oceanography of the region and the reasons it supports such an abundance of marine life.
So when two academics in the School of Biological and Marine Sciences were presented with an opportunity through the Marine Institute to join a select group of scientists on a research trip funded by the Bertarelli Foundation and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, they were only too happy to sign up.
“At the risk of cliché, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit an uncharted territory and be the first to collect a continuous time-series of measurements,” said Dr Phil Hosegood, Lecturer in Physical Oceanography. “We know so very little about the oceanography of this pristine environment, so this was a chance to begin to build an understanding of how physical processes like ocean currents are contributing to one of the most diverse and abundant ecosystems on the planet.”
Phil, and Dr Kate Adams, a postdoctoral researcher who joined the University from Oregon State in October 2014, flew out in January to join 12 scientists from a new Chagosfocused research consortium represented by a range of international organisations such as the Zoological Society of London and the University of Western Australia – each researching a different scientific discipline, from acoustic mapping of zooplankton to manta ray tagging. They then departed from the United States’ military base Diego Garcia on their ‘research vessel’ – the patrol ship that monitors the area for illegal fishing.
“The biggest challenge was that the ship was not designed for research,” said Kate. “Phil and I were working underneath the exhaust stacks and next to the welding table, so we were dealing with 40 degree heat and having to wear ear plugs.”
“It was nothing that a few ratchet clamps and cable ties couldn’t fix,” added Phil. “And while it was certainly a challenge to work around so many other people, we often had the run of the ship at night and received tremendous support from the ship’s crew.”