Preparing for the mountain in the sea
Updated: Nov 9, 2018
Gough Island rises abruptly from the depths of the South Atlantic Ocean. Its mountainous terrain is often shrouded in mist, until blasted away by the fierce winds typical of the roaring forties where it lies. If its isolation, climate and topography were not enough to intimidate the hardiest of expeditioners, the impenetrable vegetation that covers the lowlands just may.
Each season a small team of field assistants from the RSPB are deployed on the island for 13 months to undertake seabird monitoring on the albatrosses, petrels and penguins that inhabit the island, as well as to continue an ongoing weed eradication of the prolific weed; Procumbent Pearlwort (Sagina procumbens).
Fieldwork on remote islands requires a diverse skillset and to ensure this year’s team was up to scratch my teammates Fabrice Le Bouard and Kate Lawrence and I embarked on a rigorous program of field training. The cool mountains and rugged coastline of Kate and my Tasmanian home provided an ideal setting to hone our field know-how.
Along with our French colleague Fabrice, we set off into the Tasmanian wilderness for Survival Training with search and rescue expert, Stu Scott, to master navigation in poor visibility conditions, rope rescue techniques and other tricks of the trade for fieldwork in the subantarctic. A good dumping of snow saw overnight temperatures below 0°C at our destination, The Walls of Jerusalem National Park, providing an apt setting to challenge our abilities. Even more importantly, this adventure provided an opportunity for our small team to get to know each other, as for the next 16 months the success of our work and safety will be dependent on our ability to function as a cohesive group. Trudging through knee-deep snow with heavy packs and big smiles, we frightened a mob of nearby Bennet’s wallabies, which bounded off over the low plateau vegetation. For Fabrice, the sight of these large marsupials in the snow was something of a paradox as most imagery of Australian kangaroos depicts them in outback or desert habitat.
The isolation of Gough and the small team we share the island with means that accidents that would otherwise be benign in the real world could be catastrophic on the island. Therefore it was vital that we also undertook training in expedition medicine. In a scenario based course in the Tasmanian bush we were taught wilderness first aid skills before being pushed to our limits responding to mock emergencies. While these were contrived situations the addition of fake blood, fake wounds, dangerous props and academy award level acting made it feel very real. The scenarios, which ran day and night without warning often reflected realities of what could happen on Gough, what we needed to be prepared for and what actions may save a life. Not only were we required to be responders - we also took part performing in the scenarios and most memorable was the performance of Fabrice. Our classmates - fifteen Tasmanian outdoor leaders - were awoken in the middle of the night to find Fabrice in a sopping wetsuit shouting only in French. In this scenario his friends had rafted over a waterfall and were injured and missing. About 2km away, Kate and I lay washed up on the side of a bubbling river, downstream from the waterfall, faces painted with white cream to appear hypothermic. By 3am we had been rescued, rewarmed and stretchered back to the safety.
We left Tasmania with fond memories of our training and new friends and flew to George in South Africa where we would commence industrial climbing training. Working on ropes and dangling over precipices will be an important part of our job on Gough as we endeavour to eradicate the invasive Pearlwort that is growing on the sea cliffs near the main station. While we were prepared for the climbing training, having had a taster on some Tasmanian seacliffs, the training centre was not as prepared for us, with the presence of two women in our team being quite a surprise for both trainers and students alike! Regardless, we sailed through our climbing assessment and are eagerly anticipating climbing on Gough.
We are now in Cape Town training with the rest of the Gough 63 team and preparing to set sail on the South African icebreaker, the SA Aghulas with all three of us excited for the adventure that lays ahead.
Blog by Jaimie Cleeland.
It's an exciting time on the Gough Island project as we lead up to the 2019 eradication operation - to keep up to date with all the latest news follow our Gough Island Facebook and Twitter pages, or contact us on the email address below to sign up for our newsletter.
The Gough Island Restoration Programme is being carried out by the RSPB in partnership with Tristan da Cunha, BirdLife South Africa and the Department of Environmental Affairs in South Africa.
The programme is part-funded by the RSPB, the UK government, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other generous individuals and organisations.