Buoy ahoy!

The Bertarelli Programme in Marine Science maintains an array of acoustic receivers around four islands of the Chagos Archipelago in the British Indian Ocean Territory. This battery of listening devices picks up signals from tagged animals (mostly reef sharks) as they pass by and helps scientists build up a picture of how these important predators use the Marine Protected Area and interact with each other.

Towards the end of 2016, a huge storm hit the Chagos Archipelago which was strong enough to separate our Vemco VR4 Global buoy from its mooring and push it off into deep water; for the next 11 months, the buoy drifted with the currents towards the east coast of Africa. Scientists at Stanford University plotted the buoy’s course and waited, with the intention of mounting a rescue mission, until it got close enough to land.  Finally in July of 2017, the buoy ran aground over 3,500 km away on a reef near the small fishing town of Kilwa Mosoko in Tanzania.

We managed to get in contact with a small local holiday lodge  and asked if they could assist in the buoy’s recovery.  It took more than six hours – and 17 people – to maneuver the heavy equipment into a hand-made canoe and bring it ashore.  Then it was carefully looked after by staff at the Kimbilio Lodge until Taylor Chapple and Robbie Schallert of Stanford University were able to collect it.

We’re very grateful to the people of Kilwa Mosoko.  Because of their help and assistance, the buoy will soon be back in the Chagos Archipelago tracking tagged fish so we can better understand the effectiveness of the Marine Protected Area.

Blog Post: Against the elements

In a final report for the Bertarelli Foundation funded expedition to the British Indian Ocean Territory, David Jacoby, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Zoology, describes his experiences over the last few weeks:

Every good story about the sea has, at its heart, the relationship between its characters, their boat and Mother Nature. Our voyage into the protected waters of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) has been no different and our research vessels, the Tethys Supporter and its three tenders, have been both our best friends and our worst enemies.

Like a reef fish waiting for the dangers of the night to pass, I write from my bunk, hunkering down out of the way of the most recent weather to pass through, today bringing lower winds but more swell. I think we all agreed some time ago, that there was something about this particular expedition that was never going to be easy, and so we’ve started to embrace the uncertainty. The Chagos Archipelago can be temperamental at the best of times and we have been getting the full spectrum since we set sail. Despite that, the entire team headed up by expedition lead Taylor Chapple from Stanford University, have pushed the limits of workable hours to get as much done as possible and navigating some tricky diving conditions to service a considerable number of our acoustic receivers. While a couple of our more exposed receivers have been lost to the elements, the occasional break in the weather has brought some shining victories.

Scientists replace an acoustic receiver moored in the British Indian Ocean Territory

Yesterday, for example, we arrived at Swartz and Sandes seamounts and positioned ourselves over the submerged summit to fish for sharks. At once we found ourselves in a maelstrom of large sharks, the usual suspects but many more silvertips than we’d seen before and even the illusive silky sharks made an appearance. Needless to say, we made hay and deployed numerous tags. There’s something incredibly satisfying about hand-lining for sharks, knowing that once they leave your boat again, they are carrying the instrumentation that will give you some insight into their lives and movement patterns. In short, they have now become part of the cohort for this ambitious study. That’s the scientist in me getting excited. The kid inside of me just loves being able to get so close-up and personal to these beautiful and perfectly adapted marine predators.

A satellite-tagged shark which will track its movements as it travels around the Chagos Archipelago

And so we move to the business end of the expedition. Everything is now covered in a healthy crust of salt, the majority of the receiver servicing is now complete and over 60 tags have been deployed including acoustic and pop-off archival satellite tags. By chance we’ve had everything but the kitchen sink thrown at us during this expedition and so I feel confident in saying that all things considered this has been a herculean effort so far and we’re still not quite done.

For more science updates from the British Indian Ocean Territory, follow @BIOTscience on Twitter.


Blog Post: Did curiosity kill the sharks?

In his last update from the British Indian Ocean Territory, David Curnick described some of the things they hoped to accomplish during the current Bertarelli Foundation funded expedition.  Now, as his time in the Chagos Archipelago is drawing to a close, he described a worrying observation, but also a glimmer of hope for the future:

We are over half way through our expedition to the Chagos Archipelago in the British Indian Ocean Territory and have visited most of the major islands and atolls in the northern half of the reserve over the last week or so. Thankfully the worst of the weather has now passed and we are well into the groove of servicing the 76 acoustic receivers we have out here. Yet, with every dive, it has become apparent that all is not quite as I remember previously.

David Curnick of the Institute of Zoology preparing to service the acoustic receivers located in the Chagos Archipelago

It may be the passage of time casting a rosy hue over my eyes, but on my previous visit to these reefs in 2014, I recall seeing a lot more sharks, and bigger ones too. Back then, upon jumping into the water and once the bubbles had cleared from the front of your mask, you were met by a least a few inquisitive silvertip sharks whose curiosity would drive them to check out any foreign body entering their reef home. I have yet to experience that this year. The welcoming party is simply nowhere to be seen. Sure, we are still seeing sharks on nearly every dive and it is the exception, rather than the rule, that a dive passes without a visit from at least one grey reef or white tip reef shark. However, in previous years it wasn’t uncommon to be circled by a posse of dozens. So, what has happened to the reefs residents in the intervening four years?

Perhaps we have just been unlucky this time around. Perhaps the recent storm and resulting reduction in visibility has meant that the sharks have been there but that we couldn’t see them. While both might be contributing factors, I fear more sinister processes might be at play.

An acoustic receiver moored amongst the coral reef in the British Indian Ocean Territory

Over the last few years, the reefs of the Chagos Archipelago, like many reefs across the world, have been hit by mass coral bleaching events. The severity of the bleaching has left reefs on their knees, littered with dead coral and broken rubble. I therefore wouldn’t blame a reef shark if it decided to pack up its bags and seek pastures new.

Perhaps it’s those rose-tinted glasses again, but maybe the cooler water at depth, where the impacts of warming water are at least somewhat diminished, is acting as a refuge in times of trouble. Therefore, maybe the sharks are simply residing just beyond the beady eyes of SCUBA divers. Yet while coral cover is down, there are still a healthy number of reef fish going about their daily routines.

Therefore, for species like silvertip sharks, the table is still set, and the dinner is ready to be served but few are home to enjoy the feast. Notable are large numbers of smaller predatory fish like groupers, snappers and the speedy trevallies patrolling the reef edge. Perhaps benefiting from the reduction in the reefs top predators.

The main theory for the disappearance, and probably where the Occam’s razor principle points, is that these sharks are simply being lost to the threat of illegal fishing. Records of vessels caught poaching within the reserve’s boundaries show that these fishers, predominantly from Sri Lanka and India, are indeed targeting sharks. It therefore may be that the endearing curiosity of the sharks has ultimately led to their downfall. Brazen and inquisitive enough to approach divers, bold and curious enough to bite down on a tantalizing piece of bait. Indeed, we know from the reserve’s patrol vessel that a large-scale illegal fishing event in late 2014 resulted in mass shark casualties. Glancing at the data we received from our sharks tagged at the time, a whole cohort of tagged sharks “went silent” within days of each other, never to be heard again. While we can’t conclusively say we lost our tagged sharks to illegal fishers, it certainly seems highly likely.

So, as we sit here counting the relatively small numbers of sharks we have seen on this trip, we find ourselves determined to help return these reefs back to those halcyon, shark filled days. On this expedition we are tagging reef sharks to better understand how these animals are using the habitats of the archipelago, how and when they move between them, and then use this information to better inform that management of the reserve. Thus far we have tagged 33 sharks and are targeting over 100 before we leave next week. Assuming the weather holds…

Scientists tagged sharks and manta rays during the expedition to help them understand how these incredible animals use the Marine Protected Area

As for the reefs themselves, the Chagos Archipelago has, in the past, expressed an incredible resilience to bleaching events and an ability to bounce back quickly. Indeed, while on every dive we see large crumbling plates of Acropora tables, we also see every one covered in tiny coral recruits, the future engineers of the reefs regeneration. It now just remains to be seen how big they can grow before the next coral bleaching event. Here’s hoping for a good few years respite.

For more science updates from the British Indian Ocean Territory, follow @BIOTscience on Twitter.

Blog Post: Being a rubber duck in the Indian Ocean!

The Bertarelli Foundation’s latest expedition to the British Indian Ocean Territory is underway with scientists planning to download data from an array of shark tracking receivers located around the Chagos Archipelago. David Curnick, postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Zoology, brings us an update on the first few days:

As I write this blog we are currently moored off of Nelson Island, a small isolated island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, being circled by hundreds of frigate birds, terns and boobie birds. It is one of over 60 such islands that make up the British Indian Ocean Territory. But why am I here? The British Indian Ocean Territory was declared a no-take marine reserve in 2010 and since 2012 we have been tagging sharks, mantas and tunas here to better understand how they are using the reserve’s waters and ascertain how effective the reserve is at protecting them.

Manta rays swimming over acoustic receivers in the British Indian Ocean Territory

This year I am part of an international team of scientists, funded by the Bertarelli Foundation, onboard the Tethy’s Supporter, a vessel that came across from the Seychelles to support this expedition. We rendezvoused and boarded the vessel in the Maldives six days ago but unfortunately the weather has not been on our side thus far. Our two-day transit down from the Maldives was dogged by choppy seas resulting in our boat bobbing around the ocean like a child’s bath toy. Those transit days were spent checking dive gear and prepping shark tagging equipment, whilst the nights were spent trying to get some sleep although the ocean and the boat were working in perfect tandem to try and roll us out of our bunk beds. I was regretting my foolish and naive nabbing of a top bunk. It’s a long way down to the cabin floor…. After two pretty much sleepless nights, we were all relieved to arrive to the relative calm of Salomon Atoll. Once inside, we were sheltered from the big swell that had been raging from the west and were able to get some much-needed rest.

Scientists prepare electronic fish-tags whilst en route to the British Indian Ocean Territory

The following morning, we divided into two teams to set about our primary objective, to service the extensive acoustic receiver array network we have installed around the atolls out here. Each receiver logs the occurrence of any tagged shark that may swim within its detection range (~500m) and we have installed 76 such receivers across the archipelago over the last few years. On this expedition we will be SCUBA diving on each one (~20-25m), replacing the old receiver with a fresh new one, and bringing the old receiver to the surface to download the data. That’s the exciting bit – finding out what it has recorded over the last few years.

David Tickler of the University of Western Australia cleans and services one of the acoustic receivers which has been collecting data in the British Indian Ocean Territory

Our first morning however didn’t quite go to plan, with the persistent swell meaning we weren’t able to access some of our sites around Salomon safely in our dive boats. It was no trouble for the resident spinner and bottlenose dolphins however, who we could see effortlessly playing in the rough water around the atoll almost mocking us with the ease with which they managed the swell. Still, they were very cool to see.

As the acoustic array can only detect animals that have been equipped with specific acoustic tags, we of course have to attach these devices to animals. However, the weather conditions have just made it too tricky to tag any sharks or manta rays just yet. So, for now we are focusing on servicing as many receivers as we can and will focus on tagging more once the weather improves. After servicing all of the receivers that we could around Salomon, the following morning we headed west to Peros Banhos atoll. This massive atoll (~25km across) is where the vast majority of our receivers are located. A few days servicing receivers there we headed east to Nelson Island where we are now anchored.

The good news is that the weather is clearing so a shark tagging boat should be going out this afternoon. Will update you on what we catch in the next blog…

For more science updates from the British Indian Ocean Territory, follow @BIOTscience on Twitter.

Using Sea Turtles to Map Seagrass Meadows

The Bertarelli Foundation has, for some time, supported a number of projects in the Indian Ocean which use tagging technology to further our knowledge of animals such as sharks, tuna, manta rays and sea turtles.  By following their migrations, sometimes over great distances, scientists can begin to understand more about their behaviour and their ecology.

A scientific paper by Prof. Graeme Hays of Deakin University and Nicole Esteban of Swansea University recently published in Frontiers in Marine Science, suggests that tagging data might actually be used by scientists for another purpose – to map seagrass habitats.  Not only are seagrass meadows a valuable habitat for many marine species but they also provide ecosystem services worth trillions of dollars (USD) each year.  Seagrass meadows have a role in mitigating climate change, they protect coastal areas from erosion, and they improve the health of neighbouring coral colonies.  Mapping seagrass meadows – and any changes in seagrass distribution – is therefore of vital importance to us all.

As part of the Bertarelli Programme in Marine Science the researchers have attached satellite tags to a number of species of sea turtle, including green turtles, in the British Indian Ocean Territory.  This has provided valuable insights about how they range across thousands of kilometers, and even suggested how they might locate tiny islands in the vastness of the Indian Ocean.

Now the scientists have also shown that it is possible to use this tracking data to identify where seagrass meadows might be located and which areas warrant further investigation and survey.

doi: 10.3389/fmars.2018.00009


New chapter opens for Easter Island Marine Protection. Bertarelli Foundation calls for other countries to protect the ocean.

The final step to protect the unique waters around Easter Island through the establishment of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) was completed today, February 27th, 2018, when Chilean President Michelle Bachelet signed the decree.

The new Rapa Nui MPA covers 720,000 km2, an area of ocean about the size of France, and guards against industrial fishing and extractive activities, while protecting the traditional fishing practices of the Rapa Nui. It was achieved through the hard work and leadership of Rapa Nui groups, including a coalition of business leaders, fishers, and more than 20 local organizations, along with support from the Bertarelli Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Co-chair of the Bertarelli Foundation, Dona Bertarelli said:

“This is an incredible moment in the history of Easter Island. The Bertarelli Foundation is very proud to have accompanied the Rapa Nui for the past six years, as they campaigned to protect their waters and their heritage.”

The area around Easter Island is one of the most unique marine environments in the world and home to at least 142 endemic species, including 27 that are threatened or endangered. The Rapa Nui MPA contributes a huge stretch of ocean to the global push for 30% of the ocean in protection by 2030, the target recommended by scientists and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but there is still a very long way to go.

Dona Bertarelli stated:

“Chile has shown its leadership to conserve the global ocean, and looking forward, there is a lot more work to be done by countries everywhere if we are to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030.”

Large scale MPAs are acknowledged as essential to building resilience of the ocean in a changing climate, helping to protect marine life and conserve complex ecosystems. But they will only work if the MPAs are robust and offer genuine protection.

The 30% target can be achieved through both the creation of MPAs in territorial waters and the protection of large areas of the high seas, which are beyond any one country’s national jurisdiction. Negotiations towards a new UN Treaty to protect the biodiversity of the high seas start later in the year and the Bertarelli Foundation is keen to see a strong outcome so that more of the ocean can be protected.

The first UN Intergovernmental Conference to negotiate a treaty to protect biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction will be held in September 2018.

More than Half the World’s Ocean is Industrially Fished

Research, supported by the Bertarelli Foundation and recently published by Prof. Barbara Block, Dr. Francesco Ferretti and Timothy White of Stanford University, has shed light on how the impact of industrial fishing is felt around the world.  Using innovative satellite tracking data from over 70,000 fishing vessels, the researchers were able to map fishing activity on a scale which was impossible until now.

Dr. Francesco Ferretti said:

“This is a game-changing platform that can generate validated local and global maps of industrial fishing at unprecedented resolution.”

Dr. Ferretti and his collaborators found that:

  • Whilst most countries fished mainly within their own exclusive economic zones, five countries (China, Spain, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea) accounted for more than 85 per cent. of the observed fishing effort on the high seas
  • More than 55 per cent. of the ocean was fished in 2016. This is more than four times the area of all Earth used for agriculture
  • Christmas and weekends had the greatest effect on fishing patterns in most of the world, while Chinese New Year and summertime fishing bans had the biggest impact on the movements of Chinese fleets
  • While some fleets did display seasonal movements, the work week, holidays and political closures were much more influential than ocean conditions or fish-migrations in determining fishing activity

Prof. Barbara Block said:

“This highlights the impact of industrial fishing with an unprecedented level of detail and transparency.  It could help shape more sustainable practices that ensure a future for tunas, billfish and sharks.”

DOI: 10.1126/science.aao5646

Tracking seabirds in the Indian Ocean

At the start of the new year, Peter Carr and Hannah Wood from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) in collaboration with Exeter University and supported by the Bertarelli Foundation, arrived in the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) to assess the importance of BIOT, and its MPA, for seabirds. An integral part of the Bertarelli Programme in Marine Science, this research will build on work started in 2016 and provide vital information about populations of Red-footed Boobies and other breeding seabirds in this Key Biodiversity Area.

Currently, the researchers are attaching tracking devices to breeding adult Boobies which will, once retrieved, provide information about foraging and breeding behaviours of this iconic species. By unravelling where the birds go, but also why, the scientists will reveal important information about activity ‘hot-spots’ and the health of the ocean upon which they rely.

Malcolm Nicoll, Principal Investigator from the Institute of Zoology at ZSL commented:

It is widely recognised that seabirds are an indicator of ocean health and an important link between the marine and terrestrial environments. Protecting healthy seabird populations is a priority as they bring essential nutrients to islands and their surrounding waters, which can play a positive role in the health of near-shore coral-reefs. As such, research like this which improves our understanding of how large MPAs can benefit seabird populations, will prove vital as we face the growing challenges of global warming and ocean acidification.

The Bertarelli Programme in Marine Science brings together talented scientists from around the world to carry out important research in one of the world’s largest Marine Protected Areas. This large, remote, near pristine, no-take marine reserve presents a unique opportunity to undertake an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the role of these complex ecosystems for mobile species such as tunas, sharks, turtles, and seabirds. As BIOT has been negatively impacted by recent global coral bleaching events, the reserve also provides an important study site to understand the resilience large marine reserves offer in the absence of fishing and other man-made pressures.

The Revillagigedo Archipelago is a biodiversity hotspot

Last month’s decision by the Mexican government to declare a fully protected marine reserve around the Revillagigedo Archipelago was truly historic.  Teeming with life found nowhere else on the planet, this biodiversity hotspot is now completely protected from fishing and other extractive activities.

Here are just a selection of some of the incredible animals that can be found there.

Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) swim together in ‘pods’ in the waters around the Revillagigedo Archipelago off the coast of Mexico (c) Pelagic Life


Silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis) gather each spring to mate off Roca Partida in the Revillagigedo Archipelago (c) Pelagic Life


A group of sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus) approaches a bait ball near the Revillagigedo Archipelago (c) Pelagic Life


A Manta Ray in the waters of the Revillagigedo Islands off the coast of Mexico (c) Pelagic Life


Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) off the coast of Revillagigedo Islands near Mexico (c) Pelagic Life


Silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis), gather in big schools around Roca Partida Island as part of their mating rituals around the Revillagigedo Archipelago (c) Pelagic Life




North America’s largest MPA is created off the coast of Mexico

The Bertarelli Foundation congratulates the government of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto who today designated an area 148,087 km2 around the Revillagigedo Archipelago as a fully protected Marine Protected Area (MPA).  This historic decision will safeguard a chain of four volcanic islands in the Pacific and their surrounding marine habitats, some 800 kilometers west of Manzanillo and almost 400 kilometers south of Cabo San Lucas.

The islands—Socorro, Clarión, San Benedicto, and Roca Partida—are located where the cold waters of the California current converge with the warm waters of the North Equatorial current, creating upwellings that bring nutrients from the bottom of the ocean to the surface. These nutrients help feed 366 species of fish—26 of which are endemic, meaning they are not found anywhere else in the world—as well as 37 species of sharks and rays. And they make the region a critical waypoint for whales, dolphins, sharks, tunas, sea turtles, and other migratory species, as well as providing a winter home to humpback whales.

Dona Bertarelli, trustee of the Bertarelli Foundation, said:

“It’s clear to me that now more than ever, we need countries all around the world to follow Mexico’s lead. By protecting the waters around the Revillagigedo Archipelago, and all the incredible marine life that lives there, Mexico is joining a global movement to fully protect 30 per cent. of our ocean – as recommended by scientists and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. It’s an amazing achievement and will ensure a healthy and sustainable ocean for generations to come.”

The Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project joined local partners Beta Diversidad and the Coalition for the Defense of the Seas of Mexico (CODEMAR) to provide technical and scientific support for the establishment of the reserve, and to raise awareness of the benefits of preserving this archipelago.

Lausanne chosen to host the World Conference of Science Journalists in 2019

On October 28th, 2017 in San Francisco, Lausanne was chosen to host the 11th World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ), which will take place from in July 2019 at the SwissTech Convention Center on the campus of the EPFL / UNIL. This meeting, which takes place every two years, attracts more than a thousand journalists and science communicators from more than 60 countries. The Bertarelli Foundation was proud to officially back the successful bid.

In winning over the Board of Directors of the World Federation of Science Journalists, which oversees the event, the winning bid will see the WCSJ return to Europe after events in the US (San Francisco, 2017) and South Korea (Seoul, 2015). The Swiss – or Alpine bid – was launched by the Swiss Association for Science Journalism (ASJS), soon joined by its sister organisations in France (AJSPI) and Italy (SWIM). The theme and motto for the 2019 meeting will be “Reaching new heights in science journalism” and the conference will use the mountains as a symbol and common thread.

Following the news of the win, the Bertarelli Foundation is pleased to confirm that it will be the main sponsor of the 2019 meeting. Ernesto Bertarelli says:

“Congratulations to the Alpine team on their success! This is another demonstration of the Lake Geneva region’s global standing in science, technology and engineering. I am proud through the Bertarelli Foundation to support this showcase of Swiss innovation, which will also share global knowledge and experience in science with our partners from all over the world.”

We are very honored that Lausanne has been chosen to host this important event. We presented the project of a conference organized by and for science journalists, to defend, present and promote quality independent journalism in the media worldwide. An aspect that has helped us to win,”

said  Olivier Dessibourg, president of the ASJS.

The Lausanne candidacy was able to benefit, from the beginning, from the support of four major academic partners: EPFL, CERN, and the Universities of Lausanne and Geneva. In addition to scientific and academic support, the Lausanne candidacy has also been able to rely on important levers in Swiss political, media and economic circles (State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation, Presence Switzerland, City of Lausanne, Canton of Vaud), but also within the whole of Europe, notably through the European Commission, or institutions such as the Euronews channel, the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) or the European Union. radio-telecommunications (EBU).

The Bertarelli Foundation would like to send their many congratulations to everyone involved in the Alpine team in putting together such an impressive bid.

President Bachelet of Chile creates an MPA around Easter Island

President Bachelet of Chile today fulfilled a 2015 commitment to conserve the waters around  Easter Island. The MPA, one of the largest in the world, will protect an area about 740,000km2, roughly the size of Chile’s land area. Announced at the close of the Fourth International Marine Protected Area Congress (IMPAC4) in Chile, the MPA will protect Easter Island from industrial commercial fishing, mining and other extractive activities within the Chilean exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that surrounds the island.


The entire Exclusive Economic Zone of Easter Island is now protected from commercial fishing and other extractive activities such as mining and oil exploration.


The preservation of the Rapa Nui’s artisanal fishing practices—fishing from small open boats using hand lines and rocks as weights – will be a key component of the management plans for the MPA and will help preserve the islanders’ way of life. Residents of Easter Island endorsed the designation by a wide margin in a referendum just before the start of IMPAC4; 73 percent supported an MPA that includes artisanal Rapa Nui fishing practices. An island-wide consultation, and the subsequent referendum,  were a direct result of the proposal their leaders presented to the Chilean government in 2015.

Dona Bertarelli commented:

“We are delighted that President Bachelet has designated the Rapa Nui Rahui MPA, which protects one of the last true ocean wildernesses on the planet.  The Rapa Nui have a heritage that is inextricably tied to the sea and we are proud to have supported them on this journey to conserve their ocean habitat for future generations.”

Marcelo Mena, Chile’s minister of the environment commented:

“Chile is proud to have worked in consultation with the Rapa Nui to create a legacy of protection for Easter Island.  This decision was made after an extensive public consultation with the Rapa Nui and the MPA will be the first in Chile to have been supported by a community vote. We are grateful for the tremendous support provided by The Bertarelli Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts to help the Rapa Nui protect their ocean.”