Physicists, Biologists and Geneticists Join Forces to Protect the Ocean

Professor Heather Koldewey leads the Bertarelli Foundation’s marine science programme, which is dedicated to advancing our understanding of the ocean. The programme fosters collaborative science that combines the skillsets and disciplines of a range of scientists, all of whom conduct their research in the British Indian Ocean Territory’s Marine Protected Area.

Here, Professor Koldewey describes how the marine science programme helps scientists make progress in this important area, and what she considers to be ocean conservation’s biggest challenges.

Can you explain the collaborative approach that the Bertarelli Foundation has adopted?

The idea behind the programme is that by bringing together scientists from diverse fields, working on different projects and with their own particular insights, we can solve bigger, more complex problems. Within our team of more than 70 scientists we have a wide range of disciplines including physicists, geneticists, biologists and ecologists and many others; so although everyone’s working in the same study site, everyone approaches the research with their own particular perspective.

For example, physicists are looking at how underwater waves move around seamounts.  At the same time, we have biologists studying the distribution of sharks around the same underwater mountains.  By working together, they are finding out how the physics of the ocean is affecting where sharks are found.  The more you understand these processes, the more you can start to identify “hot spots” where sharks will be found.

How does the Bertarelli Foundation support marine protected areas in particular?

The Bertarelli Foundation played an important role in helping establish the British Indian Ocean Territory’s Marine Protected Area (MPA) in 2010. Since then, the Foundation has worked with the Pew Charitable Trusts to establish new MPAs around the world, including around Easter Island, the Pitcairn Islands and many others. The Bertarelli Foundation is helping to safeguard these large ocean wilderness areas and help governments achieve international targets for ocean protection.

Can you describe some of the more significant results that have arisen thanks to the collaborative approach taken by the Bertarelli Foundation?

One of the biggest insights has been the relationship between the land and the water –  we’ve discovered that what happens on oceanic islands has a huge influence on the neighbouring reefs. For example, there is a much higher biomass and diversity of various reef species adjacent to islands that don’t have rats. These islands are not only much richer in seabirds and natural vegetation, but there’s also evidence suggesting that islands without rats, and therefore healthy bird populations, have better resilience to detrimental events like coral bleaching.

How does the Bertarelli Foundation link science to policy making?

In the UK, there’s a very large marine science community, but it can be difficult to translate research into effective public discourse. Scientists often focus on their research but the Bertarelli Foundation’s work ensures that science is used to inform policy, not just in the Indian Ocean but globally.

2020 is the deadline for governments to meet their targets for ocean protection.  Programmes like this are providing robust science to give policymakers the ability to make confident decisions and take much needed action.

There are a lot of issues facing ocean conservation today. If you had to choose just one, what do you think is the primary issue that we should be focusing on?

Having worked in ocean conservation for over 25 years I’ve seen many far-reaching changes. Although some are positive – and obviously the creation of marine protected areas is a positive development – they are often overshadowed by concerning declines in marine species and habitats

If I were to pick just one, the climate crisis would be it. Marine protected areas can build resilience over time but they can’t get to the root cause of the problem. It really is going to be down to policy makers to deliver on their promises such as the Paris Agreement!

Marine Science Research Continues in the Indian Ocean

Sea bird researchers Dr. Malcolm Nicoll and Hannah Wood from the Zoological Society of London have been working as part of the Bertarelli Foundation’s marine science programme in the Indian Ocean for the last several years.  Returning to the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) twice a year to conduct their field-work is always a highlight and their most recent expedition is no exception.  Although they counted fewer breeding birds than expected, they still managed to tag 31 adult red-footed boobies in the first few days. Birds were tagged with small GPS loggers that record the birds’ position during their long oceanic foraging trips and are recovered from the birds when they return to their nests.

The researchers also started a study of the distribution of wedge-tailed shearwaters on Nelson Island. This population of ground-nesting birds has not previously been studied and, at the time of the expedition, the adults were just starting their breeding season, so this is a fantastic opportunity to make an island-wide population survey.

Meanwhile Dr. Nicole Esteban of Swansea University and Dr. Jacques-Olivier Laloe of Deakin University returned to BIOT to continue their work studying Green and Hawksbill turtles.  They  had great success flying a drone over Nelson Island’s reef flat to count juvenile turtles using this unique habitat. These new data will help assess how many turtles – and which species – use these waters as foraging grounds.

They also started a new piece of work looking at how plastic pollution is impacting the wildlife on the atoll. Sadly, after completing several surveys of the beaches, they observed that all sorts of single-use and durable plastic items are littered across the island such as plastic bottles, flip-flops, toothbrushes, cigarette lighters, but also cooling boxes and fishing gear. One important research aim is to better understand how this plastic debris might affect the incubation, and sex-ratio of turtle hatchlings.

The two research teams worked together to conduct night-time turtle surveys and managed to deploy a satellite tag on an adult female green sea turtle. This is the first time a turtle was satellite-tagged on this northern outer island of the Chagos Archipelago and we look forward to finding out where she travels to once she has finished laying her eggs.



Scientists Track Hawksbill Turtles for the First Time in the British Indian Ocean Territory

The use of electronic animal tracking has revolutionised marine science and conservation; in recent years, animal tracking has become incredibly sophisticated and allowed scientists to observe behaviours that had so far remained completely unknown.  Tracking devices are getting smaller allowing them to be attached to a wider range of species, whilst at the same time, battery technology is improving which allows the recording of longer time series of data.  Sensors are also becoming more sophisticated so that scientists are now able to observe not just the location of tagged animals, but also their speed, acceleration and even, in the case of sea turtles and seabirds, whether they are in or out of the water.  From this wide range of data, scientists are able to recreate the most detailed pictures of animal behaviour.

Prof. Graeme Hays of Deakin University with Dr. Nicole Esteban from Swansea University and Dr. Jeanne Mortimer has been studying turtles in the British Indian Ocean Territory for many years.  Their work, which is an integral component of the Bertarelli Foundation’s marine science programme, has been utilising satellite tracking technology on Green turtles which has shown them travelling as far as the coast of Somalia – over 4,000 km away to the west.  Dr. Esteban recently returned to BIOT to attach satellite tags to Hawksbill turtles for the first time; once the data from these tagged animals are analysed it will help give the team an even better understanding of how the Territory’s MPA protects sea turtles in the Indian Ocean.

Off to a Flying Start on Danger Island!

The Chagos Archipelago is an important refuge for seabirds in the middle of the Indian Ocean – one of the planet’s most heavily exploited oceans.  Researchers from the Zoological Society of London and Exeter University have been studying populations of Red Footed and Brown Boobies on the islands of Diego Garcia and Nelson Island to learn more about how they use the Territory’s Marine Protected Area.  They recently traveled further north to the menacingly named Danger Island to find out how the populations there differ in their behaviour and foraging habits.  Hannah Wood took some time out to send us this update from the field:

Hello from Danger Island in the Indian Ocean! I am writing this blog from our campsite by the beach, sitting amongst a grove of squat, leafy beach heliotrope full of small, white moths and unexpectedly arboreal hermit crabs. Today is thankfully overcast which gives us a break from the intense sunshine and lessens the sweltering heat. The sea is relatively calm at the moment, but the coral reef fringing the island means that there are always white-tipped breakers rolling and crashing into the shore.

We arrived here six days ago with the aid of British military forces and a British patrol ship. With their help we unloaded camping gear, drinking water, food for two weeks and all our science equipment. It took us the rest of the day to set up our camp and the following morning we circumnavigated the island to assess potential tagging locations. That afternoon we began tagging red-footed boobies with tracking devices, and by the end of the second day we had tagged 33 nesting birds.

Our base camp and research station for the next two weeks

Once the red-footed booby tagging was complete we moved on to the brown boobies, which are slightly larger and nest on the ground under bushes rather than in the trees. We have now tagged 15 of these and hope to begin retrieving the tracking devices tomorrow! In addition to all the tagging we have been conducting twice daily monitoring of nest attendance at all of our 33 red footed booby study nests, and erected a long-term camera trap near a collection of booby nests.

Hannah Wood and Pete Carr measure the wingspan of a Brown Booby on Danger Island

The tag recovery phase of this expedition has now begun; this morning we collected six of our devices from red footed boobies, hopefully full of interesting data! As the afternoon passes it should get cooler and we can head out to gather more tags, until then we are recharging our electronics with portable solar panels and recharging ourselves with powdered isotonic drink!