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Working With the Power of the Ocean

In collaboration with the Royal Society for the Protections of Birds (RSPB) and the Tristan da Cunha government, National Geographic Pristine Seas is conducting an expedition to Tristan da Cunha and its surrounding islands. During the expedition, our team will conduct comprehensive surveys of the health of its largely unknown marine environment, and produce a documentary film to highlight this unique ecosystem and the people that steward it. Learn more about the expedition.

Gough Island, 225 miles to southwest of the main island of Tristan, had an almost mythical quality in our expedition planning: It’s hard to reach, hard to land on, and there is very little shelter because the winds are so strong that they whip completely around the island—and yet we absolutely had to get to Gough.

Our Tristan friends advised that we should sail for Gough as soon as the winds turned to the northwest. And so two days ago, when the wind quickly shifted, it was a lively time collecting Mike Fay from his Tristan botanical trek, the RSPB team from their beloved birds, the media team from filming the local fishermen, and the science team from their dives—all while making our ship ready for the passage.

After an exciting passage Gough Island makes a dramatic and welcome appearance. Photo by Dave McAloney
After an exciting passage Gough Island makes a dramatic and welcome appearance. Photo by Dave McAloney

We routed via Nightingale Island so that we could collect essential seal trackers, complete some albatross chick tagging, film the seals, albatrosses, rare plants, and Rockhopper penguins, and deliver Christmas mail to the two scientists at the research station. I fell in love with Nightingale Island and it became yet another remote spot where I would happily live for a year or two.

Rockhopper penguins at Nightingale Island. Photo by Ryan Jenkinson
Rockhopper penguins at Nightingale Island. Photo by Ryan Jenkinson

Our passage here to Gough was idyllic (at first): The strong northwesterlies picked up a powerful swell and with dolphins for company we surfed through the night across the Antarctic Circumpolar Current into colder waters and the infamous Roaring Forties—a region of the Southern Ocean at 40° south with a fearsome reputation for storms and massive seas.

While we happily celebrated our arrival into new waters by fine-tuning our Gough work plan, the ship’s engine unhappily celebrated by stopping dead. It was a decidedly odd feeling to be one moment surfing down 12-foot following seas and then in the next moment to be silently adrift, the ship slowing and then lurching sideways onto the the waves and rolling heavily.

The sea temperature change was so dramatic that more water condensed out of the fuel than usual. This water got into the fuel system and stopped the engine. The excellent on-board engineering team only took two hours to drain the water and make repairs—but that was a long enough time wallowing around dead in the water to give us a little taste of the real power of the ocean. The ship coming alive when the engine started brought some cheers of relief and we spent the final 20 miles of the passage catching ever increasing glimpses of Gough through curtains of heavy cloud.

The only way from the sea to the Gough Island research station is a hairy crane ride! Photo by Chris Thompson
The only way from the sea to the Gough Island research station is a hairy crane ride! Photo by Chris Thompson

Of course, our Tristan friends had made a perfect call on the weather conditions: The entire island was being battered by winds of 60 mph, but in the southeast was a tiny calm spot. Even with cold, dense katabatic winds barrelling down on us from the cliff tops and occasional heavy rain squalls, we could unload our terrestrial teams, science equipment, and supplies for the research station and then get our science and media dive teams in the water. Operating in these conditions always serves as an excellent reminder of the world-class nature of our team.

Arriving at Gough Island is a beautiful, powerful, enriching experience and highly recommended as a way to re-connect with the power of nature!

You can also follow the expedition on Instagram and check out Tristan da Cunha and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds for more coverage of the expedition.