Marion Island was magical

With me and a number of other researchers from various South African universities onboard, the second generation icebreaker, SA Agulhas II set sail on a research expedition to Marion Island. Marion Island is one of the two Prince Edward Islands, Prince Edward Island being the other. These are South African volcanic islands situated south of the continent Africa. The Subantarctic islands are scientifically important as they form part of the Southern Ocean’s treasures which are currently of paramount interest in the world of science. This year I was one of the fortunate researchers to go on this expedition as my Ph.D. study focuses mainly on the microbial communities, biogeochemical cycles and nutrient interactions between the Southern Ocean and these particular Subantarctic islands.

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The Research Vessel SA Agulhas II
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The second generation icebreaker is dedicated to South African singer, actress, Miriam Makeba also known as Mama Afrika

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When my mentor, Sarah, first informed me that I was going on the scientific cruise I honestly didn’t even believe it. Not that I thought she wasn’t an honest person, no! I just could not believe that I, Kolisa Yola Sinyanya, a simple girl from Northcrest (a suburb in the rural town- Mthatha) was going to that Marion Island I used to see on National Geographic and other sophisticated documentaries. It was surreal and overwhelming. Not just anyone can wake up and decide to book a flight to Marion, for example. The South African Antarctic Program (SANAP) is an exclusive club if I can put it that way. When you’re “chosen” to go, processes immediately take place, one gets special clothing for the expedition, to conduct the science and keep warm as the region is extremely cold.  We also have to do full medicals (ice medicals) to make sure that the body functions well for the unfamiliar Subantarctic conditions. On the expedition, I collected samples for fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS) of phytoplankton communities, DNA samples for 16S rRNA and 18S rRNA analyses of both microbes and phytoplankton, flow cytometry and nutrients. Sampling entailed collection for all biological and chemical variables, with a focus on the sunlit surface waters, at selected sites upstream, downstream, inter-island and on the Crossroads Line along the Agulhas. It was achieved through CTD hydrocasts at depths 10 m- 2000 m for nutrients and nitrate isotopes, 10 m- 100 m for FACS and flow cytometry and via the underway sampling system for DNA/RNA and FACS.

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I’m driving the CTD winch
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24 Niskin bottles cast at different depths
CTD Hydrocasts
CTD returned onboard the vessel
CTD profiles including temperature, fluorescence, salinity and oxygen.
CTD profiles for temperature, fluorescence, salinity and oxygen

Biogeochemical sampling included large volume filtrations of microbial samples for particles of organic carbon and N content, isotopes, DNA and microbial samples for flow cytometric analysis of community composition, and seawater for nutrients and nitrate isotopes.

Science expeditions are always fun and exciting, despite the long laborious hours in the lab and, in oceanography, carrying around heavy bottles of water samples. This sampling trip, however, was one with a difference. Staying on board the SA Agulhas II in the Southern Ocean, waking up to striking sunrises before shifts and breathtaking views of Marion Island and Prince Edward Island almost every morning is simply unmatched!

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Sunrise observed from the SA Agulhas II South African research vessel
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A view of the South African base on Marion Island from the ship’s deck
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A sampling station in-between the two islands, Prince Edward and Marion, respectively (top to bottom)

All photographs courtesy of Kolisa Yola Sinyanya

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