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On day 6 of our trip I followed James Maclaine, Curator of fish at the Museum. James has a variety of tools he uses to make his collections including a 25m seine net. A few nights ago we went out to test the net and made a short video. Please note the temperature of the water is not as tropical as it looks! James has had some good success with the seine net in the past and you can read about what he found on this trip in his own post to the blog.

 

 

 

Seine net fishing

 

This morning we went to the nearby island of St Agnes. This is one of the most remote of the inhabited islands in Scilly and faces out bravely into the Atlantic. When the wind is blowing it can be a very extreme environment but today there was only a slight breeze, the sea was a flat as a pancake and the island felt very balmy. This was a good thing as spent most of the morning wading through the falling tide, turning over rocks and trying to find some very elusive fish.

 

PIC 1 (Custom).JPGSt Agnes in the sun

 

 

 

 

Looking for elusive fish in rock pools on the shore of St Agnes

 

In the Museum collection there are two species of clingfish that had already been collected from the Isles of Scilly, Lepadogaster lepadogaster (shore clingfish) and Apleton dentatus (small-headed clingfish). However, these were obtained in the 1970s and James was keen to find out if both species were still here. The two fish seemed to have very specific and quite distinct habitats and it took a few hours to crack the code of where to find them. We found the small-headed variety in the hold fasts of kelp.

 

PIC 2 (Custom).JPGJames finds a likely home for the small-headed clingfish

 

 

PIC 3 (Custom).JPGApleton dentatus (small-headed clingfish)

 

The shore clingfish seemed to live under particularly large rocks that were sitting in water.

 

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PIC 5 (Custom).jpgThe underside 'sucker' of the clingfish

 

It was great to find both species of fish still living in the bay where they were also found about 40 years ago, and also to be able to add a couple of modern specimens to our collection that can be used to extract samples of their DNA.

 

PIC 6 (Custom).JPGThe flora of one of the rock pools on St Agnes

 

It was great fun working in the rock pools and we found some fascinating things.

 

PIC 7 (Custom).JPGOne of our finds, a starfish ...

 

This starfish was a particular menace to the other specimens in our bucket so had to be separated - here you can see it working it's way through a tiny squat lobster.

 

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... mostly harmless to us but not so nice if you are a squat lobster

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After all that build up in my first post, the Scillionian boat trip wasn't that good and it wasn't that bad. So no sharks, whales, sunfish, etc but also no vomiting and I ended up spending most of the journey asleep.

 

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The Scillonian after our arrival at St Mary's, Isles of Scilly

 

[I'm going to have to go off at a tangent slightly now and say that I've just this second been recognised by a small blonde lad as I sit here in the pub typing this. I will explain why in a bit.]

 

Anyway, we disembarked and trudged up and over a hill to the most western part of St Mary's which is called the Garrison or Woolpack. I've stayed in a few interesting places in my time but our current lodgings are the first that look like they could withstand a direct hit from a scud missile, being in an old military bunker. However, they are comfortable enough and we soon feel at home, although I can't help but feel sorry for the poor swallows who foolishly decided to raise their family in the corridor leading to the showers and toilets.

 

[I've just been recognised again, this 'fame' will start to go to my head if it carries on.]

 

Once we'd settled ourselves in, Mark Spencer, experienced botanist and exhibition leader took us for a walk around the island in the sunshine and points out all the parts of it that we can graze upon. Particularly nice are plants called three cornered leeks which have a spring onion/garlic taste.

 

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The lighthouse at Peninnis Head.

 

The next day we rise early as one of my first obligations is to help with three talks for children (who seem to still remember me, hence the recognitions tonight as I write this) at the local Five Islands School. These go really well and Jon Ablett, Curator of Molluscs, steals the show with his squid dissection.

 

I don't have any props myself (apart from a baby pollock which is deemed unsuitable for hacking up in front of six-year olds, having proper red blood as opposed to the squid's green variety) so we find a few pictures of deep-sea anglerfish and sharks and I tell the children about those, and then attempt to identify various fishes that they tell me they've seen. I'm also getting a bit worried about the success - or potential lack of it - of my fish collecting at this point so I ask them to bring anything they can find up to our lodgings and give it to me.

 

My worries increase later as we spend a couple of hours fishing beside a sewer pipe with no results. Meanwhile everyone else is gathering buckets full of material - molluscs, plants - and diligently sitting around scribbling in notebooks and writing labels. Determined to get something - anything - of the fish variety, Jon, Tom Simpson and I head down to the beach at Hugh Town with our seine net, and after a lot of mucking about we finally catch our first, a baby sandeel. I hope things improve tomorrow...

 

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Jon and Tom attempting to seine

 

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My first fish, a sandeel

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As well as taking part in video conferences with schools back on the mainland this morning, we visited the local The Five Island School, to talk to some of the classes about our trip and why we we’re here. James Maclaine and Jon Ablett are seasoned Nature Live speakers but three classes of thirty 6-10 year olds is a daunting prospect for anyone. However, the pupils were superb - enthusiastic and interested and full of great questions.

 

I don't have any photos of the sessions to put up here, but I think it is safe to say that the the pupils enjoyed hearing from our scientists. I saw that two of them, Hafwen and Amelie, had drawn a quick (but very detailed and accurate) picture in the playtime after we had finished and had to get a picture of it. Well done to them for doing such a good picture and to Jon; the mollusc message clearly struck home.

 

PIC 1 (Custom).JPGAmelie and Hafwen's brilliant molluscs

 

I spent the rest of the day with Jon, back at the bulb fields head-down looking for snails and slugs.

 

PIC 2 (Custom).JPGSnail and slug hunt

 

This was really hard work but great fun. Finding a slug in a field of bulbs can be a harder task than finding a needle in a haystack. However, I did fin myself getting extraordinarily excited by the tiny molluscs, and they are very beautiful close up.

 

PIC 3 (Custom).JPGWe have a winner

 

If you look closely you can see the breathing hole. All slugs and snails breathe through a hole in the side of their body and - in slugs - the position of this hole can determine what family they are in.

 

PIC 4 (Custom).JPGLook closely and you can see the hole in the slug that it uses to breathe

 

After a good search we had found some really cool stuff, including Oxycailus alliarius.


 

 

Collecting slugs and snails

 

It is interesting in itself that there are any terrestrial molluscs on the islands. The soil here has very little naturally occurring calcium in it and molluscs require this element to build their shells. In Scilly, the high winds and high humidity mean the calcium is effectively ‘blown’ across the islands and dissolved into the soil, and it is this that allows the molluscs to build their shells.

 

Back at the ranch Jon explained some of techniques he uses to preserve the specimens.

 

 

 

How to join the snail preservation society

 

Today was also my birthday, and the team prepared a great meal and baked me a cake which was brilliant.

 

PIC 5 (Custom).JPGMy birthday cake ... thanks guys!

 

We had (foraged) watercress soup to start, then an amazing fisherman's pie - I caught the pollock and Vanessa turned them into this spectacular creation complete with (foraged, again) samphire.

 

PIC 6 (Custom).JPGMy catch of pollock

 

 

PIC 7 (Custom).JPGFisherman's (pollock) pie made by Vanessa Pike, yum!

 

Thanks so much to all the team but especially Mark and Vanessa for making such a lovely meal!

 

PIC 8 (Custom).JPGWhat better way to end my birthday than a sight like this?

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Today started dull and overcast - grey and gloomy - but we weren’t going to let the weather get us down because this morning we did our first, live video conference from the field with schools. Students from all over the country get to talk with our scientists and ask questions about what they are doing here in the Isles of Scilly.

 

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Tom chatting to Mark during a video conference with students at a primary school.

 

In the first VC, primary school students got to meet Mark Spencer, the botanist of the group and team leader, and Jon Ablett, Curator of Molluscs. Mark did a small tour of the wild flowers we can find here, explaining that the Isles are located at a crossroads between Mediterranean plants and northern ones.

 

The relatively mild climate of the islands mean that plants that are usually more typical of Mediterranean countries find a home here, while for other species, the Isles mark their southern-most limit. It’s an overlapping landscape, which is a delight for us to experience, and a joy for the many species of insects and birds who pollinate these plants.

 

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Museum scientists taking in the beautiful scenery, while Holger Thues (far left) is distracted by a rock covered in lichen!

 

Jon Ablett showed some of his slugs and talked about innovative ways of preserving specimens for the Museum’s collection, while the white vapours of liquid nitrogen made Mark and Tom (who was hosting the event) feel even more cold. Jon is looking mainly for land snails, but will also try to fish for some octopus and squid as we are not sure which species live in these waters. Keep an eye on this blog to find out what he discovers!

 

The secondary school students had the chance to meet lichen curator Holger Thues. Holger explained that lichens are composite organisms (comparable to corals), meaning they are a combination of a fungus and an algae living side-by-side in a symbiotic relationship (i.e. they both benefit from one another). Lichens are incredibly important indicators of the environment around them and are often used to study changes in the atmosphere and air pollution.

 

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Orange lichen on a rock, but how did it get its nutrients?

 

The orange lichen in the photo above only exists in places with high levels of nutrients, you will see them near the sea where the wind itself is loaded with nutrients. However, if you see them on a rock in land, wait and with time you’re more than likely to see a bird arrive ...  you’ll soon find out how the nutrients arrived there!

 

Thanks to all the schools for their many questions during the video conferences, it was great to speak to you all!

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The rest of the team arrived today - in total there are now 11 of us and over the next few days I’ll introduce you to them so that you can get a idea of the full range of work and research that will going on during trip.

 

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Standing (l-r): Tony Vinhas (media tech), Jonathan Fenn (molluscs), Holger Thues (lichens), Daniel Whitmore (flies), Jon Ablett (molluscs-terrestrial), Mark Spencer (team leader and botanist), James Maclaine (fishes).

Sitting (l-r): Andreia Salvador (molluscs-marine), Ana Rita Rodrigues (Nature Live) and Vanessa Pike (helping with all of the above!)

 

We’re staying in the south west corner of St Mary’s in a building called The Woolpack. It’s a rather unique structure, a former gunning station that has been converted into accommodation for up to 14. Tony and I made a short film to give you an idea...

 

 

 

Where we're staying on St Mary's - the Woolpack

 

We’re beaming back live to the Museum's Attenborough Studio for four days of Nature Live events starting on Sunday (see the listing on the right had side of the blog homepage) using a satellite we have set up on the roof of an out-building. You can come to the Museum to see them in person, but if you can't make it, the Wednesday's will be webcast live online.

 

PIC 2 (Custom).JPGLive and direct (via a satellite)

 

Within 10 mins of arriving, the scientists had spread out in the green area around the building and were bringing back things for us to look at.

 

PIC 3 (Custom).JPGScilly slugs

 

Jon Ablett (molluscs, terrestrial) found a couple of beautiful slugs but the sharp-eyed quick-fire award goes to Holger Thues, who found a new record for the Isles of Scilly. It’s a parasitic fungus that lives inside the fungal fruiting body of a lichen. We have no records for this kind of fungus from the Isles of Scilly and it shows how important trips like these are in order to enhance our understanding of the islands’ biodiversity.

 

PIC 4 (Custom).JPGHolger found this new record just a few metres away from the Woolpack on his first day on St Mary's

 

PIC 5 (Custom).JPGYou’re looking for the black ‘pepper’ bits within the rest of the lichen

 

The group then headed off to have a look around the local town before beginning the serious work of collecting tomorrow.

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With the state of the UK's wildlife making the headlines on today's International Day for Biological Diversity, I think yesterday's tiny flowers are a real symbol of the spirit needed to forge a life on one of the country's most distant lands, the Isles of Scilly. The islands are so exposed and remote that constant ingenuity and resourcefulness are vital for survival.

 

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A dwarf pansy looking spectacular next to a five pence piece

 

This is as true for the agriculture that occurs on these islands as for the flowers and plants that live in the wild here. Below is a photo of some allotments on St Mary's, the plots divided up into small boxes by high borders in order to keep out the howling Atlantic winds. If the bushes weren't there, the plants would be destroyed by the high winds which can be so strong they actually burn the plants.

 

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Allotments in St Mary's with high borders to protect the plants from Atlantic winds

 

Once the wind has been dealt with, the general climate is so mild on the islands that it is possible to grow things that would freeze in other parts of the British Isles, and the roadsides and hedgerows are full of incredible plants.

 

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I call this one the elephant plant! Note: not its real common or scientific name

 

Because of their climate, the Isles of Scilly are famous for bulb fields - the flowers these bulbs produce are shipped to the rest of Britain to be sold as cut flowers. The climate here means it is possible to produce flowers during times of the year when the rest of the UK is simply too cold. The bulb fields are a key part of the local environment and a fascinating and important habitat in their own right. We went to meet Farmer Mike Brown, a 4th generation Scillonian bulb farmer and he explained more about the industry.

 

 

 

Farmer Mike Brown, a 4th generation Scillonian bulb farmer

 

 

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A flower bulb grown on the Isles of Scilly

 

Huge thanks to Mike - he was incredibly enthusiastic and helpful and his fields were a real treat to visit. Farms like these are not only an example of how agriculture can support important biodiversity, but also a crucial piece of cultural heritage - a part of a local industry that has been going for hundreds of years. (Note, you can visit Farmer Brown's Bulb Shop and also stay in an adjoining cottage - there is more information here).

 

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Farmer Brown's Bulb Shop

 

Walking back from the farm, Mark spotted an unbelievably rare variant of a plant called Silene gallica. The variant is called Silene gallica var quinqueuulneraria (a lot of people say scientific names are inaccessible, pah I say!). It is now extinct in the wild in mainland Britain but is still found on the Isles of Scilly.

 

 

 

Mark finds the rare Silene gallica var quinqueuulneraria

 

We also saw the more common variant Silene gallica var gallica, growing in a nearby verge.

 

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The more common Silene gallica var gallica

 

It is incredible how many amazing plants the Isles of Scilly support and how easy it is to spot them just walking around the islands. You can sit on a bench to eat your fish and chips and be sat next to a plant normally found on the Canaries or in the Mediterranean.

 

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Malva pseudolavatera

 

Again, Scilly is practically the last only place in the UK you can find this (Malva pseudolavatera) - and we found it happily growing on a roadside wall.

 

It has been really good fun following Mark around the islands over the past coupe of days, finding out about the plant life here (and, to be fair, tasting quite a lot of it) and tomorrow the rest of the scientists arrive so I think things will take a turn towards the animal kingdom.

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Today we took the short ferry to Bryher, about 15 mins across the bay from our home island of St Mary’s.

 

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Hiking across Bryher

 

 

Bryher faces out in to the Atlantic and feels the full effect of the ocean, yet it still has some unique and exquisite flowers, tiny things that seem to stand defiant against the wind and rain that smashes into them. Looking for these minute darlings means leaving your modesty at the door.

 

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Good thing no one is watching...

 

But we were rewarded with some close encounters with some of the most perfectly formed little plants I have ever seen. Mark’s enthusiasm for these flowers was infectious and soon we were all face down, searching for more and attracting others who were visiting the island.

 

 

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... oh, wait, no they are!

 

In order to give you an idea of the absolute tinyness and fantasticness of these things - we got as close as we could...

 

 

Tom and Mark find some small wonders: the dwarf pansy, orange birdfoot and subterranean clover

 

It’s difficult not to marvel at the things that have made a life for themselves on these islands thrust out in to the Atlantic and I really admire these small, resolute plants. It goes to show how important it is to really explore and examine an environment to take in the full extent of the the things living in it. We didn’t collect any of these plants, but I hope the film and pictures give you an idea of how wonderful they are.

 

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Another tiny beauty

 

Last night's foraged meal made for a great evening and once we had finished our Wild Watercress Soup and and Sea Shore Pasta, we went up onto the roof of our bunker to take in the sunset ...

 

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It's nice here

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And so dear reader, here it is, my first ever blog post. Until last week I thought there was more chance of me giving birth than ever blogging but when I was asked I thought well why not, it might be educational, for me and for you. As one of two fish curators here at the Museum it’s one of my jobs to enhance our already massive collection of fish specimens, and when the opportunity arose to do some collecting on the Isles of Scilly I leapt at the chance like a randy salmon. I hope, if you bear with me, I can give you an idea of what it's like to carry out field work for the Museum and also with any luck tell you a little bit about some of the fishes found on and around the islands.

 

James-maclaine-pufferfish-copyright-natural-history-museum.jpgMe with one of the Museum's fish specimens in storage.

 

If (like me until recently) you are not familiar with the location of the Isles of Scilly, then I can now enlighten you. They are, I think, the most south-westerly part of the UK and lie about 30 miles to the west of Land's End, out in the Atlantic where relatively warm oceanic currents ensure that the climate is generally very mild compared to the rest of the country. This also means that they are potentially very interesting in terms of marine life. The last big collections of Scilly fishes that the Museum acquired were made in the 1970s and it's possible that things may have changed since then. The islands are likely to be one of the first ports of call for any species migrating north as oceanic temperatures rise.

 

I have compiled a list of all the fish species the Museum currently has from that locality (26 in total) and the aim of the trip will be to collect anything not already on that list, especially anything that has never been recorded before in any literature as being found on Scilly. However, it would still nice to get fresh specimens of those already listed as these can now be used for DNA analysis or for exchange with other museums. I particularly want to see clingfish, which are found, as the name suggests, clinging to boulders in rock-pools. What would be really exciting is to see a seahorse but as these are very special and protected I'm not permitted to interfere with them in any way so don't expect any pictures. We (me and my various assistants) are highly motivated and have small handnets, a 25m seine net and five fishing rods so nothing will escape us.

 

The main way of getting to the islands is on a boat called the Scillonian. I have to confess to being slightly nervous about this as I had a bad experience on a boat a few years ago from which I still bear the mental scars. On a really good day the trip takes about two and half hours and the passengers can expect to see whales, dolphins, ocean sunfish and basking sharks frolicking alongside the boat. On a bad day things aren't so jolly. I just Googled "scillonian vomit" and got 6,110 results, the first of which is titled "Scillonian Pukefest" and apparently the boat is also known as the "Vomit Rocket". Ah, how bad can it be? It'll be fine I'm sure when we sail on Tuesday.

 

Ok, that's it for now. Hopefully next time there will be some nice pictures of dolphins from the boat and fishes from the islands. Until the next time ...

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We have settled in to island life on the Isles of Scilly. Our digs for the next two weeks are an old bunker in the south western corner of St Mary’s with a wonderful view across to St Agnes. It is quiet and beautiful and we are surround by the spectacular atlantic ocean.

 

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The view out onto the Atlantic Ocean

 

Our trip is part of a project led by Mark Spencer, Senior Curator of the British and Irish Herbarium at the Natural History Museum. The Isles of Scilly are a unique and stunning environment and they contain common and rare and (in some cases) invasive species - Mark’s work here aims to enrich the Museum's collection of British and European plants and animals with recent material.

 

This will fill gaps in our collections and make sure they cover a continuous span of time right up to the present day. Often, we don’t know how a collection will be used in future and they can play a key role in research. By keeping a collection like the one at the Museum, we have access to the information locked inside the specimens which could be used to answer questions on environmental change and other, similarly huge issues in the future.

 

The rest of the science team are arriving later in the week so, as an introduction to the island (and to find something to eat), Mark led us on a foraging tour of St Mary’s.

 

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Mark Spencer looking for plants on St. Mary's to cook for supper

 

We found a whole host of amazing (and delicious) species, more than enough for supper. It should be said that we found a lot more edible species that we didn’t collect. It is important to understand a plant's role in the ecosystem and environment and some plants were too rare, or delicate to collect. Mark has an excellent knowledge of the local flora and it is important to really understand an area before harvesting anything from the wild as well as having permission for anything you want to collect.

 

 

I think it is safe to say if you’re in doubt, leave it in the ground. Not only does this protect the environment but also saves any potential poisoning (so don't try this at home unless you know what you are doing!). We passed lots of species that are absolutely deadly including whole fields of hemlock water dropwort, which is exceptionally poisonous.

 

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The exceptionally poisonous hemlock water dropwort (Oenanthe crocata) - not part of our supper later in the day!

 

Having said that, when in the company of an expert like Mark, the natural world explodes with interest and intrigue. Every plant has story and history and a whole world of edible possibilities is opened up.

 

scilly-day-1-image-4.jpgThe basis of our supper, all harvested from the wild.

 

Later in the day we cooked up our foraged plants - finding things that are good, or interesting, to eat is always great fun and the meal at the end of the day was blooming delicious.

 

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For the next two weeks I am fortunate to be joining a Museum field trip to the Isles of Scilly, 30 miles off the southwest corner of Cornwall. Alongside my Nature Live colleague Ana Rita Rodrigues and Media Technician Tony Vinhas, we will be reporting back from the trip in daily posts and organizing live-video-links to for 4-days-worth of Nature Live events in the Museum's Attenborough Studio.

 

If you want to experience the project live and direct come to the Attenborough Studio for one of the following events, and keep checking the blog for updates:

 

 

All the events are are free to attend (as is entry to the Museum) and each will last 30 mins. You’ll be able to see and talk live to scientists in the field, see specimens collected during the trip and meet a Museum scientist in the studio.

 

The team in the Isles of Scilly comprises scientists studying topics as varied as flowering plants, fishes, lichens and flies! I will introduce the different scientists and their areas of specialism over the coming days but for now - to set the scene - here are some photos the trip's leader, Mark Spencer, took last time he visited the islands.

 

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They are clearly exceptionally beautiful, a fact that makes the involvement of the National Association for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty even more pertinent and this collaborative project will strive to further our understanding of these incredible islands.

 

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I am so excited to be visiting the islands and to be accompanying the team. Spending any time with our scientists is an education in the natural world and two weeks exploring a stunning part of the world with such experts is a very exiting prospect. On a more personal note, I am also very pleased to be able to relive one of my Dad’s dinner time stories. Many a family meal have been the forum for a retelling of the old man’s ‘best ever, EVER dream. In his own words ...

 

‘At some point it the 70s, or was it the 80s(?), I was in Bryher in the Isles of Scilly. Half way through a walk around the island I lay down on the beach for a nap. During the dream that followed I became a professional tennis player and managed, against all odds, to win Wimbledon. Having raised the trophy and flushed with pride, I woke up and finished my walk.'

 

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Some say he [my dad] never fully woke up from that nap on the Isles of Scilly ...

 

See you again next week when we will all have arrived!

 

Tom

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It was only a matter of time: yesterday morning CENAPRED (Mexico's National Centre for the Prevention of Disasters) raised the alert level on Popo from yellow phase 2 to 3. This is the third highest warning on the seven step scale.

 

The Mexican newspaper, La Jornada reported almost a week of 'high amplitude tremors, with persistent emission of ash and gas that reached over 3.5m above the crater.' Incandescent fragments rising up to a kilometre high issue from Popo at present, where our team stood 5,000m up back in February. I ponder this as I type to you from the safety of the terracotta 'womb' of our beloved Museum.

 

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Popo during quieter times in February. Dave, Chiara and Hugo survey their impending climb.

 

Who best to contact than Chiara, who knows more than most about the psychology of this restless giant? Following the recent activity of volcanic tremors and earthquakes she explained that, 'In the last couple of weeks, the dome has been destroyed. The caldera [a cauldron like feature, formed by the land collapsing after an eruption] is full to the brim and the fear is that lava may begin to flow outside the rim.'

 

There are currently no plans to evacuate but she said, ' The area within which you cannot go has been extended. At least until we know which of the two scenarios will now happen.'  By this, Chiara refers to Popo returning to a normal level of activity or continuing this temptestuous episode.

 

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A letter to Popo. If you're going to erupt, don't do it without me. 

 

'It's very hard to tell what will happen at the moment. Popo is a very dangerous volcano.' It's here that despite being on the telephone in another part of the Museum, I sense that smile crossing her lips. The one I remember from our fieldwork in Mexico in February. ' I sent an article about this to Dave last week,' she continues, 'I told him what we need to do right now. Is to go back ...'

 

Watch this space to see how things develop!

 

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It's taken a while for me to get back into the swing of things after my return to London, but at long last here's what happened on the last few, hectic days in Mexico, which included one last day in the field to collect our final samples:

 

A 05:00 start was a harsh way to take on the most challenging climb of the trip but by then Chiara and Dave were ready. Although as they trooped out to the jeep, heavy limbed, it was hard to discern that they knew it. Your devoted reporter remained on the bench in Amecameca on the basis of a four-only-in-the-jeep rule; jealous of the landscapes the rest of Team Popo would see and the last chance at such physical endeavour.

 

I wanted to leave town exhausted but I'd just have to leave educated and elated instead. On writing and curation duties, I was to source rock-packing materials, a somewhat vital task, so was spurred on in the role. In preparation, I demolished huevos rancheros and set off with the sun on my face, a less than ideal command of the language and immense purpose.

 

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Forget what you know about eating fried eggs, tortillas, cream and green chilli sauce at different times.

 

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When riding other animals, it's customary to do it contraflow to heavy traffic. 

 

My insight into the last day of scientific field work on Popo came as the team arrived back at base early in the evening. They looked at the peak of their exhaustion. We dined quietly but when asked how the day went, Dave gave a dazzling smile and explained how in his element he was. 'Where did your energy come from?' I asked. 'I don't know, he replied. It was some kind of euphoria. I just kept on going, following my body rhythms.'

 

Reaching their highest altitude yet of 4,474m, Chiara too had a strong final day in the field. She described how for her, Hugo had set the pace and by 'making small footsteps in his wake', she could maintain the energy to make it. 'Without Hugo, I would have failed,' she said, with what's become her trademark grin and shrug of the shoulders. 

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Hugo: Two steps ahead and a dab hand with a 5kg mallet. He's a field work essential.

 

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Popo: Quietly cultivating a 50-a-day smoking habit.

 

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Beautiful Monarchs converge on an outcrop.

 

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I'll name that layer in one.


Chiara's research will very much depend on the data she generates once she's tested these samples back at the Museum. However, as the week progressed it's clear Dave can already see how his work here will enhance the Museum's collections. The Popo samples from this trip will have context of the type he rarely sees in the collection, with his photographs and field sketches giving an exact visual of the make-up of each outcrop.

 

This, along with the GPS and field notes places the sample more firmly at it's location and - to fully understand Popo - this helps immensely. 'It was also great to get back into making sketches,' he says. 'To be here to collect from the source is invaluable. I have much more to information to offer those wanting to use these collections now.'

 

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Dave tells me his drawings have been 'enhanced' by years of doodling with his two kids.


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Local dining requires rapid response paperware.... In truth, our visit to procure more packaging for the specimens.

 

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Amecameca prepares for a two week festival as we depart (a coincidence?)

 

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I don't know what he's selling but I want one.

 

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Lost Highway: Laden with rocks, Dave and Chiara's taxi takes ten wrong turns too many. Mostly to the right.

 

If any of you have seen the film, The Canonball Run, you will have some insight into the way Mexican highways and byways work. As Chiara and Dave's taxi heads for Mexico City and the beginning of our journey home, we spot a car boot full of people with their legs sticking out, the vehicle swerving between traffic. My palms begin to sweat at the sight.

 

The 90 minute journey extends to a joyful five hours as the taxi gets lost and our Sat Nav diverts us to the more 'exhilarating' - i.e. terrifying - parts of town. A lifetime later, we've booked into our hotel and hit the streets of the busiest city I've ever been to and spend the evening re-living the highs and lows of the trip. The sheer volume of people traffic serves only to remind us of the dangers of Popo, a mere 70 kilometres away. It also makes me think of how vital Chiara's research could one day be in predicting their safety.

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Day five and we see a split in the team. The public engagement crew are town-bound due to our scientists traversing dangerous terrain at heights they've never been to before. I see the logic but I miss the buzz of the hike and reporting back first-hand. We travel as far as Tlamacas wth them at 06:00, me in the jeep asking them questions from UK students that are being relayed to me via phone, and all the while I'm eating a cheese and chilli sandwich. We're all tired but Dave and Chiara's day will push this exhaustion to its limit.

 

Still, it's vital to record their day for your good selves so I instruct Dave to take many photos, which you'll discover he was rather good at.

 

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Popo, you never take a bad picture.

 

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Rocky V: The return of the rugged outcrop. Actually, kinda like Stallone's face these days.

 

Chiara, Dave and Hugo cross a steep section of rocks roughly 30cm x 2m across, zig-zagging all the way. This in itself is tough going, those lungs in constant need of oxygen. But they're faced with an even steeper incline of pumice and loose ash after that and Dave gently laughs at the prospect. Slipping their way up, they are rewarded with reaching the snowline. A small patch of what once covered Popo to a greater degree, only to be reduced dramatically by the change in climate.

 

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I'm fairly convinced this isn't a water stop. Hugo only stops to collect rocks.

 

The altitude sickness has lost it's bite for now and both Dave and Chiara are doing well. At least Dave can see straight away when he gazes up without the second or two delay he's been experiencing. Through his renewed vision, he spots a bread-crust bomb and as he photographs they hear a muffled, loud BOOM! The first explosion from Popo and I'm not there [shakes fist at sky]... A plume of gas drifts over the ridge and Dave remembers this isn't a mountain, this is an active volcano. And he's close enough to the crater to feel fear for the first time since being here.

 

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The bread-crust bomb. Explain what it is or it'll break granny's teeth.

 

Meanwhile, I'd arranged to visit a local middle school in nearby San Pedro Nexapa to find out how the kids feel about living next door to Popocatepetl. The generous Gabriela and Gisela from the national park office had made this possible and as we turn into the gates I thank them. A sea of curious faces turn our way and I know from how they react we are in for a warm and funny visit.

 

Elsa, Marianna and Ana Paola had been chosen to speak with us and after shy introductions and a briefing that hopefully set them at ease, we set up camera. I didn't know what to expect as sometimes kids can be ambivalent to such real fears but the girls all showed it. They were more than aware from family members, the past dangers of Popo and, although very friendly, they were solemn on the subject. Marianna was particularly eloquent and agreed to appear with us on the live-link to the Museum's Attenborough Studio at 14:30 on Saturday (so check back with this blog as we hope that a recording of the event will be uploaded soon after).

 

Back to Popo and our scientists continue their climb ... the pumice under foot is 'Like standing on marbles' says Dave. Without poles? 'Nearly impossible.'

 

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Two more BOOMS makes eight in the trek so far. Chiara, Dave and Hugo reach as far as they are going to climb today - 4,630m - where they'll take their first sample. They can see the stratification (arranging of layers) of the lava flows as they dip down into the valley.

 

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Look at the strat on that.

 

The descent begins, back down to the snowline and Dave describes his footing as 'surfing the scree.' Much easier to slide down keeping the body stable than to scramble up it as he did earlier. He's keen to meet Chiara who's a little way off and make their way to the jeep after a 'cracking day.' Three or four more BOOMS in quick succession. Popo's really picking up the pace.

 

They descend further to 4,215m and feel the chill as the clouds descend. At an outcrop, they discover something new. A dark rock with really nice pink and white crystals of feldspar. Quite big crystals. They'd describe this as porphyritic and are both 'anxiously excited to find out why this rock is here and why it's different.'

 

The team made it back to base, safe and sound, despiite the frequent booms and rumbles that Popo made during their trek. Lee and I met them for dinner after a brilliantly guided visit by Gabriela to The Hacienda de Panoaya; home to a zoo, the international museum of the volcanoes, and a museum honoring Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (Mexican nun and writer), who lived here during her childhood. Lee finished our visit in style with a post-lunch zipwire, crying out the word for 'mud' in Spanish to impress Gabriela with his learning.

 

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Before I tell you about another dramatic day in the field, here's a choice clip of our base town Amecameca. Lest we forget just how interconnected Popocatepetl volcano and this cool little town's residents are.

 

(This video has no sound)

 

 

Today we travel to a station in Tlamacas, 4,000m up, and on the way the subject is raised of Thursday and Friday's 5,000m climbs. 'What do we do if someone fails?' says Chiara. Hugo discusses the severity of symptoms and probability of sickness increasing with numbers. I suddenly feel the opportunity to climb slipping away. But altitude sickness is not something you can take sole responsibility for. If you get sick, the whole team is affected. So it's clear who should stay and who should go.

 

For now though, we travel together and hit the point in the road where a deep volcanic ash becomes our path forwards. 'We can drive a little further, then we walk' says Hugo. With that, our four wheel drive tries to engage it's four wheels. On our right is a drop of say 20 metres. Our back right wheel decides the latter is the route this car is taking and Hugo's passengers lose all colour in their cheeks. I bail without hesitation and we all attempt to push the car to safety, walking boots slipping ever nearer toward the drop. Purchase achieved, our lungs recover and our nerves unjangle.

 

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Getting stuck is the pastime of a true geologist.

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Where are we? It's a landscape I've never seen before, never thought existed. 'We're on the moon,' says Dave grinning.

 

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Ash, more high altitude Sacaton and mounds of alien-looking mosses. A perfect location for a 70's Bowie video.

 

The conversation stays dark like the volcanic ash we tread as Dave shows me how to grip a walking pole so as not to break my wrists if I fall. I appreciate the technique and continue the hike to the station. My heart is racing but my pace is slow. Hey altitude, nice of you to drop by again.

 

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Chiara steams ahead on a full recovery. Last one up writes the blog.

 

We're on the south west side of Popo and as we reach 4,000m Hugo needs to inform Cenapred (National Centre for the Prevention of Disasters) of our wish to collect samples. The monitoring equipment they use will pick up our hammering and - possibly - even our footsteps. Negotiations take place and we continue.

 

Hugo points out an incredible face of bi-colour lava. 'Look at the layers, says Dave. 'Shows incredible flow.' Hugo, armed with hammer smashes clean samples for everyone. 'It's between 1,300 to 2,000 years old. Two generations of magma, perhaps. 'The excitement is palpable, our dark thoughts are shifted.

 

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Undeniably beautiful but I wouldn't want to carry a slab at 4,000m.

 

On our ascent to the station we see some fabulous scoria. One of the major igneous rocks, lightweight and extrusive. I'm sure I see Dave skip. And there were definitely three 'awesomes' as he surveyed the rocks. But we'd not collected any as the ascent seemed our goal. We want some now, especially a large specimen we'd all cooed over.

 

To get it we need to descend and it's steep, loose and a little scary to Chiara and I. 'As we Italians say, 'If you don't have head, you give leg!' she says which means we have to go back and get it. 'It's FINE. Let's do a scree run,' says Dave nonchalantly. I check my walking pole straps to ensure non-breakage of wrists and we run down the slope after Dave who, arms outsretched and invigorated is shouting, 'Easy!' 

 

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Altitude-enhanced snack packaging. Never gets old.

 

I've brought with me a friend's backpack that she took to Everest. Its roomy to say the least. I offer it up for the collection of the big scoria. Proudly I carry what Dave and Chiara were sure would make it into the Museum's collections or possibly a gallery. Ten glorious minutes of hefting it, then I beg Dave to carry it.

 

 

Before we head back to the jeep, we survey Friday's climb. The ten hour hike. We've fared very well today, quite elated stomping down from the station. Not even tamales can prepare the team for what's to come.

 

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"It's so close, let's do it now," says Chiara.
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It's Tuesday and Chiara's much better this morning as we live-link to host Ivvet and scientist Epi at the Museum for our first public Nature Live of the trip. Tamales (corn-based-dough steamed in a leaf wrapper) are on the way and we're all delighting in the semi-precious-looking hailstones that scatter the ground at the foot of Popo and it's neighbouring volcano Iztaccihuatl. Let's call it Izta, its less fun but easier.

 

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Jealous of our Popo climb, another team prepare for Izta. The dogs wear neckerchiefs. A nice touch.

 

Today we explore a canyon and our hire car (no four wheel drives available) can only make it so far. We stop and jump in the jeep for a kidney pounding ride to where our hike will begin. Like the day before the terrain is rough. We follow a river and climb boulders, fallen trees, loose rocks and wet, shoe-swallowing sand.

 

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Tamales. Don't hike for hours without one.

 

Midway to the end point of the canyon, I hear an almighty splash. A woman down. A hand outstretches toward me as I'm catching up fast. It's clutching a black object which is thrust into my hand. It's Chiara, having taken a tumble, choosing first to save her fieldwork notebook. Next is the smartphone and finally it's Chiara. Laughing, unhurt and undeterred she continues.

 

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Chiara resists the urge to shower a la I'm a Celebrity.

 

I can see a change in the expressions of Dave and Chiara. These are good rocks. Really good rocks. We stop and the equipment comes out. Hugo and Dave explore the furthest part of what now appears to be a dyke.

 

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You shin up that wet slippery trunk, I'll shoot.

 

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A beautiful outcrop of lava. Chiara examines and collects.

 

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Bright fungi nestle in fallen trunks.

 

Ever increasing his altitude, Hugo jumps down to join in the rock collecting. He agrees it's a fine bed of rock and grabs an appropriate hammer.

 

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He'd make a mess of your Christmas nutbowl but Hugo can crack you a terrific rock sample.

 

As I stumble around attempting to look agile I spot our first insect of the trip. Entomologists please assist with this brightly coloured and handsome individual.

 

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The team collect at many points back toward the jeep. A tiring hike but a very fruitful one. Silica-rich Dacite of a lovely quality. Also, on these cliff faces, where the river cuts-in, is a portion that interests them greatly.

 

Dave tells me it's where volcanic breccia meets andacite. For those of you new to geology what's exciting about these two rocks is how they've met. At some point after the magma has risen the breccia has been thrown out of the top and spilled out over the edge. Once they point this out, it's clear to see. You begin to feel the movement and energy of a now still material and see these different areas within one rock face. It's really very cool.

 

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Breccia and andacite meet (just next to Hugo's foot)

 

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We return to the jeep, picking thistles from our behinds like characters in a Warner Bros cartoon. There's discussion about an even more challenging day tomorrow.

 

Looming large is the 10 hour hike to our last outcrop on Friday. But tomorrow's not Friday and I put it to the back of my mind. We're a few days in and I'm keen to go through the samples with Chiara and Dave to find out how they are linked and what their first thoughts are of what they've found. How do they tell you about Popo's past? And how long before science can predict eruptions? Stay tuned.

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