Going to sea is the most unique aspect of this job, and my primary duty – to go on deep-sea trawlers and collect seabird interaction data. I’m one of only three people in South Africa doing this. We are responsible for keeping our eyes peeled and our minds open but focused on the task at hand: seabirds and mitigating bycatch. Three weeks into the job, I landed on my first commercial deep-sea hake trawler.

For weeks I’d been mentally preparing to be at sea. When I tell my peers what I do reactions differ from gestures of excitement and awe to concerned looks and stern mutterings of safety at sea. I had done my safety at sea course, and it was not comforting. After learning about everything that could go wrong, and one day most likely will, my overly-active paranoia began to invade my thoughts.

But then the day came, and Bronwyn (our team leader) accompanied me on my first trip at sea, to train me in everything from seabird identification to how to conduct BMPs (Bird Mitigation Plans) and lastly, but importantly, how to communicate and mingle with the crew. Bronwyn did a great job, it’s clear she’s been doing this for a while, and doing it well. From the moment I boarded the ship, I was relaxed and ready.

I had been on a research vessel conducting trawls before, I was aware of seabirds and general life at sea. But life at sea is a metaphorical box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get. Everything can change – the weather, the fishing, the birds, the food, the seasickness… everything. But unlike being on land, there’s mostly nothing you can do about it. I was prepared for this.

And it was the most chilled, calm trip Bronwyn and most of the crew have ever experienced! The weather was kind, and calm seas rocked the boat gently, with not a white horse in sight. It was hot! The sun was shining with only a light breeze. Not only did I not get seasick, but it helped the bird scaring lines (BSLs) be highly effective preventing any interactions! At the stern of the boat we are able to monitor the BSLs and warp cables whilst recording bird counts and seabird interactions with the cables. I was really impressed to see the BSLs being deployed correctly and seeing how they work in reality.

Below: A crew member deploys the bird scaring line from the stern of the trawl vessel

It was interesting to see the pecking order (that term makes so much sense now!), how the great shearwaters were chased by the yellow-nosed albatrosses, who were chased by the shy albatrosses, and so on. The squabbling birds fought over a single hake head, while many more floated around them. I watched how the birds instinctively steamed towards a fish, and suddenly withdrew as they saw the BSLs. These measures are really effective, and it’s a brilliantly simple solution to the seabird bycatch issue.

Below: Seabirds squabble over fish discards behind the trawl vessel

We spoke with the crew, asked them about life at sea, and engaged with them about seabirds and other interesting sightings. The crew were familiar with the ATF and I was impressed with their awareness of the birds. Conducting a harbour visit after the trip, a skipper told me he likes the birds, “they are my companions at sea”. I got the same impression from the crew. They told me when “the little black birds come, you know it’s going to be bad weather”, they were talking of the pintado (Cape) petrels, which mark the onset of winter and the rough seas that accompany it. I loved their anecdotes, and felt the previous ATF instructors had made an impact on them, making them aware of the birds and our mission to prevent the extinction of albatrosses and petrels.

On the last day the crew’s nervous giggles evolved to proper conversations as they became comfortable with us. Their mission was to teach us how to fillet a hake, and we had the great opportunity to witness what goes on in the fish factory under the decks of the trawler. It’s important to know the entire process of the trawl, from setting the nets, the hauling, to the processing. By carefully observing each step, we are able to make vessel-specific changes that aid seabird mitigation. The factory was fascinating! Each person worked hard and fast, being assigned to a specific job – sorting the fish, gutting it, quality control, packing.  The energy was high, and I was taken aback by how much manual labour and hard work goes into harvesting our seafood. I appreciate every piece of fish even more now, and always look for the MSC certification. It was a fantastic experience and I thoroughly look forward to actively participating and contributing to seabird conservation off the South African coastline.

Below: Chrissie amongst the crew on the forecastle deck