by Ndamona Mateus – ATF Project Assistant
” I was the only female on board and that in itself just shows that we are capable of doing it all”
Being at sea is an extraordinary experience, there are many tales about being at sea, but nobody knows until they have a first-hand experience. I have been at sea several times before on research vessels, however, this was my first time working on a commercial fishing vessel. Here, it’s all about getting the job done- “man at work” as they would put it. A crew of 26 including my colleague Titus Shaanika who was showing me the ropes of being an ATF instructor. I was the only female on board and that in itself just shows that we are capable of doing it all.
We boarded the vessel on Sunday (11-07-2021) at around 20h00 CAT and we were welcomed by individual crew members as we boarded. Titus, introduced me to the captain and officers, he is well known for his work on this particular fishing vessel, this was his 3rd trip with F/V Harvest Nicola. The captain gave me seasickness medications and immune boosters. As the ship sailed, a mayday drill was called for all of us on board at the muster station. Having completed sea safety training two weeks ago, I understood the value of drills.
The next day, as the fishermen deployed their fishing gear, Titus, explained what I needed to do, the list included how to record seabird bycatch and mitigation data and the safety measures. “Let’s identify birds”, He said. There were plenty of birds, even though I had participated in coastal birds count before, I knew the characteristics of birds. However, these were different birds, I looked out and all I could see was a load of black birds and white birds – funny right? and though I had a guidebook it was still found this exercise challenging. Titus, described the birds one by one, pointing out their unique characteristics and life history, it was incredibly helpful. My favorite bird was the Shy Albatross. It is so graceful as if it puts effort into how it looks before setting off for foraging.
As the 1st hauling started, I was familiar with what to do, but it was, nevertheless, a lot to take in. During the 4th haul of the day, there appeared a lot of small birds, “oh! I think we’re going to have bad weather soon”, Titus said in a concerned tone. I asked how he would possibly know that, he then proceeded and said “you see those small birds they are called Wilson’s storm petrels they often appear when it’s about to get rough”. We then headed to the mess room for data entry, before we headed to bed around 21h00 CAT as we started feeling the effect of rough seas.
We had bad weather for 3 consecutive days (12th-14th, 07.2021). Limited work was done as it was too risky. On every vessel, safety always comes first and it was thus difficult for anyone to stay on their feet and work as the vessel rocked and rolled. The food was great, but the biliousness negatively affected my appetite. The immune boosters and seasick pills were indispensable, but homesickness set in quickly.
On day 5 (15-07-2021), the bad weather eventually ended, and we could resume our ATF responsibilities. Mini rainbows where forming over splashes from the vessels wake, it was a beautiful sight, we tried to capture them, as Titus showed me a few tricks of photographing birds, he emphasized the importance of taking quality pictures, as it helps with record-keeping and reporting. On day six (16-07-2021), the routine was standard, and the work went smoothly. The pleasant weather, meant staying up on the stern for much longer to familiarize myself with the birds, sun basking and enjoying the fresh air. Something you get to appreciate more on a relatively small fishing vessel as the hallways below deck are concentrated with a strong smell of fish and kitchen steams, a smell that takes some time to get used to.
The crew often enjoy free time on the front deck between sets. We take advantage of this and talk to them about Tori lines and ATF work. Talking to them is always informative and hilarious at the same time, I learned a lot from them besides seabird bycatch.
On Monday morning 19-07-2021, we were all excited to be headed home after a good drag. We reached Walvis Bay at 21H00 after sailing for 8-hours from the fishing grounds just west of Walvis Bay. Having had such an enriching experience, I am glad to be ready to undertake my many solo seabird bycatch mitigation missions.