In July 2011 Cape Farewell embarked on a month-long expedition by boat across the Scottish Islands, bringing the notion and experience of expedition home to the UK, with an exploration of island ecologies and cultures, and of the strategies for sustainable and resilient futures being implemented across the Scottish Isles. More ›

The Crew

The expedition crew of 40 includes island artists, storytellers, film makers, playwrights, architects, designers, musicians, community leaders, social scientists, ecologists, marine biologists, oceanographers, poets, acclaimed Gaelic singers and a chef.
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Video highlights

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Searching for chalky waters

The search for plankton continues, this time in between the network of islands that form the Hebrides Archipelago. Maria and I have been sampling seawater to analyze the carbon chemistry and other environmental factors and, at the same time, we have been searching for microscopic plants or ‘plankton’. We are hoping to find the remains of a huge ‘bloom’ that started weeks ago west of where we are. These blooms are sudden increases in the number of cells in seawater caused by having just the perfect conditions of light and food. Cells start dividing very rapidly to form tides of such dimensions that can cover hundreds of thousands of square kilometers at one time. This signal can be detected from space with the application of satellite technology, which can distinguish the fluorescence signal of these microscopic plants from their chloroplasts, where they use light energy and carbon to make chlorophyll. So here we are sampling in waters guided by satellite maps of chlorophyll from Plymouth Marine Laboratory to see spots of planktonic life.

This year we are studying coccolithophores or rather their beautifully crafted plates, the coccoliths. These organisms are tiny microscopic plants that live in the ocean surface using sunlight and carbon dioxide in seawater to make organic carbon. But coccolithophores can make another type of carbon in the form of calcium carbonate in a process termed calcification and this, together with photosynthesis, makes the “biological carbon pump”. The extent to which plankton make carbon in the ocean surface changes over the year and right now is the last chance for coccolithophores and other sea micro-critters to grow, divide and form large ‘blooms’, before the end of summer time to make most of the bright months. These blooms cover hundreds of thousands of square kilometers and so the amount of carbon exported to the ocean floor increases dramatically over these annual events. It is truly extraordinary that these invisible life forms can make such a contribution to the Earth’s ways to balance the flow of carbon between the atmosphere, the upper ocean and the ocean interior.

Sampling was challenging in the wind but we managed to deploy the Niskin bottle over the stern of the boat to bring to the surface seawater from 10 m, from which we took our samples. Now it’s time to pack and, in a few weeks, we will know whether these samples have any remains of the coccolithophore bloom that formed west of the Shetlands and what the carbon dioxide levels are in these waters. Our work will add to the body of studies looking at how these chalky plates will be preserved in increasingly carbon dioxide-rich waters. This preservation is important because the formation of these and other chalky plates is in fact the largest reservoir of carbon in the Earth over periods of thousands of years. A concern is that, as a consequence of the increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that enters seawater and combines with it to form carbonic acid in a process termed ocean acidification, these plates may dissolve. Although laboratory experiments have explored the responses of these and other chalk-producing organisms to increasing carbon dioxide over the last few decades, field-testing of laboratory results is fundamental to understand the response of marine life to climate change. It is only at sea that we can conduct our tests with the interactions of other organisms like bacteria, and zooplankton and also under the influence of fluctuating light and water flows. The questions that we pose are central to understanding the role of the oceans in balancing carbon in the Earth, particularly at a time when the rate of change is extraordinary, probably the fastest over the last 55 million years. However, the ocean is an extremely dynamic environment where the conditions and the animals and plants living in it can change in time scales of minutes. But despite these challenges, working in teams with expertise on disciplines including chemistry, biology, physics, and looking at the geological past is the way forward to forming a holistic view of how marine life adapts to environmental change. Having sailed with artists has helped me understand the interfaces and reciprocal influences between society and climate change through the eyes of sculptors, architects, poets and photographers. Dialogue between these two similar worlds, arts and science, requires constant questioning of reality and revisiting paradigms. This has been another year of learning in an environment where I get to interact with different brains with different perceptions and ideas. I feel lucky again to share my excitement about the little creatures that keep me obsessed and understanding the ways that invisible life controls the health of the Earth.

Author: Debora Iglesias-Rodriguez


Joins the expedition for week 4 Dr. Debora Iglesias-Rodriguez is a biological oceanographer working at the National Oceanography Centre of the University of Southampton.
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Sea Change Programme

Puffin from the Bird Yarns project, part of Cape Farewell's Sea Change programme.
Grown out of the Scottish Islands Expedition, Cape Farewell’s Sea Change is a four-year programme of research and making across Scotland’s western and northern isles. Sea Change involves over 30 UK and international artists and scientists, working collaboratively and independently to consider the relationships between people, places and resources in the context of climate change.... Read more ›

A timely reminder of how valuable an outsider’s perspective can be

Community Energy Scotland’s annual conference offered a timely reminder of how valuable an outsider’s perspective can be.  It was reported on some research into how different countries are taking forward the development of renewable energy. The study looks at several European countries including Scotland, as well as five states in America. The most striking feature... Read more ›

First there was an island – then there was a boat

Shiants 2
“First there was an island – then there was a boat”, so begins a poem by Shetland writer Laureen Johnston.  Since owning my first boat at the age of eleven, I have been an obsessive explorer of islands, the smaller and more remote the better.  Once, in the grip of a sudden attack of aquatic... Read more ›

‘On these isles’

Lawrence has a 7am coffee break after feeding cattle.
‘On these isles’ is a project by photographer Ed Smith, whom we had the great pleasure of meeting when visiting the Island of Eigg. Ed has spent large periods of time on Eigg and other Inner Hebridean isles capturing life there in pictures. Have a look at more of his images and this project at... Read more ›

A gaelic song

Mary Jane Lamond, Jo Royle and Julie Fowlis Video by Ruth Little

Cape Farewell – we know what to do, can art help us get on and do it?

The following is an excerpt from Sara Parkin’s article found on the Forum for the Future website. …I was fortunate enough to join the crew for one week of a four week tour of Scottish Islands, starting with Skye and Canna before crossing the Minch to Mingulay, Barra and South Uist. The weather was kind,... Read more ›

Islands and Visions

Eigg Barbecue on Song of the Whale
There is a sea view when travelling from Eigg to Mallaig where you have a 360° vision of the Small Isles, Skye, the mountains of Scotland, Mull and, far into the distance, the Outer Hebrides. At 6 am yesterday the grey of the sea bled into the numerous blues of the mountains all dramatised by... Read more ›

Annie Cattrell and Jo Shapcott in conversation about week 4 of the expedition

Annie 1
JS Annie, what is it about islands? AC I like the fact that there’s a larger proportion of sea than land mass visible. There appears to be a completeness and self-sufficiency about the individual islands even though they are all distinctly different. There seems to be a big distinction between uninhabited and inhabited islands –... Read more ›


Photo by Sion Parkinson
(1) On the crossing from Ullapool to Stornaway on the Calmac, I wrote myself a list of rules, a set of behaviours that would concentrate my efforts, or assuage any guilt from any feelings of impotence, in my seven days aboard the ship. (1.1) Rules: (1.1.1) Take photographs, more than you need to, get in... Read more ›


Cotton Grass marking  Dwelling Rona
It was my birthday when I went to Rònaidh first. A place I wanted to see since I was little but I had always missed the boat. It is about forty miles north of my house near the Butt of Lewis. I went on the sixth of August aged thirty eight on the yacht ‘Song... Read more ›

Mary Arnold-Forster

Skye architect Mary shows the house of Fred Taylor she designed and reflects on the progress on Eigg and other green based aspirations for the islands architecture and energy supply.   Video shot by David Buckland     Sketches by Mary Arnold-Forster

Farewell and Ahoy: Log of a Voyage

Photo by Mary Smith
“Back in the kitchen.  A new group has joined Song of the Whale. There is an overlap of crew, Cape Farewell folk, and the artists and scientists who will sail together this coming week. They are planning to sail to North Rona, the Shiants and the coasts of Skye. But I’ve left the ship though... Read more ›