Humpback whales put on a show

Conducting research in the Antarctic is extremely interesting as every day brings obstacles and special encounters with both the physical environment or the biology that surrounds us.

For example in recent cruise we saw nature revealed in two amazing ways. In the Bransfield Strait we were collecting krill and moving along from station to station. Towards the afternoon, as we approached a station to begin sampling, a Humpback whale began to swim near the ship. Within 20 minutes we were amazed to see more and more Humpback whales arrive and begin spy hopping, tail flapping and diving under the ship. As more and more scientists and crew went to the deck to observe these whales (all ideas about sampling immediately suspended) the whales also seemed to become more animated as if they were as excited to see us as we were to see them. This response has been described by many people but it never ceases to amaze.
During the same cruise we endured the awesome power of the physical environment when storms arrived. Winds in the Antarctic during summer are usually relatively low except when storms come through. In this particular year, after seeing the power of the biggest animals on the planet, the barometer started a frightening decline with a corresponding increase in the winds and waves. What looked like a normal storm continued to increase in intensity such that we tried to shelter in Deception Island, the famous caldera that has been used as shelter for a hundred years. Rather than declining, the winds continued to intensify and  the captain, who tried many times to anchor within the bay to no avail, finally drove the bow of the ship onto the forgiving volcanic sand shores and kept the propellers and the engine engaged. We stayed attached to the beach for several hours while the storm passed.

By the next morning, a bright sun, calm winds and declining seas enabled us to get back to work, wondering why we are fortunate to see and experience such amazing beauty and power in such different ways.

Less concentrated pressure on penguins


Extreme mobility of fur seals equal less concentrated pressure on penguins during breeding season

There was a strong El Nino this year, a climactic event that can dramatically change the weather patterns in the areas which we work.  Compared to my previous (non El-Nino) field season, the mortality rate in chicks was considerable due to strong cold winds and large amounts of snow and sub-zero temperatures, leading to many adult penguins simply abandoning their nests and heading to sea.  Unfortunately, this also included a number of our instrumented birds, resulting in the loss of the devices and the data they contained.  However, we managed to describe Chinstrap and Adelie penguin foraging behavior during the breeding season for a second season.  These data are critical in seeing how unpredictable climactic events such as El Nino impact breeding penguin foraging ecology, and in turn how these events must be considered when managing the krill fishery.  

We had expected that the fur seals would conduct at-sea feeding trips in the waters around the South Orkneys, and had hoped to be able to see the overlap between the seals and penguins, to determine whether the seasonal influx of male fur seals competed with and put stress on penguins already having to work hard to feed hungry chicks.  Some seals did, however a large proportion of the instrumented seals moved further south and west, travelling over 1,000km down the west Antarctic Peninsula as far as Adelaide Island.  This extreme mobility of fur seals means that the ecological pressure exerted on krill stocks is spread across the entire region, overlapping with commercial fishing areas and penguin breeding colonies throughout the peninsula.  The seal transmitters will continue to provide data for many months, allowing us to look in-depth at how adult male fur seals spend their time between breeding seasons.

Working with the whales

Photo: One Ocean Expedition

Photo: One Ocean Expedition

Every year, month, week, and day in Antarctica is different. From year to year the whole timbre of the landscape can change with the ice conditions. From day to day the weather can turn on a dime and turn a peaceful and tranquil vista into a dark and wind-battered curtain of snow. Through it all, the animals that make this place home weather the storm and we must do the same.  
Working with whales requires an ingredient list that would rival a witches brew. We need to have whales, whales behaving in a manner that allows us to get close to them, daylight, calm seas, little wind, a platform to work from, etc.  When these things all line up we have to be ready to take advantage of the time and work efficiently.  Once these elements come together we focus our efforts.
This morning, we have calm seas, fair winds and a glorious display of morning light filling the sky at 4 am.  The horizon is peppered with the blows of humpback whales, the 20 foot-tall columns of vaporized water hanging above the sea for a few seconds offers evidence of where the whales were.  At least 15-20 on a quick scan from the bridge of the ship. This is the perfect opportunity for us to work. I prepare our biopsy gear, satellite and suction cup tags and assemble the team for an early morning on the water. We talk about our goals; we would like to deploy a multi-sensor suction cup recording tag to understand the fine-scale movement and foraging patterns of the whales for 24 hours, deploy a long-term satellite tag that will show us the movement patterns of the animal throughout the entire feeding season, and collect a number of biopsy samples that will elucidate the population from which these whales came as well as if they are male or female.
From the small inflatable boat, I direct the driver from a pulpit that sits above the pontoons and always be a slightly higher view from which to see the whales and a platform to lean out just enough to tag the animals. We find a number of animals bubble-net feeding, creating spiraling circles of bubbles underwater to concentrate or aggregate the krill and then lunging up through the center with mouths agape to feed on the small crustaceans. When the whales do this, it is obvious where they are likely to come up and once they do, they are trapped at the surface for half a minute while they sift all of the water out of their mouths before going down once again for another foraging bout. We slowly approach a bubble net as it forms at the surface and when the whales come up, we idle in their direction. I communicate with the driver where the whales are and where we need to position ourselves to place the suction cup tag on the whale’s back.  When it arches to dive, the whale shows us a fine piece of real estate and with a gentle thwack, I place the tag on the whale.  The tag sits at the end of a 25-ft carbon fiber pole that looks like a giant magic wand and it does not take much effort to place the tag on. As soon as the tag is deployed my graduate student collects a small skin and blubber biopsy sample using a crossbow and customized tip that takes a small sample about the size of a pencil eraser.  
Once the tag is deployed we can listen for it with a VHF antenna and receiver. Whenever the tag is above the surface (either on the whale or once it has fallen off and floats) we hear a signal and can keep track of the whale’s location. We spend the rest of the morning following the blows in the early morning air and collecting biopsy samples. The tag will stay on the whale for about 24 hours and then fall off. When it does, we use the tracking gear to locate it and retrieve it. The data are stored on the tag so we have to get it back in order to get the data. When we do it is a flurry of downloading, running code, and generating figures. Our tag is out now, on a humpback whale maneuvering through the icy depths.  When we retrieve it, we will see the motion of the whale, count how many times, where, and when it feeds and how these massive ocean giants make a living in the Antarctic.


Not your everyday morning

Our days are sufficiently different that there is always something new to contend with.  Waking up one morning with the usual caffeine craving and bodily needs after being in a tent for 12 hours, to find that during the night a series of obstacles have been placed in your way.  The first comes in the form of a noise immediately outside your one and only exit from the tent.  It sounds like the kind of snoring that only comes from a very large seal that is very much asleep.  This one thought that my tent was a great windbreak and decided to move in.  Trying to poke a seal awake with a boot merely results in the seal opening an eye and looking at you. Poke a bit more, and he gets the message that he isn’t welcome, yet in his eyes he is much bigger than the small boot protruding from the tent.  Adult male fur seals will try to avoid fights which can result in serious injuries, and in a confrontation the smaller of the two combatants will normally back down.  Unfortunately, the combatant connected to the small boot needs a pee, so he isn’t backing down.  After a lot of snorting, growling and poking at each other, the seal begrudgingly moves just enough for me to get out.  Obstacle #1 complete.  Seals in front of the cooking tent coupled with frozen water provide obstacles #2 and #3 which are overcome on a daily basis, allowing us to start the day.

Step by step, penguin by penguin

Photo: Frank Grebstad

Photo: Frank Grebstad

Unlike the first trip to Powell Island that revolved around instrumenting penguins, we are now tasked with working on Antarctic fur seals, the pygoscelid penguins (Adelie, Chinstrap and Gentoo’s) and southern elephant seals. Consequently, our days are naturally varied, as the work we are able to do is dictated by the weather conditions.  I shall go through in increasing order of complexity the processes by which we collect data on these animals

Southern Elephant seals:

Step #1: approach the front of a sleeping 500-1,500kg adult male elephant seal with a pair of tweezers

Step #2: secure tweezers around one whisker, and pluck.

Step #3: move backwards very quickly as the (now wide-awake) elephant seal wonders what the hell you are doing.

Simple.  But it is a test of nerve to walk up to an enormous animal with very large teeth armed with nothing but tweezers.  However, the information we get from the whisker is considerable; using chemicals that are deposited in the whisker as it grows, we are able to determine what and when (to within a few months) the animal ate.  This is crucial information, as these animals spend over 9 months a year at sea and are therefore extremely hard to observe.

Penguins (all):

Step #1: Pick up a penguin.  Preferably not an angry one, but calm ones are quite rare.

Step #2: Attach transmitters to the back of the penguin (GPS and dive recorders, both combined are about the size of a small box of matches).  This requires a small amount of superglue, some waterproof tape and is generally completed in under a few minutes.

Step #3: Release for 5-10 days

Step #4: Recapture the penguin (by spending many hours stood freezing next to a penguin colony until it decides to come back home, then run around like an idiot trying to catch something that can outsprint you and is only 40cm tall).

Step #5: Remove the devices

Step #6: Repeat at least 40-50 times on individuals from each species throughout the two month period, so you cover the three stages of breeding (egg incubation, chick care and chick fledging)

When the penguin is recaptured we also take a small blood sample, to help us describe what the individual ate during its foraging trip using the same chemical markers as found in the elephant seal whiskers.  The information from the blood combined with the location data forms a very powerful dataset telling us where and on what the penguin ate at very fine scales.

Post-breeding male Antarctic fur seals

Instrumenting these animals is the most complicated procedure we do, and consequently required the best weather conditions – why will become very apparent.

Step #1: select a suitably-sized (sleeping) adult male fur seal, weighing between 100-200kg.  At a distance of 20-30m, use a dart gun to remotely-inject the animal with a sedative.  Allow 5-10minutes for the drug to take effect before approaching the animal.

Step #2: approach with a portable gas anesthesia machine, a capture net and a very large stick.  Hopefully, if you have given the correct (weight-determined) dosage the animal will be sufficiently sedated that you can simply place the anesthetic mask on and maintain the level of anesthesia.  If you haven’t, then you have a bit of a struggle with a very unhappy seal, a net, and three grown men trying to physically restrain the animal and complete the sedation.  In very cold weather, the gaseous anesthetic would not vaporize efficiently, so we were unable to work.

Step #3: once the animal is sufficiently immobilized, including a comprehensive set of health checks (to ensure the plane of anesthesia is not too deep, that the animal is not suffering respiratory distress), we can move onto instrumentation.  A two-part epoxy glue is mixed and a “footprint” of glue the size of the base of the transmitter is applied to the back of the seal, between the two foreflippers.  The instrument is then glued in place on the back, and the glue allowed to set (which can take up to 45 minutes if the air temperature is cold enough).  While the glue is setting, a whisker is clipped from the face of the animal and a blood sample taken from its hind flipper.

Step #4: after the procedure is complete, the anesthesia is stopped and the animal allowed to recover.  We watch the animal until it has completely recovered, as other males nearby tend to like picking fights and we must protect the instrumented individual until it is capable of defending itself.  One procedure can take up to two hours to complete, and you can’t relax for a second.  We had 30 animals to instrument, so this was by far the most intense of our activities.

Being a field ecologist requires you to be able to adapt and modify equipment and procedures based on the conditions you experience, and to have the common sense and experience to know when not to push it. In spite of how simple my outlines appear, it’s an intensely complicated set of procedures we have to perform – all the time remembering these are wild animals and that we need to keep disturbance levels to a minimum.  The weather doesn’t make things any easier, with at best not working optimally and at worst simply not bothering to work at all. No two sets of circumstances are the same, and to paraphrase, “the only easy day was yesterday”

Room with a view

Photo: One Ocean Expeditions

Photo: One Ocean Expeditions

Working in polar regions, especially during summer, can be a challenge.  While life on a modern research ship is comfortable, the everlasting days and lack of night time can drain you.  With nearly constant daylight, the opportunity to search for whales and work with them never ends.  As well, the evening and early morning light are magical and one can’t help but be entranced in the pastels and vibrant colors beaming from the horizon while the sun scrapes just below it for a few minutes.

Our research vessel, the ARSV Laurence M Gould, hosts about 25 scientists and nearly that many more officers and crew.  The ship is active 24 hours a day and scientific teams generally are split into two shifts, each for 12 hours.  My team, however, is on call whenever it is light out, whenever there are whales around, and whenever we have the opportunity.  When the ship is in transit between oceanographic sampling stations, we maintain a watch on the bridge to log sightings: species, group size, location, behavior, etc.  If we come across an unusually large number of animals in a small area or have time before the next station is to occur, we take the opportunity to deploy our RHIB (rigid-hulled inflatable boat) to collect biopsy samples and deploy satellite tags.  Spending so much time on the bridge, we see all of the wonders of the Antarctic as they pas by; sea birds, seals, penguins, ice bergs, mountains, etc.  You begin to get a feel for the environment and where the whales are likely to be found.

Maintaining a schedule is important on the ship to create a sense of stability.  Meals are pretty early and the ships are well stocked with fresh foods that last for about three weeks.  After that…things become a bit more routine and less exciting.  But the galley crew do a wonderful job of keeping us well fed and healthy!  Our cabins are small but comfortable, all have bunk beds and a private bathroom with shower.  Two scientists to a cabin, a small desk and storage space for personal gear and clothes.  Most other things remain in our labs and working space.  A porthole lets us see the passing world.  It is critical to be able to shut it though and block out the constant light and sleep in darkness.  Routine is important, and on the ship we have a small gym and comfortable lounge where people can watch movies on a big TV.  There is also a satellite phone to call home and keep in touch, as well as email.  While all of the amenities help to maintain a sense of being in touch, the Antarctic is so unique that you find yourself failing to explain and express the place to friends and family in words or images.

As the whales we work with are not on a schedule or found at known locations, we work whenever they are around regardless of the time.  I average about 4 hours of sleep a day with an occasional nap.  It isn’t sustainable for more than a month or so, but well worth it!  Each evening we put together a science plan for the following day that includes, to the best of our ability, the times and locations of where we will be.  In all of my time in the Antarctic, rarely does a plan accurately forcast what we will do the next day.  The Antarctic has a way of making you change your plans constantly to adapt to the changing conditions and opportunities.

One third of the team arriving in Antarctica

During our research we are aboard research vessels. This year I was aboard the British ship the James Clark Ross. This is a world class research vessel that has berths for more than 20 scientists and laboratory spaces to conduct all manner of research. The heart of the research operations on this ship is the UIC. The underway instrumentation and control room. This is the nerve center of the science where all data streams are visualized so that decisions regarding the science program can be made. From this room, winches and deck gear can be operated allowing the sampling to be monitored. On the deck, scientists will deploy a variety of gear over the stern of the ship with the help of an excellent deck crew, all under the careful watch of the Bridge.

In general, aboard research vessels work is conducted 24 hrs a day so that people are always on shifts. Aboard the James Clark Ross this year I worked from 4 AM to 4 PM which took some adjustment! My work this cruise consisted of running acoustic data collection for krill, sampling the water properties using an instrument called the CTD, that measures temperature, salinity, oxygen, chlorophyll-s and the clarity of the water. Additionally water samples were collected for other collaborators that’ were conducting other studies in conjunction this cruise. My colleagues on the night watch also sampled krill, mesopelagic fish and conducted studies on krill swarms to better understand the acoustic properties of krill in swarms. The collection of samples was limited to night-time to minimize avoidance of animals to the net, and to capture animals that vertically migrate into the upper water column at night.

One of the best parts of being on a cruise is the food, especially when the cooks are great. I was fortunate on the James Clark Ross as all the meals were wonderful. And the one perk of getting up at 4 am is that I was able to eat all three meals, breakfast lunch and dinner. The mealtimes are also important times to exchange information with the officers and other scientists so are valuable from the scientific perspective.  On this cruise I was berthed in a small but comfortable to person room. And, because we didn’t have a large number of scientists, there was no other person in the bunk. This was helpful in providing a private space away from everyone, necessary when you are all on the same 100m boat!

Life at sea is regimented, and is very repetitive. The close proximity to others provides an opportunity to interact closely with people and see the world in a very unique and special way. The two best days at sea are often the day you leave port and begin the journey, and the day you return to port and can share the experiences with others.

The world's largest natural refrigerator

Moving into the world's largest natural refrigerator

This is my second time to Powell Island, my first visit being two years ago.  I came here with preconceived ideas about how it would be, where I would find animals and how they would react – all based on what I had learnt during my first field season here.  However, fate (in the shape of one of the strongest El Nino Southern Oscillation events in years) decided it would be otherwise. This time the bay wasn’t full of ice, so the landing craft could put us closer to our campsite and the three of us could avoid the slow, painful process of walking backwards and forwards over a 200m stretch of beach carrying a couple of tons of equipment, food and water.  God, Buddah or the Great Pumpkin in the Sky decided to give us clear skies and calm winds which allowed us to secure tent guy lines, dig in valances and generally set up the tents properly, in preparation for the inevitable howling winds, horizontal snow and generally unpleasant weather that often swings by this neighborhood. Also, I could have sworn that the expression on the penguins faces as they waddled by our mountain of equipment was one of “seriously – you lot again ?”.

Our campsite consists of three tents; one to cook in and two for sleeping.  The cook tent is a British Antarctic Survey “pyramid” (which I keep referring to as a “teepee”, just to wind up the Brits) in which three of us would spend sometimes days trying to keep out of the weather and remember what conversation felt like.  The surface area of the tent is around 3m x 2m, and unless you are a midget you are constantly bent over double (at best) or on your knees (at worst) for the entire trip.  This is NOT a job for people who treasure the cartilage in their joints.  The sleeping tents fall into two categories; one is a three-person “teepee” which houses two people, the inside temperature of this tent reached a record 2oC, and given its enormous size the two occupants had ample space to spread out.  The other tent was mine, considerably smaller, and tended to change shape a lot depending on the strength and direction of the wind.  On particularly windy days (30-40knots and above) it resembled being inside a gigantic bag of chips while someone shook it around.  Not only is this not a job for those with joint issues, it is not appropriate for light sleepers.  My tent is not the same size as the enormous skyscraper that the other two are in; it reminds me of moving into a tiny apartment and wondering “how the hell am I going to fit all this (scientific/personal gear for 2 months) into here (a small tent 2m x 1m) ?”.  But you do, and you become remarkably efficient and stowing things away.

Antarctica is the world’s largest natural refrigerator, thus we were able to carry enough “fresh” food into the field camp to last us the first month.  The kitchen and associated cooking is rudimentary, with a paraffin stove and two pans being sufficient for our needs.  The Panasonic breadmaker with automatic nut dispenser and pasta-making menu options sat in the corner of the cooking tent is so out-of-place that you could be excused for thinking you were hallucinating.  However, when combined with a small 800W petrol generator, the production of fresh bread and apple and cinnamon cake is crucial for both morale and the consumption of bacon.  Toilet facilities include the world’s largest naturally-powered flushing toilet (the ocean) which can be an invigorating experience when surprised by seals and/or penguins rocketing out of the water next to you, or when the wind is so strong it drives snow into places it really shouldn’t go into.

We work on UTC (which is 3 hours ahead of local time) as the telemetry devices we fit to animals are calibrated to this time zone. So we settle into our routine. Now it’s time to go to work.

Looking back to plan ahead

Humpback whale Photo: Frank Grebstad

Humpback whale Photo: Frank Grebstad

Preparing to travel and do research in Antarctica is unique.  It is a combination of finding the right equipment to keep warm and dry yet flexible and mobile and all of the scientific gear that is needed to accomplish your research. The preparations start months in advance looking at data from the previous year; where did the ship go, what were the conditions like, where were the whales most abundant, where did they spend the most time once tagged. This information is critical to think about how to maximize the precious little time we have to deploy our instruments and collect samples.

Our main objectives are to locate humpback whales early on in the feeding season and deploy satellite-linked tags that will provide us with positions of where the whale is nearly every time it comes to the surface during the season.  The tags transmit a signal that is received by orbiting satellites and triangulate the location of the whale and send that information to a web site where we can log in and see all of the positions as they are acquired.  We use this information to study the different behavioral states of the whales and can determine when and where whales are foraging.  If you think about whales searching for patches of krill and then when they find a good area, remaining in it to feed, the track of the whale will have very distinct shapes.  Whales that are transiting will generally move in one direction with little change in course from one position to the next.  However, when whales are feeding in what is called ‘area-restricted search’ the turning angles between locations will be variable and the whale will generally stay in the same location for a given period of time.  We can use a number of analytical tools to determine when, where, and for how long each of these foraging bouts takes place and then link these in space and time with environmental co-variates like water depth, distance to the ice, known distributions of Antarctic krill, historic catches from the commercial krill fishery etc.

We will also collect a small skin and blubber sample from each whale that we tag (as well as from other whales that we encounter) that will allow us to determine the sex of the whale, if a female if it is pregnant or not, what the whale has been eating, and what breeding population that whale comes from.  All of these demographic pieces of information are critical to understand how animals behave during the feeding season and where they forage. 

A couple of weeks before departing, we will look at images showing the distribution of sea ice which will dictate where we can and cannot work, and try to locate known areas that are likely to have whales early in the feeding season; these are generally open water areas near the ice edge and often close to shore.  Much of our equipment remains in a warehouse in South America to be placed on our research ship in advance of our flying down.  This includes our biopsy sampling equipment including crossbows and customized bolts with a small float on the end and a hollow tip about the size of a pen cap that collects the sample from the whale.  The satellite tags are deployed using a modified line launching mechanism using compressed air to discharge the tag.  The tags themselves anchor in the skin and blubber of the whale and have a small antenna that is programmed to transmit a signal every time it is out of the water until the battery is exhausted several months later.  We leave this gear at the port of departure to minimize the amount of gear we have to travel with otherwise.  Jackets, waterproof pants and boots, base layers, hat, gloves, sunglasses, computers, cameras, GPS, and all of the related accessories add up!  Suffice it to say, we tip the scales at the airport and push the limits of what we are allowed to carry and check on for baggage!

The trip down is long and arduous.  It takes a full 24 hours to fly from the US to southern Chile or Argentina, including an overnight flight to either Santiago or Buenos Aires.  Once we arrive at the southernmost points of South America in Punta Arenas, Chile or Ushuaia, Argentina, we spend a day loading our cargo on to the ship and then it is a 3-5 day journey across the Drake Passage and to the icy waters surrounding the Antarctic Peninsula where whales and krill and sea ice and glaciers help provide the most amazing and inspiring ecosystem on the planet.  We are lucky to be here and even more fortunate to be able to call this place home for the next few months.


Sending equipment months before you go

Gerlache Photo: Frank Grebstad

Gerlache Photo: Frank Grebstad

So you are going to go to the Antarctic.  Not so difficult to plan for really if you are a tourist.  Enough warm clothes ? Check. Enough money for souvenirs ? Check. Batteries for the camera ? Check.  Easy.

What about if you are camping ?  Hhhm.  A tent – good enough for the weather ? Define “good enough” – well, sufficient to withstand 50-60knot (120km/h) winds, snow and rain (because if it doesn’t, you and your gear are in BIG trouble), big enough that you wont go mad if you are trapped inside it for a week due to bad weather and one that does not look like an elephant seal (unless you like a 500kg animal rubbing up against your tent in the middle of the night, thinking its “ in with a chance here”).  Ok – camping…what else ?  Food – well, you wont have a refrigerator, nor a fully stocked kitchen and your clean water supply is limited, so better take camping food and enough to last you three months.  Have you ever tried camping food for three months ?  If not – better pack enough toilet roll for four months.  Next – a good sleeping bag (one rated to -20 or 30 should do it), something to sleep on, and a pillow (possibly THE most important item of equipment). Clothing: better take enough socks for at least one fresh pair every couple of weeks. Thermals, warm shirts, fleeces, waterproof / snow proof outerwear, hats, gloves, goggles, down jacket, fleece pants (for inside the tent)……the equipment pile is starting to get quite large now.

Ok – so you are camping in the Antarctic.  We aren’t there on holiday, so what do we need to do work ?  Well, I am here anesthetizing 150kg adult male fur seals to put satellite transmitters on them, and to fit penguins with GPS and dive recording tags.  I also need to be able to take blood samples from all the animals, and centrifuge the blood to store the different components (plasma, blood cells) separately.  So – sedative drugs and the equipment to administer them (dart gun,  portable gas anesthetic machine, oxygen, sofnalime, ammunition), glue (for the tags), the tags themselves (with the computer cables for each manufacturers type), computer (to program the tags and download them – better take two in case one breaks), laboratory equipment (centrifuge, pipettes, ethanol, tubes, needles, syringes, swabs) and sample bags.  The dart gun needs to be shipped via courier to the Falklands Islands, and held at the local police station before being handed over to the captain of the ship, before finally being given to me when we are “in international waters”.  One of the many, many peculiarities of preparing for Antarctic fieldwork on marine predators.  You never get used to them.

Now I need to have a bigger room to put this equipment pile in.  It’s well over the 200kg mark, and Im only allowed 55kg of luggage on the flights – which I need to book, from Tromsø (latitude 69 north) via the UK and Ascension Islands to the Falkland Islands (54 South).  From there, weight isn’t an issue as it’s a three day journey on the British icebreaker RRS James Clark Ross to the South Orkney Islands (60 South).  So if I want this gear to get there, I had better make sure most of it is on the icebreaker before she leave the UK.  In August.  Even though I don’t go into the field until December.  Talk about forward planning.  Better make a really REALLY good list of what I’ve sent down on the ship, because come December I need to make sure that what I take in my 55kg of air allowance doesn’t duplicate what I already have, and more importantly doesn’t miss something that I really need. 

Ok – equipment packed and sent to the UK for shipping “down south” ? Check.  Travel arrangements ? Check. 

Damn – did I pack enough UK plug adapters ? Better take another one just in case. Now its time to fly south for the winter.

About the extreme scientist Dr. Ari Friedlaender

Humpback Whale Photo: Frank Grebstad

Humpback Whale Photo: Frank Grebstad

Dr. Ari Friedlaender of Oregon State University and his colleague from Duke University will conduct a long-term ecological study on the foraging behavior of humpback whales around the Antarctic Peninsula. 

We asked him why he decided to become a scientist and he told us that it is really the pursuit of knowledge and desire to understand how the natural world work. He is specifically interested in how animals interact with their environment and how human activities impact animals in different ways. 

His research is based on the high energy demand of humpback whales during foraging due to their enormous size. This high demand of energy during foraging can only be met by foraging in areas where their prey are present in large numbers. As a result, humpback whales distribute themselves and move between areas of high prey abundance throughout the Antarctic feeding season. 

He emphasizes that the reason he chose to become a researcher on the Antarctic ecosystem is its uniqueness of animals who have adapted for life in an extreme, yet fragile environment. He is curious on how the animals manage to not only survive but thrive in this system.  As well, learning how animals forage and ‘make a living’ in this environment makes for interesting comparisons with different ocean ecosystems around the world.

The goal of his research is to determine how critical foraging areas relate to historic catches of krill in the region. By deploying satellite-linked time depth recording tags on whales throughout the Antarctic feeding season, the scientists aim to quantify if, when, where, and to what extent commercial fishing effort and humpback whale feeding co-occur. This information is important for managing fishing while also providing useful information on the biology and ecology of these top predators in a changing environment.

Finally, we challenged him to explain the research project in five sentences: 

"We are using information from satellite tags deployed on minke and humpback whales to better understand how their behavior and movement patterns relate to different features of the Antarctic marine ecosystem.  As krill predators with large energetic requirements, we want to understand how the places that are critical feeding areas for these whales overlaps with areas of commercial krill harvest.  If we can better understand the needs of the whales and the areas that are critical for their successful foraging, we can work to minimize the potential for any competition with the krill fishery operating today and well as into the future."

About the extreme scientist Dr. Raouf Kalida

Let us just be open about it, not all scientists travel to the Antarctic to undertake research. Dr. Raouf Kalida sits in his  lab at the University of New Brunswick (Saint John) in Canada processing the eyestalks of krill individuals, while Dr. Reiss will assist with samples from the field and Dr. Kawaguchi will be responsible for providing him with known-age individuals to validate the results. 

That does not mean that Dr. Kalida does not like to travel. In fact he grew up in Cairo, Egypt, did his MSc in Scotland, his PhD in Texas and now work at the University of Brunswick in Canada. His focus area has been to study teh growth and age of various invertebrates, and especially the bivalves. 

This got him involved in a pretty crazy project back in 2007. Back then he was working at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Halifax, Canada, and was responsible for investigating the age and growth of mollusks and fish that have commercial importance for stock assessment purposes. In addition to mollusks, stock assessment of crustaceans (such as crabs and lobsters) was the focus of the research of other scientists working in the same institute. How old is this crab? was the question that triggered the project to begin with. Long story short. It took him five years to answer that question, 

The reason is that unlike fish, crustaceans lack hard parts from which age and growth can be measured. Finally, in 2012 Dr. Kalida and the rest of the research team managed to publish a manuscript demonstrating the direct age of four crustaceans including two shrimp species. The age of those taxa was determined by counting the growth bands in thin sections of their eyestalks. Thin sections were prepared in the eyestalk after cleaning and removing all tissues as shown in the figure below. The same technique was proven to be applicable in other species such as the Chilean Nylon shrimp. Given that krill can be considered as a “little” shrimp, we decided to give it a try and see if we could determine its age using the same method. 

Together with Dr. Christian Reiss from the US National Marine Fisheries Service and Dr. So Kawaguchi from the Australian Antarctic Division Dr. Kalida will be working to explore the feasibility of applying the new method for age determination of the Antarctic krill.

The goal of their work is to increase the understanding of the variability in population structure (growth, recruitment, and size at maturity) in order to improve the krill fishery. If shown to be robust, the expected results will provide scientists and managers the ability to compare spatial and temporal growth rates of krill in the Southern Ocean. It will also allow the development of age-based assessments of krill populations to better allocate catch in the krill fishery.

After listening in on Dr. Kalida's story we concluded that there are many nuances to being an Extreme Scientist. We see it as important part of this campaign to also honor those in the backdrop, as they are just as important to bringing about #extremescience.

About the extreme scientist Andy Lowther

Do non-breeding Adélie, chinstrap, and gentoo penguins potentially use different habitats and feeding locations than those used by breeding penguins? That is something Dr. Andrew Lowther and his colleagues from Norwegian Polar Institute and British Antarctic Survey will explore during the summer at West Coronation Island, Signy Island and Powell Island.

He admits choosing to become a scientist due to his curiosity about his surroundings, always wanting to know 'why things are the way they are'. He also enjoys learning about the real world, so to him being a field biologist is the perfect combination of exercising the grey matter as well as enjoying a life outdoors.

Lowther et al. aim to address the knowledge gap on adult, non-breeding, and therefore more mobile, birds in a region where most of the krill fishing in the Southern Ocean takes place. During the 2015-2016 field season they will collect at-sea foraging data on non-breeding adults at several different sites in the same year.

When discussing why he decided to do research in the Antarctic in the first place, his reasoning was based on understanding the adaptive coping mechanisms of the species there. In his mind animals have three basic options. They can adapt and survive in order to reproduce, migrate the area for a more suitable environment, or three - lay down and die. Exploring the mechanisms in these species that made them stay in the harsh environment of the Antarctic continent is very interesting. He also adds that the southern ocean plays a critical role in global climatology, and that we can identify changes in this system through the behavior of animals, as well as using them as sensor platforms to collect environmental information in regions that humans cannot venture.  

In his research the data will be collected alongside similar data on breeding adult penguins from each species, providing additional comparative studies on breeding and non-breeding penguins and the effects of interspecific competition between birds that are breeding versus those that are not breeding. This will contribute to a better overall understanding of the habitat and prey needs of penguins.

Finally, we challenged him to tell us about his most interesting research, using only five sentences: 

"In terms of importance it would have to be the long-term monitoring programme at the worlds most remote island, Bouvetøya. The island hosts the second largest population of Antarctic fur seals in the world, and huge populations of penguins and flying seabirds. There are also hundreds of elephant seals that travel yearly to the Antarctic shelf, making this location literally a biological oasis in the middle of the South Atlantic. To see environmental change over time, it stands to reason there is a critical need for long-term datasets of how animals respond to their environment. By conducting dietary and tracking studies on all these species we are collecting such a time series both around Bouvetøya and, using elephant seals, the Antarctic continental shelf around Dronning Maud Land."