AWR launched their 5th Call for Proposals at CCAMLR

Photo: Members of AWR’s Science Advisory Group;  Dr. Christopher Jones, Dr. Phil Trathan, Dr. Mercedez Santos, Dr. So Kawaguchi, d Dr. Rodolfo Werner (AWR Scientific Advisor and Board member), Dr. Polly Penhale

Photo: Members of AWR’s Science Advisory Group; Dr. Christopher Jones, Dr. Phil Trathan, Dr. Mercedez Santos, Dr. So Kawaguchi, d Dr. Rodolfo Werner (AWR Scientific Advisor and Board member), Dr. Polly Penhale

On Wednesday October 24th, AWR launched its 5th call for proposals, and presented the two new research projects that received grants this year.

Antarctic Wildlife Research Fund (AWR) announced the winners of the call for proposals 2018. The selected projects are focusing on the role of fish in the Scotia Sea food web and on the estimation of krill biomass using new acoustic modeling. 

“The funding is vital to continue with scientific research and to ensure the long-term health of the ecosystem. Only through a better understanding of the role of Antarctic krill in the Southern Ocean can we fully protect the animals that feed on krill and ensure precautionary fishery management,” said Claire Christian, the Chair of AWR. 

The two granted research projects will focus on the following scientific research areas:

1.    Accurate krill biomass estimation using spatiotemporal acoustic target strength modeling.

This project aims at improving the accuracy of krill biomass estimates using observations of the material properties of krill coupled with numerical models that describe how individual krill and krill swarms scatter sound.

This project will reduce bias and improve accuracy in krill biomass estimates. Using a combination of field observations and modeling, the project will improve our understanding of the internal and acoustic properties of krill under different spatiotemporal conditions and frame these in terms of implications for krill biomass estimates.

2.    The role of fish in the Scotia Sea food web.

The analysis will address important uncertainties, such as the degree of myctophid predation on early life stages of krill. Improved understanding of temporal and spatial variability in krill consumption by fish is key information required for The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) and their risk assessment and interpretation of CEMP data.

This analysis will provide a significant step forward in our understanding of the trophic roles of fish in Antarctic ecosystems and the potential for interactions with krill predators and the krill fishery.

“After 4 years, AWR has become a great and respected initiative by CCAMLR Members, making important scientific contributions for the management of the Antarctic krill fishery,” said Dr. Rodolfo Werner, AWR Scientific Advisor, and Board member.

Aker BioMarine renews it commitment to AWR

Last year, Aker BioMarine announced its commitment to support the Antarctic Wildlife Research Fund (AWR) with USD 1 million (EUR 830.000) over the next five years. The funding will secure AWR’s work on promoting and facilitating research on the Antarctic ecosystem.

“We are of the understanding that the best way to ensure the future of the fishery is to take care of the ecosystem in which we fish. Ensuring that there is enough scientific evidence to support the sustainable harvest of krill is fundamental to our business and so is AWR,” said Matts Johansen, CEO at Aker BioMarine.

The fifth call for proposals is now open

The fifth call for proposals is was launched during the meeting. For the 2019 edition, AWR is looking for research projects that will contribute to a better understand of krill biology and ecology, and the overlap of flying seabirds with krill fisheries. 

Closing date fro AWR’s 5th Call for proposals is April 19, 2019.

Welcoming the new chair of the SAG

During the 2018 CCAMLR meetings, AWR expressed gratitude to Dr. Phil Trathan (UK) for his work as chair of the AWR Scientific Advisory Group and Dr. Polly Penhale (USA) as a member of this group. So Kawaguchi was announced new chair of the Science Advisory Group (SAG) replacing Phil Trathan.

Mr. Kawaguchi is a Principal Research Scientist of the Australia Antarctic Division and leads the Australian krill research program. His research focuses on various aspects of Antarctic krill biology and ecology, including studies into climate change impacts on krill, with strong interests in krill fishery management in the Southern Ocean. So is the current Convener of the CCAMLR Working Group on Ecosystem Monitoring and Management.

Dr. Rodolfo Werner together with Dr. Phil Trathna and Dr. Polly Penhale.

Pictures from the meeting. Dr. Rodolfo Werner to the right, board member and Scientific Advisor to AWR.

Solving the mystery of krill's AGE


For many years, scientists have been studying marine animals and applied different methods for age assumption without any luck. “Despite more than 50 years of research, it has not been possible to accurately access the age structure of krill populations or to estimate their natural longevity.”


Raouf Kilada, a passionate diver and marine scientist, stumbled upon this field when he was concluding his master’s degree program on clams in the coral reef. “These species can be less than 20 cm in size, but they can reach up to 300 years. To study this field was an exciting challenge. I had to find it out how to determine the age of species like shrimp, lobster and crabs.”


Raouf Kilada

Raouf Kilada

This quest took him to Canada where together with his fellow scientists, So Kawaguchi, Robert A. King, Christian S. Reiss, Tsuyoshi Matsuda and Taro Ichii, he made revolutionary discoveries in this field. They could determine the age of crustaceans by counting rings in hidden-away internal spots in those animals.


“We developed a method that is based on counting the annual pattern of bands in the eyestalks of shrimp. In lobsters and crabs, the rings were found in the parts of the stomach. That way we could determine the absolute age of these animals.”


Before their discovery to determine the age of a lobster for example, scientists would study its size and other variables. It was an unreliable source of information because, for instance, lobsters go through a molting period and shed their calcified body parts that have any information about them.


In 2015, Kilada and his team of scientists received a grant from AWR to develop this methodology further and apply it to krill. But there was a bump on the road with testing this on krill. It is much smaller and more fragile to research. “We had to validate that one ring of the krill’s eyestalk is one year. Luckily Kawaguchi had the biggest aquarium in the world where he was growing krill. Some of his krill were up to five years old.” “The consistent counts across his and other laboratories supported the hypothesis that bands in eyestalks were accurate independent of the krill’s molting frequency.”


They have started on phase two of this project and will be collecting krill from different areas in the Antarctic region to compare their ecology, age structure, and survival rate.


Krill is an important part of the ecosystem of the Antarctic region, but why is it so important to know its age?

“Krill is the ecosystem of the Antarctic, but krill ecology is more and more affected by the climate change and the reduction in sea ice cover. It is critical to determine the variability in growth, areas and time of krill to understand how it responds to future climate change.”


Kilada explains that this information is especially crucial for managing krill fisheries. If they are fishing in the areas with young krill population, it can threaten the further growth of krill and the rest of the ecosystem.


How do climate change and the rising temperature affect the krill?

“Female krill have to stick their eggs on the lower surface of the ice mass in order to hatch. Our hypothesis is that if the temperature increases, it leads to that krill females need to carry eggs for longer distances since there is less ice.”


“There are two scenarios – the eggs will die, or hatch in different unfavorable conditions so the growth will be affected by for example malnutrition. That’s why by knowing the age of the krill one can secure the sustainability of the krill in the Antarctic region.”


Kilada is currently starting his research lab in Halifax in Eastern Canada. He is going to work further on this topic with governments, universities, and industries. Kilada is focusing on krill in California, red king crab from Norway, and other species.



The AWR History

Photo: The founding Board members in 2015 with Karoline Andaur (WWF), Sigve Nordrum (Aker BioMarine), Andrea Kavanagh (Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition), Matts Johansen (Aker BioMarine) and Mark Epstein (Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition).

Photo: The founding Board members in 2015 with Karoline Andaur (WWF), Sigve Nordrum (Aker BioMarine), Andrea Kavanagh (Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition), Matts Johansen (Aker BioMarine) and Mark Epstein (Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition).

In February 2015, the Antarctic Wildlife Research Fund was unveiled at a ceremony in Australia with King Harald V, Queen Sonja of Norway, and several leaders and ministers from Norway and Australia.


“The fund’s mission is to ensure a resilient Antarctica through filling critical gaps in ecosystem research and monitoring,” says Sigve Nordrum from Aker Biomarine.


However, it took fund partners many years to form a plan for the AWR. This journey started already in 2006 when Aker Biomarine began their collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund Norway. For many years, they have exchanged views and expertise on sustainable solutions for krill fisheries.


Dr. Rodolfo Werner

Dr. Rodolfo Werner

Through WWF’s network and Head of Research Karoline Andaur, Sigve Nordrum from Aker Biomarine got acquainted with many scientists and NGOs working in this sector. One of them was biologist Rodolfo Werner, who in the last 15 years has been focusing more on the policy aspects of Antarctic conservation.


“I love science, but I did not want to spend my life sitting in the lab or focusing my work on computer models. I wanted to do something else, something more applied. Thus, by putting my experience in practice on both fields, I became a bridge between scientists and policymakers,” says Werner.


Through the years their informal talks were often about the need for more knowledge and increased monitoring of the Antarctic wildlife. “It took us many years since our first conversation on this matter until we started talking more specifically about investing money in research projects in the Antarctic Peninsula,” says Werner.  


The idea materialized in the form of a fund that was established in 2015 by Aker BioMarine, the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC) and WWF-Norway. The first commercial commitment was made to AWR by Aker BioMarine in the form of 500,000 USD. Several of their partners, such as Blackmores, Swisse and BioMar, have contributed with the donations.


“We came up with an idea of creating an organization aimed at obtaining and administering funds to support the research needed for the management of the krill fishery. What kind of research was really needed was our next question.”


Krill is a vital element of the Antarctic food web. Every single species in Antarctica is dependent on krill in some way. However, Nordrum clarifies that they focus on the projects that will help to understand not only the Antarctic krill but also the whole marine ecosystem in the Antarctic Peninsula.

Photo: The founding Science Advisory Group from 2009 with Dr. Polly A. Penhale, Dr. Phil Trathan, Dr. So Kawaguchi, Dr. Andrew Lowther, Dr. Gennadi Milinevsky, Dr. Javier Arata, Dr. Rodolfo Werner and Dr. Taro Ichii

Photo: The founding Science Advisory Group from 2009 with Dr. Polly A. Penhale, Dr. Phil Trathan, Dr. So Kawaguchi, Dr. Andrew Lowther, Dr. Gennadi Milinevsky, Dr. Javier Arata, Dr. Rodolfo Werner and Dr. Taro Ichii

Werner says that as part of establishing AWR, they decided to create a Science Advisory Group, and include leading scientists from several nations participating in the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). “We chose scientists that were deeply involved in Antarctic research and that were aware of the CCAMLR scientific needs.”


One of the first steps was to come up with a Scientific Research Plan and to priorities to guide a selection of research projects. The technical groups of the CCAMLR identified the research needs.


“At one point, some scientists were not sure if it was a good idea to create a funding mechanism for Antarctic research which was not a part of CCAMLR. We argued that the science plan for AWR is based on the needs of the Convention, and by keeping it as an independent organization, we were freeing ourselves from the institutional bureaucracy that is associated to the Convention”. “As a non governmental entity, we have greater independency and flexibility in choosing and funding projects,” says Werner.  


The board of the AWR is made of five people. “Two people are representing Aker Biomarine, and three people are NGO representatives, one from WWF and two from ASOC,” says Nordrum.


The industry does not have the majority of the board, which helps to secure the independence of the organization from the industry’s fishing interests. “Members of the Board and the Science Advisory Board do not receive any financial compensation for their AWR work. They only get the travel expenses covered for the annual meetings,” says Werner.


In November 2017, they opened up for the third round of research proposals. AWR has a multi-step process to ensure that the best proposals are chosen. “The Science Advisory Group reviews all proposals anonymously and makes recommendations and scores the projects based on their relevance, quality, fit to scheme, etc. Following these recommendations, the AWR board takes the final decision,” says Nordrum.


Recently, Aker Biomarine announced they would provide AWR with 200,000 USD annually which secures the fund’s economic stability. “Having said this, AWR is always interested in receiving some additional funds from sponsors and contributors, ” says Werner.  


New AWR research projects presented at the annual CCAMLR meeting in Hobart, Australia

Photo: Cilia Holmes Indahl (AWR Secretary), Dr Christian Reiss (USA), Dr Bettina Meyer (Germany), Dr. Phil Trathan (Chair of SAG), Claire Christian (Chair of the AWR Board) and Dr. Rodolfo Werner (AWR Scientific Advisor and Board member)

Photo: Cilia Holmes Indahl (AWR Secretary), Dr Christian Reiss (USA), Dr Bettina Meyer (Germany), Dr. Phil Trathan (Chair of SAG), Claire Christian (Chair of the AWR Board) and Dr. Rodolfo Werner (AWR Scientific Advisor and Board member)

On Wednesday October 18th, AWR presented at the CCAMLR annual meeting in Hobart, Australia, the three new research projects that were selected this year.


"We are very pleased with the research proposals that we received in the third call for proposals.  As in previous years, the quality of the projects was superb and it was difficult to select the winning projects.  I believe that the three selected projects cover key issues for the management of the krill fishery.  On the other hand, we received the news that Aker BioMarine (a founding member of AWR) has committed to provide 200,000 USD annually for the foreseeable future, providing AWR with funding stability. We are already looking into the fourth call for proposals that will be opened in 2018.", said Dr. Rodolfo Werner, AWR Scientific Advisor and Board member.


The three granted research projects are:

  • “Rapid unsupervised automated Krill density estimation from fishing vessels (Rapid-Krill)”. The project will be led by Dr Sophie Fielding from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), and her fellow researchers from BAS, Institute of Marine Research (Norway) and Yellow Sea Fishery Research Institution (China)

  • “Reconstructing mesopelagic fish populations from biological samplers: a missing link in ecosystem based feedback management”. The project will be led by Dr Ronald S. Kaufmann from the University of San Diego, in cooperation with Dr Christian Reiss and researchers from Southwest Fisheries Science Center (USA)

  • “Concurrent assessment of baleen whale and krill distribution along the West Antarctic Peninsula using state-of-the art census techniques in a synchronized sampling effort”. The project is led by Dr Helena Herr from the University of Hamburg, in collaboration with Dr Bettina Meyer and researchers from the University of Hamburg and from Alfred-Wegner Institute (Germany)


The Science Advisory Group (SAG) of AWR is currently working on defining the priorities for the upcoming fourth call for proposals, which will be released in the coming weeks.


Dr Christian Reiss, Dr Bettina Meyer

Dr Phil Trathan, Dr Rodolfo Werner

Antarctic Wildlife Research Fund (AWR) announces grants recipient for the third call for proposals

Photo: Rodolfo Werner
Photo: Rodolfo Werner

Over the past three months, AWR’s Science Advisory Group (SAG) evaluated 8 scientific research proposals. The SAG based the evaluation of each proposal on the priorities for this call along with criteria previously published on the AWR website, including: excellence, fit to scheme, cost effectiveness, and track record. 

On September 19th, in its annual meeting, the AWR Board reviewed the SAG evaluation and took a decision on the projects to be funded.  

AWR is pleased to announce the three recipients of its third call for research grants:

-           Rapid unsupervised automated Krill density estimation from fishing vessels (Rapid-Krill)”. The project will be led by Sophie Fielding from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), and her fellow researchers from BAS, Institute of Marine Research (Norway) and Yellow Sea Fishery Research Institution (China)

-          “Reconstructing mesopelagic fish populations from biological samplers: a missing link in ecosystem based feedback management”. The project will be led by Ronald S. Kaufmann from the University of San Diego, in cooperation with researchers from Southwest Fisheries Science Center (USA)

-          “Concurrent assessment of baleen whale and krill distribution along the West Antarctic Peninsula using state-of-the art census techniques in a synchronized sampling effort”. The project is led by Helena Herr from the University of Hamburg, in collaboration with other researchers from the University of Hamburg and from Alfred-Wegner Institute (Germany)


For further information, please contact Cilia Holmes Indahl at


Studying 10 000 KRILL per CUBIC metre


Krill are incredibly tiny animals. They are, at most, only six centimeters long, weigh up to two grams, and can live for up to six years. But despite their humble size they are a key component of the Southern Ocean ecosystem. The species is a major part of the diet of many predators, including fish, squid, seals, seabirds and penguins and whales. In addition, they are a part of commercial fishery and play a role in the carbon cycle.

How can we study such a small and an important animal? Sally Thorpe knows how. She is an ecosystem modeler at the British Antarctic Survey. In 2016, she and her colleagues got a grant from the Antarctic Wildlife Research Fund to research krill retention, dispersal and behavior.

As she explains, they are planning to employ mathematical models of ocean circulation and sea ice, in conjunction with data collected on krill.

“Yes, krill are small, but they form dense swarms that may have more than 10 000 krill per metre-cubed of water. We can see these swarms in acoustic systems used on research ships and fishing vessels. Through the acoustic systems, we map swarms and get an estimate of the distribution and biomass of krill,” says Dr. Sally Thorpe.

They are using data from ocean and sea ice models to investigate why krill are found where they are and how the distribution is likely to vary over time. They will use krill distribution data from krill fishery vessels and data from satellite tags on predators like penguins to check their model results. They are currently analyzing the results, which will hopefully give more insight into a region increasingly affected by climate change.

“More research on krill will help us to see what is going on in the present day. That way we are better placed to consider the impacts of climate change in this region.”

This kind of research is also important for krill fisheries and the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which are responsible for manages and regulates them.

“CCAMLR is using an ecosystem approach to protect the Southern Ocean ecosystem from the impacts arising from the fishing. This requires knowledge of the controls on the distribution and abundance of krill, which is where our research fits in.”

“By improving the understanding of the regional and local-scale processes that influence the distribution of krill in one of the main krill fishing areas, the South Orkney Islands region, we hope to help inform the development of management procedures.”

Want to study the Antarctica? 4 scientists share their best tips

Whale 37.jpg

Oceanographer Sally Thorpe had wanted to visit Antarctica since she was little.

“I was interested in geography and the environment, so I took Environmental Sciences degree. It let me study a range of different subjects including physical oceanography which I loved.”

After that, Thorpe was presented with the opportunity to complete a PhD in physical oceanography with fieldwork in the Antarctic.

“This opportunity seemed tailor-made and led to multiple cruises in the Southern Ocean and to my current job with the British Antarctic Survey.  It still seems too good to be true!”

These days, she works on a project studying krill distribution made possible by a grant from the Antarctica Wildlife Research fund.

Her career advice to aspiring scientists is simple – you have to try many things before you find your passion.

“Try and find out about as many different science areas as possible while doing your degree. Take a variety of modules where possible, go to seminars by visiting scientists, do field trips if they’re on offer. Work out what it is that you’re really interested in and go from there.”

She adds: “Don’t fear math! It is so useful in so many different subjects.”

Get an overview

Ari Friedlaender, associate professor at the Oregon State University, studies the movement patterns and foraging behaviors of the largest krill predators - humpback whales.

Friedlander’s advice to young scientists who want to research Antarctica is to get an overview of previous research related to the region.

“We can tell a lot about whales, but you also have to understand how the whole ecosystem works. It is important to take advantage of what other people have done in the region before and what they plan on doing. It is critical in science.”

Good work equals new opportunities

Christian S. Reiss at the US National Marine Fisheries Service, recommends young scientists do their best to pursue exciting opportunities.

“Science is an individual pursuit. It is about how you creatively think about the world, you follow an interest and you end up places where you would never have thought and take opportunities as they come up. Those opportunities arise from doing good work.”

Get out there

Mingshun Jiang, an oceanographer and research associate professor at Florida Atlantic University, like Reiss, stumbled onto this field by accident. Jiang grew up in China and didn’t see the ocean until he was in his twenties. He never imagined the ocean would later become an important part of his life and career.

“My background is in mathematics, and I had little knowledge in the field of oceanography when I was in college. One of my mentors at the university had been working in the Antarctic for a long time, and this is how I started working in this area,” says Jiang.

He advises young scientists to go where the subject of their research is.

“Spend more time in the ocean. Nowadays we have computers and models that can tell you pretty much anything. However, we still must be out there, observe and measure in the environment we are researching.”

Understanding krill

Krill 12.jpg


“Krill is a phenomenal animal and has a very complicated life cycle and dynamics. We need to understand the biology, chemistry and physics around what affects the krill behaviour,” says Mingshun Jiang, oceanographer and associate research professor at Florida Atlantic University.

In 2016, he and Christian S. Reiss of the US National Marine Fisheries Service were awarded a grant from the Antarctic Wildlife Research Fund to study Antarctic krill.


Why is it important to research krill?

“Krill are eaten by whales, penguins, fish, and krill eats the plankton and the smaller animals. So, the energy they concentrate by eating the plankton is transferred through the whole food chain, which makes them a fundamental link in the food web of the Antarctic,” says Reiss.

The marine ecosystem around the Antarctic Peninsula is experiencing significant changes, including reduction in sea ice cover. These changes impact the entire ecosystem, including krill.

“It is important to study krill's response to these changes and how it affects species dependent on krill. Will they become abundant because of the fewer krill? How many krill can the Southern Ocean support? Those are some of the big science questions when it comes to krill research,” says Reiss.

Research on krill is also relevant for krill fisheries. However, as Jiang adds, it is vital to research krill for “pure scientific curiosity.”


What are the main goals with your research?

“We try to understand a fundamental question of how important are the physics of the environment in the Antarctic and linkages between different species in the ecosystem. The first thing we are doing is understanding and describing the distribution and movements of krill, its behavior, the potential effects predators and fishing have on krill,” says Reiss.

“The basis of these is studying the so-called connectivity and retention of krill, which describe how krill populations are connected and the sources and export of krill in a particular area”, adds Jiang.

The results of this research will help fisheries develop more sustainable practices and design strategy to protect this fragile ecosystem.

“The krill fisheries are concentrating on small areas. The question is how much it is possible to fish in those areas without removing krill faster than they replenish and without impacting the predators,” says Reiss.

In order to address these questions, the scientists are using more than 15 years of data collected by Reiss and his colleagues.

Jiang has developed a high resolution numerical model to better understand the spatial patterns of krill connectivity and retention.

“This model is called Lagrangian tracking. We can track the krill movement, which assume krill are particles that move with waters, but also capable of moving up and down by themselves.”

Output from simulations and this model will be available for public access and can be used by other scientists.

A Passion for Humpback Whales

humpback whale.jpg

Ari Friedlaender, associate researcher at University of California Santa Cruz, always knew he wanted to be a scientist.

“I grew up in a family of academics near the ocean. In childhood, I spent all my time at the beach, exploring, collecting and counting things and making lists of what I saw.”

He became an ecologist and has visited the Antarctic region every year for the past 20 years to research marine mammal. 2016 was no exception. He and David W. Johnston of Duke University went together to study the movement patterns and foraging behaviours of the largest krill predators - humpback whales. This project was conducted as part of a grant from the Antarctic Wildlife Research Fund (AWR). Their research may provide crucial insight into how climate change could impact the region’s fragile ecosystem.

“Climate changes lead to reductions in the extent and duration of seasonal sea ice cover. These changes impact the demography and ecology of the krill and the predators that rely on krill as their primary prey.”

Friedlaender explains that humpback whales live in open water, and their habitat space is expanding.

“The population of the humpback whales is going absolutely through the roof. They have an opportunity to feed for the longer period of the season and there is almost none or little competition for the resources.”

However, the situation is entirely the opposite for tiny krill.

“Krill require sea ice for their survival. Previous research shows that there is alink between the amount of the sea ice you have in the winter time and how many krill will survive till the next season.” 

Humpback whales need high densities of krill, which are also an important food source for the penguins and the seals. So far, Friedlander and Johnston’s findings show that whales seek areas with the most krill available.

“In summertime whales are spread over the big area, however during the fall this area becomes smaller and smaller. Eventually the whales are concentrated in bays close to shore. The same goes for krill. By the end of the season all the whales and all the krill are in this aggregated area.”

The challenge, however, is that krill fisheries are also attracted to these same areas. A fishery can efficiently scoop up all the krill in an area, practices that are far from sustainable and can negatively impact the whole ecosystem.

“That’s why this kind of research can help fisheries to manage resources properly and operate on a level that doesn’t have a huge impact on the amount of the krill that is available.”

In order to study whales, scientists attach electronic tags to the animals. Depending on the type of tag, scientists can monitor whales from several days to many months. Throughout his career, Friedlaender has helped develop this type of tag technology to better understand the underwater movements and behaviors of marine mammals. In addition to electronic tags, he uses drones to take pictures of whales on the surface.

“We take pictures of the whales on the surface, and can study the length and width and the rate of change when those animals put on the weight. It gives a picture of how they behave at different times of the season and what periods and areas are critical for growth.”

Pictures of whales serve another purpose as well. Friedlaender and his fellow scientists use social media to increase awareness and understanding of the whales, the krill and the ecosystem in the Antarctic Peninsula.

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.