Researcher life

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

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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.”

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."