Penguin Lifelines Project in Antarctica with Tom Hart
Penguins are becoming more threatened, that’s a fact. However we don’t quite understand what these threats are yet. Penguin Lifelines aims to understand these threats in order to counter act them.
Antarctic science is mostly done very close to base, pretty understandable considering Antarctic climate conditions! However, data needs to be collected over a much bigger area in order to gauge threats to penguins. Time-lapse cameras are very useful tools in monitoring what penguins get up to when we are not there.
Exodus has been supporting Penguin Lifelines by letting Dr Tom Hart and his team hitch a lift on their Antarctic expeditions. In January 2011, Tom joined the Antarctic Explorer trip aboard the Akademik Ioffe on his latest penguin conservation mission.
Tom Hart's Latest Antarctic Expedition
"This season, I was on the Academik Ioffe, surveying as much of the Scotia Arc as possible in great comfort! It was also retracing the steps of some of my heros - Shackleton, Nordenskjold and Charcot to name a few, which was a personal goal. Ben Collen from the Zoological Society of London and I joined the Akademik Ioffe for a Scotia Arc cruise. I’m the rugged, dynamic looking bloke on the right; he’s the nonchalant one in pink. We deliberately wear bright orange and red clothing so that we stand out from the yellow passenger jackets on shore."
Tom and Ben's Expedition Diary
29th January, 2011
South Sandwich Islands, en route to the Falklands to meet the Academik Ioffe. I’m just finishing off the first half of my fieldwork, and returning to the Falklands to meet Ben [Collen] and a load of new people on board the Ioffe. I’ve heard that it’s a really stable ship, which given the weather the last few weeks, will be very welcome! We’ve been at sea for a week, so I’m ploughing through the library before things get busy again. I’m reading Charcot’s account of the voyage of the Porquois Pas? He was one of the first people to over-winter in Antarctica (he has also done it a few years earlier in the Francais). We are likely to visit either Port Charcot or Petermann Island when we get down to the Antarctic Peninsula, so it’s nice to read the original account. I’m also nosing into a biography of Mawson, who started the Australian interest in Antarctica.
February 7th, 2011
We [Ben and Tom] are now preparing for the next phase of the trip. We have five days in the Falklands to sort ourselves out, process the South Sandwich Island penguin samples, and ready our kit, before joining the Akademik Ioffe for our voyage to South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula.
We have two main aims for the trip. Our first is to collect penguin feather samples from as many penguin colonies as possible. The DNA which we can collect from these feathers extends the work that Tom has done in previous seasons, and will give us vital information on how penguins are moving around between colonies, and how those colonies are faring. Our second aim is to trial a new array of automatically triggered cameras. This is a completely new venture for us, but we’re excited by the prospects. We’ve been using similar cameras on projects such as the one in Liberia, which are triggered by animals walking through an infrared beam. However, here we are going to use time lapse to automatically trigger the cameras three times a day, to take photos overlooking penguin colonies. Taken through a season, these cameras will give us information on penguin breeding, and dates of arrival and departure as the penguins move, and an increased number of monitoring stations around the regions – all things which we expect to shift as the effects of a changing climate take hold. As this technology is new, we are running this field season as a test, and will place seven cameras over the course of our trip around the Antarctic. Fingers crossed. Meanwhile, we get to enjoy some of the incredible wildlife around Stanley. Often people are so desperate to get to Antarctica that they forget to stop and enjoy the view; the Falklands have a really rich wildlife, and many animals approach much closer than they would in most places.
Our route will take us to South Georgia, then down to the South Orkney Islands, and onto the Antarctic Peninsula.
February 25th, 2011
South Georgia is an island paradise – that is if your definition is cold with unimaginable beauty and wildlife. Fortunately, that fits my definition perfectly, so I love it here! South Georgia is a long, thin island roughly 150nm long, by about 20nm wide. When you first see it from the sea, it’s like someone flooded the Alps. As an island, it’s very impressive and stunningly beautiful.
As you get closer, you start encountering lots more wildlife, which forages out from the vast colonies on land. South Georgia is famed for its severe weather, strong winds, rain, sleet and snow; four seasons in one day is the norm. The weather Gods were no doubt smiling on us though, as we experienced some incredibly calm weather that enabled us to visit five sites over the past four days, allowing us to get feather samples from four colonies of King penguins, and three colonies of Gentoo penguins. Most exciting of all though, was that we placed two time lapse cameras overlooking penguin colonies – our first on South Georgia, and the start of our long term monitoring programme for penguins.
Craggy, dark mountain peaks frame the skyline, with hanging glaciers calving ice over dark sandy beaches. The wildlife is on a vast scale. St Andrew’s Bay, one of our sampling sites, is home to an estimated 200,000 breeding pairs of King penguin. That is penguins as far as the eye can see, and a smell, which cannot be described.
Interspersed among them, young fur seals, sparring with each other, practicing the skills it will take to become a beach master; elephant seals, lying in big piles moulting this seasons skin; patrolling skuas, looking to pick off the weak, looking for an easy meal. The species list so far includes: King penguins, Gentoo penguins, Macaroni penguins, cape petrels, giant petrels, South Georgia pintail, South Georgia pipit, Wandering Albatross, black browed Albatross, grey headed Albatross, fur seals, Weddell seal, and elephant seals. As we leave South Georgia, the weather is starting to turn. Winds have picked up to 45 knots, the waves are crashing around the ship, up to 7m in height, and we spot our first iceberg.
February 26th, 2011
Right on cue, on leaving South Georgia, the weather turned. We have now been treated to two days at sea with big waves, howling winds and freezing temperatures. The effect on the passengers has been felt. There are a few green faces, and seasickness has meant that lunch and dinner has been less well attended. In the moments that we can get out on deck though, as the winds lull, we are greeted by some fantastic views of sea birds such as these cape petrels, and icebergs galore.
We head for the South Orkneys, specifically Signy Island, and the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) summer base. We are fortunate to be one of only four ships allowed to head in there this season. Unfortunately though, as the weather delays our arrival, and the wind picks up as we get the first zodiac out for the mile long ride ashore, a mass landing is deemed impossible in the time frame. However, a few of us race across on the first and only zodiac to drop off a camera for the guys at the BAS station to put up for us. This will be our fourth Camera on the Scotia Arc. The cold and the spray are worth it for the chance to set foot on Signey (albeit for just two minutes, much to the amusement of our hosts from BAS), and to get another camera deployed.
The trip down to the South Shetland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula has been spectacular. In one day’s travel, we came across upwards of 60 humpbacks, including mother and calves, some breaching, others feeding among the broken ice. We have had to abandon a couple of potential landing sites due to high winds – with gusting winds over 40 knots, it’s just not safe to take a zodiac in.
However, about 6pm yesterday evening, as we started to move the ship to a sheltered spot to spend the night, we came across a pod of Orca. The Captain turned the ship between the ice flows, and after about five minutes, the pod started coming to us. I scanned across the pod that I was watching (there were a couple close by) and in one scan counted 26 different blows – we estimated more than 50 Orca, perhaps even higher! Part of the pod came right at the boat, including a mother and calf. They were Antarctic B type Orca; they have a rusty yellow/brown coloration due to a diatom that imbeds in them. Phenomenal sight, just as the sun was going down. Breathtaking.
We are now travelling down Iceberg Alley (Antarctic Sound), having set up another camera today on the continent itself. These are massive icebergs, many several hundred metres in length, which have broken off the ice shelf.