ANTARCTIC SCIENCE IN THE PANDEMIC
Away from Antarctica, the ice always tugs on our heartstrings, but never more than when fate throws obstacles in our way such as a global pandemic. For the Penguin Watch team, we had the added stress of knowing that we would miss data and our camera network would start to fail before we could get back next year.
But fundamentally, disruptions such as this present an incredible opportunity; a once in a generation natural experiment that has removed the presence of tourism for a season and also cut national programme activities, while presumably allowing climate change and fishing to continue as normal. Disruption is therefore useful in monitoring to understand which of these stressors affect wildlife on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Thanks to huge support from Spirit of Sydney Expeditions I was able to join a private expedition to the Peninsula. It involved many times the normal paperwork, many times the normal logistical complexity, a deep breath and a bit of luck to assemble the team, covid free. After taking on planned and unplanned quarantine periods, the result was an incredible but all too short trip on an empty peninsula.
So what was it like? Rounding each headland into empty bays and anchorages like Port Lockroy and the Erera were lifetime memories that were liberating after a year indoors. The freedom of movement was enormous, particularly when thinking of friends and family at home. That said, the majority of experiences were routine – penguins, seals and whales behaved the same and there were no massive differences observed which was reassuring that normal activities can’t be having a large impact. There were some sites where the lack of human trails definitely highlighted preferred penguin routes that we might avoid in future. In the longer term, I’ll be analysing guano for stress and analysing the population and breeding data to try and understand the impacts of fishing and climate change.
I’m still digesting this whirlwind of a season and it will take several years to process data. I am so happy of the memories that will last a lifetime, but the early impressions of a year without tourism leads me to double down on the fact that we should be increasingly worried about climate change and fishing in the region.
My focus was to get as much of our routine work done as possible – change cameras (timing of breeding and breeding success), count populations (drone surveys of seabirds and seals) and faecal collection (to measure stress, diet and pathogen load). The result was an overwhelming success – we gathered over half the data that we would in a normal season and saved the bulk of the camera network. A year without tourists and reduced national progamme activity will help us to understand the pressures of climate change and fishing as well as human presence at colonies.
There was a lot of planning and lessons learned to get through a trip without Covid and I hope these lessons learned will be shared across the IAATO membership and national Antarctic programmes. I am delighted and relieved, and I thank Darrel and Ashley from the bottom of my heart for getting me there this year!
Dr. Tom Hart
February 1st, 2021