Out of the Freezer: Six Weeks in the Antarctic and Back

by Andy Read and Doug Nowacek | July 1st, 2010
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 6 comments

Bill Chameides is on vacation. He’ll be back the week of July 12th.

We’ve just returned from a research cruise along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. After spending six weeks in the dwindling autumn twilight at the bottom of the world, it was a shock to step off the plane into the blazing sun and intense heat of summer in North Carolina.

Researchers from the Nicholas School are part of a team studying whales. Here scientists tag a whale with a data-collecting device that stays on the animal for about a day. (See whale-tagging video below.)

In our three-year research project we are studying the behavior of whales in relation to their primary prey, krill. We hope to find answers to questions like:

  • How do multiple predators (whales, seals, and penguins) manage to co-exist when they all feed on the same prey?
  • How will climate change (and particularly less winter ice) affect populations of krill? And if krill populations diminish as a result, will this affect the recovery of whale populations following their decimation by hunting during the last century?

Of course, every project has to have a title and it helps if it can be shortened into a snappy acronym (we spend a lot of time thinking about these things). So, in the interest of tempting fate, we named our project the Multi-scale and Interdisciplinary Study of Humpbacks and Prey or MISHAP. You can learn more about MISHAP by looking through our blog.

Some Details About Our Whale Research

The primary objectives of our project are to:

  • observe the underwater behavior of whales,
  • measure krill aggregations, and
  • describe patterns of water circulation patterns.

We also record the distribution of other predators of krill (seals, fur seals, penguins and seabirds).

This required the hard work of more than 20 scientists from the Nicholas School, the University of Hawaii, University of Massachusetts at Boston, University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and Stony Brook University.

Reaching Our Field Site Traveling from North Carolina to Punta Arenas, Chile

Scientists retrieve the tags that are programmed to pop off the whales, so they can study the data they hold about the whale’s habits.

In Punta Arenas, which is, quite literally, at the bottom of the world, we boarded our 300-foot research vessel, the Nathaniel B. Palmer, named after an American seal hunter and one of the first Antarctic explorers.

We sailed the Palmer across the Drake Passage, which separates South America from the Antarctic Peninsula.

The Drake is one of the roughest stretches of water in the world; on our way home we had 30-foot seas which occasionally sent white water over the bridge windows, 60 feet above the water line. Ugh.

A Typical Day in Antarctica

Once at our field site along the Western Antarctic Peninsula, a typical day involved finding and tagging a whale, mapping krill, conducting visual surveys, and then measuring the physical properties of the water and mapping krill while tracking the whale during the night.

We tag whales with sophisticated digital acoustic recorders, attached with suction cups. The tags collect data on the back of the whale for about 24 hours and then pop off and float to the surface. The tags are equipped with a small radio beacon, which allows us to follow the whale at night and find the tag once it has been jettisoned.

It all sounds like work, work, work, doesn’t it? Well, we were in one of the most beautiful places on earth, surrounded by glaciers, icebergs and incredible animals.

Add to that the fact that daylight periods were short and it was usually either just after dawn or just before dusk, so the light was stunning — lots of pinks, purples and blues.

Antarctica’s stunning colors.

And with the exception of one small research station, we were the only folks down there, so we had each bay or fjord to ourselves.

Learning About the Whales’ Dining Habits

What did we find? Just like last year, we found hundreds of humpback whales and a vast swarm of krill in a small area known as Wilhelmina Bay.

The whales were literally swimming in food.

The krill migrate vertically, remaining at depth during the day and rising towards the surface to feed at night.

The whales responded by sleeping all day (clever creatures) and feeding at night. This made them very easy to tag, although sometimes they had accumulated snow and ice on their backs from snoozing at the surface for extended periods.

The snout of a humpback whale cresting the surface. A research team, including students and faculty from the Nicholas School, is in the midst of a three-year study of whales and their main prey, krill.

Our discovery may be new to science, but not to history. When Ernest Shackleton had to abandon his vessel, the Endurance, in the ice of the Weddell Sea in October 1915, his first thought was to make for Wilhelmina Bay because he knew that he could find whalers there in search of humpback whales.

Recognizing the long-standing importance of Wilhelmina Bay to whales, krill and other krill predators, we hope to work toward special protection for this ecosystem under the Antarctic Treaty.

We’re happy to be home (although still adjusting to the temperature) and now have two field seasons of data to analyze. We’re hoping to have a small field team return to Wilhelmina Bay and the surrounding waters next year. We’re already planning our next proposal to examine the ecology of whales, penguins and seals in this amazing place.

Our project was supported by the National Science Foundation; we’d also like to thank the intrepid men and women of Raytheon Polar Services and the crew of the Nathaniel B. Palmer for making our work both poss
ible and enjoyable.

Dr. Andrew J. Read researches the effects of human activities on populations of long-lived marine vertebrates (particularly marine mammals, seabirds and sea turtles), and attempts to find solutions to such conflicts.

Dr. Douglas P. Nowacek, a marine biologist who specializes in sound in the ocean environment, is studying the link between acoustic and motor behavior in marine mammals — specifically, how they use sound in ecological processes.

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  1. MattN
    Jul 4, 2010

    …with the peer review. Although if you choose your reviewer wisely, they’ll rubber stamp it no problem. Personally, I’d make you tell me how krill is doing in every other area around Antarctica before drawing any conclusions about one cherry-picked area…but that’s just me…

  2. MattN
    Jul 1, 2010

    “How will climate change (and particularly less winter ice) affect populations of krill? ” I pretty much stopped reading after this completely innacurate (perhaps intentionally so) statement. You do realize the sea ice around Antarctica is INcreasing, right? 2010 just may break the record extent set in…wait for it….2007…. You know this, right? Here’s the UAH satellite temperature trend for the south pole: Here’s the southern hemisphere ice extent anamoly: As far as ice around Antarctica, it is getting COLDER, not warmer. There is MORE ice, not less. Your research should be on the effect of MORE winter ice on krill population. Because that is exactly what it’s doing down there…

    • Andy Read
      Jul 1, 2010

      Matt: Our work is conducted along the Western Antarctic Peninsula which is warming rapidly (unlike some other parts of the Antarctic). For example, mean air temperature has increased 0.5 C per decade since 1950 at the Faraday/Vernansky Station. This has resulted in less sea ice and significant glacial retreats (almost 90% of the glaciers along the Peninsula have retreated over the last 50 years). The Peninsula is a critical area for both whales and krill, which is why we are conducting our research there. For more information, see:

      • MattN
        Jul 1, 2010 Not really seeing it, Andy. Not seeing a huge decline along the peninsula. That area has historically had the least amount of sea ice. How about the other 98% of the continent?

      • MattN
        Jul 1, 2010

        I mean, if your argument is that reduced ice coverage around the peninsula is reducing the amount of krill, wouldn’t simple logic state that krill must be increasing everywhere else around Antarctica since ice extent is increasing…well, everywhere else? Or would coming to that conclusion (or even just asking the question) jepordize your funding? Just wondering…

        • Andy Read
          Jul 2, 2010

          I wish (and I’m sure that you do for other reasons) that it was all so simple. As I’m sure you are aware, no ecosystem functions in such a simplistic manner. Krill are not uniformly distributed around the Antarctic, nor are whales. Some areas are more important than others as habitat for these organisms (and that is exactly what we try to understand as ecologists). So, ‘simple logic’ aside, we are very interested in understanding the dynamics of the Western Antarctic Peninsula and the effects that climate change will have on this system. Because the climate is changing there and it is affecting this system in important ways. And, although I’d be happy to prolong the debate, I have to sign off now as I am about to leave for another field project – this one closer to home.

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