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Antarctica Expedition - Science field staff team

I embarked Bark Europa in Ushuaia, Argentina on the 28th of December 2022 as a part of the science field staff team. Respect for the oceans plays an important role in the philosophy of Europa and its crew. In addition to sailing training, we therefore try to increase the awareness about the ocean environment to our voyage crew. The ship often travels in remote areas not visited by many other ships and can therefore contribute to the collection of important data through Citizen Science and recently started a collaboration with the Polar Citizen Science Collective.

The Polar Citizen Science Collective is a community creating opportunities for research and public education by connecting researchers and research institutes with tour operators in the polar regions. Their aim is to meet the needs of the polar science community by engaging travellers in data collection projects. In collaboration with Polar Citizen Science Collective we are participating in 3 Citizen Science projects. Southern Ocean Seabird survey, Happy Whale and The Secchi Disk study.

We began our journey towards the southern continent, leaving Ushuaia behind. From now on, wind and waves will lead us to the rocks and ice of Antarctica. Under full sail and with a north-north-easterly wind we continued along the Beagle Channel broad reach, turning into the Drake Passage. The Drake Passage welcomed us with its characteristic forceful winds and high sea and by midnight we celebrated entering into 2023 and the beginning of our way southwards to Antarctica.

The Southern Ocean Seabird survey
At open ocean in the Drakes Passage we began our southern ocean seabird survey. The Southern Ocean Seabird survey studies the distribution of birds at sea. These recordings help researchers understand how birds use oceanic habitat and how their behaviour and populations might be changing as a result of climate change. Every day we gathered at the ships poop deck (the deck aft of the ship) together with the voyage crew onboard, and we watched the sky all the way to the horizon for any sea birds in sight.

During the 30 min survey all birds in sight should be counted and identified with the use of binoculars and bird identification books and apps, all data is logged and saved in the eBird app or data spread sheets (date, time, location, GPS coordinates, number of observers, identified birds and how many).

Seabirds are very useful “sentinels” of ocean change. Studying them lets us learn about other aspects of the environment that are often difficult to study, such as the populations of fish and krill. The ocean is full of things like small currents, fronts, and eddies, and it is important for scientists to understand how these impact wildlife. Scientists know quite a lot about what the sea birds do when they come to land to breed, but much less about how they use oceanic habitats (and that’s where they spend most of their time!).

The main ocean current runs through the Drakes Passage flowing clockwise all around Antarctica, permitting just a restricted water interchange north and south following the coasts of southern Patagonia. The cold and dense waters from the southern continent meet along this current with the warmer and lighter ones from the subantarctic region, creating the so called Antarctic Convergence Area. As we sailed into Antarctic waters we recorded surface water temperature read 3.4ºC a decrease from our previous reading 5.7ºC, indicating that we just crossed the northern boundary of the Antarctic system. This also indicated a change in the sea bird species in our daily survey, as it starts revealing a decreasing number of albatrosses and firsts sights on our voyage of the Cape petrels and Southern fulmars. Giant petrels, ever-present every day since departure, keep flying around the ship.

The voyage crew are now looking so much forward to our daily southern ocean seabird survey that they are already gathering at the poop deck discussing the birds in sight amongst them trying to figure out what species they are. Together we look through our identification books and are thrilled to see new species of sea birds. Our Expedition Leader is a keen bird enthusiast and with his camera and big lenses he captures the birds as they shoot across the sky which helps us to identify the different sea bird species.

Happy Whale
As we continue south to the Antarctic Peninsula, the Humpback whales is spotted by the look out now and then, which makes a good opportunity for photo identification for Happy Whale. As soon as a whale in sight is reported though the ships intercom the voyage crew gather on deck with their cameras and big lenses to get the best shoot of the whales.

Happy Whale is a platform collecting photos of marine mammals taken by citizen scientists from all over the world for photo-ID purposes to provide valuable information on whale migration patterns and population status. Photo ID has been used for decades by scientists, where unique individually identifiable markings on animals allow them to be tracked through time and space. So far Happy Whale has recorded over 220,000 whale encounters from over 9,000 participants worldwide, with over 5,300 individual cetaceans identified in the Antarctic and 1,400 in the Arctic.

Humpback Whales are easily identified by the markings on their fluke (underside and trailing edge of their tail). Each fluke has a unique shape and pigment pattern that is as distinct as a human fingerprint. Some flukes are mostly white, others black, and others have nearly equal mix of black and white. This colour pattern is used to categorise them into 5 categories.

The first Humpback whale spotted and caught for photo identification showed a large injury on its tail, missing half of its fluke, probably after a bad encounter with a large ship and its propeller.

Happy Whale also shows statistics e.g. of distances that Humpback whales travel between breeding and feeding grounds. From the Antarctic Peninsula, at least 95% of Humpback whales migrate annually to the west coast of Central and South America to breed. A small percentage migrates to Oceania – in one case as far west as Australia – and less than 1% migrates to Brazil. The record longest distance migration in Happy Whale belongs to a whale from Antarctica. One of the longest Humpback migrations ever recorded – 10922 km one way – between Antarctic Peninsula and Tonga.

As we continued our journey a pod of Orcas are suddenly spotted along the way, they were swimming by at the distance heading north at a fast pace. As soon as they were spotted they were gone again, probably on their way out hunting, but luckily one of the voyage crew was on the spot with her camera and caught the whales as they briefly merged to the surface to take a breath. Orcas have large, differently sized and shaped dorsal fins. The size and shape of the fins as well as the unique saddle patch of light pigmentation on their backs and their eye patch can indicate a whales sex, age and the sub-group to which they belong.

On our way south to the Antarctic Peninsula we stop by the South Shetland Islands and make our first landing at Fort Point. The spectacular 85 m high rocky outcrop that forms the Southeast extremity of Greenwich Island. A rough scenery combining sheer cliffs resembling a fortress, boulder beaches, calving glacier fronts, and a Nunatak sticking out of them. Home for both Gentoo and Chinstrap penguin rookeries and at the shoreline some Weddell seals are taking an afternoon nap in the sun. In addition to whales Happy Whale is also interested in Weddell seals. The Weddel seals spots on belly are unique to each individual and the photos are used to study Weddel seal movement along the Antarctic Peninsula.

The Secchi Disk study.
Finally reaching Antarctic waters and starting to explore this incredible unique and pristine landscape and wildlife. Bark Europa is safely anchored and the voyage crew are about to explore the glacier front of Trooz in a zodiac cruise. Just before the cruise we made a short stop in Collins Bay where we were able to launch the Secchi Disc for the first time.

The Secchi Disk study is the world’s largest citizen science study of phytoplankton. The collected data are building a long-term database of phytoplankton abundance across all oceans that will be used to study the effects of a changing climate on phytoplankton abundance and the wider marine ecosystem.

Phytoplankton are microscopic algae that float in the ocean currents, they are similar to terrestrial plants in that they contain chlorophyll and require sunlight in order to live and grow. Phytoplankton also require inorganic nutrients such as nitrates, phosphates, and sulfur which they convert into proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Phytoplankton are at the base of the marine food chain and are one of the most important life forms in the ocean, as it determines the amount of other marine life from small crustaceans (such as krill) to fish to seabirds, seals and whales. Phytoplankton produces 70% of the oxygen in the atmosphere
Helps regulate atmosphere by fixing CO₂, nitrogen.

Research has suggested that phytoplankton have declined in abundance by 40% globally between 1960 to 2010 due to climate change.

Citizen Science studies are a unique way to collect global data that could not be obtained otherwise, and especially from less visited Polar regions. This is why the collaboration between Bark Europa and The Polar Citizen Science is important and by engaging in these projects, we help scientists to gather data from remote locations and at the same time hand our voyage crew an additional hands-on educational aspect during their trip. Hopefully it will enhance their experience even more than this breathtaking and serene place already does.

Geschreven door:
Regitze Andersen | Researcher



Mooie combi en zo een bewustzijn creeëren.

Hilde  |  17-01-2023 17:00 uur

Bijzonder om op deze manier studies uit te voeren en leuk om de visitors erbij te betrekken, om nooit te vergeten.

Inez  |  17-01-2023 16:36 uur

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