Updates from the Icy Field: Antarctica 2024
January 31, 2024
Point Blue researchers have been working in Antarctica for over 50 years to discover, understand, and measure the main drivers of ecosystem change in the Southern Ocean, as part of a global community of researchers drawn to this relatively pristine “natural laboratory.” We maintain a research station at Cape Crozier and while our main project focuses on Adélie penguin populations in the Ross Sea as a model organism representing this ecosystem, we also study other bird species, whales, and seals, in addition to the physical environment. Our science and leadership were critical in the 2017 establishment of the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area, which is the largest MPA on the planet.
As we shared in our announcement in 2022, we have offered our supporters and community the opportunity to take a trip of a lifetime and explore wildlife, habitats, and critical questions we’re asking at this vital location on our planet. Right now, over 40 Point Blue community members, including myself and our Chief Science Officer Dr. Grant Ballard, are on the trip. I’m documenting our experiences and insights along the way and sharing them here with you. We’ll update this blog post as the trip progresses from our first day on February 1st to our last on February 7th.
Although Antarctica is a place with unparalleled natural beauty, it is still a desolate and inhospitable part of our planet. Expeditions to the Antarctic require a serious commitment to personal safety and environmental protection. The first day of our journey began with a 2-hour flight from Punta Arenas, Chile, and had to this point consisted of a hard landing on a gravel runway on King George Island (the closest part of the Antarctic continent to Chile), a day long voyage across the Bransfield Straight to bring us to the Antarctic peninsula, and quite a few safety trainings. So far we have had the company of various chinstrap penguins, humpback and minke whales, and many icebergs. Our spirits are high on this wonderful journey witnessing not only a place of ultimate natural beauty but also on the leading edge of the impacts of climate change.
On our second day of our voyage we set foot on the actual Antarctic continent along the Antarctic peninsula at Portal Point. The morning was spent hiking around Weddell and Antarctic Fur Seals where we then climbed to the nearby ridge and surveyed the magical beauty that is the Antarctic. Under rare partly sunny skies the majesty of the surrounding glaciers was breathtaking. In the afternoon we proceeded to Wilhelmina Bay which is during this time a year an important feeding ground for Humpback Whales. On small boats in the water we were able to move closer and get a better look at these magnificent creatures without disturbing them in their natural habitat. Obviously there were many bird sightings, which included the South Polar Skua, Antarctic Petrel, Antarctic Tern and Kelp Gull.
On the third day of our journey we passed through the beautiful Neumayer Channel and landed among the many Gentoo penguin colonies on Damoy Point on Weinke Island. Having the opportunity to walk among various of the many breeding locations of these magnificent creatures was transformative. Soon after we returned to our ship and sailed through the narrow Lemaire Channel which is unparalleled in the magnificent scenery offered by the towering ice covered peaks. Past the channel we anchored in Pleneau Bay and on smaller Zodiak or Kayak boats we explored the “iceberg graveyard” within the bay. Besides the amazingly sculpted icebergs that fill this bay, we were surrounded by Gentoo penguins swimming along our boats and were able to observe various Leopard, Weddell and Crabeater seals, as well as the beautiful Antarctic birds, including both the Antarctic and Arctic species of Terns.
On the fourth day of our journey, we began heading back north. In the morning we stopped on the continent again at Neko Harbor to visit various Geentoo penguin colonies. This location provided a unique opportunity to be much closer to these adorable creatures and watch them take care of their young and migrate via the many “penguin highways” to the beach to search out for food. This location also offered an opportunity to hike to high point along the ice ledges to take in the spectacular beauty of the harbor. In the afternoon we experienced rough seas and gale force winds (above 40 mph) which canceled our remaining field excursions for the day. The strong weather continued through the night which was a powerful reminder of the harsh conditions that dominate this beautiful region.
Part two of the rough seas adventure. Severe winds continued to make sea travel an adventure throughout the night. Loud bangs from small icebergs hitting the ship (growlers and bergy bits) along the way made for challenging sleeping. In the morning all expeditions were canceled as we searched for less treacherous waters. Finally in the late afternoon we stopped at Half Moon Island to visit a large colony of Chinstrap penguins. This small respite from the strong waves was very welcomed. This day was the last of our excursion with an overnight trip planned to our original landing point, Freí Station at King George Island to await a window of clear weather to fly back to Punta Arenas.
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