Science for a Blue Planet

Featuring cutting-edge work, discoveries, and challenges of our scientists, our partners, and the larger conservation science community.

Antarctica 2020-21: An Unusual Season

This update on our conservation work in Antarctica comes to you from the only three biologists that were able to go this past season due to restrictions with the COVID-19 global pandemic. We start with some video field updates from Seasonal Field Technician Parker Levinson and then we hear from Antarctic Program Director Dr. Annie Schmidt and Chief Science Officer Dr. Grant Ballard. Enjoy!

From Parker Levinson, Seasonal Field Technician

Parker gives us three updates from the field below: two on how we monitor penguin chicks and nests and one on how we gather gear at the end of the season. Learn more about Parker’s journey in this recent Northwestern article.

From Dr. Annie Schmidt, Antarctica Program Director

Antarctica Program Leader Annie Schmidt carrying a drone. Photo by Parker Levinson.

Point Blue’s 25th season (my 8th season) researching Adélie penguins in Antarctica was a season of paradoxes: stressful, peaceful, disorienting, grounding, invigorating. Our study on Adélie penguin populations was designated by the US Antarctic Program in the very small, top tier of science to support this season. However, COVID restrictions meant we could only have three people deploy. Our tiny team was challenged with maintaining the integrity and consistency of our ongoing work at two different breeding colonies on Ross Island, while still managing to innovate and move important research questions forward.

One of our major tasks this year was to redesign the brand new multi-drone system we had deployed with a full team of 5 people the previous year, to be able to deploy with only two people. As part of the redesign, we had to figure out how to safely carry our drones (nicknamed “waddles”) from our camp to the survey area. We came up with a method we termed the “waddle swaddle”, carrying the drones on our chests like a swaddled baby (see photo).

Turned out to be pretty effective! We successfully performed two surveys of the entire Cape Crozier Adélie colony, one of the largest in the world, and four surveys at the smaller Cape Royds breeding colony. In the years before we brought drones to assist us, these surveys would be done via a human taking photos from a helicopter and counting the penguins from these images was a painstaking process. Now, with drones snapping high-resolution pictures that will be analyzed by artificial intelligence to count penguins, we are on our way to having a population estimate as soon as one day after the survey!

Adelie Penguin on its nest with chicks at the Cape Crozier colony in Antarctica. Credit: Parker Levinson.

The penguins, to my great relief, seemed to know nothing about the disarray in the world beyond, and continued to arrive, court, lay eggs, and raise their chicks. By their standards, it was a pretty average year: the number of nests held steady at both Cape Crozier (~300,000) and Cape Royds (~2300), and the number of chicks produced was just below one per pair.

Perhaps most importantly it was a season of gratitude. Gratitude for the opportunity to spend another season with the penguins, gratitude for the ability to continue monitoring the changing Antarctic environment, gratitude for all the foresight and hard work from the many Point Blue scientists and collaborators that have contributed to what has become a study with global significance. And then there is gratitude for my team, a team that responded to extraordinary requests in an extraordinary year with extraordinary grace.

From Dr. Grant Ballard, Chief Science Officer

Written in mid-December, 2020, about halfway through the 2020-21 Antarctica field season, which happens during what passes for summer at the bottom of the Southern hemisphere. While it was written for a group of other researchers familiar with the projects, conditions, and terminology associated with our Antarctica work, we thought it might be interesting to share with a broader audience.

Grant troubleshoots the “penguincam” at Cape Royds. The penguincam has been installed at Cape Royds for more than 10 years but is showing signs of age. Photo by Annie Schmidt

I’m back at McMurdo after spending a month at our primary study site at Cape Crozier (with 4 day-trips to Cape Royds). Parker Levinson, Seasonal Field Technician, has just joined Annie Schmidt, Point Blue’s Antarctica Program Lead at Crozier, with Parker having completed her field-season with the Weddell seal team. Overall things are going well at Crozier with more Emperor chicks and more Adélie penguins again this year. We counted 2,016 Emperor chicks which is the high count since numbers have been tracked starting in 1960. Adelies are colonizing new areas at Crozier, or at least areas that have not been used in more than 25 years. Chicks started hatching on December 5th. Skuas seem to be present in higher than usual numbers as well. Have seen groups of more than 10 minke whales and more than 20 killer whales frequently. A southern fulmar has been roosting on Sugarloaf and occasionally flies around and visits us. Groups of snow petrels continue to fly towards Ainley Peak, raising questions of where they might be heading.

At Cape Royds, numbers remain low relative to the long-term average again this year (2,204 occupied territories on Nov 21 – only counted once so far, so consider that provisional – also still need to count the second survey from Dec 1; compares to 2,330 last year and 2,718 the year before). Yesterday we saw several chicks there, including at least one brood of 2, and many eggs pipping. A relatively small leopard seal was seen at Royds 2 out of the last 3 visits (sleeping yesterday, eating penguins previously).

Other than some issues with the penguincam, technology has been working for us pretty well this year – the weighbridge at Crozier has been in place and running well since Nov. 16. The first round of drone surveys went smoothly, with some re-inventing of how to do it at Crozier necessary given the small crew-size (with thanks to Kunal for ongoing updates to the flight-planning software). Where it took us only 2.5 hours last year, it ended up taking 8.5 hours, but most of that was in hiking (only a little over 2 hours of flying required) so that pilots could act as observers while piloting.

Learn more about our Antarctica science by visiting our Oceans web section.