Do you ever have those dreams where you’re juuussssst about to do something incredible, but then suddenly wake up? That’s sort of what every day of the last month has been like while waiting to hear if our research team is, in fact, deploying to Antarctica. In truth, we still don’t really know if the ice will be stable enough to safely live and work on, but for now we are at least half-way to our dream field-season studying emperor penguins at Cape Crozier in Antarctica.
The waiting period has kept us on the edge of our seats with numerous moving parts that could cancel our plans. A big priority, and one that we could at least do something about from home, was to avoid contracting Covid-19. Our team has been in a self-imposed quarantine for the last month (thank goodness for furry companions and HBO!) to make sure that the lingering global pandemic would not stand in our way again. In 2020, New Zealand closed its doors to outsiders in hopes of waiting out the covid storm, and our research along with many other Antarctic projects was put on hold. A year later our plans were postponed yet again due to the long backlog of isolated researchers eager to leave their desks and get back to work in Antarctica. This year, we had priority but still feared delay due to positive covid tests.
Perhaps the most torturous part of the self-imposed quarantine, was waiting for our GO/NO GO date two weeks before departure to New Zealand (the Antarctic deployment hub) and not knowing whether all our efforts where futile. While you might think the penguin team would be getting better at waiting to return to our huddle at Cape Crozier, this could not be farther from the truth. Several days past the GO/NO GO date, we had heard nothing about our fates, but had acquired some promising images of the sea ice around Cape Crozier. Sadly, some of our colleagues working in McMurdo Sound had already been canceled due to unstable ice conditions, but with the satellite images, we began to feel hopeful that the ice at Cape Crozier was in good shape. Our team leader, Gitte McDonald, explained that all the “muddy” looking ice was a great indication that our penguin friends had initiated their breeding season in April, and had likely been happily pooping away and staining the ice ever since. Poopy ice, means stable ice. Eventually, we received communication that a helicopter wasn’t available to confirm our hypothesis, but that we should at least plan to proceed to New Zealand.
The next hurdle was that we were scheduled to leave the following week but hadn’t received any flight tickets. With so many people returning to the ice and the busiest season yet, the logistics support teams had been working overtime to coordinate flights and we hadn’t risen to the top of the list yet. Three days before our team had already packed bags and repacked them many times (okay let’s be honest, I think I was the only one packing multiple times), my computer in the adjacent room audibly blinged letting me know an email was waiting. Could it finally be the email we’d been waiting for since 2020? Were we going to Antarctica?
While the past 233 email messages I received elicited a drop-everything-and-run to the computer response, including my favorite mug and my iPad (R.I.P.), this time was different. I told myself it could not be the Antarctic program, not at this time of night and not after not hearing anything since early this last summer. I gently placed the valuable items I had in my hands down and slowly made my way to the computer where my inbox read:“Scheduled flight to Christchurch New Zealand tomorrow October 8th” – US Antarctic Program (USAP).”
My jaw dropped – we were leaving in 24 hours! I felt absolutely elated but tempered with a healthy dose of panic as I repacked my bag for the last time and condensed all my pre-departure chores into half the time I’d anticipated. But finally, we are that much closer to going to Antarctica!
The next day our team met at a central location in Santa Cruz to wait for our Uber shuttle to the San Francisco (SFO) airport. As our bags aggregated on the curb, our Uber to the airport canceled last-minute and we executed our backup plan. Our new hero, Jenny (a longtime friend of Gitte and an experienced Antarctic researcher), crammed all of us and our gear into her 2008 Tundra and rushed us over Highway 17 to SFO. With tickets and passports in hand and carry-on bags full of our science tools (dataloggers, power cords, multiple computers…oh my…) we boarded our plane to Auckland, New Zealand. After a bumpy 13-hour flight across the Pacific we landed in Auckland and made our way through customs. Maybe not everyone finds customs to be fun, but I love it, especially when they tear apart my meticulously packed bag to find all the science treasures inside. This time customs left all my gear as it was.
As we exited customs we heard: “Birgitte McDonald, Caitlin Kroeger, and Parker Forman……last call for flight A567 to Christchurch the Gate will be closing in 17 minutes”.
With the speed of penguins being chased by a pod of killer whales, some luck, one lost water bottle in transit, a whole lot of perspiration, and running (literally, running) on fumes, the penguin team made our connecting flight to Christchurch with one minute to spare. Now in Christchurch, a city located on the southern tip of New Zealand’s larger island and the hub for many traveling to Antarctica, we are patiently waiting for our flight to Antarctica.
After many years waiting the penguin team is almost there!
Hidden Lives of Emperor Penguins
Despite being the first emperor penguin colony discovered in 1902 during Scott’s Discovery Expedition (1901–1904) little is known about the at-sea behavior of emperor penguins from Cape Crozier. The first scientific expedition to study them was in 1911, when a small group from Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition team made the perilous journey to the colony in the winter to collect eggs. Since this early study, most research at the Crozier colony has involved counting the birds to monitor the population. In the Fall of 2019, we headed to Cape Crozier to study the foraging ecology of one of the southernmost emperor penguin colonies, and after two years of delays due to the Covid pandemic, we are excited to be returning to Cape Crozier this year to complete the study. We hope that you will follow along on our adventure as we prepare for the fieldwork, travel to Antarctica to study the birds, and analyze the data. We look forward to sharing with you new discoveries about the ecology of the emperors of the ice.
Emperor penguins, the largest species of marine birds, are an abundant year-round predator in the Antarctic ecosystem. Like other predators, they are vulnerable to environmental change that impacts ecosystem productivity: these changes permeate through the food web and modify foraging behavior, and ultimately survival and reproduction. Despite their importance in the Ross Sea ecosystem, relatively little is known about Ross Sea emperor penguins’ foraging ecology and habitat use. Developing a comprehensive understanding of these metrics for penguins in the Ross Sea is imperative for predicting how climate change will impact emperor penguin populations and foraging ecology, and understanding the impacts of these changes on the Ross Sea ecosystem.
To understand their role in the ecosystem and how this may shift with environmental change, it is imperative to learn what food sources are important to them and how hard they have to work to get a meal. Our collaborative project is investigating the foraging ecology and habitat use of Ross Sea emperor penguins during late chick-rearing, an energetically challenging phase of the life cycle when parents must meet the demands of their rapidly growing chicks. We will tag the penguins with dataloggers (small electronic devices) to find out where they go in the ocean and how deep they dive to find food. Additionally, we will be measuring how many calories they need and collecting guano samples (poop) to learn more about their diet. This study will fill important knowledge gaps on the energy balance, diet, and habitat use of emperor penguins during this critical time.
Additionally, while our focus is on emperor penguin foraging ecology, this project is part of a large-scale project, “Ross Sea Research and Monitoring Programme: is the world’s largest MPA effective?” This collaborative project’s goal is to characterize the Ross Sea Ecosystem as it is now (baseline) and develop and apply methods that can measure long-term changes for the purpose of testing Marine Protected Area effectiveness.
Funding and logistical support
This is an internationally collaborative project with funding and logistic support provided by the National Science Foundation (CAREER Grant #: 1943559), Antarctica New Zealand, and funding provided to NIWA as part of the project “Ross Sea Research and Monitoring Programme: is the world’s largest MPA effective” (New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment).
Permit for penguins in snow storm: US Antarctic Treaty Permit (2011−016).
Penguin going in water with tag on: US Antarctic Treaty Permit (2013-006).
MS in Marine Science: Physiological Ecology of Emperor Penguins
The survival and success of marine predators depends on their ability to locate prey in a heterogeneous environment. To do this the predators need to be able to adjust their foraging behavior depending on the conditions they encounter, particularly in a changing environment. As ice-dependent top predators, Emperor Penguins are indicators of both drastic and subtle changes occurring throughout the food web and the state of the sea ice. Like other predators, they are vulnerable to environmental change: these changes permeate through the food web, modifying foraging behavior, and ultimately survival and reproduction. Despite their importance in the Southern Ocean ecosystem, relatively little is known about the mechanisms Emperor Penguins use to find and acquire food. This National Science Foundation funded project combines a suite of technological and analytical tools to gain essential knowledge on Emperor Penguin foraging energetics, ecology, and habitat use during critical periods in their life history. Specifically, we will investigate the foraging energetics, ecology, and habitat use of Emperor Penguins at Cape Crozier, the 2nd most southern colony, during late chick-rearing. Energy management is particularly crucial during late chick-rearing as parents need to feed both themselves and their rapidly growing offspring, while being constrained to regions near the colony. The masters student will complete a thesis that contributes to the projects goal. Two years of NSF-funded tuition and stipend support are available for the selected student.
- Either a bachelor’s degree in Biology, Physiology, or Ecology with skills in quantitative analyses, or a bachelor’s degree in Statistics or Mathematics with documented experience in biology.
- Research experience
- Excellent spoken and written communication skills
- The ability to work independently and work well as part of a team
- Field experience, ideally with seabirds or marine mammals
- Experience with R or MatLab
Interested candidates should email a cover letter with your research interests and experience, a CV, unofficial transcripts, and GRE scores (if available) to Dr. Gitte McDonald (email@example.com). Qualified candidates will be contacted to discuss the project and program further and encouraged to apply to the MS program (Due Feb 1, 2021). Emails with required attachments received before December 1, 2020 will receive first consideration, but the position will remain open until a student is selected.
Wheels on Ice!
The Emperor Penguin Team successfully departed Christchurch on Monday October 21st and arrived at Scott Base, Ross Island, Antarctica . Our flight on the C-17 was an easy 5 hours and the views from the fixed window were marvelous. As we approached Antarctica the plane started to get colder forcing all of the passengers to put on our extreme weather gear. Landing on ice was smoother than I had anticipated especially considering the great weight of the plane and contents including a full size helicopter, packed cargo and passengers. The C-17 landed and the passengers excitedly grabbed their things and started to exit the plane. Since the plane did not have many windows in the seating area our steps through the plane door were our first view of Antarctica.
For those of us who had never been to Antarctica before the views were quite literally breathtaking as the dry cold air filled our lungs. For others who have been here before, I can imagine this never gets old. In the distance we could see Mt. Erebus and Mt Discovery. We had a short walk on the ice to the large transport vehicle called a Kress. We boarded the Kress and after a safety briefing all the passengers buckled in and we were a short 30-minute drive to Scott Base. Once at Scott Base we received a tour of the well-maintained facilities and met with the staff to plan our busy week of preparations including our Antarctic Field Training (AFT) that involved an overnight stay on the ice.
AFT Overnight Oct. 22nd
As part of our field training we learned to use our primus stoves, set up tents, and safety procedures for working in cold and unpredictable environments. Following our training we then prepared our gear for our overnight stay on the ice shelf. We loaded all our gear on sleds and pulled them by hand for a half hour. We learned to drill ice cores and assess the stability of ice which involved first digging a hole in the snow about a meter and a half deep. Once we reached the ice-surface we used a Kovac-drill to burrow through the ice. We determined that the ice was stable enough to set up camp as it fell within the 70cm+ regulated thickness. Following the assessment, we proceeded to set up three Scott Tents and two mountaineering tents rated to withstand the worst weather conditions (Grade 1). Emperor penguin team member Markus created a much-appreciated wind break and cooking area for the crew. With wind chill the temperature dropped as low as -36 degrees Celsius. We set up our tents, enjoyed a nice dehydrated meal, filled our water bottles with hot water, and headed to our beds. Exhaustion made sleeping very easy after this long day.
Recon Flight Success Oct 23rd
Gitte and Markus flew out to Cape Crozier today via helicopter to plan out our field camp location and locate the penguin colony. Good news the emperor penguin colony was located and estimated numbers are around 1,500 individuals. They were also able to locate a secure spot perfect for our camp. We are scheduled to fly out and set up camp on Monday October 28th.
Expedition Gear Preparation
For the last four days we have been busy gathering, weighing, putting together 5 helicopter loads full of essential gear we require while at remote camping at Cape Crozier for 3-4 weeks. Gear includes food for 5 weeks, 9 tents, generator, cutlery, sleeping gear and everything that we may require for daily use. It has been very busy and exciting packing all of our gear as we carefully plan what we will need for the next four weeks.
We also have been field testing our data-logging tags in the cold conditions and everything is looking good and ready for Monday.
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Camp Set up at Crozier also known as “Camp Huddle”
Gitte’s penguin team successfully arrived at Cape Crozier on October the 28th. Our field notes may be a little behind as they are being carried out by gracious visitors who are kind enough to carry our messages back to civilization. Early in the morning the penguin team took flight in a helicopter piloted by Heff a stoic man with many years of experience flying in Antarctica. The flight from Scott Base to Cape Crozier took about 30 minutes and we had incredible views of Mt. Erebus (12,448 ft, 3794 m). We started to gain elevation as we flew over a glacier and wrapped around a bend. Heff agilely redirected the helicopter as we dropped off the glacier and back onto the sea ice. That is when Parker and David saw their first Antarctic penguin: the mighty Adele. The land side of Cape Crozier happens to be the location of one of the largest Adele colonies. I would love to google the exact number maybe those of you reading this blog can fill that bit of information for me (my best guess is ~250,000). We also saw our first emperor penguins walking and tobogganing on the ice (more information will follow with regards to how amazing these penguins are in future updates). I digress, Heff quickly turned the helicopter and the location of our Camp was first seen. Camp Huddle is located in a “finger” (a small cove located between where fast ice and sea ice meet) of fast ice. This location is relatively protected compared to other areas but the surrounding deep blue ice indicates that this area does receive heavy winds but not on a nice day like today. The weather was perfect for setting up our camp with high visibility and relatively warm temperatures at -7 degrees Celsius.
We set up camp five polar haven tents for each of five members of the crew including Sam who is helping us establish a safe camp and walk way to the colony. We erected a medium “Polar Haven” which has a heater and is the area we will be spending most of our time when it is cold. We a great kitchen set up and a nice table that serves multiple uses such dining table and data entry portal. We also set up a bathroom tent which is a classic Scott Tent. Since we are camping on sea ice all of the structures we have at Camp Huddle required us to drill holes on the ice and anchor each corner via “V thread” method as Gitte is demonstrating in the adjacent image. The basic concept of V threading requires two drill holes that connect in the ice. A rope is then place through the opening of both drilled holes and is fastened to the corner and sides of each structure. If you thought setting up a tent was difficult on land, consider drilling 230 V thread and hand tying each knot. Luckily the weather was great and we did not have to set up camp in the wind. Cape Crozier is notoriously experiencing some of the most extreme weather on the planet. Camp Huddle is fasted to the ice at Cape Crozier and we are ready to start our penguin captures within the next few days. We had a wonderful first dinner and headed to bed exhausted and excited to finally arrive at our destination.
Penguin Field Crew
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Emperor penguins are the largest species of marine bird, and perhaps because of their size, they fast longer, dive deeper, and endure harsher conditions than any other avian species. As a top predator in the Antarctic ecosystem, they have a significant top-down effect on prey targeted during long, deep breath-hold dives. It is therefore essential to understand emperor penguin habitat use, diving capabilities, food habits, and behavioral flexibility in order to interpret their role in the food web and their ability to adapt to environmental change. However, studying marine vertebrates has its challenges, as we cannot visually observe their underwater behavior.
During late chick-rearing emperor penguins, a colonial breeding seabird, alternate 5-20+ day foraging trips with short visits to the colony to feed their chicks. During these foraging trips they may travel over 100 kms from the colony and dive to depths exceeding 500 meters for over 30 minutes(Kooyman et al. 1992; Wienecke et al. 2007; K. Sato et al. 2011; Goetz et al. 2018)! Incredible!!
Although researchers may not be able follow penguins on their extreme journeys, engineered data-logging tools (tags) allow us to track animals at fine-scale resolutions. This season we are deploying tags on 20 adult emperor penguins as they head to sea to forage. Four tag types of variable configurations will be used to study at-sea behavior. Some of the data these tags collect include dive depth, acceleration, GPS location, and video allowing us to determine where they go, when they are foraging, and what they are eating. Additionally, the tags collect data telling us about the environment the penguins are using such as temperature and light level. With these data loggers we hope to document many firsts. This will be the first study to document the foraging behavior of penguins from Cape Crozier, one of the southernmost colonies. Additionally, we are excited to visually document the foraging behavior of emperor penguins for the first time using a miniature video-logger developed by Little Leonardo Corporation in Tokyo. We will learn more about what they are eating and how they are catching their prey.
To further our understanding of the hidden lives of emperor penguins we must go where few have gone before.
Emperor Penguin Field Crew
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Flight to Scott Base Postponed: 10/16/19
Fingers crossed for a Friday departure to Scott Base
The Cape Crozier Penguin Team arrived safe and sound in Christchurch New Zealand where we are waiting for our flight to Scott Base, Antarctica. We were scheduled to fly today, however we have been delayed due to a cracked windshield on the plane. Currently our flight has been postponed until Friday Oct. 18th as we are waiting for a new windshield to arrive from the USA.
In the meantime, the penguin team has been busy planning our field logistics so that we may hit the ground running on Friday. Today we are setting up our data-logging tags that will measure the GPS location, acceleration and fine-scale foraging behaviors of chick-rearing emperor penguins. Stay tuned for more information about the tags we will be using this season.
Proactively in standby,
Emperor Penguin Field Crew
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Arrived in Christchurch New Zealand: 10/14/19
Emperor Penguin Crew Lands In Christchurch New Zealand
The Penguin Team has landed in New Zealand after a 12 hour long flight from San Francisco to Aukland and a quick (1.5 hr) connecting flight to Christchurch. While in Christchurch we visited the International Antarctic Center where we were issued our clothing field gear for this season. A New Zealand rep "Lou" helped us out with our clothing selections that include warm marino wool base layers, 6 pairs of gloves, 4 hats, two pair of boots, fleece pants and down jackets, and incredibly warm survival gear. We are ready for our trip scheduled to leave at 9am on Wednesday October 19th.
Warm and ready for the Ice,
Emperor Penguin Field Crew