Author Archives: penguintom

The name is Island, Danger Island…

Wow – hard month to sum up!

28th Dec, 2015

Once again, I’m on the Hans Hansson, but this time joined by a consortium of researchers who really want to get to the Danger Islands – it’s one of the biggest uncertainties in our estimates of change in penguin abundance around Antarctica. They are hard to reach and we think they are covered in Adelie penguins. So, when the going gets tough, we call on Dion and Juliette to get us there…

Dion and Juliette have brought on Alec and Gizelle from Pelagic, another Antarctic yacht, and the science team is a consortium of Mike Polito’s lab (Mike’s lab), Heather Lynch’s (Heather’s lab) and Stef Jenouvrier’s (Stef’s lab) plus Steve and Melissa from Oceanites. It’s a bonanza of experienced Antarcticans on a mission to fill in one of the last big gaps in Antarctic biology. It’s sponsored by the Dalio Fund out of Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institution and we’ve got quite a lot riding on it! Gemma Clucas has joined me from Southampton University, but unusually we are acting as one big team rather than a small Penguin Lifelines unit.

The Danger Islands are surrounded by dense sea ice for much of the penguin breeding season, which partly explains why they have not been surveyed, despite being in the relatively populated part of the Antarctic Peninsula, with lots of scientific bases nearby. We wanted to try a light and fast approach with a small ship, which meant sneaking in when the ice looked right and running away as soon as it got scary. The islands are called the Danger Islands because they are surrounded by deep water and the first explorers found them in low visibility with no idea from their soundings that they were so close to land. The charting has not go much better – for most of the time we were navigating over white space with no idea of depth or indication of rocks. Times like that, you go very slowly and keep an eye out for unexpected waves that might signal shallow water.

An Adelie penguin in deep snow

An Adelie penguin in deep snow

Well, over several weeks, we managed to land all of the the Danger Islands and count what felt like a million penguins. It’s more than was thought, that’s for sure. There’s now some archive work and a lot of comparison to satellite images to do, but we’ve almost certainly found a load of new colonies as well. The challenge is to work out which were known and if there’s been any change.

A new camera up on Heroina, recording penguin activity I hope for the next 5 years.

A new camera up on Heroina, recording penguin activity I hope for the next 5 years.

Then Hans Hansson sailing past Comb Island, the fortress-like rock next to Beagle Island.

Then Hans Hansson sailing past Comb Island, the fortress-like rock next to Beagle Island.

All in all, another great success and a very happy team! It’s great to reach these places and even better to leave in one piece.

Happy Christmas, everyone!

Update from the Arctic

More from Penguin Watch is imminent, but I thought you’d like to get an update from the “wrong” end of the world. I got swamped and have neglected the blog, so here are some photos from a trip to Svalbard for kittiwake and guillemot research. This is very different to penguin lifelines as this is more via collaborating with many other fieldworkers around the Arctic.

Mark Jessopp (from the CMRC in Ireland http://www.cmrc.ie/dr-mark-jessopp.html) and I placed and serviced a couple of cameras on Svalbard, with Quark again on the Sea Adventurer. It was great to be on with a bunch of friends and really great to work with Woody and Annie. Most importantly, the camera we placed last year was still there!

More coming on this in the next few months; we’re revamping penguin watch to be more useful for colony counts and to go beyond penguins. Stay tuned!

Tom and Mark celebrate a camera that survived the winter - we didn't really expect that!

Tom and Mark celebrate a camera that survived the winter – we didn’t really expect that!

South Georgia, mon amor.

Hi All,

23rd November, 2015

Well, here we are once again bobbing around the Southern Ocean. We’re on board the Hans Hansson in South Georgia, with Tom Murphy and 10 guests from Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris. All made possible by the legendary team of Dion, Juliette and Leif. Caitlin is with me as we return to last year’s sites to see how the cameras have performed.

Shags nesting on the wreck of the Bayard in Ocean Harbour

Shags nesting on the wreck of the Bayard in Ocean Harbour

With a lot of time on South Georgia, we have managed to return to all of the sites we got to last year. We’re getting some phenomenal imagery back from the cameras, which look like really good data. In particular, the new seal cameras have been a great success, we can now follow the reproductive success of elephant seals and fur seals.

Here’s a snippet from Ocean Harbour, which is a foraging camera. It takes photos every minute when penguins are raising chicks. That allows us to work out the length of foraging trips and potentially the feeding rate of chicks. You can see a changeover of partners start to happen in this clip.

Next up, Caitlin will join the Ocean Endeavour with Quark, to be joined by Anni Djurhuis and Hila Levy. I stay on board the Hans Hansson joining a team attempting the first survey of the Danger Islands.

WOW! People love counting penguins!

Penguin Watch (www.penguinwatch.org) is live – tell your friends, children etc! Already wonderful volunteers have classified about 8000 images to completion (when several people’s clicks agree, the image gets retired).

Thanks so much to Quark Expeditions, who have donated a trip to Antarctica. The hope is that this will really get the message out and encourage new people to take part.

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As I get time, I’ll post some of the most interesting pictures that people are flagging up as interesting, curious or beautiful.

To start, here’s Port Lockroy in an Autumnal blizzard:

http://zooniverse-static.s3.amazonaws.com/www.penguinwatch.org/subjects/standard/5538bbb9ab760304c9011607.JPG

Probably gentoos returning from the sea at Petermann – we tried a highway camera a little while ago:

Also, people are flagging up images that are out of the ordinary, like this. The unexpected can be particularly interesting:

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A sheathbill on Danco Island in the middle of winter- definitely not meant to be here!

Thanks to everyone out there who is clicking, and to dedicated volunteers like Zsuzi, AvastMH, NickyPeng and Vroni, the superusers who have been moderating everyone on this.

Thank you!

Home from the sea.

We’re all back, and now is the less glamorous, but arguably more important part of the year. Everyone has caught up on sleep, friends and family and mostly cleaned and repaired the kit for next year.

Nice clean clothing! It gets to stay this way until October...

Nice clean clothing! It gets to stay this way until October…

Now we’re focused on processing the 1/2 million plus data points, and turning this into useful science for policy. This is particularly pressing amid debates as to what is next for the krill fishery:

http://www.centredaily.com/2015/03/19/4659789/china-fishing-plan-in-antarctica.html

Meanwhile, we have ongoing outreach activities where we’re teaching kids about penguins and what it’s like to live and work in Antarctica. Mostly, they love trying on over-sized clothing.

Education and outreach: teaching kids about penguins at WOWHOW? in Oxford.

Education and outreach: teaching kids about penguins at WOWHOW? in Oxford.

It's important to buy shoes with room to grow.

It’s important to buy shoes with room to grow.

Last trip – on the way home.

Well, this is the final trip of the season – we’ve had an incredible run and the amount of data we’ve collected is truly staggering! I’m pretty exhausted, so while it will be sad to leave Antarctica and amazing friends, it will be nice to catch up with friends back home and start to go through the data. After all, there needs to be a point to all this gallivanting!

On that note, Eamonn Maguire has joined me – he’s a computer visualization guru, who’s helping us translate images into policy ready graphics and output. He’s also a penguin nut who’s happy to trade in the computer lab for snow and real penguins.

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Eamonn with the camera on a stick. This is on Gaston Island – a new one to us, but a great new Chinstrap colony which is in a really useful place on the peninsula to monitor. In general, Chinstraps are doing very badly on the peninsula, so the more of these we can monitor across a range, the more we might be able to work out why.

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Another camera on a stick – seeing if I can get an aerial view of whales. They didn’t play ball.

As we head up the Beagle Channel for the last time this season, I say goodbye to the amazing crew of the Ocean Diamond, at least until next year. These guys are the best; Woody and the team have kept us safe, worked with us and given a huge amount of support to us over this season. Thanks guys!

Also, I’d like to thank everyone who has adopted a colony over this season, or offered kind words of support. We need all that to keep going!

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The Antarctic Peninsula in Glorious Sunshine.

While I hate to give the impression that this is all fun and games, we’ve been having some wonderful weather here.

It’s the penultimate trip and Hila is on board, who has just started a DPhil (PhD) in monitoring diseases in penguins. It’s not her first experience of penguins; she did an MSc on gentoo penguins and after a break in the real world (as if!), she’s now expanding to more penguins and to policy – relevant monitoring.

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We just got back to last year’s satellite camera on the Yalour Islands and serviced it. It was still transmitting a month ago, but it looks like Al will now have to reboot it from London. We installed a new battery, so fingers crossed it will be good for at least another year. The idea is that these cameras will be good enough to leave for three years at a time.

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“The most awful place in the world.” James Cook, 1775

“A scary, serious paradise of penguins.” Tom Hart, 2014

Chinstrap penguins porpoise off Candlemas Island, South Sandwich

Chinstrap penguins porpoise off Candlemas Island, South Sandwich

Hi All, usual apologies for the delay, lots has happened.

The team has been incredibly busy, mostly on the Antarctic Peninsula, but also around the Scotia Arc (South Georgia, South Sandwich, South Orkneys and the Peninsula). I’ll resume the story in Ushuaia. Caitlin Black has flown out back to the UK and Gemma Clucas from Southampton University has flown in. In addition to helping with the cameras, Gemma will also be collecting samples for her PhD.

The South Sandwich Islands are a chain of volcanoes that arc around from East of South Georgia to East of the South Orkney Islands. They are volcanic and all active to some degree. Because they lie in such rich krill waters, they are a paradise for penguins, with millions of chinstrap and Adelie penguins. I’m privileged enough to have been there twice before
(https://penguinlifelines.wordpress.com/2011/02/01/south-sandwich-islands/) and (https://penguinlifelines.wordpress.com/2013/11/15/gearing-up-for-saunders-south-sandwich-islands/) and I’m in love and terrified by these islands in equal parts.

A visualization of earthquakes since 1898 neatly outlines the Scotia Plate to the North of the Antarctic Peninsula http://uxblog.idvsolutions.com/2012/06/earthquakes-since-1898.html

A visualization of earthquakes since 1898 neatly outlines the Scotia Plate to the North of the Antarctic Peninsula
http://uxblog.idvsolutions.com/2012/06/earthquakes-since-1898.html

It’s almost completely unrepresented in the scientific literature, but is essential to understanding observed changes in the krill transport chain impact of fisheries on penguins further West.

We join the Sea Spirit in Ushuaia, with a new team we’ve heard a lot about, but not worked with.

The Sea Spirit in Royal Bay, South Georgia.

The Sea Spirit in Royal Bay, South Georgia.

A spectacular voyage lies ahead, visiting the Falklands and South Georgia before the South Sandwich. With such a spectacular prize, it’s difficult not to wish away the start. The weather is kind, with some rain and wind in the Falklands, but nothing bad.

Gentoo penguins in the Falklands

Gentoo penguins in the Falklands

West Point, Falkland Islands with Black Browed Albatross overhead.

West Point, Falkland Islands with Black Browed Albatross overhead.

On route to South Georgia, we manage a photo census of Shag Rocks; part of our ongoing effort to monitor more colonies and understand the Southern Ocean dynamics. Shags are particularly sensitive to disturbance, making them a vital indicator.

Carrying out a photo census of Shag Rocks in perfect conditions.

Carrying out a photo census of Shag Rocks in perfect conditions.

We had a blissful, perfect five days on South Georgia, managing to get back to some of the cameras we placed in October and conduct more photo censuses.

King penguins at Gold Harbour (Gemma Clucas)

King penguins at Gold Harbour (Gemma Clucas)

But, just as we were due to leave South Georgia, a really large storm came through. We delayed a little, departed, turned back and then finally got under way again. Captain Oleg made a great decision and after another day at sea, the familiar shape of Saunders Island appeared on the radar and on the horizon. Wow!

Steam rolls of the side of Saunders Island in the South Sandwich. The camera was upright, and was still working until 10 days before we arrived. We serviced it so that it should be good for another three years. At this point, we were trying to work out where the nearest humans were – probably on the International Space Station.

I can't quite believe being back - geothermal steam rolls up the hill past a massive colony of chinstrap penguins (Photo: Dave Riorden)

I can’t quite believe being back – geothermal steam rolls up the hill past a massive colony of chinstrap penguins (Photo: Dave Riorden)

Spring hits the South Sandwich Islands - an image from the seaward facing camera.

Spring hits the South Sandwich Islands – an image from the seaward facing camera.

We had two days in South Sandwich, revisiting Candlemas for the first time since the 2011 survey. We left with a wealth of data to go through and immense pride, not to mention exhaustion. Dr Jo was threatening sedation unless I slept by the end…

(Brown) Trousers Rock off Vindication Island in January 2011; what the South Sandwich Islands usually looks like.

(Brown) Trousers Rock off Vindication Island in January 2011; what the South Sandwich Islands usually looks like.

...and in December 2014 on an incredible, calm day.

…and in December 2014 on an incredible, calm day.

A spectacular iceberg of Vindication Island with a leopard seal patrolling. The seal was calling for a mate. When we turned off the engine, we could hear it through the bottom of the boat.

A spectacular iceberg of Vindication Island with a leopard seal patrolling. The seal was calling for a mate. When we turned off the engine, we could hear it through the bottom of the boat.

A king penguin in the middle of the Scotia Sea, miles from home.

A king penguin in the middle of the Scotia Sea, miles from home.

As if the South Sandwich Islands weren’t enough, the weather teases us with the possibility of a landing (and camera) at Elephant Island. I’ve attempted this four times and always been blown out. However, I should have had faith in Captain Oleg and the luck of the Sea Spirit! We landed and placed a camera, making the monitoring network I’ve been trying to create for the last five years essentially complete.

Thanks Team!  The Sea Spirit team at Point Wild, the overwintering site of Shackleton's men on the Endurance expedition.

Thanks Team!
The Sea Spirit team at Point Wild, the overwintering site of Shackleton’s men on the Endurance expedition.

Gemma and I leave the Sea Spirit in Ushuaia with a lot of new friends and some bewildering, spectacular shared experiences. Thanks guys – there’s no finer team in the Southern Ocean!

Hi Everyone,

Happy Christmas – I probably won’t get to update this again until just into the New Year, so let me send best wishes now. I’m in Ushuaia, mostly sleeping and recharging batteries (some literal, some metaphorical) before joining the Sea Spirit to go to the South Sandwich Islands with Quark Expeditions.

As you’ll have seen from Caitlin’s post, we had an amazing time on the Hans Hanson, an eighty-foot ex Nowegian Lifeboat run by Dion and Juliette on a trip along with Tom from Cheeseman’s Ecological Safaris.

Kings on ice at St Andrews Bay

Kings on ice at St Andrews Bay

We were traveling with ten adventurous tourists on a month long expedition from the Falklands to South Georgia and back to access sites we otherwise wouldn’t. The trip was absolutely amazing; breathtaking scenery on South Georgia at that time of year and the arrival of macaroni penguins was something I’ve not seen yet. I can’t thank everyone enough; we achieved so much and it’s going to be a very busy year trying to process all of the data from that trip!

On that note, I’m delighted to see the progress of www.penguinwatch.org – it’s storming along!

On return to Stanley, we were picked up by the Ocean Diamond on route back to South Georgia and on to the Antarctic Peninsula. A total of nearly four weeks on South Georgia this year means we were able to achieve an extraordinary amount. Moving from the Hans Hanson to the Ocean Diamond meant that we said goodbye to some friends and were reunited with Woody and the team. We made our first stop this season at Port Lockroy, and it was great to see the girls from Penguin Post office again!

As always, the Ocean Diamond was high energy and it was a struggle to keep up, but we did (just) and have just completed our second trip and downloaded over 200,000 new images from the cameras at about 9 sites. I’m now trying to back all these up in the down time.

Wonderful lenticula cloud over St Andrews

Wonderful lenticula cloud over St Andrews

So, all is going fantastically well down here! Don’t forget to email us if you’re waiting or would like a post card from Antarctica! We can’t guarantee when it will get to you, but it will reach you!

Next up – South Sandwich! Mike Polito has replaced me on the Sea Spirit, while Gemma Clucas from Southampton University joins me tomorrow to try and go swimming onto the South Sandwich Islands again. We’re looking forward to join Cheli and the team in a couple of days. The South Sandwich Islands are some of the bleakest islands on earth – where better to go and look for penguins?

http://blog.quarkexpeditions.com/the-south-sandwich-islands

So, I hope you’re all well, whether you’re cold up there in the north or basking in snowy sunshine in the beautiful south and all the best for the holiday season,

Tom

N shore Zavodovski

The Wisdom of Crowds (or should that be colonies?)

Start of day four on Penguin Watch and I thought I’d say a bit more about this. It’s incredible how this is taking off – as of 9am, we’ve had over a quarter of a million classifications and the number of users is steadily climbing. Thanks so much for all the support so far!

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Booth island – gentoo penguins breeding on the top of a hill. Notice that we’re also recording the temperature and sea ice in the background.

The whole point of this is that crowd-sourcing (using multiple non-experts) to process something usually gets the same result or better than few experts, plus it scales up much better. It’s really important to us that we’re trying to monitor and conserve penguins on a massive scale. Running out of hours in the day doesn’t seem an acceptable excuse. As we get large numbers of validated classifications, we’re also training computer algorithms to automate some of the work load as well. If we can get this working, we can use this to monitor, understand and protect seabirds on a global scale.

The good folks at Zooniverse and also the Visual Geometry lab have been amazing in helping us to achieve this. As you click on penguins, know that you are making a real difference to conservation worldwide.

Many, many thanks

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Going global – setting up a timelapse camera on guillemots and kittiwakes in Svalbard in the Arctic. Similar to the Antarctic, but you carry a rifle to ward off polar bear.

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The most remote so far-  we were trying  to work out if the International Space Station (330km vertical, unknown horizontal) or Argentine Belgrano base (400km horizontal) was our nearest neighbour.

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Danco Island, with our ship (we hitchhike, we don’t own it, obviously) in the background.