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!