There’s No Place Like Antarctica
For the Holidays


NOAA fisheries scientist Mike Goebel.NOAA fisheries scientist Mike Goebel is studying fur seals as part of field research being conducted by NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in Antarctica. To be sure the animals are maturing at the proper rate, Goebel and his colleagues must catch and weigh the seals at regular intervals.

Download here. (Credit: Carolina Bonin, Scripps Institute of Oceanography.)

White Christmases are rare at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, Calif., but a select group of fisheries scientists from the Center are pretty much guaranteed to have one. 

Every year, from about October through March, researchers from SWFSC’s Antarctic Living Marine resources (AMLR) Program head south to Antarctica to study and observe how animals living in the Antarctic ecosystem are impacted by commercial fisheries in the Southern Ocean.

Now in its 25th year, the AMLR Program fulfills U.S. obligations under the 25-nation Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources Treaty.  This treaty was put into place largely in response to an increase krill fishing. A small crustacean that resembles shrimp, krill is the basis of the entire Antarctic food web.

“There is an ever-present concern about the expansion of this fishery,” said George Watters, the director of SWFSC’s Antarctic Ecosystems Research Division.  “We want to ensure we have adequate scientific information to sustainably manage the krill and the other species such as the penguins and seals that depend on it.”

The AMLR Program consists of two field camps, “Copacabana” and “Cape Shirreff,” located in the South Shetland Islands just off the Antarctic Peninsula. The  program will also launch a shipboard oceanographic survey mission consisting of two 30-day legs in January and February. 

March of the Penguins.March of the Penguins:  A group of Antarctica’s Gentoo penguins follow a well-worn path to their nesting area from the sea where they go to feed.

Download here. (Credit: Lt. Elizabeth Crapo/NOAA.)

Hustle and Bustle, Antarctic-style

The fascinating and critically important ecosystem research the team is conducting keeps everyone busy in the camps. This includes the local wildlife. 

“Everything moves fast down here, and it’s very interesting to watch the animals and how their social system changes over such a short time period,” says Dr. Mike Goebel, a wildlife biologist from AERD who has spent 11 of the last 13 seasons at Cape Shirreff.  “For example, the penguins have to find a mate, set up their territory, build a nest, lay eggs, brood their eggs and, once their eggs hatch, they need to find food for their offspring.  We put bands on the wings of certain penguins so we can identify them and track their activities over the course of the season.  Through these observations we can learn if the animals are healthy and if they are getting enough food.”

Many of the animals are outfitted with microprocessors that record environmental conditions as the animals forage and transmit the animals’ locations via satellite, which allows scientists to track their movements. 

“By observing the distance animals must travel to find food, the depths to which they must dive and other parameters, we can get an idea of where their prey is and how abundant it is,” says Goebel.

Cape Shirreff beach.Cape Shirreff beach, located in South Shetland Islands just off the Antarctic Peninsula.

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Snow, Ice and Cold Temps — That’s Summertime in Antarctica

As might be expected, working in Antarctica can be challenging. 

“The weather can change quickly,” says Goebel.  “It can go from a nice, sunny day to damp, foggy and windy in no time.  It’s not as cold as you might think, though.  Sometimes people will actually end up dressing too warmly.” 

The biggest issue, Goebel says, is wind.  He says there are about two or three days a season where the weather is so bad that the scientists have to stay inside.

“Inside” is a 20-by-20-foot cabin with four bunks, a small kitchen and eating alcove, and a communications area for  computers and phones.

“With such a small space, people have to be very tolerant and considerate, and easy to live with,” Goebel says.

Morning coffee with a view.Morning coffee with a view, Antarctica.

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Some Play, But A Lot of Hard Work

Antarctic research has its own unique challenges.  First of all, it’s very physically demanding.

“It involves a lot of hiking and skiing in difficult conditions,” says Goebel.  “There’s a lot of camp maintenance that involves physical labor.” Planning and problem solving are also essential skills, as is self-reliance and resourcefulness. 

“You get down here in October or November, and you likely won’t see the survey ship until January,” says Goebel.  “If you need something, you’d better remember to bring it with you, or figure out a way to do without.  Also, if something breaks, you have to be able to fix it.” 

Cape Shirreff field station in the South Shetland Islands.Cape Shirreff field station in the South Shetland Islands.

Download here. (Credit: NOAA.)

Although he says it’s difficult to be away from friends and family during the holidays, celebrating in camp does have its upside. 

Says Goebel: “Sometimes I think it’s more what Christmas should be like — no traffic and no stress from shopping deadlines. It’s much more laid back. And, it’s the friends you make there that make all the difference.”
You can follow the AMLR team’s weekly updates over the course of the Antarctic research field season on their website.

To celebrate its 25th year in the field, the NOAA’s Antarctic Ecosystems Research Division has also teamed up with Whale Times'Bold in the Cold” program, where AMLR scientists will correspond from Antarctica with students in K-12 classrooms across the nation.

Posted Dec. 16, 2010 NOAA logo.