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What happens when it starts snowing on the world’s driest continent?

Antarctic wildlife expert Dr. Rodolfo Werner is sailing the Southern Ocean with the world’s best photographers and filmmakers. They are on a mission to inspire the world to protect the Antarctic Peninsula. In his latest dispatch, Rodolfo comprehends the full impact of climate change on Antarctica’s krill, penguins, and seals. This blog is Rodolfo’s second dispatch from Antarctica. 

February 15th – Gerlach Strait

The weather is very humid. I started coming to Antarctica in January 2006, and I feel that the weather on the Antarctic Peninsula has become more humid in recent years. According to some studies, the increased precipitation, especially snow, blocks the sunlight from penetrating the sea ice. Less light intensity results in reduced growth of sea-ice algae (diatoms) under the ice. Fewer diatoms mean less food for krill. Fewer krill mean less food for penguins, whales, fish and seals. This relatively small change in the weather can have a tremendous impact on the ecosystem.

In the afternoon, we encountered approximately 50 humpback whales feeding in the waters of the Gerlach Strait. Capturing all the action was difficult. Jeff flew the drone and obtained incredible images from the air. And I saw something that I have never seen before – humpbacks producing a three line bubble curtain. Several whales blow bubbles in perfect synchronicity, following three parallel lines as they create a circle. Once they have made this three line bubble curtain, they swim up with open mouths, and then suddenly close their mouths, gulping their food as they reach the surface.

We launched a Zodiac, praying for the whales to approach us. Soon enough, they did, and Shane tried to film the feeding process. Unfortunately, visibility was poor, and he didn’t get any usable footage.

Humpback whale fluking, Southern Ocean. Photo: Dave Walsh

February 16th, Cuverville Island

The water was calm, but it was still snowing. We decided to travel towards Cuverville Island to connect with Ari Friedlander, a scientist who will be deploying satellite tags on humpback whales in the next few days.

Meanwhile, I have been communicating with Aker Biomarine to gain access to trying to arrange to film onboard two of their krill trawlers. We have to see if one of the ships moves south – since right now they are in the South Orkney Island – so we can meet them. Fingers crossed.

In the morning we reached Cuverville Island, where the largest colony of Gentoo penguins is located. There was also a large group of “krilleater” seals on the icebergs (erroneously known as crabeater seals; I decided to rename them). Shane and I walked around the Gentoo colony looking for chicks being fed krill by their parents. We found many pairs doing this and Shane filmed several moments where the regurgitating krill was to perfectly visible.

We shot some interviews where I explained the life cycle of krill, and the impact of climate change on the Antarctic Peninsula, including the effects of the increased rain and snow and reduced sea ice. I explained the history of the krill fishing industry and current concerns about localized fishing operations. CCAMLR is the body responsible for preventing overfishing. Last year, 24 countries and the EU agreed to create a marine protected area in the Ross Sea, but it is also important to establish marine protected areas in the Antarctic Peninsula to prevent overfishing of krill and use them as reference areas to study the impact of climate change.

February 17th – Wilhemina Bay – Gerlach Strait

We’re on the search for whales. The weather is superb, and the scenery is incredible. Huge glaciers are hanging from majestic peaks, chunks of sea ice and icebergs all around. For the first time since we left, there are no clouds in the sky.

We were slowly approaching a group of minke whales when we encountered a very “friendly” humpback whale, that swam directly to the ship and started playing. We put a zodiac in the water and Paul and Shane went to check whether the whale was interested in interacting. Sure enough, she did. It was an incredible and moving experience.

Late in the afternoon, Dion built a small net out of a potato bag and caught five adult krill. We put them in a bucket with seawater to take pictures the next morning.

Krill feeds on phytoplankton that grows on the underside of sea ice. Image by © Paul Nicklen/National Geographic Society/Corbis

February 18th – Ronge Island – Cuverville Island and Port Lockroy

With the improvised net, we caught some salps that we put in another bucket. Salps are barrel-shaped, free-swimming tunicates – organisms enclosed in a tunic, with openings at each end – that pump water through their gelatinous bodies. They move and feed at the same time, straining the water through internal feeding filters. At first glance, salps may look as primitive as jellyfish, but in fact, they are close marine ancestors of fish and vertebrates. Salps have a heart, gills, and even a rudimentary placenta. Salps can live alone or in communities. Some species are only a few millimeters long, while others can grow as large as 10 inches.

We prepared the dining room to take pictures of the krill by covering the windows with towels to make it dark.  It is amazing to see krill swim. They’re active, delicate and beautiful.

February 19th – Port Lockroy:

Paul and Shane went for a dive and found the huge bones of a giant blue whale. Looking at Paul alongside the bones, you could see the whale’s enormous dimensions.

In the afternoon, I spent an hour with Andy discussing how CCAMLR works; the dynamics of the Convention, the meetings, and where we can have an impact. This information will help guide the script for the film to be produced by Sea Legacy. The plan is to make a film that highlights the beauty and the richness of the Antarctic Peninsula, the threats, and the need to establish marine protected areas to protect it.  I am so happy to play my part in the film’s development.

Before dinner, Andy got the team together to present the sequences he has in mind for the film.

February 20th – Danco Island:

At 5:45 am while most were sleeping, Peter and Craig left for the Akademic Ifoee to film a scientist, Ari Friedlander, tagging humpback whales. Ari is welcomed to travel on the Akademic Ifoee, which is a cruise ship that makes regular tourist trips to Antarctica. As part of Ari’s work, he was going to deploy a satellite tag with suction caps on a humpback whale and take skin samples of five other whales, which is a standard procedure in this type of research.

Meanwhile, we heard from the krill company Aker Biomarine that their ships would remain further north to reduce fishing pressure in the Antarctic Peninsula. This is the result that is part of our work last year at the meeting of CCAMLR, where Aker Biomarine decided voluntarily to reduce fishing pressure in this area. Thus, from a conservation perspective, it’s good news, but it is unfortunate in the context of our film as we were hoping to shoot onboard a krill vessel.

Late in the afternoon, I sat down on one of the zodiacs on the upper deck and wrote some thoughts in my personal notebook. It was a very unusual and solitary moment; there aren’t many in this little ship with 14 other people.

February 21st – Le Maire Channel – Pleneau Island:

At 6:30 am, Shane showed up in mine and Jeff’s cabin in a very energetic mood: “Jeff, Jeff, Jeff…we are 15 minutes away from the Le Maire Channel“. I was dreaming deeply, and Shane’s voice entered into my thought…it was a funny and strange moment. I bundled up and went to the deck. The scenery was breathtaking. The Le Maire Channel is one of my favorite places in Antarctica. It’s a narrow channel of two kilometres surrounded by mountains 1,000 metres high, huge hanging glaciers, and large moving icebergs. It is always a challenge to navigate along this channel. The Hans Hansson did a great job, and we enjoyed the fact that Dion, our skipper, was kind enough to follow our requests and take the ship around particular icebergs so that we could take good photographs.

Wave breaking on iceberg, Antarctica

February 25th – Bluff Island – Murray Harbor – Gerlach Strait:

Today, we encountered the Long Da fishing vessel from the Chinese National Fishing Corporation and another Chinese fishing vessel, the Fu Rong Hai. Paul got on the radio asking permission to take pictures and film their fishing operations. After some back and forth, they agreed. It was a great spectacle. After so many years working krill fishery management, I finally witnessed krill fishing in the Southern Ocean. Jeff flew a drone and got great footage of the net being hauled over the stern of the ship.

After dinner, we started our journey to the Falklands knowing that we would be going through a major storm and there was no way to avoid it. For the next four days, we moved north rolling in very rough seas, navigating at eight knots. The motion was so bad that I almost did not eat anything for five days. It was even difficult to go to the bathroom.  

March 2nd – Crossing to the Falkland Islands

Today was the worst. We passed through the eye of the storm with 50 knots of wind. Captain Dion did a great navigating. Jeff prepared the drone on deck and asked Dion to turn the Hans Hansson around and face the wind. Jeff flew the drone and got great footage of the boat going up and down the huge waves. After watching the video, I was thinking “I would not like to be on that ship”. Ha.

After almost five days of constant rolling, we approached Stanley. As we neared the Pembroke lighthouse, I saw a Land Rover. It felt strange after so many days of being in Antarctica to sign signs of human life on land. We waited for customs clearance, and after a shower (the first in many days), we went for a walk on the waterfront of Stanley. It was so good to be able to stretch the legs, but it was difficult to adjust to stable land.

After one month sailing around the Antarctic Peninsula, our journey is almost over. We have incredible footage of wildlife and some exciting ideas for the new film about why this special place needs protection. Now the real work of editing the video and images begins.

Read earlier entries from Rodolfo’s journey to the Antarctic Peninsula here.

Dr. Rodolfo Werner is a marine biologist and wildlife conservationist who has devoted his professional career to the study and conservation of the Patagonian Sea, the Southern Ocean, and Antarctica. He provides science and policy advice the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition and its Antarctic Ocean Alliance project. Rodolfo is currently working on a project with Sea Legacy to capture the beauty of the Antarctic Peninsula and inspire action to protect it.