There's No Place Like Antarctica For the Holidays

Every year researchers head south to Antarctica to study how animals living in the Antarctic ecosystem are affected by commercial fisheries in the southern oceans.

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 affected by commercial fisheries in the southern oceans.

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.

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,” said 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,” Goebel said.

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

“The weather can change quickly,” Goebel said. “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 said, 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 said.

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,” Goebel said. “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.”

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

“Sometimes I think it’s more what Christmas should be like — no traffic and no stress from shopping deadlines,” Goebel said. “It’s much more laid-back. And, it’s the friends you make there that make all the difference.”

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