In a blog post a few months ago we featured our Water, Wildlife & the Wonders of Antarctica Signature Journey. We highlighted that this was going to be a different kind of voyage. Not only was it a journey to one of the most remote and wild places on the planet, it was also going to take part in real science. A team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) was on board to study how humpbacks find their primary food source, krill. It was such a unique circumstance to have a science team on a non-research vessel, that even BBC-One sent a crew to film it.
It was a risk, no doubt. How would scientists and tourists (albeit ones with a particularly high level of adventure) coexist on a small ship? The MS Island Sky holds only 100 passengers. On this voyage, she only carried 89. How would the regular passengers feel about having a daily itinerary sometimes dictated by the science team and where the whales were? How would the science team feel about being surrounded by non-scientists? Whatever concerns anybody had were allayed very quickly.
All Antarctic voyages have an educational bent, as it is mandated by the governing body, IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators). Most cruise operators will have the usual complement of naturalists, geologists, ornithologists, and the like. And during the two-day crossing of the Drake Passage, this team will give presentations that provide helpful information for your arrival in Antarctica.
This trip, however, was special. The WHOI team showed us what they were going to do. They showed us the tags that they were going to attempt to attach to the humpbacks. They showed us the pole to be used. The explained why it was important. This gave us a stake in the project. It worked so well that one morning while cruising slowly through the Gerlache Strait we all were recruited to watch for the whales. And we all did. Everyone with binoculars — and even those without — stood out on the ship’s railing on all sides looking for whales. And when we spotted the humpbacks, the team climbed into their zodiacs and headed toward them.
Another day, when the WHOI team had left very early in the morning and the rest of the passengers we having their normal day of shore excursions and ice cruising, we heard that they had successfully tagged a whale. When they came cruising back, a plethora of passengers went to the stern of the ship and cheered the returning scientists.
The WHOI team didn’t have all the fun, however. This voyage was also about Citizen Science, which we began almost immediately. We were blessed with the Drake Lake (calm seas in the Drake Passage) on both crossings. During the 48 hours of each crossing we did cloud observations for NASA, and bird counts for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society (https://ebird.org/home). While in Antarctica, we took water samples for Scripps Institution of Oceanography and did whale identification for Happy Whale. Photos of whales weren’t the only thing we got; when trying to get underwater footage of leopard seals, I was able to capture the sound of a trumpeting humpback feeding nearby. Listen below:
Taking part in a voyage like this was extra special. There can be no denying that going to Antarctica, under any circumstance, would be a remarkable experience for an individual. But being there AND taking part in a real, meaningful study of the place was life-changing for all of us who made this extraordinary journey together and vital for the planet.
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