A couple of years ago, my siblings and I were sat around our world map at home, discussing the places we’ve been lucky enough to visit. And we are lucky – between the three of us we’ve clocked up quite a good coverage of our wonderful planet, leaving us with a wanderlust for future travels and stories to tell. Conversation moved towards how many continents we’d all been to (most things get a little competitive with siblings, right?!). I can’t remember how many continents we each had yet to visit, but we unanimously agreed that continent number 7 doesn’t really count – I mean no one ever gets to go there, do they? And yet there I found myself, however long later, sat up in a mountain at 2,000m above sea level on that elusive 7th continent, Antarctica. That realisation really hit me – I couldn’t believe it!
During my 5 weeks in Antarctica, of which 4 weeks were spent at the seabird colony, my feelings for the place evolved into something that I actually struggle to articulate, still now three weeks after my return. It is the most amazing place I have ever been, without a doubt, and that still doesn’t really cover it. I wish I had better words. Between us and the sea, 200km away, was nothing but ice. Likewise, in the opposite direction, nothing until the South Pole. So much space occupied by snow and empty skies – a truly overwhelming feeling. Travelling across these empty skies, yet too high up to see, are the seabirds. Remarkable birds that leave their chicks for days to fetch food from the open ocean. They travel so far inland to reach the first possible breeding areas – mountains with bare rock slopes where they can make a nest. They congregate in their tens of thousands, turning the otherwise silent Antarctica into a loud and lively seabird city. And that’s what takes us there, to observe and study these beautiful birds to learn more about the ecosystems that we too rely on.
Myself and one other researcher, Sebastien Descamps from the Norwegian Polar Institute, were based at the Tor ornithological research station at Svarthamaren mountain. It’s about 100km away from Troll station, which is the main Norwegian research base: a slow but relaxing six hour journey by snow-cat past lots of mountains, with a lot of time to appreciate them. Next stop from Troll is Cape Town, South Africa, via a 6 ½ hour flight over the southern ocean on a surprisingly normal looking airplane! Tor station certainly is remote!
Our four weeks with the birds was hectic, as we tried to make the most of being there to do as much work as possible! Our main task was tracking the Antarctic Petrels with small GPS loggers to find out where they have been feeding. They fly 200km to reach open water and then onwards to their foraging grounds in the poorly studied King Hakon VII Sea. They forage in an area of the Southern Ocean that is hugely inaccessible for humans, and therefore we know very little about what is going there (I’d never heard of the King Hakon VII Sea before either!). However, with constantly improving telemetry technology, we can combine GPS tracking studies with diet analysis and population counts of the petrels to learn about the dynamics of their Southern Ocean prey species.
Sadly, it’s not good news. We monitored the population of Antarctic Petrels as they have done since the 1980s and we recorded the lowest ever number of breeding birds. The field team back in the summer of 1984/5 counted 207,000 breeding pairs, making Svarthamaren the largest known colony of Antarctic petrels in the world. This year, 30 years later, we counted less than 10% of this number: 18,000 pairs. A 90% fall in the population size of Antarctic petrels since the first ever Macintosh computer, the advent of Virgin Atlantic Airways, and the birth of Prince Harry. I find such a decline in the population rather overwhelming, and it echoes seabird population trends the world over. By the time we left Svarthamaren all of the non-breeding birds had left (young adults that visit to prospect nest sites potential mates) and the parents were largely leaving the chicks by themselves. Nevertheless, the colony felt empty and quiet. I can’t help but wonder whether, as a young seabird researcher, I will ever be able to go to a busy, noisy seabird colony like I hear of from my predecessors. I hope so, one day.
I cover our work in more detail on my research group’s blog: the Seabird Ecology Group of The University of Liverpool, or SEGUL for short. But for now, I would like to forever thank the wonderful team of people at Troll station for making me feel at home and helping make sure that we had everything we needed for four weeks of living in a small, isolated container. Our three days at Troll on the way home for me were too short, I wanted to stay on that spectacular seventh continent and shovel ice and drive fire trucks for ever! Or at least until the next and final flight home of the season in March..!