Penguins are some of the most iconic birds on the planet. There is a unique opportunity for wildlife enthusiasts all over the world to become citizen scientists and directly participate in important penguin research.
In December of 2015, scientists visited Antarctica’s nearly inaccessible Danger Islands and made a startling realization. Although it was understood there were penguins living and breeding on the hillsides of the Danger Islands, this visit confirmed there was substantially more life on these islands than was originally suspected: a “supercolony” of 1.5 million Adelie penguins thriving on the northeast edge of the Antarctic Peninsula, spread across six small islands
During their visit to the Danger Islands in 2015, scientists at Penguin Watch left behind two time-lapse cameras to gather image-based data in effort to better understand this remote and icy part of Antarctica. In January of 2018, while aboard a polar expedition tourism ship led by Quark Expeditions, this same team was able to return to the Danger Islands to recover their cameras and, more importantly, the never-before-seen information they contained.
Two of the scientists involved in the supercolony discovery and count are Dr. Tom Hart and Dr. Mike Polito—“penguinologists” who study the ecology of penguins and their environments. These scientists have researched penguins on and around the Antarctic Peninsula for decades as part of the Penguin Watch project, in association with Oxford University, Louisiana State University, and Stony Brook University. The Penguin Watch project is based upon gathering data through the use of time-lapse camera imagery, and it relies heavily upon the participation of citizen scientists in one very important way: analyzing the cameras’ images to determine how many penguins are in a given location at a given time. Images gathered by Penguin Watch cameras are available on their website, and the public is encouraged to help the scientists with the important task of counting penguins.
Although penguins are iconic birds and recognizable, we are still learning about them. Dr. Hart of Penguin Watch said, “One of the most basic things we need to know to conserve penguins is where they are, how many there are and whether populations are increasing or declining. By accessing these islands and leaving our two Penguin Watch cameras behind, we are able to monitor time of breeding, chick survival and estimate the feeding and changeover rates of parents looking after their chicks.”
In 2010, Quark Expeditions partnered with Penguin Watch in effort to support science, research, and conservation of this rich and pristine southern wilderness. Since that time, Quark Expeditions has provided logistical support and transportation for field scientists to more than 75 remote time-lapse cameras stationed throughout the Antarctic Peninsula region, all of which continuously gather image-based data on penguin colonies in effort to monitor any changes over time in their populations and habitat. Access to Antarctica is expensive and challenging, which initially provided logistical barriers to scientists hoping to reach a range of penguin colonies throughout the western and northern Antarctic Peninsula. Quark Expeditions visits many of these study sites annually as part of their tourism operations, and regularly provides support for field-going scientists to continue their research.
Upon the newfound knowledge of the remote supercolony, Dr. Polito reflected, “We are incredibly fortunate that Quark Expeditions was able to help us reach the Danger Islands to recover these time-lapse cameras. We know that the images and information they contain will make a real contribution to the scientific understanding and conservation of penguins in this remote part of Antarctica.”
Navigating by ship in the icy Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica is always challenging. Sea ice conditions change daily and are at the mercy of wind, weather, and ocean currents. Reaching any given location is never a guarantee, and it takes years of accumulated experience, skill, and insight to understand how to safely navigate in Antarctica. Marine travel in the region isn’t as simple as pointing the ship in the right direction. Safe operation requires the expert ability to read ice charts and wind forecasts and safely assess when it is the right time to enter into the ice or a temporarily open body of water, and when it is not.
The Quark Expeditions Staff and the bridge officers have the decades of experience necessary to not just visit Antarctica’s more easily accessible peripheries, but to be able to assess weather conditions and understand when it is safe to push deeper into the wilderness. On any given day, it is routine to see Expedition Leaders and bridge officers meticulously studying not just the most recent ice chart, but the trend of the past ten ice charts in concert with forecasted winds and known ocean currents. It is expertise like this that allowed Quark Expeditions to support the Penguin Watch project by reaching the Danger Islands in January 2018 and visiting this phenomenal supercolony of 1.5 million Adélie penguins.
The Danger Islands, located in the far northwest corner of the Weddell Sea, pose a particularly interesting challenge, as they lie directly in the path of a regular current of heavy sea ice originating further to the south. Navigating in the ice and waters surrounding the Danger Islands is so rare that Dr. Hart and Dr. Polito were only visited them twice in the past four years. But those two visits were enough to gather the important images that will contribute to a more thorough understanding of penguin populations and the sea ice environment upon which they depend.
“As visitors to Antarctica, it’s important to us to do what we can to ensure this place remains forever wild and healthy. Our relationship with the dedicated scientists at Penguin Watch has long been a great way to meaningfully contribute to the health of Antarctica. The Danger Islands supercolony, and the remote cameras placed there, provides new information on the Antarctic Peninsula ecosystem, and we were thrilled to support that discovery,” Quark Expeditions CEO Andrew White said.
With a supercolony of 1.5 million Adelie penguins, the team at Penguin Watch will rely on the growing community of citizen scientists now more than ever. By logging onto the Penguin Watch website, volunteers from around the world can assist in this important analysis by helping count the penguins caught in each image. This immense and relatively unknown supercolony is a great opportunity for citizen scientists to join a global penguin community and actively participate in new and highly relevant science. To celebrate World Penguin Day, join Quark Expeditions and the team at Penguin Watch to help better understand these iconic birds. To learn more, visit penguinwatch.org.
Support Penguin Watch on the next polar adventure to Antarctica with Quark Expeditions:
- Falklands, South Georgia, and Antarctica: Explorers and Kings with special guests Penguin Watch
Visit albatross and king penguin colonies, walk amongst giant southern elephant seals, and observe first hand one of the great spectacles of this wild planet: the annual return of thousands of penguins to their breeding grounds in Antarctica. On this voyage, you’ll have the unique opportunity to share the experience with special onboard guests from Penguin Watch, scientists at the forefront of penguin research, who will be actively engaged in field research throughout the voyage.
- Falklands (Malvinas) and South Georgia: Islands of the Southern Ocean
Rich in history and home to astoundingly diverse and abundant wildlife, South Georgia is often called the Galapagos of the Poles. This epic expedition to remote lands traversed by the legendary explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton gives adventurous travelers the unparalleled opportunity to explore this wildlife paradise and the equally unspoiled and storied Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) in great depth. Immersed in this spectacular setting, you’ll enjoy unforgettable encounters with historically significant sites and unique wildlife unafraid of humans. Come face to face with thousands of curious king penguins and a sea of fur and elephant seals, blanketing beaches nestled below towering snow-capped mountains.
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