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The place to be as worldwide pandemic rises: a whale research expedition in Antarctica

Written by Fabien Vivier.

December 23rd, 2019, my supervisor Lars Bejder contacted me to offer a three-week expedition to Antarctica to collaborate and operate drones as part of a large-scale humpback whale research project led by Ari Friedlaender.

Dreaming of Antarctic research, landscapes and wildlife for some years, this news came as an early Christmas gift to me, both professionally and personally.

Invited by Hurtigruten on their brand-new MS Roald Amundsen – a 499 passenger ship, the research crew was led by Ari Friedlaender and composed of two additional members: Chloé Lew from the University of California Santa Cruz and California Ocean Alliance, and I.

The objectives of this expedition were to:

1) Collect baseline data on the ambient noise conditions, marine mammal communication rates as well as the potential effects of the ship’s presence on ambient noise and acoustic communication (Ari + Chloé),

2) Operate Unoccupied Aerial Systems (UAS, or drones) to collect measurements such as total length and body condition of whales (Ari + Fabien),

3) Collect tissue samples of whales to determine their sex, pregnancy status, diet, pollutant and stress hormone levels (Ari).

4) Lecture and show-case scientific equipment and real-time results of the research with passengers as the Expedition Team’s guest lecturers (Ari, Chloé and Fabien).

After a few weeks of paperwork and preparations with the team, the end of February was upon us and the day had finally come to begin the adventure and take off for Punta Arenas (Chile) where the MS Roald Amundsen would depart. The end of February was also the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there were almost no signs of a worldwide lockdown back then and luckily for us, we encountered no problems during our journey, which eventually caught up with us at the end of our expedition, as I will explain later.

Over the first three days of the trip we navigated through the Chilean Fjords and crossed the Drake passage – an 800 km choppy-water passage between Cape Horn and Antarctica. Peale’s dolphins, sei and humpback whales, fur seals, sea lions and countless seabirds such as albatrosses of several species, petrels, skuas, and gulls accompanied us during those three days.

Top-left and mid: Glacier Alley, Chili. Top right: Giant petrel in the Drake Passage. Bottom: Chilean fjords.

On four of the eight following days spent in Antarctica, whale research was successfully conducted due to reasonable weather conditions and / or animal presence. A total of 11 flights (2h20min) were operated over two whale species, the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) and the fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus). Sixteen humpback whales (11 adults and 5 calves) and two fin whales (1 mother / calf pair) were successfully sampled with the drone to allow for total length and body condition (i.e. cylindrical volume, m3) estimations as a proxy for animal health. See the image below for the length estimates of the mother / calf pair of fin whales.

Mother and calf fin whales measured using an Unoccupied Aerial System (UAS, drone)

Additionally, we managed to collect 10 h of continuous audio data and 19 tissue samples from four species (Type-B killer whale – Orcinus orca, Antarctic minke whale - Balaenoptera bonaerensis, and the humpback and fin whale).

Top-left: Crabeater seal, top-right: large iceberg with arches, bottom-left: mother and calf type-B killer whales, bottom-right: diving humpack whale.

At the end of our Antarctic expedition we headed to the beautiful Falkland Islands where we spent three days in three locations: the capital Stanley, Saunders Island and New Island. Here, we went sightseeing and wildlife watching (various species of penguins, seabirds, seals, whales and dolphins).

On a personal note, I highly enjoyed this trip. I was fortunate to visit 12 magnificent Antarctic locations. The sunrises and sunsets were mind-blowing. The wildlife encountered was fantastic and I was able to encounter countless new species (Gentoo, Adélie, king, Magellanic, rock-hopper and chin-strapped penguins, a long list of albatross, petrels and other seabirds, crabeater, elephant and Antarctic fur seals, Type-B orcas, Commerson’s, hourglass and Peale’s dolphins, and many new species of whales such as the sei and fin whales). Special thanks to Ari, Hurtigruten and Lars for making this experience a reality.

Top-left: chinstrap penguins on the beach, top-right: King penguins (Saunders Islands), bottom-left: Gentoo penguin (Saunders Islands), bottom-right: rockhopper penguins (New-Island).

However, the last few days were not filled with joy as we started to hear the news of the COVID-19 lockdown getting implemented worldwide. This meant that ports and airports were slowly shutting down as we were navigating back to Punta Arenas. Fortunate enough, since no cases were present aboard for the past 18 days, an agreement with the Chilean government was made for our disembarking under strict hygiene protocols but eventually fell through overnight for various reasons. In the morning of initial disembarking, we learnt that all ports in South America had closed.

After many days of negotiations between the Chilean government, the Falkland Islands’ government and Hurtigruten, we finally were authorized to disembark in the Falkland Islands under a very strict hygiene protocol, and be chartered off the Islands all the way to our respective countries.

The MS Roald Amundsend crossing the Gullet.

As an International student in the USA, many questions and insecurity had arisen as to whether I would be welcomed back to the country, if I had to be redirected to my home country, if flights would be cancelled or postponed or if airports would even shutdown, leaving with no return options. Many questions to answer without a great internet service (many thanks to my colleagues Aude and Lars as well as the Marine Biology Graduate Program for helping during this situation).

March 28th, ten days after our initial return date, I was back in Hawaii and entered a self-quarantine period of 14 days, which then eventually resulted in few more weeks since the state was in lockdown too.

What a journey! One I will never forget for sure, but not because of COVID-19! This expedition has brought countless memorable moments and breathtaking landscapes forever engraved in my memory.

All research activities were conducted in accordance with the following permits: NMFS-23095, ACA-2020-011 and IACUC-Friea1706.

Sunrise panorama near Horseshoe Island.


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