• MMRP

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Hawaii anymore…” (Aloha from Antarctica: Part 1)

Updated: Mar 16

By Liah McPherson


I remember the exact moment my advisor, Lars Bejder, asked me if I wanted to go to Antarctica. It was June 1st, 2021, and I was grabbing food to take outside at our (covid safe) lab get-together. I’m pretty sure I spent the rest of the gathering staring dreamily into space, contemplating the potential future of collecting data on whales at end of the Earth.

Fast forward eight months, and I’ve just arrived to the West Antarctic Peninsula for the second of two cruises, supporting a project run by California Ocean Alliance (COA). I’m part of a three-person team collecting data on the health, behavior, and demography of whales in the region. With me are Chloe Lew, a PhD student in the Friedleander lab specializing in acoustics, and Kiirsten Flynn, a researcher with Cascadia Research Collective and jack-of-all-trades when it comes to fieldwork techniques. I’m the drone pilot, and my mission is to fly over as many humpback whales, minke whales, and other cetaceans we find, to measure their body condition and record behavior. All of this work is under the remote guidance of Dr. Ari Friedlaender, cofounder of COA, who has been working in the Antarctic for more than two decades. I can’t even begin to express how grateful I am to him for this incredible opportunity!”


With the ups and downs of the covid-19 pandemic over the past year, I was holding my breath until the moment I stepped foot aboard the MS Roald Amundsen, Hurtigruten Expedition’s flagship vessel, and the first hybrid cruise ship of its kind. COA is partnering with Hurtigruten to do research in the Antarctic. In turn for letting us come along and do our research from their vessel, we share our work and knowledge of marine mammals with their guests on board. Working alongside the Expedition Team, many of which are scientists themselves, has been an absolute pleasure.

The day-to-day research here varies depending on where we are, and what adventures are on the schedule for the guests. As one would expect, conditions change rapidly here, and the “schedule”, for that matter, does as well. The expedition leader is very accommodating and gets us out into the field as often as safely possible. But even over the course of a few minutes, the weather can change from “workable” to “holy crap, let’s get back to the ship –– now.”


For example, just yesterday, we were out on the water, and it was a sheet of glass. We had just seen a humpback whale, so I flew the drone to scout for it. Because it’s freezing here (literally), the drone batteries don’t last very long, so I landed to do a quick battery swap and fly again –– but by the time I had the drone rebooted and ready to fly, it had starting snowing. I held off for a few minutes, thinking “I’ll just wait until the whale surfaces again, and then launch quickly to measure it.” But within ten minutes, it was more or less blizzarding, and our whale had seemingly vanished.



By the end of our 3.5 hours of fieldwork, I thought for sure, this was the coldest I had ever been. That was, until we went out for fieldwork today. With the wind, sleet, and waves occasionally splashing over us, I think my socks and gloves were freezing to my skin. Hours later, I still feel a chill I can’t quite shake. It’s crazy to think that a year ago, in Maui, I was doing the same type of drone work with humpback whales, except I had to jump in the ocean to cool off from the heat. I wonder if Claire, Martin, and my other labmates doing fieldwork in Hawaii right now are enjoying a warm sunny morning…


The snow is flurrying outside and we’re moving towards a new landing site –– Kerr Point, on the east side of Ronge Island. There’s a crabeater seal on an ice raft off the starboard side, and it doesn’t look cold at all. Neither did the outwardly fragile Antarctic terns, or fluffy gentoo penguin chucks I saw the other day. If they can thrive here, so can I, right? It’s a good thing I love the cold.

In a week or two, when I’m back in Hawaii, I’ll share a more thorough research recap of our expeditions, and better explain the work I am doing here with California Ocean Alliance. But for now, I thought I’d just say “Aloha” from Antarctica. It’s time for me to pound a couple more hot chocolates and gear up for another outing –– I think we’ll have another chance to get out for more fieldwork this evening, and I’m hoping to get the drone up over some whales.


178 views