Call of the South

Enduring freezing temperatures, unpredictable animal behaviour and the mental challenges of living in isolated outposts, Australian scientists are dedicated to unravelling the mysteries of Antarctica.

JO STEWART

5 min read

Mary-Anne Lea clearly remembers the first time she set eyes on Antarctica

“Nothing had prepared me for the scale and beauty of it,” says the polar marine ecologist who has visited the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic regions “20 or so” times throughout her career.

As Associate Professor at the Ecology and Biodiversity Centre at the Institute for Marine & Antarctic Studies (IMAS) at the University of Tasmania, Mary-Anne has spent much of her career researching the effects of climate change and environmental variability on the marine mammals and seabirds of the Southern Ocean.

Mary-Anne Lea on Goudier Island, where gentoo penguins are monitored. Photo: Oli Sansom

Mary-Anne Lea on Goudier Island, where gentoo penguins are monitored. Photo: Oli Sansom

Mary-Anne’s experiences – monitoring penguins on Macquarie Island, tracking Antarctic fur seals on the remote Kerguelen Islands, leading science campagins in the sub-Antarctic and lecturing aboard expedition cruises that traverse the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, among them – give her a deeper understanding of why this corner of the world is so extraordinary.

“The polar regions are the lungs or the heart of the planet,” she says. “They underpin the global overturning circulation of our oceans and atmospheric processes that drive the weather and other large-scale processes that are critically important.

“But Antarctica also represents a last wilderness that seems inaccessible, hostile and untouched by humans, although we now know this is not the case. I feel that the human psyche likes knowing that these wild places exist on our planet.”

“…Antarctica also represents a last wilderness that seems inaccessible, hostile and untouched by humans, although we now know this is not the case. I feel that the human psyche likes knowing that these wild places exist on our planet.”

­— Mary-Anne Lea

A southern elephant seal creating waves at the manchotière on Crozet Island. Photo: Mary-Anne Lea

Working in the Great White

While it’s easy to romanticise the wild beauty of Antarctica, the scientists who carry out fieldwork there have another perspective.

“Antarctica is a very harsh, cold and dry continent so it’s incredibly difficult to work there,” Mary-Anne explains, who’s spent about three-and-a-half years working down south. “You have to wear all the gear to protect yourself. In the sub-Antarctic regions, it’s very windy and cold, but it’s also rainy.”

From having her notebook tuggeded out of her hand by a cheeky sea lion to losing circulation in her fingers while conducting fieldwork in freezing temperatures, Mary-Anne’s job comes with unique occupational hazards.

“When you’re out there anaesthetising a seal to put a tracker on it, you just have to suck it up. The challenges are a part of the fun though. You can’t work there without experiencing these things.”

Getting close to study the migration of northern fur seals in the Pribilof Islands, near Alaska. Photo: under NOAA permit

Getting close to study the migration of northern fur seals in the Pribilof Islands, near Alaska. Photo: under NOAA permit

Almost hunted to extinction in the early 1800s, the Antarctic fur seal’s population numbers have rebounded, with most of the species dispersed across sub-Antarctic islands south of the Antarctic convergence. “They’re fast, agile and can move quickly on land,” says Mary-Anne. “They’re incredibly curious and quite similar to dogs.”

This agility makes the species tricky to catch. A hoop net is used to capture seals so that tracking devices can be placed on them. Mary-Anne and her team are conscious of using less invasive methods, such as miniature tags, to minimise disruption to the animal’s natural behaviour.

Over time, this type of research has boosted understanding of a species that almost became extinct.

“Over the past decade we’ve discovered some seals are travelling 16,000 kilometres in winter,” she explains. “So a 35- to 50-kilogram female Antarctic fur seal is travelling as far as a baleen whale over the same time period.”

A juvenile southern elephant seal. Photo: Mary-Anne Lea

A juvenile southern elephant seal. Photo: Mary-Anne Lea

Field hut at Pointe Suzanne on the Desolation Islands with southern elephant seals, gentoos and Antarctic fur seal neighbours. Photo: Mary-Anne Lea

Field hut at Pointe Suzanne on the Desolation Islands with southern elephant seals, gentoos and Antarctic fur seal neighbours. Photo: Mary-Anne Lea

Saving Seabirds

IMAS scientists also study seabirds, which, as a species, are suffering worrying population declines due to overfishing and plastic pollution. Highly adapted to life on the water, their dynamic movements never fail to captivate the scientists who study them.

“Petrels and albatrosses optimise their use of weather systems to lower their energy expenditure and gain wind energy off each wave,” Mary-Anne explains. “That concept is so foreign to us as humans. We’ve developed technology to get us around, but we can’t move the way a seabird does.”

From the resilient short-tailed shearwater to the graceful cape petrel, all Southern Ocean seabirds are special in their own way. For Mary-Anne, it’s hard to go past the albatross: “They are stunningly beautiful animals that are remarkable to watch in flight. Nearly all of them are now endangered so it always feels incredibly special to see one.”

A full moon on the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo: Mary-Anne Lea

A full moon on the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo: Mary-Anne Lea

Antarctica as an Agent of Change

While Australian scientists have been conducting research in Antarctica since the late 1800s, new technology has led to an explosion of knowledge within the last decade. But as the technology changes, so does Antarctica.

“The average person could be forgiven for thinking that we know all there is to know about Antarctica,” explains Mary-Anne. “In fact, it couldn’t be further from the truth. We’re running out of time to understand how this place works before it’s changed irrecoverably.”

Antarctica also has the power to change those who are fortunate enough to visit. Whether it’s a veteran scientist lecturing aboard a Hurtigruten Expeditions vessel or a tourist seeing Antarctica for the first time, people tend to leave the continent with both a renewed reverence for nature and close bonds with travelling companions who were strangers only weeks before.

“The richness and depth of the relationships you make on these trips is truly remarkable,” says Mary-Anne. “I’ve seen tourists on cruise vessels form strong friendships with other passengers because of the unique and deeply moving context in which they find themselves. “Antarctica leaves an indelible mark on your soul.”