For the krill of it

By collaborating with and assisting scientists, Hurtigruten Expeditions is helping study how one tiny creature in Antarctica rules them all.

SHANEY HUDSON

5 min read

Scientists working in the Antarctic face many pressing issues. Climate change. Global warming. Microplastics. But some scientists working on the most southern continent are preoccupied with a different kind of scientific problem: just how do you attach a camera to a penguin?

“We use highly advanced materials to attach cameras,” says Elling Johannessen, a marine biologist from Norway’s University of Tromsø. “Basically sticky tape and superglue.”

While penguin selfies sound funny, humanely attaching camera loggers to these marine birds is just one methodology being used in a multi-year scientific study supported by Hurtigruten Expeditions. While the penguins provide the footage, the actual study is focused on their prey: krill.

Krill, Science Corner, MS Fram. Photo: Genna Roland

Krill, Science Corner, MS Fram. Photo: Genna Roland

Tiny but mighty

A critical part of the food chain in Antarctica, the tiny crustaceans known as krill are the primary source of sustenance for predators that range from penguins to whales and, increasingly, humans. For scientists like Johannessen measuring their distribution and abundance helps to understand the health of the entire environment.

Sea ice is vital to the life cycle of krill, and an accelerated rate of ice melt in fragile polar regions could have significant implications for the migratory animals that rely on it as a food source.

“Studying the main food source for the entire ecosystem gives researchers valuable insight into its natural variation and the effect of climate change,” says Johannessen, who spent six weeks on board the MS Fram, one of Hurtigruten’s ice-class vessels, researching marine mammals.

“Our ships are really the best platform and opportunity for researchers not only to get to these areas, but also to do research from the vessels,” adds Dr Verena Meraldi, Hurtigruten’s chief scientist.

“Our ships are really the best platform and opportunity for researchers not only to get to these areas, but also to do research from the vessels.”

— Dr Verena Meraldi

Verena Meraldi, resident biologist in Port Lockroy, Antarctica.

Floating support systems

The relationship between cruise companies operating in polar regions and scientists has grown over the years, with many ice-class ships providing a range of support, from transport and logistics to data collected by guests taking part in citizen science projects.

“Working with Hurtigruten Expeditions has given us a unique opportunity to study parts of the Antarctic ecosystem on a small temporal scale,” continues Johannessen. “So on a month-to-month basis, contrary to a yearly basis, which provides very valuable information needed to understand the dynamics of the system.”

The company’s first project involved assisting scientists monitoring chinstrap penguin populations on location at Deception Island. Located in the South Shetland Islands, it is one of Antarctica’s most fascinating landing sites, with ships sailing into the sunken caldera of an active volcano that is also home to an abandoned whaling station and penguin rookery.

“The penguins would forage for two to three consecutive days, and they would undertake trips between 80 and 90 kilometres away from the colony,” says Dr Meraldi. “But this changed when they were brooding; they would forage for less than 24 hours, and only cover an area of maximum 30 kilometres away from the colony.

“So it was proven there is a considerable difference in foraging between incubation, when they only have to sit on the eggs, compared to when the chicks are there and start demanding to be taken care of.”

An adult gentoo penguin feeding its chick with krill on the Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica. Photo: Shutterstock

An adult gentoo penguin feeding its chick with krill on the Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica. Photo: Shutterstock

Observing the observors

While scientists are able to use the ship as a valuable tool for logistical support, the benefit for Hurtigruten Expeditions guests is that they’re able to understand and see the scientific research being undertaken – the processes, technology and challenges scientists have, as well as the outcomes of the research – in real time.

Guests aboard the ship that returned scientists to Ushuaia were the first to be presented with the findings from the penguin research in one of the best-attended lectures in Hurtigruten Expeditions’ history.

“For our guests and staff, being the very first people in the world to learn about the results was very powerful for them,” says Dr Meraldi.

The following season, scientists studied krill using hydroacoustic surveys from vessels. This method calculates the backscatter readings of the biomass of krill in the surrounding area. The long-term cooperation between scientists and Hurtigruten Expeditions each Antarctic summer season strengthens the validity of the data.

“Doing this once can tell us how large the krill population is,” says Johannessen. “But what is important is monitoring change, which is done by doing these surveys over time.”

An Antarctic underwater landscape teeming with crustaceans on icy rocks. Photo: Shutterstock

An Antarctic underwater landscape teeming with crustaceans on icy rocks. Photo: Shutterstock

Research matters

The implications of the data gathered are significant, as they are presented to the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which makes recommendations on the management of Antarctic fisheries.

“A potential issue is an overlap between fishing areas and foraging areas for krill-dependent predators during important times of their lives,” says Johannessen. “For example, right after they have had their penguin chicks or seal pups.”

While krill makes for small prey, Dr Meraldi flags it is an important indicator of health in the Antarctic. Any changes to the fragile polar environment can have a huge impact.

“If you change a tiny thing in a world that is in equilibrium,” she says, “you are going to affect all of the other things that are linked to that very tiny thing.”

Learn more about Hurtigruten Expeditions’ research and sustainability initiatives.