Royal Navy research ship HMS Protector is helping cutting-edge international research into the penguin populace and climate change in one of the most remote places on earth.
Experts from Britain and the USA are working with the icebreaker to study colonies of the birds in the South Sandwich Islands – so off the beaten track even the Royal Navy only calls in once a decade.
The chain of islands – sovereign UK Overseas Territory – lie more than 1,300 miles east of the Falklands and are home to around three million of the flightless birds.
By landing on the uninhabited islands, recording the penguins and using drones, scientists hope for a better understanding of the impact of climate change and other environmental factors on the colonies.
“Visits by ships to these territories is exceptionally infrequent and hazardous,” said Captain Michael Wood, Protector’s Commanding Officer.
His sailors contended with glacier-covered volcanic mountains, freezing waters, surf and gale-force winds to help scientists from Oxford University’s Department of Zoology and Washington DC-based scientific and educational organisation Oceanites, which has spent nearly three decades building up a comprehensive picture of penguin populations in Antarctica.
Oceanites maintains a continent-wide penguin database known which everyone in the Antarctic Treaty system relies upon and uses penguins as avatars to spread the word internationally about climate change
“The opportunity to visit any of the South Sandwich islands to conduct research on penguins – or any other species – is incredibly limited,” said Dr Mark Belchier, Director of Fisheries and Environment, Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
“Any additional data that can be collected opportunistically is incredibly valuable in order to determine trends in population sizes for the various species that live there.”
Scientists have relied on a combination of direct counting, GPS mapping and interpretation of high-resolution commercial satellite imagery to calculate the size of the colonies.
So the rare live footage and imagery captured by HMS Protector and scientists using drones on Saunders, South Thule and Cook islands is vital for more accurate assessments of the population sizes.
Ahead of the ship’s visit, the islands were thought to be home to nearly half of the world’s chinstrap penguins (1.3 million breeding pairs), as well as circa 95,000 breeding pairs of macaroni penguins, and several thousand breeding pairs of gentoo penguins.
Despite being at the northern edge of their breeding range, an unexpectedly large population of Adélie penguins (about 125,000 breeding pairs) also live there.
The populations have fluctuated in recent decades. At first it was thought that resurgent whale and fur seal numbers following bans on whaling and over-fishing were the cause, eating the krill in the ocean upon which many penguins rely.
More recent scientific thinking has shifted to climate change, melting sea ice and rising temperatures, plus local volcanic eruptions, all affecting the shrinking chinstrap populace in particular.
“The more data we get on these islands, the more we are able to disentangle the effects of climate change versus eruptions,” explained Dr Tom Hart of the Department of Zoology at Oxford University.
“The whole of the archipelago is a Marine Protected Area, so they are an important contrast to understanding the threats to wildlife elsewhere in the Southern Ocean.”
Ron Naveen, president and founder of Oceanites, said Protector had been provided with a “suite of key penguin breeding sites in Antarctica sites” for its drones to fly over and capture photographic imagery.
He continued: “Once received, the images will be analysed for nest counts – all of which will add greatly to our ongoing database of Antarctic penguin populations.” Oceanites will make results publicly available on http://www.penguinmap.com.
Normally based in Plymouth, Protector and her 70-strong crew of sailors and Royal Marines are on a five-year mission to survey the polar oceans and put a stop to illegal fishing in some of the most important waters on the planet.
“We are exploring some of the most remote and inhospitable islands in the world. Their astounding natural beauty, seen through your own eyes, is difficult to comprehend,” said Lieutenant Mike Wafer, Protector’s deputy logistics officer.
Beyond studying penguins, Protector is collecting scientific data on Antarctic waters and updating charts used by seafarers – or in the case of some parts of the South Sandwich Islands, mapping the area for the first time.
The ship will remain in the Antarctic region until April when the austral winter sets in and rules out operating in the waters of the frozen continent.