St Andrews Students in the Antarctic

University of St Andrews School of Biology Antarctic Expedition Blog

22 March – Anticipation day

Written by Maeva (N.B. photos to come later)

Today marks the last day in Ushuaia and the first day on the ship to Antarctica – how exciting! However, we did only get to board the ship in the afternoon, so we had to keep ourselves busy. Luckily, Will offered to teach us the secrets of bird identification. Quite a challenge for several of us! We all headed to Ushuaia harbour with our binoculars and tried to name all the birds around us. From the imperial shag and the Magellanic penguin to the dolphin gull and the Antarctic tern, we manage to get a grasp on the main features required to tell these species apart. To the delight of the team, we also spotted several South American sea lions playing around a few hundred meters away from us!

The rest of the day went by quickly, between enjoying a “last” meal on land and wandering through souvenirs shops. We also took advantage of the available internet in several coffee shops before not being able to share our stories with friends and family for the next few days – the adventure awaits and such expedition is all about living the moment, so we will not be in touch individually until we are back!

At 4pm, it was finally time to embark on the vessel that would take us to the southern-most place any of us has ever been. We were all shown our cozy rooms and between some safety briefings and captain’s cocktail, you could find all of us on the deck already looking for sea birds and marine mammals on the horizon. The excitement started right away as after less than 15 minutes into our journey, we had already spotted two humpback whales, black-browed albatrosses, South American fur seals, South American sea lions and a Burmeister’s porpoise!

In the evening, we were treated to an amazing 3-course dinner and had a meeting to organize the first morning observation shifts for sea bird and marine mammal surveys in the Drake Passage. It was a day of firsts for many of us – first whale, first bird identification experience, first penguins – and we cannot wait to see what nature has in store for us in the next few days!



21 March – A tour of discovery and history along the Beagle Channel – Estancia Harberton

Written by Gaby
Our third day in the beautiful Tierra del Fuego took us on a trip away from Ushuaia along the scenic Pan-American highway to Estancia Haberton reserve and museum.

Once there we were briefed on the history of Haberton and it’s interesting founder Thomas Bridges by the lovely guide Camila.

Estancia Harberton – the main house

A quick walk through the surrounding forest introduced us to the native tree species (a LOT of beech trees) and showed us the Yamana (native people’s) way of life.

A house of branches as might have been used by the Yamana

En route to the museum we received some incredible news: a dead whale had been brought in! The opportunity to necropsy what was identified as a beaked whale (potentially a Gray’s) was an incredible experience. Seven avid marine mammal students and a dead whale- prepare for things to get interesting. A couple of us rolled up our sleeves and got our hands dirty (or bloody) to find out just how tough it is to remove whale muscle from bone. I can now say for myself that the answer is very!

Gaby and one of the Museum guides exploring the stranded beaked whale

Discovering the ovaries and feeling the trachea was a mind-blowing experience and from the look on Will’s face, my enthusiasm for poking a dead whale may have revealed far too much about my personality. As an aside: for anyone who has a dead whale lying around and is thinking of necropsying it in the near future, nose pegs and hand sanitiser are a must. From the smell, I’m still not sure whether we were lucky or not to have already eaten lunch.

Inside the superb museum

Leaving the dead whale in the hands of the extremely capable volunteers, we proceeded to tour the Haberton museum with our guide Laura. As it houses a host of full marine mammal skeletons including over 900 Commerson’s dolphins and a full Pygmy right whale, this museum is utterly unique. The skilfully painted museum and it’s subjects gave a lasting impression of the scale and complexity of each species represented. My personal favourite display was the table of bone abnormalities. This included a series of specimens with intriguing disfigurements from genetically fused vertebrae to horribly re-set broken limbs. I’ve never been so grateful to the NHS for ensuring my broken arm didn’t end up in a similar state.

Broken ahnd healed whale ribs

20-March-Tierra del Fuego National Park

Day 3 – written by Suzanne
Tierra del Fuego National Park is always one of the highlights of any visit to Ushuaia and it certainly did not disappoint. The park stretches from the Beagle Channel along the Chilean border and is the southernmost example of the Andean-Patagonian forest which provided the perfect day of exploration and activity after several long-haul flights.

End of the road in Tierra del Fuego National Park

Everyone was up early and even the light drizzle did not dull the enthusiasm of the group. Our tour guide Iris was amazingly informative during our trip educating us on the Yamanas people, the history of the National Park and all the wildlife that we saw. She pointed out the edible fruits of the forest allowing impromptu tasting sessions which included devil berries, Cyttaria fungus better known as “Indian Bread” which is a parasitic fungus that infects trees (surprisingly tasty!!) and calafate blueberries.

Blue tongues after eating calafate berries….

The park had such diverse scenery including snow-capped mountains, peat bogs and lakes. It was impossible not to stop and stare in awe at the beauty that surrounded us.

(photo by Lauren)

Binoculars were a must for this trip with plenty of opportunities to practice our bird identification skills before our departure to the Antarctic. We were lucky enough to get a Southern Crested Caracara posing nicely for our group which ended our trip on a high.

Southern (or crested) caracara (photo by Tiffany)

19 March – Buenos Aires to Beagle Channel

Second day – written by Lauren

This morning we woke up to a beautiful rooftop breakfast at our hotel, Dazzler Palermo in Buenos Aires. Some enjoyed breakfast pastries and fresh fruit, while others ate their weight in dulce de leche.

Rooftop breakfast (photo: Lucy)

After breakfast, we set off to the other airport in Buenos Aires, Aeroparque, and boarded our final flight (for a while, at least) to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. For this reason, Ushuaia is often referred to as “the end of the world” and “ the gateway to the Antarctic”. Ushuaia is located in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, and is surrounded by the southern Andes mountain range.

View of the Andes from the plane (photo: Iga)

After we landed, we got a shuttle to our hotel and then explored the city on foot. Some went birding, while others walked along the coastal path and took in the views of Ushuaia Bay that leads into the Beagle Channel.

That afternoon, we enjoyed traditional Argentinian food and celebrated Iga’s birthday. Happy Birthday Iga!

Sunny starts and slippery slopes

First day, written by Isha

The bright, sunny morning of 17th March saw us embarking on the adventure of a lifetime – the Antarctic Expedition, 2019. After a quick hop from Edinburgh to Amsterdam, we were Buenos Aires bound only to find ourselves landing 13 hours later in Montevideo, Uruguay – just a little short of our final destination. Turns out, Murphy’s Law struck and due to a hydraulic fluid spill on the runway of Buenos Aires Ezeiza airport, ourplane had to be diverted to Montevideo instead. We sat for several hours on the plane on the tarmack waiting for the situation in Buenos Aires to be resolved. We were so close – just across the Rio Plata….

Our plane has landed – but not in the right country!

We finally got the go ahead and arrived at the right destination, but so did all the other international planes that were also delayed. Three more hours and a seemingly neverending immigration queue later we were basking in the Argentinean sun and were finally taking in the city views, tired but determined to explore Buenos Aires.

Queuing for immigration (photo: Isha)

Following a short hotel stop, we began our quest for delicious food, dulce de leche helados (ice cream), spotting South American birds and exploring the vibrant city of Buenos Aires. We spent a wonderful evening enjoying the many green spaces, urban wildlife and creative street art in the city. Quest successfully completed (Dulce de leche ice cream is a must try!), We ended the day tired, but looking forward to the coming days. All in all, a great start to what will hopefully be a brilliant trip!

Colourful Buenos Aires (photo: Isha)

The Dundee Leak – A visit to the beginnings of Antarctic Research Expeditions

In pleasant anticipation of the Antarctic expedition in March 2019, our first journey took our 12 polar explorers 16 kilometres north, to the city of Dundee. As a maritime city, Dundee has been shaped strongly by the fishing and whaling industry in the 18th and 19th century and presents the home port for the first Antarctic research ship, the RRS Discovery.

RRS Discovery berthed in Dundee (photo: Isha)

Together with our charismatic tour guide Ali, we put ourselves into the shoes of a keen scientist in the early years of the past century, embarking on the British National Antarctic Expedition to a yet unknown continent, which is still known as one of the most hostile places in the word.

Under the command of Captain Robert Falcon Scott the RRS Discovery was launched in 1901 to discover the Antarctic while being locked in the Antarctic ice for two consecutive winters. But as on such expeditions, not everything went as smoothly as expected. Due to a cold austral summer, Scott and his crew stayed locked in a 20-mile ice sheet and two relief ships, saws and explosives were needed to free the Discovery from the cold grip of the sea ice.

On our tour around the 118- year old ice breaker, Ali vividly painted the daily life of the 12 officers and the the 36 crew members on board, which was by any means much harsher than our 10-day journey on the MV Plancius is going to be. There were two toilets on deck, called caddies, which were shared amongst the officers and the crew. Shifts were held in a 4-hour routine, and hammocks were shared accordingly. One crew member would spend his shift in the crow’s nest, a beer barrel raised 10 m above the deck with a beam which could tilt up to 47° in rough sea conditions. Further, as an auxiliary steamship, the Discovery required a trimmer who would work in the coal bunkers of the ship balancing the coal to prevent the ship form capsizing. Fortunately, our shifts won’t be nearly as long and not in such exposed and noxious environments!

Luckily we won’t be shovelling coal ….. (photo: Isha)

The men were served three cooked meals a day, which required a lot of food to be taken onboard! Although the ship restocked its food supplies in New Zealand, the crew experienced shortages of fresh food while frozen into the Antarctic sea ice. Due to what was known as the ‘Dundee leak’ (i.e. sea water seeping in), the food condition was checked daily, as the ship’s doctors feared ‘poisoned food’ to cause scurvy. Therefore, penguin and seal became part of the menu, which indeed prevented scurvy, but other than thought, due to the flesh’s high vitamin C content. More than 500 animals were recorded on the menus which were printed every single day to create some sort of normality on the ship.

Crew area below deck (photo: Isha)

Besides the well-recognised Captain Scott and the hard-working crew, scientists Reginald Koettlitz and Edward Wilson certainly contributed a lot to the journey’s success. As a physician and biologist Reginald Koettlitz grew the first crops on Antarctic soil, developed the first coloured photographs of the continent and performed the first surgery using anaesthetics in this remote and hostile environment. As a zoologist and artist Edward Wilson, drew many excellent portraits of Antarctica’s natural inhabitants, which were published in the ship’s onboard magazine, the ‘South Polar Times’. This and further research on later expeditions of the Discovery and other ships helped to better understand the nature of the Antarctic ecosystem, which is a process still ongoing today.

A selection of (modern) wildlife drawings (photo: Sonja)

We are proud and excited to become part of this undertaking in little less than 6 weeks’ time and are keen to capture and report on our Antarctic experience in the form of own stories and coloured photographs on this blog!

** written by Antonia **

A new year – A new crop of Antarctic explorers

Here we are – our 7th St Andrews students in the Antarctic expedition will take place in March 2019, same place, same ship, but new people! There’s a new group of entrepid explorers, including students in their fourth (senior honours) year as well as from the MSc programmes in Marine Mammal Science and Marine Ecosystem Management.

We’ve also got a new staff member – Will Cresswell – joining Sonja and the students, as the usual staff explorer Lars is already down South on a big science expedition to the Thwaites Glacier.

Follow us here again as we get ready and then depart for the southern hemisphere on our exciting research and educational trip to the Antarctic Peninsula, taking in sites and stops in Argentina (Buenos Aires, Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel) on our way South.

Sad news – R. Natalie P. Goodall

We have received very sad news. R. Natalie P. Goodall who we met during our visits to Estancia Harberton has passed away less than 6 weeks after celebrating her 80th birthday.

Natalie holding some whale bone bits from her collection in March 2015

Natalie in March 2015 holding some whale bones from her collection

Natalie leaves a tremendous legacy of almost 50 years of incredible naturalist work in Tierra del Fuego also having been the founder and curator of an impressive collection of marine mammal (and bird) skeletons housed in Museo Acatushún. Her enthusiasm, knowledge and dedication have inspired those who had the good fortune of meeting her, being taught by her or having read some of her prolific papers and books. She will be deeply missed!

All the past St Andrews Antarctic students and teaching staff Sonja and Lars wish to express our most heart-felt condolences to the Goodall family and the wonderful staff at Harberton. We sincerely hope that Natalie’s legacy and amazing collection will be continued and treasured for many years to come.

The last St Andrews team meeting with Natalie in March 2015


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