St Andrews Students in the Antarctic

University of St Andrews School of Biology Antarctic Expedition Blog

2 April – Return of this year’s polar explorers

The Antarctic explorers are back in St Andrews, tired by very happy. What a stellar trip! A lot of impressions, experiences, observations and sights to digest….

After a long 13 hour flight from Buenos Aires we arrived back to Europe and touched down at Schiphol airport – a coffee/ tea later we were on the short hop flight across the Channel and arrived back to Scotland, home sweet home….

Views of Edinburgh, the Firth of Forth and three Bridges (photo by Sonja)

No rest for the wicked though – we all have class tomorrow at 0900h – reality and University life will hit us all too soon (oh how we already miss hotel manager Michael’s dinner or wake-up calls over the tanoy), but very fond memories remain! Watch this space for the favourite moments selection to come…

31 March – Fond Farewells and Serendipitous Surprises

written by Isha

The morning started bright and early with our expedition leader Katja’s final wake up call (quite an emotional moment, I assure you). Following another delicious breakfast and sentimental goodbyes to the amazing staff and crew of the Plancius, we disembarked at Ushuaia for a morning of wifi hunting.

Good bye Plancius with trip flag signed by crew as souvenir

As I looked backed on the trip while going to the Ushuaia airport, the only regret I had was not spotting an Andean Condor when lo and behold, an Andean Condor flew right above our shuttle, giving us a farewell about as perfect as it can get.

Condor in front of Ushuaia mountain skyline as seen on the way to the airport (photo by Will)

An unofficial Plancius reunion took place at the airport with many passengers and staff all travelling on the same flight as us. After a 3.5 hour flight to Buenos Aires (with thankfully no diversions to Uruguay), we ended the day with hilarious stories (shout-out to Charlie’s remoras), practicing our rusty Spanish and eating an amazing dinner with empanadas and mojitos.

Buenos Aires night out with empanadas and mojitos

29-30th March – Return of the Drake Passage

written by Charlie

I was woken by the breakfast announcement on our first day back in the Drake Passage. I immediately stumbled my way to the dining hall to see only one person, out of our group of 14, already eating. The Drake Passage has been proving a true test of sea sickness this time around, with most people feeling at least somewhat under the weather. Eventually, more people traipsed through the doors, allowing us to start our surveying at 09:00 with just enough people being able to stand.

Rough seas

Arriving on the bridge, I could better see why so many people were feeling rough, with large swells easily reaching over the lower decks of the ship. There were also strong winds, with the outside decks closed. We wrapped up warmly and started surveying, however the wildlife seemed to be enjoying the weather as much as us, with few animals being spotted throughout the day.

Rock’n Roll…. the horizon is straight …..

Our perseverance eventually paid off however, with hourglass dolphins being spotted off the port side of the ship by Christy. Several bird species were also sighted throughout the day, much to the delight of Will. The rough seas made it difficult to stand however, with many people having to bow out before the end of surveying was complete and some even missed dinner!

The second day of our voyage through the Drake Passage began exactly like the first, with only Will, yet again, at breakfast. It seemed that more people had got used to the sway of the ship as there was a slightly higher turnout for surveys, however some people did have to back out due to sudden feelings of nausea.

Meaghan hanging on and watching waves

As the day progressed, the sea calmed and we reached more sheltered waters at the entrance to the Beagle Channel. The calmer seas bought along a far richer amount of wildlife, with many sei whales being sighed for the first time in our trip. Multiple dusky dolphins also enjoyed bow riding on our ship, creating quite a spectacle for any onlookers. Multiple bird species also returned in great number such as many albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters.

One of the many sei whales we spotted

As the final day of voyage drew to an end, we were invited for cocktails with the captain, giving us some time to look back and reflect on our trip to Antarctica. After several rounds of thanks given to the wonderful crew and staff, we watched a brilliantly put together compilation of photos of our trip made by Nina. Immediately after, we headed to the dining room where Will had provided us with several bottles of wine for our final night! More thanks and applause was given throughout the meal as we all enjoyed our final night on the ship.

Acrobatic dusky dolphins greeted us at the entrance to the Beagle Channel

28 March – Party animals

Written by Gaby

Our final day in Antarctica took us on a delightful trip to the scenic Shetland Islands. Today was a particularly special day for me as it was my 22nd birthday. I was particularly happy to celebrate my 22nd year on Earth surrounded by animals (thankfully the furry and feathery kinds rather than the sweaty inebriated lot commonly found in British nightclubs).

The very aptly named Half Moon Island was our destination and gave us the opportunity to see a range of species up close, including Antarctic fur seals. We were warned upon arrival that when the whim struck them, seals would occasionally give chase to people. I can’t speak for anyone else in the group but from the other mildly alarmed expressions I’d say the general consensus was that no one fancied having a hefty fur seal running at them. Not to worry though, these guys appear to be more bark than bite (which incidentally I’ve heard is quite nasty) and more interested in wrestling with each other than with us.

 

Antarctic fur seals

 

Thankfully the seals remained a safe distance away for the duration of our visit and only ran and bit each other which made for some interesting watching. Our great guide Laura skilfully weaved our group through the various seal clusters to a vantage point near an unoccupied Argentinian summer base where glorious views of the bay awaited us.

 

Half Moon Bay

 

It was on the walk to this point that my birthday wish was answered. Cue huge columnar blow in the distance, followed by a peak in the binos to confirm and yep, I was able to cross off another species I’d wanted to see. Fin whales!

 

Fin whale

 

Walking around the corner- BAM! Birthday wish fulfilment round 2! There tucked amongst the adorably helmeted chinstrap penguins sat a very windswept looking macaroni penguin, yellow head feathers blowing in the wind.

 

Chinstrap penguin

 

Macaroni penguin

 

Back on the boat and the crew surprised me with balloons and the most incredible birthday cake (chocolate and dulce de leche heaven flavoured in case anyone wondered), which I was told had been whipped up that morning and hand decorated by the incredibly talented baker. A chorus of happy birthday and several slices of amazing cake later and the ship began to head for home.

 

Birthday cake

 

I feel truly privileged to have celebrated a birthday in Antarctica surrounded by the most amazing creatures (furry or otherwise). Now we begin our journey back across the infamous Drake Passage and the 6 metre swells that await us.

27 March – What a day!

Written by Lucy

This morning we were woken up early, as daylight was starting to poke through the clouds, to snowy scenes on deck; in places the snow was two inches deep. After breakfast we were supposed to be landing at Portal Point in Charlotte Bay, for our last chance to walk on the Antarctic continent but unfortunately due to ice conditions and waves this was not possible. Instead, we went out for a zodiac cruise looking for wildlife amongst the ice. Despite the hail and bumpy sea conditions many students saw humpback whales, a minke whale and Antarctic fur seals. However, the first major excitement of the day was yet to come. As Sonja’s zodiac with Tiffany, Christy, Meaghan and Will onboard returned to the Plancius, they were intercepted by two very inquisitive humpback whales. The two whales circled them, spyhopped next to the zodiac and covered them in whale snot with their blows. The spectacle lasted for at least 15 minutes, and everyone returned with enormous smiles on their faces.

 

Humpback whale spyhopping Sonja’s zodiac with another whale surfacing right in front (photo by Lucy)

 

And the view of the whales from the zodiac (photo by Sonja)

 

As the sun came out we started our three hour transit to our second destination further north, Cierva Cove. The marine mammal observers battled strong winds and glare whilst surveying, but it was Maeva’s keen eyes that first spotted the next major excitement of the day – Orca! As the ship-wide broadcast announced the sighting, our cameras and binoculars were rapidly grabbed and we lined the railings of the upper deck. At first they were a white and black flicker in the distance but to everyone’s amazement something very special then happened. The orca changed direction and came close to the ship, and for a few wonderful minutes the pod swam alongside us. There were many squeals of delight and disbelief.

 

One of the killer whales – its dorsal fin is clearly notched (photo by Lucy)

 

Once we reached our destination at Cierva Cove we boarded the zodiacs again, this time for a science cruise. Before starting to collect data we visited a Chinstrap penguin colony. Most of the penguins were high up on the rocks due to a very large leopard seal patrolling the water. At one point the leopard seal started showing an interest in our zodiac which made us nervous because a few days ago another leopard seal had bitten and punctured a zodiac! Our environmental conditions were measured successfully, and much to Antonia’s excitement we even saw some salps. On shore we could see red huts of the Argentine base Primavera that was used earlier in the season but had now been closed for the winter.

 

Chinstrap penguins (photo by Lucy)

 

Once back onboard Plancius we sat in a line with our laptops out and started collating our data from the trip so far with an awesome view of ice capped mountains and humpback whales out the window. Beats the library any day! This truly spectacular day ended with that classic Antarctic dinner, a BBQ on the back deck, and then at the disco we danced our way into the night.

The ice and wildlife continue to amaze and although tonight we are leaving the Peninsula, heading north towards the South Shetland Islands, slightly earlier than anticipated due to bad weather coming our way. Everyone is just so grateful for everything we have experienced so far. Many of us have already said that we want to come back, the “polar bug” has got us.

26 March – Science, surveys and scenery

Written by Meaghan

It was another early morning, 7 o’clock start for our marine mammal and bird surveyors. There were far less sightings than yesterday morning, so the surveys were done with relative ease. Straight after breakfast we got our gear and rallied up to join Sonja in one of the zodiacs for our science cruise. Whilst the passengers went hunting for wildlife we went hunting for data. Secchi disk, Bolo and Rolo (names for our data collection devices) and a hydrophone (underwater microphone) were inserted into the water to get recordings of what was going on below the water’s surface – for example, some of those icebergs can get really loud! At each sampling station, the zodiac stopped and the water was so still that the stunning scenery around us became mirrored reflections on the icy sea surface.

 

Reflections in Paradise Bay (photo by Meaghan)

 

After the data collection we set foot on the actual continent of Antarctica where we did a very scenic hike. The walk was steep and tiring but well worth it. We were greeted with striking blue skies and the view from above was just so unique and awe-inspiring that everyone, passengers included, took part in a 5-minute silence so that we could all take in this awe-inspiring place and the sounds of this amazing landscape. I think everyone really appreciated this once in a lifetime experience, I know I did! We hiked back down to the landing site where a Weddell seal was waiting for us. Many pictures were taken of our furry friend before we went back to the Plancius for lunch and more surveying.

 

Stunning scenery of Stony Point (photo by Meaghan)

 

Weddell seal, our furry friend (photo by Meaghan)

 

After this morning’s activities I really didn’t think the day could get any better. However, around half way through lunch our marine mammal surveyors spotted a pod of killer whales (orcas). Even the ship crew were getting excited. The Plancius stopped, and everyone just watched as the whales moved steadily along the shoreline. This was just such a surreal experience. However, time stops for no one and shortly we were back on track to our next destination, Neko Harbour. Soon we were in the zodiac again, and out gathering more data. We even had the hydrophone in the water when a large chunk of the glacier calved, so fingers crossed we got that on the recordings (especially useful for my podcast)!

Fledgeling gentoo penguin jumping into a meltwater puddle at Neko Harbour (photo by Sonja)

Once back from the afternoon’s excursions it was straight back to marine mammal and sea bird surveys on the ship. However, by this time true Antarctic weather caught up with us and within minutes we were surrounded by swirling snow. We felt the cold set in and vision became so limited that we had to go off effort and join the rest of the passengers for the daily recap followed by dinner. After today’s exciting events we can all use a little rest, and an early night (for some at least).

25 March – A lot of firsts on our first day in Antarctica

Written by Iga

Picturesque, unforgettable views were waiting for us early in the morning. We were woken up by our expedition leader’s words “Welcome to Antarctica”. When we looked out of the window, we saw stunning views of Antarctica with multiple icebergs floating around. It was cloudy almost all day, with a little bit of snow, which only added magic to this place. It was also relatively warm (around 4 degrees Celsius) and the sea was very calm, which favoured data collection. The first shift was on the bridge at 7 am and the observers were lucky enough not to only see the beautiful landscape, but also to spot multiple humpback whales swimming around the ship. Well, we can get used to this kind of Mondays!

The stunning scenery of the Errera Channel dwarfs our ship and zodiac (photo by Sonja)

Our morning activities included zodiac cruising and on-shore landing. Most of our group went cruising in the science zodiac. During the cruise we spotted numerous humpback whales playing around, a crabeater seal hiding behind the iceberg, and a leopard seal (both resting on a piece of floating ice and in the water). The latter one was trying to cause some troubles, biting the side of the zodiac. The rest of the morning we spent on Cuverville Island, where we walked along the shore and looked at gentoo penguins. For all of our group, it was the first time stepping ashore in Antarctica!

Zodiac cruising for data collection was our favorite learning opportunity of the morning, therefore hopefully we will repeat it in the next days. We collected records from three different positions in the same manner as it was done in previous years, in order to preserve continuity of the data. We are very lucky to use the CDT (which measures depth, salinity, water temperature), Secchi disk, and echo-sounder, which make our research much more precise, professional and exciting.

 

Collecting data in the science zodiac. (photo by Sonja)

 

Danco Island was the afternoon landing spot, and involved a 3 km hike to the top of a snow-covered hill. Surrounded by gentoo penguin sounds and views of floating ice all around the island, we took time to sit down, reflect, and observe the behavior of penguins. We were very respectful trying not to get too close to the penguins, as they are moulting at this time of year, which makes them particularly sensitive to disturbance. Some of them, though, were approachable and inquisitive. We have seen them fighting for pebbles (which they use to build nests), stealing each other’s stones, and sliding on their bellies.

 

On the snow dome of Danco Island

 

A reasonably crazy activity – the polar plunge – was waiting for us at the end of the landing. With the water temperature around +1 degree Celsius, we had no fears to have a little dive with penguins all around us. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a really good team-bonding event. In case you don’t believe us, we’ve got a video- and photo-documentation.

 

The polar plunge. (photo by Sonja)

 

Our next days are going to be filled with numerous landings and activities on-shore, supplemented by data collection whenever the ship is moving. It will be very intensive but also extremely interesting and exciting. We will keep you updated!

24 March – Drake Passage Day Two

Written by Christy

Today was our second day crossing the Drake Passage. We had gone to sleep last night expecting rougher seas and less favorable weather conditions, with some of us praying our seasickness medication would save the day. We woke up to drizzle and fog, as we had crossed the Antarctic Convergence during the night, but miraculously, no one has gotten seasick! With no need for substitute surveyors, we got right to work at 9 a.m. Those of us who were not doing sea bird or marine mammal surveys during the morning either helped out on the bridge with surveys anyway, or enjoyed the lectures given by the expert staff on whales, penguins, and a brief introduction to Antarctica.

 

Iga starting up a marine mammal survey shift, all smiles despite the fog, rain and cold!

 

As the morning went on, the fog descended, and the horizon disappeared. Surveyors still managed to spot a fair bit of wildlife despite the poor visibility, including many cape petrels, southern fulmars, a number of Antarctic fur seals, a humpback whale, and a few hourglass dolphins.

 

An hourglass dolphin jumps out of the water. (photo by Lucy)

 

We also saw land for the first time since leaving the Beagle Channel, as the fog managed to dissipate enough for us to see Smith Island and Low Island. Most of the day, though, was spent staring into the fog, wondering whether we would run into an iceberg!

 

Will points out on the map that we are passing by the South Shetland Islands, although the fog blocks the view.

 

On that note, we did manage to see our first chunks of floating ice, and supposedly a tabular iceberg hidden behind a sheath of fog. So, although we crossed two important Antarctic borders early in the day, the Antarctic convergence and 60° South, it hasn’t really felt like Antarctica until we saw the first bits of ice! In the morning we will really set foot on Antarctica—it’s unbelievable.

23 March – Travelling across the Drake Passage

Written by Tiffany

Our first night onboard MV Plancius went smoothly, apart from the ship rocking us back to sleep! The ship’s wakeup call went off at 7.45am and the second call at 8am was for breakfast (by then, everyone was ready to feast again – we’ve been eating so much on this trip, at least I have!). The breakfast spread was luxurious, from multivitamin juice to meats and hash browns. After the hearty breakfast, we kitted up and got ready for our first marine mammal and seabird survey!

We were each assigned different stations during the surveys, which enabled us to develop skills in data recording and identifying both marine mammals and seabirds. Both surveys comprised of 1 data logger and 2 observers. The marine mammal observers were positioned at each bridge wing while the data logger was stationed inside the bridge.

 

The data logging station inside the bridge. (photo by Lauren)

 

Lauren looking out for marine mammals on the port side. (photo by Suzanne)

 

The seabird observers conducted their surveys on either side of the bridge wing where there was the least glare. With Will’s guidance and enthusiasm, we spotted different species including albatrosses, petrels, prions and even some rockhopper penguins!

 

Seabird observers on the starboard side. (photo by Lucy)

 

Will’s list of seabirds observed for the day. (photo by Tiffany)

 

A northern royal albatross. (photo by Lucy)

 

We had just the perfect weather for spotting wildlife. All of us were on the bridge for almost the whole day, anticipating blows of a whale and also enjoying the sunshine! By the end of the day, we spotted bottlenose whales, hourglass dolphins and fin whales! Overall, we were all very pleased with our first day of fieldwork!

 

Beautiful sunset at the top deck. (photo by Lucy)

 

Lovely weather = happy people. (photo by Lucy)

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22 March – Anticipation day

Written by Maeva

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!

On the lookout in Ushuaia harbour

On the lookout in Ushuaia harbour (photo by Isha)

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!

Group photo with the MV Plancius in the backgroud

Posing on the pier with the Plancius (photo by Lucy)

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!

Students by a lifeboat in life jackets

Lifeboat lessons (photo from Lauren – nicely taken by Igor. the ship engineer)

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!

The group sitting at dining tables

Evening meal (photo by Maeva)

 

The dishes from the meal

The three courses (photo by Maeva)

 

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