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The South Sandwich Islands

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Written by Dr. Tom Hart, Penguinologist, Oxford University, UK.

Tom runs the Penguin Lifelines project at Oxford University and the Zoological Society of London, through which he monitors Antarctic wildlife using camera trapping, volunteer photos and population genetics. Tom’s PhD at Imperial College and the British Antarctic Survey investigated penguin foraging behavior around South Georgia.

He loves the world’s cold places and is passionate about protecting them. Tom loves all penguins, b

ut particularly macaroni penguins, as they have the most attitude.

The South Sandwich Islands are a string of volcanic islands that form the Eastern edge of the Scotia Arc, a series of islands from the tip of South America through the Falklands, South Georgia, South Sandwich, the South Orkneys and the Antarctic Peninsula. Broadly, these are islands formed around the edge of the Scotia tectonic plate.

They form a nice gradient from the sub-Antarctic Zavodovski, to the more Antarctic South Thule, which is almost poking into the Weddell Sea and are placed in the way of the krill transport chain coming up from the Antarctic Peninsula. With incredibly rich waters around them, the islands teem with life; Zavodovski Island holds around 1.2 million breeding pairs of chinstrap penguins [read 2.4 million penguins!], and all of the islands have large colonies on them.

Picture an island volcano rising from the sea – a lava cone with steep cliffs where the lava has reached the sea. Occasionally, here and there a small beach presents a possible landing. On the slopes, you gradually become aware of the many thousands of penguins, the sound and the smell coming in faint waves.

Iceberg

They lie in the perfect region for high krill productivity, so between South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, large numbers of whales can be seen. This was probably one of the refuges for whales in the whaling era – the South Sandwich Islands were one of the last regions to be reached by the factory ships, and by then whaling was largely uneconomic. The region is now the largest marine-protected area on earth, and we’ll be there at the perfect time of year to see whales and seabirds foraging offshore.

Chinstrap Penguins

“Today a great number of large whales (chiefly blue whales and only a single knoll whale) were seen. At last it became fine weather and the blasts of large whales were seen everywhere.”

-Carl Anton Larson, 1908

“We always found ice conditions most severe around the vicinity of the South Sandwich Islands. Huge packs of heavy blue ice lay fast between the islands. Soon they would break up after the winter’s freeze, drift away with the prevailing wind and current, and finally erode or melt. We used to try to pass to the Southward of this group and proceed along the ice-edge in a south-westerly direction. Weather and whaling conditions were usually good in this area at this time of year, and whales plentiful – but we never knew how long this would last. They could be in abundance one day and gone the next.”

-McLaughlin, W. R . D. (1962) Call to the South: A Story of British Whaling in Antarctica. George G. Harrap & Co, London. Pp 92-93.

So, the keener people can expect to see lots of wildlife en route to the islands as well as on the islands themselves. All-in-all, the South Sandwich Islands are a wild paradise; the wildest, richest place you can ever visit while remaining on this planet.

South Sandwich Islands

Editor’s note: You can visit the South Sandwich Islands on Quark’s 25-day Antarctica’s Scotia Arc: The Ultimate Insider’s Voyage departing December 15, 2014. And until September 15, 2014, save up to 25% off this voyage.

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A study on climate change & declining penguin populations

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At Quark Expeditions, we are proud to partner with scientists who are leading their fields in boots-on-the-ground research. In addition to some of the more famous explorers we’ve welcomed aboard as Resident Experts, year after year we have the pleasure of welcoming Oxford Biology Department researchers and penguinologists, Dr. Tom Hart and Gemma Clucas.

Throughout their roughly 15 Antarctic expeditions with us, Hart and Clucas have gathered genetic samples, data and local knowledge as part of a collaborative study. This month, the new study co-authored by these expert penguinologists has been published in Scientific Reports and covered by National Geographic.

Meet Dr. Tom Hart and Gemma Clucas, Quark Penguinologists

The new study, titled “A reversal of fortunes: climate change ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in Antarctic Peninsula penguins,” compares historic penguin population fluctuations to today’s more rapid, climate change-induced trends.

According to Dr. Hart, “Historically, warming has caused all penguin populations to rise, but now numbers of Adélie and chinstrap penguins are falling.” The study surmises that climate change is causing warming to happen too quickly, which is changing biodiversity in ways that cause these populations to shrink. Of the three species the team studied, only one – gentoo penguins – had growing populations. Krill, which shrink in numbers along with the ice, is a main food source for Adélie and chinstrap penguins, but gentoo penguins rely on other sources of nourishment.

When asked about the future of penguin population trends in Antarctica, Dr. Hart commented, “The truth is the future looks pretty bad; they are likely to decline more, particularly unless we can address climate change and fisheries. It’s important not to talk about extinction, because in some areas penguins are doing fine, but in the peninsular region, where the effects of climate change are worse, they’re doing pretty badly.”

Research aboard Quark’s Antarctic Expeditions

 

Tom Hart Dr. Tom Hart sets up his equipment on a Quark Expeditions' voyage to Antarctica.

“I’ve kind of lost count of how many times I’ve traveled with Quark,” Dr. Hart said. “We began traveling with Quark in 2010, collecting genetic samples and monitoring populations with time lapse cameras. We have observers stationed in some places year-round, and sometimes we’re able to connect with them. We’ve also been collaborating with the British Antarctic, and a few other organizations, but all the samples we collected from the peninsula for this study were done on Quark Expeditions’ voyages.”

Gemma Clucas, an Oxford Zoology Department research assistant, described how they collected samples on excursions. “We were mainly collecting feathers as genetic samples,” Ms. Clucas said, adding, “either picking them off the ground, or following them during their molt. Sometimes we would take clept feather samples, and we would need to restrain the birds. We would also sometimes try to sex them, which you can do by measuring the bills, if you can restrain them long enough to do it. It was always fun work, you know, but the work tended to stick with you. Even in the lab, everything always smelled like penguins!”

“They’re all amazing birds,” Ms. Clucas said, “but if I had to pick a favorite, it would be the Adélie. They’re the cutest.”

Quark: where scientific research & tourism meet

South Georgia

Voyaging with tourism expedition companies has been a growing trend with scientists. Dr. Hart explains the benefit: “As a scientist, it’s very hard to get to Antarctica. If you can reduce what you need to do to a three-hour window, then you can jump aboard these voyages and collect a lot of samples.”

But the benefit of conducting research with organizations like Quark doesn’t end at collecting samples. “The knowledge of the expedition team as scientific and local experts who were on the voyages was really a tremendous asset. On my first trip, I found it slightly embarrassing how much the naturalists knew about penguins that I didn’t. They were a great source for collaboration. They would trigger ideas, and inform our research.

"The local knowledge of naturalists was really key. They would know things like, which colonies breed before others, and how they’re affected by the sea ice. This kind of knowledge was something scientists were not collecting data on, so it presented wonderful opportunities.”

Tourists, Dr. Hart and Ms. Clucas observed, were always very interested in their work aboard voyages. Joining tourists on excursions to collect samples provided context for the onboard education programs they taught.

“A lot of people are surprised to hear that penguins are declining and Antarctica is changing,” Dr. Hart said. “There’s a lot of concern and support, once they learn what’s happening in the region, and can see it with their own eyes.”

Want to learn more about the penguins you may encounter on one of our Antarctic expeditions? See our recent post about five particularly fascinating penguins including kings and rockhoppers.

Tom Hart

Biography

Dr. Tom Hart, Penguinologist

Tom runs the Penguin Lifelines project at Oxford University and the Zoological Society of London, through which he monitors Antarctic wildlife using camera trapping, volunteer photos and population genetics.

Tom’s PhD at Imperial College and the British Antarctic Survey investigated penguin foraging behavior around South Georgia. He loves the world’s cold places and is passionate about protecting them. Tom loves all penguins, but particularly macaroni penguins, as they have the most attitude.

 

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Quark Expeditions Experts-in-Residence Announced

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Top image copyright Sue Flood

We are pleased to announce our Experts-in-Residence program for the 2013.14 Antarctic season! Renowned for the expedition team's expertise in the Arctic and Antarctica, our Experts-in-Residence program adds an extra layer of interest and insight to polar expeditions with best-in-class guests from the fields of polar history, scientific research, and photography.

This year we are thrilled to have the following polar experts join us:

Jonathan Shackleton 2013

Polar History

Back by popular demand, Jonathan Shackleton (cousin of Sir Ernest Shackleton) is a leading expert on the life and achievements of Ernest Shackleton and he is author of Shackleton: An Irishman in Antarctica and The Shackletons of Ballitore (1580-1987). Jonathan will be on four voyages this season:

 

Jonathan Shackleton was part of our Experts in Residence program in February of 2013 when he joined an Antarctic Explorer voyage on the Ocean Diamond with Falcon Scott. You can read all about that experience here.


Tom Hart - Experts in Residence program 2013-2014

Scientific Research

Dr. Tom Hart runs the Penguin Lifelines project at Oxford University and the Zoological Society of London. The on-going project monitors Antarctic wildlife using camera trapping, volunteer photos and population genetics. Tom's PhD at Imperial College and the British Antarctic Survey investigated penguin foraging behavior around South Georgia. www.penguinlifelines.org. Dr. Hart will be on four voyages this season:

Dr. Tom Hart has visited the Quark Expeditions office a few times over the past year and participated in "Ask a Penguinologist" - where he participated in a live web chat and answered questions about Penguin Lifelines and penguins in general. Here's a clip from his first chat with us:


Photography

sueflood

Sue Flood is a professional wildlife and travel photographer who has been working in the polar regions for over 20 years, and with more 30 trips to the Arctic and Antarctic. She won the 2011 International Photographer of the Year - prize-winner for best nature book. www.sueflood.com. Sue will be on three voyages this season:

 

How to Book
Quark is currently offering a $1000 air credit on select Sea Spirit voyages, including the 15-day Antarctic Peninsula East & West voyage, January 24, 2014 featuring Jonathan Shackleton. Book before July 31, 2013. Some conditions apply. Click here for more details.

For more information contact a Quark Polar Travel Adviser at 888-892-0073 or visit www.quarkexpeditions.com.

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Ask Dr. Tom Hart, Penguinologist

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Quark Expeditions is excited to announce the return of Dr. Tom Hart, Penguinologist, to the Quark offices this week! He'll be dropping by to chat about all things penguin-related...with you!

We're setting up a live web chat with Dr. Hart this Thursday, June 13th at 12:00pm EST and you're the special guest. Got a burning penguin-related question that demands answering? Wonder how one becomes an expert in the field of penguinology? You won't want to miss out on this very special webinar. Join our facebook event for up to the minute updates here.

TO REGISTER FOR THIS WEBINAR:

Please visit: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/200696407412396288

About Dr. Tom Hart:

Tom runs the Penguin Lifelines project at Oxford University and the Zoological Society of London, through which he monitors Antarctic wildlife using camera trapping, volunteer photos and population genetics. Tom’s PhD at Imperial College and the British Antarctic Survey investigated penguin foraging behavior around South Georgia. He loves the world's cold places and is passionate about protecting them. Tom loves all penguins, but particularly Macaroni Penguins, as they have the most attitude.

 

a photo from one of Dr. Tom Hart's cameras in Antarctica a shot from one of Dr. Hart's cameras in Antarctica.

 

What can you expect from a chat with a Penguinologist? Here's a video from the last time Dr. Hart was here answering questions:

Got a question for Tom? Let us know at socialmedia@quarkexpeditions.com and we'll make sure he gets them!

Dr. Tom Hart will be part of the Experts In Residence program on select voyages during our Antarctic 2014 season.

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