Satellite camera deployed!

Wooo hoo!

The camera is live – here is some video of us half way through the set up. The battery was a huge lump to trek up the hill, but we got everything working well.

This camera is the first remote sat camera of the Instant Wild/Cambridge Consultant collaboration (www.edgeofexistence.org/instantwild/). It’s an advanced prototype and it’s taken a long time to get it here, so thanks to everyone who have worked so hard and then let me steal it. It’s not even like I’m going to look after it!

Al Davies from ZSL is on board to set it up – there’s a lot of troubleshooting to get the first working. This has involved setting up cameras on the ship’s rail, then scurrying down to his cabin to check email for a photo.


Setting up the camera rig

Al checks the satphone to Cambridge Consultants - the people who built the sat camera with him. It's best to check that it's sending before we leave it for a year...

Al checks the satphone to Cambridge Consultants – the people who built the sat camera with him. It’s best to check that it’s sending before we leave it for a year…

So, after an attempt to get to Detaille was rebutted by ice, we headed to the Yalours. We hiked a lot of equipment up a small hill, but it did reveal to us that there’s a little way to go yet on the power supply to make it really portable. We massively over-specked the power requirements to make sure it won’t die even if the solar cell fails. We had a bit of a scramble, but managed to set up two cameras looking at the penguins and one looking at the installation. It was a race, but we walked away relatively confident that it might survive! Special thanks to Woody the Expedition Leader for giving us some extra time ashore to guarantee the installation. Also, thanks to Wolfgang who came to pick us up when he should have been having dinner.

The important photo – this photo went to space and back…twice! We routed it back to the ship to test everything. Now it’s clearly working- the only question is how well it will survive the winter. Let’s hope all of those holes and connectors work.

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...and this is the one that Al watches.

…and this is the one that Al watches.

Relief and happy days!

Hope all is well in the real world…

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Getting over-excited about satellites.

January 19th – Crystal Sound

Al from ZSL is on board – one of the most important aspects of this whole season is to get a satellite camera out. It’s by no means the first concept of a satellite webcam, but one that is cheap and can survive the Antarctic winter unassisted? That’s revolutionary. Now we just have to achieve that.

Al is the tech god who designed the new camera. He’s then been working with Cambridge Consultants to come up with a way to link it to a satellite modem on the cheap and with a small unreliable power supply. This is a really important addition to the toolkit; it will allow us to monitor some incredibly remote, seldom-visited sites and fill the data gap that currently plagues a lot of Antarctic policy-making. Then, don’t forget all the remote areas around the world which suffer from poaching and other threats. Al and co built this as a camera trap (a camera triggered by motion). I’ve been nagging him for about two years to make it robust enough for Antarctica. I think I’ve succeeded in getting through how harsh the freeze-thaw process is. He’s been in his cabin almost non-stop for the last three days testing and re-testing everything before we deploy.

Al Davies, pet geek and tech god. Looks good in orange.

Al Davies, pet geek and tech god. Looks good in orange.


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Throughout the night, we were pushing through sea ice south of the Antarctic Circle, looking for a way into some of the islands down there with Adelies. I was hoping to get the satellite camera out there, but it’s not to be. The sea ice that stopped us in this case is the life blood of Antarctica; a substrate for algae and therefore what krill forage on. Krill are small shrimp and everything in Antarctica eats them or knows someone that does.

Well, at least the thing that stopped us is good for penguins. Plus, we got a zodiac cruise in spectacular scenery with brilliant wildlife- it was stunning seeing Wilson’s storm petrels foraging doing their dance on the surface of the water.

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So, no sat cam yet, but soon!

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More cameras – cool pictures.

8th January, 2014

Caitlin my MRes student, camera guru in training and all-round hard worker has joined us on the Ocean Diamond. For the last year, she’s been working on the images that these cameras generate, clicking on penguins and scoring sea-ice. It’s by no means her first work on penguins, but she’s never been to Antarctica, so it’s exciting to experience her first trip. While on board, her job will be to help reorientate cameras in light of her analyses, making sure that we get the best we can from these. Moreover, she’s got used to one very specific view of a lot of the colonies, so it’s a good chance to see what’s behind the camera. Before she joined, I’ve been going through the images we’ve collected since last season, which are proving excellent. The only bad news is that both of the cameras on Booth Island failed. One of these was a long-term success story, but so far all of the others have worked very well. Here’s a few:

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Chinstrap penguins arrive at Orne Harbour in November. They look like they regret it.

Chinstrap penguins arrive at Orne Harbour in November. They look like they regret it.

Emperor penguins at Gould Bay, Weddell Sea, showing chicks with less than a month to go before fledging.

Emperor penguins at Gould Bay, Weddell Sea, showing chicks with less than a month to go before fledging.

Gentoo penguins arrive at Danco Island, Errera Channel. Sea and brash ice is still visible in the background. Often gentoos will come and go throughout the winter.

Gentoo penguins arrive at Danco Island, Errera Channel. Sea and brash ice is still visible in the background. Often gentoos will come and go throughout the winter.

Also, here’s a video showing some of the set-up.

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Cameras and whales

27th Dec 2013

So far, so good! The cameras we’ve got to have survived the winter and seem to be performing well. We’re ticking off the sites north of the Lemaire and so far as I look through the images, they seem to have collected some excellent data. This winter was a huge year for sea ice, so it’s really important that we have good data to compare with the norm. We’re interested in the timing of breeding in particular and how that might have been delayed. My early impression is that the Adelies and Chinstraps were delayed, but Gentoos not really.

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We’ve set up cameras at a few more sites, and also tried to calibrate the colours within image with true colour. Paul is on board testing this, which involves him walking around the colony with a long stick with a colour standard on it. He then aims it at a penguin and takes a photo. I’m not sure the guests on board have figured it out – why he’s ruining otherwise excellent penguin photos with a stick. The goal would be to be able to measure what he does from my own automated (year-round) cameras.

High - vis clothing really works in the gloom. Here Paul heads back to the main group.

High – vis clothing really works in the gloom. Here Paul heads back to the main group.

We’re now on the Drake heading home again, and have been fortunate to have some excellent wildlife encounters. Just when we thought it was over, some spectacular humpbacks came and hung around the ship. Captain Oleg stopped the ship and we had about an hour of spectacular viewing.

It’s been great to rejoin the OD crew – there’s a fantastic team ethic on this ship and it’s great seeing old friends while working- it feels all the more special for having a (nearly) common purpose. Shane and the team have been hugely accommodating of the scaffold poles and paraphernalia that I’ve brought on board.

Humpback whale, Drake Passage, quite close to the South Shetland Islands. Humpbacks are so called for how they arch their backs when diving.

Humpback whale, Drake Passage, quite close to the South Shetland Islands. Humpbacks are so called for how they arch their backs when diving.

Also demonstrated here.

Also demonstrated here.

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Getting ready to join the Ocean Diamond

Tues 18th Dec, 2013
I’m getting ready to join the Ocean Diamond, one of the Quark Expeditions ships. It’s a bit like home; I’ve worked with most of the crew before and the third season with Woody and Annie, second with Shane as Expedition Leaders. After all of the movement – I have no idea how many thousands of miles I’ve travelled since October – it’s nice to stay on one ship and be taken to all the cameras! No, that sounds really lazy, let’s say it’s going to be great to be part of the team again.

Ocean Diamond coming out of the Lamaire Channel, next to Booth Island (2 cameras) on route to Petermann Island (4 cameras) (c) Yukie Kopp

Ocean Diamond coming out of the Lamaire Channel, next to Booth Island (2 cameras) on route to Petermann Island (4 cameras) (c) Yukie Kopp

The Quark team have been incredibly supportive of Penguin Lifelines, so it’s time for some hard work on the ship and on the land. This is the time when we get most of the data – we have tens of sites, which are spread over the Antarctic Peninsula. Now we have to get to all of them and fix, change or service them before the ice closes in again. I’ve had the cameras in the back of my mind since the end of the last season. Have they survived? Trying to run a project on a tight budget at the edge of technology does not make for sound sleeping. Still, they have mostly survived in previous years…

Paul Nolan from Citadel University is joining me to test an interesting idea about colour change in penguins and to see whether this is something we could measure from my cameras. It would allow remote monitoring of the health of colonies. So, it’s time to pack up all the kit again and get on the move. The nice thing is that I’ll now be in one place (sort of) for the next five weeks.

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Union Glacier and Gould Bay

Sunday 15th December 2013
I’ve just arrived back in Ushuaia after an eventful three weeks. Gemma and I left the Ortelius in Ushuaia after a really productive trip. Sadly, Gemma had to go back to the lab while I continue to get all the fun stuff in the field. Next step – Emperor penguins. After catching up with amigos at CADIC (Centro Austral de Investigaciones Cientificas) – the local science institute, I took the long weary bus to Punta Arenas. I shouldn’t complain, it was actually very comfortable but it took eleven hours and so gets a little tedious.

The next phase was to join up with ALE/ANI, a commercial operator running flights from Punta Arenas to Union Glacier to support expeditions and tourists into the heart of the continent. It was a very different experience to anything I’ve done before and was extremely impressive. As a guest lecturer, I was talking to lots of people about penguins while using the opportunity to do my own work.

I cannot possibly describe how impressive landing a jet on a glacier was, or taking a Twin Otter (light aircraft) and Bassler (converted, beefed up DC3) to the emperor penguins was. I had a total of four days on sea ice with the penguins near Gould Bay.

The Ilyushin, just landed at Union Glacier.

The Ilyushin, just landed at Union Glacier.

Everything is better with regurgitated fish.

Everything is better with regurgitated fish.


The genetics went very well, the cameras not so well. I’ve got a few ideas buzzing around about how to monitor emperors, but the time-lapse camera I had with me for this year is not to be. The Gould Bay colony is really mobile, making it impossible for a static camera to record anything useful. However, I’m trying to come up with ways around this.

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Union Glacier Camp, Ellsworth Mountains

Union Glacier Camp, Ellsworth Mountains

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Day out in Union Glacier while waiting for the Ilyushin to take us back to Punta Arenas - is this really a job?

Day out in Union Glacier while waiting for the Ilyushin to take us back to Punta Arenas – is this really a job?

Two Emperors stooge next to the tide crack. Tom gets in the way.

Two Emperors stooge next to the tide crack. Tom gets in the way.

Twin Otter aircraft; I am seriously in love with these - they are incredible! Otters are very social and given the choice, they will hang around in pairs.

I am seriously in love with these aircraft – they are incredible! Otters are very social and given the choice, they will hang around in pairs.

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Destination – South Sandwich!

It’s the start of the season – we’ve kicked off a more complicated season than usual, but one that is very exciting for what it means in what we can deliver for Southern Ocean monitoring.
This season has several strands – Gemma Clucas (from Southampton University) and I (Tom) will be visiting the South Sandwich Islands on board the MV Ortelius. We’ll aim to get samples and place cameras on South Georgia, South Sandwich, Elephant Island and the Antarctic Peninsula.
Next, I’ll fly to Berknor Island at the South of the Weddell Sea to attempt to place a time-lapse camera on an Emperor colony.
Finally, in phase three, we’ll be back on the Ocean Diamond servicing the cameras around the Antarctic Peninsula. Here, I’ll be joined initially by Paul Nolan from Citadel University in the US, then Caitlin Black, an MRes student from Oxford. Finally, I’ll be joined by Al Davies from the Zoological Society of London who will field test the first satellite linked camera we hope to deploy in some really remote places.

A gentoo penguin sits up the top of Danco Island in the Ererra Channel.

A gentoo penguin sits up the top of Danco Island in the Ererra Channel.

1st November, 2013
Gemma and I board the MV Ortelius, previously a Russian ice-strengthened transport ship, but now Dutch owned and renovated as a polar tour ship. We’ll be on this ship until the 23rd November, visiting the Falklands, South Georgia, the South Sandwich and the Antarctic Peninsula. We’re also meant to be going to the South Orkneys, but as these are still in the sea ice, that currently seems like a long shot.

8th November, 2013
King Edward Point! Site of Grytviken, an old whaling station and also the research station which conducts fisheries research. I meet Pat, one of the Government Officers to check permits and also catch up with good friends. The South Georgia Government has been very helpful with cameras around this region, so I was able to pick up the SD cards from three cameras in the region, which were full of good data.
The visit is short and in no time at all, we’re saying good bye to friends Sue, Andy and Pat.

A light snow shower makes for a pretty scene next to one of the old whale catchers

A light snow shower makes for a pretty scene next to one of the old whale catchers

South Sandwich!
I wake up at 0330 to a radio call saying that we are close to Saunders Island. I jump out of bed and go to the bridge. Sure enough, there is Saunders Island on the radar and emerging vaguely through the fog. It’s very different to the last time I was here in January 2010 on the yacht Golden Fleece. As Captain Ernesto picked his way through the sea ice to an anchorage, I start to recognise the features and possible landing sites. The wind is alternating between 20 and 45 knots. We anchor with trepidation and wait – get these conditions wrong and you’re stranded in one of the most remote regions on earth, with very little chance of help. Our mood turns from hope to fear as it looks like we might lose our main objective. When it starts looking like we may have to give up, the wind eases and starts to stabilise. The fog clears a little and suddenly it looks possible for a landing in drysuits. We launch a scout boat and land- victory! More than that, it rapidly turns stable enough to land all the passengers, so everyone gets to experience the bleak, impressive landscape on Saunders. Gemma and I waste no time in getting our respective work done, still sweltering in drysuits and sliding down the sides of the gullies. We are recalled to the zodiacs an hour and a half later, craving more time but incredibly happy about the result. We reboard Ortelius, so grateful to the Captain and Expedition Leader Delphine for getting us to shore. I feel hugely relieved, having landed three years ago I knew how bad the conditions usually are and therefore how easy it would be to fail. Now we only need to worry about getting back in future years…

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Saunders Island  in the South Sandwich - we didn't have a lot of time, so we had to run to get the sampling and cameras done! (c) Chris Eves.

Saunders Island in the South Sandwich – we didn’t have a lot of time, so we had to run to get the sampling and cameras done! (c) Chris Eves.

Sunday 17th November, 2013.
We’ve had a slow crossing from South Sandwich to the Antarctic Peninsula, with initially a lot of sea ice around South Sandwich, followed by a stronger headwind and larger seas than forecast. Long crossings and time at sea can be frustrating, but we’ve had a lot of birds and whales to watch.
Expedition accounts from the past frequently refer to methods of fending off boredom.

‘It’s time enough to do it when you’ve got to; until that time comes, make yourself as comfortable as circumstances permit.’
Earnest Shackleton, when the Endurance was stuck in ice.

Shackleton put all of his team to work – he had the scientists scrubbing the decks to reinforce the sense of an expedition team. Not everyone saw the benefit of this; Thomas Orde Lees was a mechanic from the navy and grouped with the scientists. He makes a number of references to some parts of manual labour being beneath him.
‘This is not work I should like mind a bit except for the disgusting way everyone spits all over the deck, which would not be tolerated for a moment in a man-o’-war’.
Life on board Ortelius is much more exciting and with far fewer chores, so although we’re slower than expected, it’s been a very nice crossing. This morning, we reached Elephant Island at 0300. It was pretty calm; a very gentle but long swell rolled past the ship towards the shore. It must have been just past dawn, but the light was still very grey and flat, with no obvious sun. Elephant Island covered the horizon on the port side of the ship. It was a spectacular morning and very quickly we launched a scout zodiac to attempt a landing. Sadly, the swell was too big for a landing, but we had a good look at the site at which Shackleton’s men spent the winter while Shackleton and five others crossed the Scotia Sea in a small boat to find help.

Delphine the Expedition Leader on Ortelius, searching for a safe landing at Point Wild, Elephant Island

Delphine the Expedition Leader on Ortelius, searching for a safe landing at Point Wild, Elephant Island

Posted in 2013/14 field season, Antarctic Peninsula, Argentina, South Georgia, South Orkney Islands, South Sandwich Islands, South Shetland Islands | Tagged , , | Leave a comment