Photo by Ari Friedlaender

Isolated continent to social isolation: a tale of research in Antarctica and an escape from the safest place on earth

Traveling to Antarctica for my PhD work is an enormous privilege. The Antarctic is one of the harshest and most remote places on earth. Lots of advance preparation is needed, but the unique biological systems and special people who work there make it all worth it. I traveled to the Antarctic this year with Dave Cade, post-doctoral scholar at Stanford and UC Santa Cruz, and a great scientist and friend. We were joining a film crew from the Natural History New Zealand company (NHNZ) to sail on the Australis from Ushuaia, Argentina, to the Antarctic (Picture 1).

Picture 1: The Australis, with sails unfurled. Captain Ben, Katie and Ryan were the crew.

Our plan was to tag humpback whales in 3 bays along the Gerlache Strait (Picture 2), while collecting drone footage, biopsy samples, and record the presence of krill using an echosounder. At the same time, the NHNZ film crew would document our scientific efforts. After conducting our research, Dave and I were slated to part from the film crew to join a cruise ship as visiting scientists for 10 days, before heading home.

Picture 2: Map of the Gerlache Strait, original from Friedlaender et al. 2016

Even with all our preparations and planning, my research trip to Antarctica started off a little rough… little did I know how it would end!

Dave and I departed from Monterey early in the morning to catch our flight to Ushuaia from San Jose International Airport. Once we arrived at the airport, we realized we forgot a CRITICAL piece of equipment. There are no stores in Antarctica … no way to buy something you’ve forgotten, making it exceedingly challenging to fix something broken. We decided that Dave would go ahead with our luggage and I would drive two hours back to Monterey to pick up the equipment. I paid the $600 dollar flight change, grabbed the equipment, bought a can of coffee (discovered that I don’t like canned coffee), and woke up the following morning to discover that our luggage never made it to Argentina. Eventually, with the help of very kind airline personnel, I located the luggage and boarded the plane. A day and a half later, with everything in hand, I met Dave in Ushuaia.

The town of Ushuaia is part of Tierra del Fuego and lies between enormous mountains and the sea. While beautiful and developed, it truly feels like the end of the world. I spent hours on the internet and saying goodbye to family before leaving Ushuaia on Feb 27th. The sailboat only had internet access once a day for five minutes. That’s just enough time to send and receive messages, but twelve hours often passed before we could respond to messages. Connection is a precious commodity in Antarctica!

The first day on the sailboat was serene as we crossed through the islands that are the tail end of the Tierra del Fuego mountain range. As we sailed onward, our trepidation grew: how would we fare crossing the Drake?

The Drake is one of the most infamous stretches of ocean, separating South America from Antarctica. It is part of a circumpolar current that is uninterrupted by any land masses. The Drake is notoriously rough, and we were about to cross it in a 70-foot sailboat.

The Drake served up exactly what we expected—a storm with 50 kilometer per hour winds and waves that crashed over the side of the sailboat. The captain and crew sailed us through the Drake safely and we officially arrived in Antarctica!

Our first stop was Livingston Island where the film crew filmed leopard and fur seals, as well as interviewed the NOAA scientists stationed there. After 8 days, the film crew completed their filming and we sailed south toward the Western Antarctic Peninsula to reach Charlotte Bay. In Charlotte Bay we placed tags on 5 whales, took biopsy samples, and located krill.

Science Explanation Interlude:

How do we tag whales? We use Customized Animal Tracking Solution (CATS) tags. These tags are equipped with everything that is inside your cellphone – a camera, microphone, accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, and light sensor- all within a housing that can float (Picture 3).

We approach a whale slowly on a small Zodiac. The ‘tagger’ extends a 3 meter pole with the tag on the end and sticks the tag to the whale’s back (Picture 4). The tags attach to the back of a whale using four suction cups. When the ‘suction’ of the cups loosens, after approximately 24 hours, the tags float to the surface. The tags are equipped with a radio and a satellite antenna so that we can locate them while they float.

One great reason to work in Antarctica is because of the unique ecosystem. The glaciers and cold water are a perfect location for krill to grow and aggregate. This attracts many animals- birds, seals, and whales.  Another great reason are the unusual whale behaviors. The humpback whales are often asleep at the surface, making them easy to tag, and are fat from feeding on very calorically-dense Antarctic krill. In all the other places I have worked, I have not encountered a sleeping whale. Antarctic humpback whales use a bubble-net feeding technique that is usually only seen to capture fish, so we are interested in studying their use of this behavior when eating krill.

While in Charlotte Bay, we began to hear reports of a virus back home. Because of our limited internet connection, we did not understand the full scope of what was occurring. We continued to work with the whales, while trying to monitor the situation at home.  

Next, we sailed to Wilhelmina Bay, where we tagged 5 more whales. However, the news about COVID-19 was increasingly concerning. One morning, we learned that the cruise we were supposed to join as visiting scientists was canceled.

The effects of COVID-19 were spreading around the world. You might be thinking, why not just stay in Antarctica, the reportedly safest place on earth? We concluded that staying on the Australis was not a viable option – the ship supplies were not meant to support us for so many days and there would be no support ships nearby in case of emergency – and decided that we must find a way to return to California without the cruise ship. 

We contacted everyone we could back at home – my PhD advisor, Dr. Jeremy Goldbogen, the Stanford travel office, the Biology department office at Stanford, the administrative staff at the Hopkins Marine Station. Together, they reached the United States Antarctic Program branch of the National Science Foundation (USAP-NSF). We had a stroke of luck: the R/V Laurence M. Gould (LMG), a USAP-NSF ship, was still in Antarctica. Joining a USAP-NSF ship normally requires many applications and months of medical exams. However, since Dave and I were on the LMG last year and considering the extreme circumstances, the leadership of the USAP generously agreed to pick us up.

We planned to meet the LMG between 1 and 3 AM in the Gerlache Strait. Dave and I rushed to pack our gear and locate two tags that were still floating in the ocean in the dark. While Captain Ben was monitoring the radio and internet connection to receive precise coordinates from the LMG, our internet connection collapsed. All we could do was travel slowly toward the last known location of the LMG and hope they would reach us by radio. Finally, around 1 AM we heard from the LMG and met them at 2 AM. We were ferried to the LMG by Ryan and said a final, sad goodbye to the crew on the Australis, wishing them luck on the rest of their journey.

The following morning, Dave and I joined the scientists, crew, and staff aboard the LMG for breakfast. After exclamations of ‘How did you get here!’ and many hugs hello, everyone aboard the LMG had a meeting. Eric, the lead Marine Technician, and Captain Zolt told us what to expect in the coming days. At this stage, all we knew was that we would encounter a large storm crossing the Drake on our way to Punta Arenas, Chile, but that we must continue before we lost any chance to leave Chile. No one had plane tickets out of Chile because we did not know if the ship would be held in quarantine at the port. The USAP office would purchase tickets and monitor the situation for everyone on board- including Dave and me.

We crossed the Drake in 30-foot seas and gale-force winds, though this time in a much larger boat, and eventually reached Punta Arenas. As we approached, Eric informed us that it was still undecided whether our ship would be granted permission to dock. We received news that local Chilean street riots were escalating because of fears of the virus and that the port had been blockaded by Chilean citizens to keep out foreigners who could be carrying the virus.  

News finally arrived that the USAP office, working around the clock, had secured plane tickets home. That same day, the Chilean officials in Punta Arenas allowed us to dock with conditions – we could not step off the ship and until they provided us with next steps.

The following morning, we waited nervously while representatives from the NSF, along with police, border patrol and dock officials, joined health workers alongside our ship to decide how we should get to the airport. Inside the ship, we created ‘sanitation packs’- little bottles of Purell, Lysol wipes, and alcohol spray. Finally, a decision was made. The ship’s passengers packed into minivans and drove directly to a warehouse for health screenings and baggage checks.

Once our temperatures were checked and our baggage was deemed safe, we re-boarded the vans and raced to the Punta Arenas airport. We rushed because our local escort heard that the president of Chile declared martial law would take effect that evening.

When we arrived at the airport, we formed a 30 person line up, falling in line behind a surprising number of people trying to leave Punta Arenas. We learned that the plane we were slated to board was overbooked, and we were all be placed on standby. We crowded- we hadn’t yet heard of the recommendation to stand 6 feet apart- around the gate, waiting to see who would make it onto the plane. We discovered that a group of tourists, in their desperation to ensure that they could leave Chile, had purchased two seats per person. Once they were seated and the flight attendants realized what happened, they allowed us all to board and we were off to Santiago.

The next evening, after many delays and cancelations, all 30 of the LMG passengers crossed the street to enter the airport. I separated from all but one of the group and said my goodbyes. After crossing through security, answering a dozen questions about where I had been, I finally boarded the plane to Atlanta, final destination Toronto. I sat next to the other passenger from the LMG and together we wiped down the trays, the armrests, even the seat belt buckles, to keep as safe as possible. Even the air on the plane smelled of sanitizer.

When I finally touched down in Toronto, I was delirious with relief. How lucky I was! Not only had I been to the most remote, magical, place on earth, but I had also escaped it. Now I’m left with an enormous amount of gratitude for all the people who helped bring me home and will be ready for my next chance to return to Antarctica.

Shirel Kahane-Rapport is a 4th year Biology Ph.D candidate at Hopkins and currently serves as president of Hopkins Marine Station’s graduate student organization. She studies the role body size plays in whale physiology and ecology. Funding for this fieldwork comes from the NHNZ, and the research permits are ACA 2020-016 and NMFS 23095.