8 May 2019


Chris Johnson

Senior Manager, Antarctic Program

New technologies are allowing us to go above and beyond to study and protect critical habitats for the wildlife that call the Antarctic Peninsula home.

The Earth’s last wild place

Antarctica is epic. It’s the largest wilderness on Earth with over 9,000 marine species - and even more being discovered each year. Antarctica is unique as it’s the only place on the planet set aside as a reserve for ‘peace and science.’ No country owns it and we must all work together to conserve it.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve studied and documented whale populations around the world and the high seas. However, nothing quite beats working among the Antarctic giants while surrounded by mountains rising from the sea and navigating colourful icebergs of all shapes and sizes along the Peninsula. The scale of nature here is overwhelming and inspirational.

The Antarctic circumpolar current flows clockwise from west to east around the continent and runs parallel north up the Western Peninsula. This means its icy waters are very productive and abound with wildlife from humpback whales to penguins and seals, feeding on huge swarms of their prey - krill. It’s truly a sight to behold. But this critical habitat is fragile and on the edge.

Krill: the keystone of the food chain

Krill might be small - tiny in fact - but it has big role to play in the Antarctic ecosystem. Krill is the keystone of the Antarctic marine food chain. Whales, penguins, seals, seabirds and fish are dependant on this vital food source for their survival. However, as oceans warm and sea ice declines, krill is on the move toward higher latitudes. We are only beginning to understand how this may impact predators.

For humpback whales, a yearly migration to the Antarctic is essential to feed on krill, rest and add the necessary energy stores to sustain them for their next journey to their tropical breeding grounds.

Already, whales and other krill dependent species face competition with commercial fishing over this food source. At the moment, it is managed in a highly precautionary manner by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) and they set stringent limits to its catch in different regions. However, work with our science teams is revealing that humpback whales stay later in the season, especially females who are pregnant, when krill fishing vessels are moving into areas such as the Gerlache Strait.

As climate change is impacting the region, any overlap with a growing fishery means we need to be extra cautious not only in how much krill is harvested responsibly, but to limit the competition in this fragile habitat.

Going to new heights together

Technology is allowing us to look at whales and the threats they face in new ways. Collaboration is key to bringing this all together.

Our partners at Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Lab (MaRRS) are developing innovative technology such as drone photography, to better understand how whales feed, the health of their population and how this is being affected by climate change. Cameras on the drones photograph and film the animals. Special software is used to process images, giving researchers a precise measurement of body condition and health. We can use this technology to monitor populations long-term.

In addition, drones are also helping us understand more about the distribution and terrestrial habitats of other krill dependent species such as seals and penguins, and how these animals share such important resting and breeding habitats. Artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques are used in processing drone images to count local populations. It’s game-changing tech.

Collaboration is the spirit of Antarctic science and it’s the most effective way to achieve impact. Across WWF, we work with a range of research teams including University of California Santa Cruz, British Antarctic Survey, Australian Antarctic Division and other partners such as tourism operators like One Ocean Expeditions to help gain access to important field sites while sharing the science in action with tourists.

Working with collaborators, we bring this important knowledge to policymakers to protect protect 30% of the seas around Antarctica by 2030, creating a safety net for wildlife.

The good news is governments have already committed to the creation of a network of Marine Protected Areas. This will be a critical piece of building resilience to climate impacts and acts as an insurance policy for nature. These new technologies and innovative data allow us to make sure we can safeguard Antarctic wildlife for years to come, including in my favourite place - the Antarctic Peninsula.

Scientists demonstrate the scale of humpback whales in the Antarctic Peninsula
Scientists demonstrate the scale of humpback whales in the Antarctic Peninsula © Duke University Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Lab

To learn more about our work in Antarctica visit wwf.org.au/Antarctica.