Cape Royds’ penguins enjoy a new beach

Cape Royds, Sunday, 20 January

It was like the goings on in a stage show, between acts, when the curtains are drawn and the audience perceives a lot of commotion behind it as stage workers change set for the next act. A week ago, the edge to the fast ice that covers McMurdo Sound during the winter and spring was right at Cape Royds.

The view from the entrance-way to my tent: a sheet of sea ice covers the ocean.

The view from the entrance-way to my tent: a sheet of sea ice covers the ocean.

The penguins until then zoomed out of the ocean, as projectiles, landing on the ice sometimes not all that gracefully, where upon they trundled across it for a few hundred meters to reach the Royds ‘beach’. Then a few days ago the curtain was drawn. Snow, propelled by 60kt winds, reduced visibility to a few meters — a so-called ‘white-out’ — for more than 24 hrs. When the storm ended and the curtain was drawn back — wow, a blue ocean was revealed, stretching across McMurdo Sound and several kilometers farther south from Royds! The wind blowing across 10s even 100s of square kilometers of the sea ice sheet had nudged it apart at its weak points. In the cloak of the white out, huge portions, i.e. ice floes the size of small towns, must have flowed north out of McMurdo Sound. Now the penguins really had a beach, and no longer sat at an ice edge wondering for hours if Leopard Seals were about. Now they mostly just walk into the water soon after arriving at the ocean’s edge, and off they zoom. Returning, they zoom to the shallows then walk out of the water onto the shore.

A transformed ocean now lies between us on Ross Island and Victoria Land; my tent is in lower left corner of image. Beautiful, isn’t it!?

Transformed ocean - Dave Ainley

That wind was also the whales’ best friend. For weeks now they’d been cruising around along the ice edge, remaining for a short time, eating what was there, then cruising away to find another food source. With the fast ice gone, a smorgasbord extending for 100s of kilometers was offered to them.  So, I saw them, heading south to encounter some very surprised swarms of krill — no longer a ‘shade’ over their heads. A couple of weeks ago, I had visited with Stacy Kim’s group, which had been deploying a Remotely Operated Vehicle through a grid of holes drilled into the fast ice. The idea was to quantify the depth and density of penguin and whale prey, i.e. crystal krill and silverfish. It was really cool to watch the video feed from SCINI (so named because it fits down the 20cm wide holes) as it ‘swam’ through swarms of krill.

Penguins by the edge of the fast ice when it was located at Cape Royds.

Penguins by the edge of the fast ice when it was located at Cape Royds.

Unfortunately, with the fast ice now gone, we don’t have an opportunity to learn how the krill reacted to predators. Next season, we are hoping to do this project again and then an icebreaker will cut a narrow path allowing the whales and penguins to enter. Then we’ll deploy SCINI at intervals away from the channel to compare how the prey become distributed. We think that the predators will force the krill deeper. Why is that important? Well, all the studies to date everywhere in the world, on the characteristics of krill and fish swarms that are supposedly important to whales, have conducted their measurements essentially after the whales have been feeding on them. What are measured are post-foraging swarms and not the swarms that initially attracted the whales (and penguins). Why is this information important? Well, there are plenty of studies on before and after swarms set upon by fishing trawlers, but what about the other predators? How are those trawlers changing what the whales and penguins actually prefer? You can read more about the SCINI project here:

Fortunately, there are no krill trawlers in the Ross Sea….yet. Your friends at CCAMLR (Commission for the ‘Conservation’ of Antarctic Marine Living Resources), though, are working to allow this to happen. They are talking about establishing a Marine ‘Protected’ Area to protect what they call ‘biodiversity’ in the Ross Sea, as long as industrial fishing is allowed to proceed. You can tell by all the quotes in the sentences I’ve just written that the English language can be adapted to any political agenda desired.

Minke whales at the edge of the fast ice in McMurdo Sound.

Minke whales at the edge of the fast ice in McMurdo Sound.

They define ‘conservation’ as ‘rational use’; with ‘rational use’ defined as fishing with government biologists producing glorious reports, with lots of fancy statistics on the results of fishing (tonnes of fish caught, number of hooks deployed etc). ‘Biodiversity’ is the sum total of all the organisms left after the fish are extracted, and they think that protecting a little part of this ocean or a bit of that, where the fishers don’t want to fish, will suffice especially with the PR they foist on the public. Indeed, how can one be wrong in ‘protecting’ 2.2 M square kilometers of empty ocean? That is the message that the governments are beginning to tell us. They say to the fishing industry, please don’t fish there; and the fishers say, why, of course we won’t, you can be sure of that!

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