The R/V Lawrence M. Gould departed Punta Arenas, Chile yesterday, marking the beginning of the annual Palmer LTER research cruise. Myself (Erin Pickett) and my lab mate Logan Pallin, are looking forward to sharing our adventures and research with you over the next three and a half months! Logan and I are graduate students at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute. While on the cruise and at Palmer Station, Logan and I will be working with our graduate advisor, Dr. Ari Friedlaender, and with Dr. Doug Nowacek from Duke University. Ari and Doug are two of the Principal Investigators leading the cetacean component of the Palmer LTER project.
The work that we will be doing over the next few months is part of a long term ecological research (LTER) program based out of Palmer Station, Anvers Island, along the Western Antarctic Peninsula. Over the next few months our whale team will be conducting cetacean surveys and collecting acoustic-based prey measurements of Antarctic krill. Much of our effort will be focused on humpback whales, and we will be using methods such as photo identification, tagging and biopsy sampling to understand more about this species recent recovery in this area and to learn more about the ecological roles that these large baleen whales play in the marine ecosystem along the peninsula.
We are especially interested in learning more about the foraging ecology of humpback and minke whales, how their behavior is influenced by their primary prey (Antarctic krill), and how their population demographics (genetics, sex, hormones) may change over time. Many of the region’s top predators share this prey resource, which is declining as a result of sea ice loss. A central objective of our research is to understand how climate induced changes in this polar marine environment are affecting these top predators.
Until we reach the northern boundary of our study area where we will begin our official surveys, we will be occupying ourselves on the ship with a bit of bird watching. I’ll be teaching Logan how to distinguish a duck from a petrel, and a “freaking huge bird” from a Royal albatross. So far in addition to a couple of royal albatross we’ve spotted white chinned petrels, black-browed albatross, and South American terns. It’s nearly tropical outside this afternoon, breezy and 11.2˚C, and a group of Peale’s dolphins are riding our bow wake, so enough writing for one day!