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A Voyage into the Frozen Wilderness - marine conservation in the Antarctic

Guest post by marine biologist and The Conservation Project International community member Felicity Johnson

Chinstrap penguins in the Antarctic
“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it” Robert Swan OBE

Robert Swan is a British polar explorer best known for being the first person to walk to the North and South Poles. Since hearing this quote in 2012, it has driven me to dedicate my career towards ocean conservation as I believe it is my responsibility to apply my knowledge and skills that I have built up over time and contribute towards a more sustainable planet.

In 2012, I started studying for my Master’s in Marine Biology at the University of Southampton and National Oceanography Centre. It was obvious from quite early on, when it comes to conservation, nothing beats hands on experience! It was essential to gain practical skills through voluntary or (if you are lucky enough) paid internships. I believed it would show future employers that you are serious and committed. I was fortunate enough to grow up along the north-east coast of Scotland and therefore had been on the water working as a sailing instructor since I was 16. It was this practical skill set that landed me my first marine conservation role as a guide and skipper for a wildlife tour boat company.

Aerial view of the north-east coast of Scotland

During my degree, I gained certifications as a marine mammal observer, advanced diver, and commercial skipper and for five seasons throughout university I progressed through this company to operations manager, researcher and skipper. This platform provided an opportunity to start building my own network, which I believe to be a crucial part of a career in conservation. Through my small, but growing network, I was able to expand my career and spent the next couple of years working and volunteering abroad in New Zealand, Canada and the UK.

A career in conservation is a dream for many, meaning that many people will be competing for that much coveted job, therefore it is very difficult to get paid work. Many conservationists have and will be giving weeks, months or even years of their time for no monetary return. However, with dedication and perseverance, I believe the hard work will pay off eventually.

After an incredible season as a researcher contributing to the data collection of populations of blue, humpback, fin, and minke whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, I spent the next two months searching for the next adventure. I was lucky enough to land the role of Marine Biologist Guide and Lecturer on board small expedition vessels visiting the Antarctic and Arctic - a surreal opportunity! I’d be guiding guests on several-month-long Antarctic expeditions, leading multiday trips, lecturing on subjects of marine mammals and conservation, crossing the world’s roughest sea, all while staying north and south of 70° N and 55° S, respectively. It takes a wide range of skills, an appetite for flexibility, and a certain disregard for the loss of time spent with family and friends back home to be a guide in the most remote places on earth.

Gentoo penguins in the Antarctic

Working as a ship-based guide on polar expedition ships is a unique experience. It is full throttle from the moment you step onboard and start hefting provisions down to the fridge, to greeting passengers, to getting everyone suited up for the first trip, to saying goodbye at the end. In that sense, you need to come fully prepared for the job; there is little time in the evenings to work on talks, as there would be if you were working from land.

Like most professions, work does not start when you show up the first day. Lecturing for crowds of 75-150 takes some preparation, and so, several months before boarding the ships as a lecturer and guide, I began to think of topics to present. As a younger guide, and one who has not spent half of her life in academia narrowing down my area of expertise with a PhD, I have certain flexibility with the topics I could choose from. Most recently, I have been focussed on pollution and anthropogenic threats to marine life and so jumped at the opportunity to spread awareness about these issues.

Zodiac boat trip in the Antarctic

Climate change is having an increasing impact on our oceans, especially around the Antarctic Peninsula. With warming oceans, there is more overlap between fishing grounds and feeding marine mammals, leading to an increase in the number of vessels, noise pollution and risk of ship strikes. However, with increasing risks, comes an opportunity to respond.

There are endless wonders to explore around the Antarctic Peninsula. Every corner turned, you are surrounded by the tallest snow-covered mountains, towering glaciers and sometimes the blow of passing whales.
Humpback whale dives in the Antarctic

As the marine mammal guide on board, it was my responsibility to keep an eye out for the whales and seals and inform the passengers about the range of species encountered, resident and migratory. When the weather allows, we are able to divide into smaller groups, with each guide taking a zodiac (6m RIB) and a number of passengers to explore the nearby bays and icebergs. As zodiacs dodge the moving ice, you are greeted by sleepy Crabeater and Weddell seals resting on ice floes, and by inquisitive groups of Gentoo penguins darting through the water. However in no time, it’s not long before someone spots some playful Humpbacks or cruising Minke whales. Humpback whales are the show-offs of the marine mammal world and are often highly active as they feed in the nutrient rich waters of the Antarctic, which is an experience of a lifetime to witness.

To be able to spread awareness and potentially change people’s everyday habits or perception of the importance of the natural world is what we are here for.

Equally, working with other guides, from glaciologists to ornithologists, I am also able to expand my knowledge. One of the best parts about this job is the people working onboard around you; there is no end to the energy, knowledge, and enthusiasm of the crew. Listening to your teammates lecture on their areas of expertise opens a door into their passions. To hear a career scientist or conservationist talking about their latest paper will not only allow you to talk to an expert in the field, but it will inspire you to start down a new avenue of personal research.

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