Citizen science is becoming an increasingly popular addition to many Antarctic expedition cruises, but there’s often a lot of confusion about exactly what it entails. In this new Swoop Antarctica series we’re taking a deep dive into the subject to explore all the different citizen projects it’s currently possible to take part in while on board a cruise ship.
At Swoop Antarctica we believe that citizen science has the potential to play a strong role in educating and exciting travellers about the polar regions during their trips. Members of our sales and customer experience teams all took part in different citizen science programme during their trips to the Antarctic peninsula over the 2022/23 season. In subsequent articles they’ll be sharing what they did and talking to the research scientists behind the different projects they took part in. But first, we’ll examine just exactly what citizen science means for the polar traveller.
Last season I sailed south on Swoop’s Falklands, South Georgia & Antarctica trip. As a molecular biologist in a former life, I was thrilled to learn that our ship Seaventure had a strong citizen science focus, but like many travellers I wasn’t entirely sure what that would mean on a day to day basis.
It’s a testament to the expertise you can find among the guides on today’s expedition cruise ships that the head of Seaventure’s citizen science programme was a marine biologist herself. Dr Annette Bombosch spent extensive time in the Antarctic Peninsula and Weddell Sea while completing her PhD on humpback and minke whales in the Southern Ocean. She is also one of the co-founders of the Polar Citizen Science Collective (PCSC).
While some people believe that citizen science is about carrying out experiments, Annette told me, the projects they run are more focussed on collecting data that can be sent to scientists so that they can analyse it.
Connecting tourists to scientific research
‘For a scientist it’s extremely expensive to come down to the polar regions, and you can only come down here for a certain amount of time. What citizen science projects are really good at is monitoring things. We can do this because the industry is down here for the entire season. For example, we can look at the phytoplankton at the beginning of the season all the way until the end of the season. For the scientists, to time it right for when they want to be down here is really difficult. That’s a huge opportunity for citizen science.’
‘There was a group of us working on different vessels as guides and we thought that we should use the platforms of opportunities that these vessels provided to help scientists collect data,’ Annette explained. ‘Everything about the Antarctic is about sharing and collaboration. The Antarctic Treaty says that Antarctica is set aside for peace and science, so we wanted to have that in the same way and make citizen science available to everyone.’
The PCSC works with researchers to help them come up with projects that are suitable for the tourist industry, and then connect guides with those researchers to train them to lead the programmes with guests on the ships.
‘Not every project is suitable for the tourism industry and not every project is suitable for citizen science. If someone comes and says “Could you please study penguin behaviour?” then we have to say no, because you need traditional scientific training for that. But if someone asks “Could you please measure the temperature at this location every time you visit,” then that’s something that everyone can do.’
It’s also important that the project can fit easily into the operations of the ship during a cruise – and that a project has to be fun for guests to participate in as well as collecting rigorous data. ‘If someone approaches us with a really amazing project but it takes three hours, we have to say no,’ says Annette. ‘It really helps that a lot of us also work on ships, so we know how things work behind the scenes.’ Finally, the PCSC ensures that all projects are backed by respectable institutions or funding agencies so that they know the science has been checked.
From ship to laboratory
Annette explains how the first Antarctic citizen science project came about: ‘We were in Edward Bay, which is an important Antarctic fjord for American science. A colleague was in contact with some of the geologists and glaciologists there and we invited the scientists onto the ship to explain to the guests what science they were doing. One of them was a phytoplankton scientist and she gave us some little brown bottles and asked, “Could you please sample the phytoplankton every time you come into this fjord?” When they looked at the samples, they found stuff in there that they didn’t expect. And from that, the entire Fjord Phyto project got started.’
Because the expedition cruise ships visit certain landing sites repeatedly throughout the season, it was possible to collect enough samples to monitor the phytoplankton throughout the year – something that a single researcher would never be able to do. Laboratory analysis of these samples collected by tourists has shown unexpected phytoplankton blooms of species and perhaps even new species.
The prospect of discovering new species is a thrilling one, but Annette cautions me that research is a painstakingly slow business: collecting samples takes a moment, but using them to publish peer-reviewed science takes far longer. Transparency is just as important: after the trip and I was back on dry land with a decent wifi connection I was able to look up some of those scientific publications on the PCSC website to better understand what research was being done.
Much of the research ties directly into how rapidly the climate emergency is reshaping our world – something I felt keenly aware of the entire time I was in Antarctica. Dipping a sample pot into the water to collect phytoplankton feels like a tiny thing, but Annette reminded me that these tiny plants are the basis of the entire Antarctic food web and are highly susceptible to changes in salinity. As glacier melt feeds more fresh water into the sea, phytoplankton becomes an important barometer for the health of the ecosystem.
The results of other citizen science projects are more immediately demonstrable. Annette points to the ‘Happy Whale Slowdown,’ named for the platform where tourists can upload photos of the whales they’ve seen on a trip.
‘There was a study done that shows that if you go slower than 10 knots, whales have a much higher likelihood of surviving any accidental ship strikes. The founder of Happy Whale [another co-founder of the Polar Citizen Science Collective] suggested to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators that because there are so many whales now, that if our ships go too fast we could have a negative impact on them.’ As a result, the ship operators unanimously decided at an IAATO meeting to bring in a maximum cruising speed at certain times of the season when whales would be present in the region. Annette, whose early career was shaped by whale research, beams with pride. ‘That was only possible because of all the pictures that guests have sent into Happy Whale.’
My November trip was too early in the season to see many whales, but I was able to take part in seabird surveys and cloud-spotting for NASA, collecting data that helps their satellites better recognise types of cloud cover – providing fine-grained detail that can help researchers improve climate models. I also got to see first-hand how new projects are developed between scientists and guides.
Developing new citizen science projects
In South Georgia I took part in two pilot projects led by Annette. One was recording shoreline seaweed species for the Natural History Museum in London, looking for possible bleaching and building on successful citizen science seaweed surveys done in the UK. The second was the brilliantly named ‘Beetles vs Stones’ project for Durham University, lifting up rocks to find beetle larvae.
In both cases, scientists are trying to establish a set of baseline data from which they can look at changes in a fragile environment, and they’re turning to cruise ship passengers for help. On South Georgia, seaweed bleaching can be a proxy for rising sea temperatures. And on land, while the damage done to bird population by the accidental introduction of rats is well known (thanks to a successful but expensive eradication programme), the impact of invasive invertebrates is only just starting to be looked at.
The data collected from this first pilot season is now being analysed in London and Durham, and the feedback from guides like Annette will help refine the protocols for future citizen science participants.
It’s quite a thing to be at St Andrews Bay in South Georgia with a quarter of a million king penguins and then to turn your back on them to lift up a stone and hunt for insects, or to look past a hundred fur seals to concentrate on the seaweed next to them. But I found there was great pleasure to be had in doing just that, and being reminded that these complex ecosystems are great webs of species, where the smallest organism was as important as the big charismatic animals we’d come so far to see.
I didn’t get to put on a lab coat like I did in my laboratory days and do any experiments, but I got off the ship in Ushuaia knowing that the albatrosses I counted off the ship or the cumulus clouds I logged were all playing a tiny part in adding to the sum of human knowledge. The days of heroic polar exploration might be over, but citizen science holds great potential in turning cruise ships into genuine research vessels. What could be more exciting than that?
An increasing number of Antarctic expedition cruise ships offer citizen science programmes. If you’d like to know more about the vessels that do and want help planning your polar journey, get in touch with Swoop Antarctica today.