Stories & Inspiration

Getting a microscopic view of Antarctica with citizen science

When you slow down to appreciate the smaller things in life, magic can happen. You can suddenly get an entirely new perspective on the world. I sailed to Antarctica for all the marvels that are on everyone’s ticklist: big ice, whales and lots of penguins. Even so, I didn’t expect to have my perspective altered by looking down a microscope at plankton samples I’d collected on the Fjord Phyto citizen science programme. 

Composite of three images of Antarctic phytoplankton under the microscope
The microscopic world of Antarctic phytoplankton

I travelled south on Swoop’s Antarctic Peninsula Classic cruise, sailing on Seaventure. This is a ship that’s helped lead the way with citizen science programmes, with marine biologist guides working with the Polar Citizen Science Collective so that tourists can help gather data from places where it’s difficult or expensive for researchers to visit. 

There were several programmes on board for passengers to get involved in. After a briefing from the ship’s citizen science coordinator I signed up for the Fjord Phyto programme, as it seemed to be the one that was the most hands on, collecting water samples containing phytoplankton – the microscopic plants on which all life in Antarctica ultimately depends on. As I learned from the briefing, it was also one of the longest running citizen science programme in Antarctica, and has been operating for more than six years, collecting samples for research scientists. It was clearly very popular as well, as places were limited by the number of people who could fit in the zodiac we’d be using as our science platform: I was lucky to grab the last spot on the boat. 

All Antarctic cruises involve zodiac cruising. It’s a great way to experience Antarctica, wrapped up against the elements and skimming between icebergs looking for seals and penguins or just enjoying a silence that’s punctuated only by the clink of ice in the water, or the pop of thousand-year-old air bubbles escaping from chunks of brash ice you might scoop in the boat. 

Viewing a sample on the Fjord Phyto citizen science project
Going through the citizen science protocols for phytoplankton sampling

Being on a citizen science zodiac cruise felt very different however. It felt like we were there with an extra purpose. There were just eight of us in the zodiac to allow extra space for the gear, and I felt quite privileged to be part of this small team collecting the data. Everyone seemed to be of a similar mindset – while polar cruise passengers are always quick to make new friends, this proved to be an extra bonding experience for us, knowing that we all wanted to experience Antarctica in a slightly different way.  

What was actually involved then? At the designated location (with our position carefully recorded), a weighted bottle on a line was gently lowered into the water to a set depth to collect a sample that hopefully contained our precious phytoplankton, which was then carefully sealed up and labelled. It was a collective team effort – one passenger lowering the line, another checking the depth and someone else writing down the measurements. Everyone got to actively take part. 

Sampling for phytoplankton in Antarctica
Dipping for phytoplankton samples

On one level it was an everyday activity – the sort of mundane procedure that’s the bread and butter of scientific data collection – but the fact that we were doing it in a spectacular location just off the coast of an Antarctica Peninsula that was still pristine in its early season snow turned it into something special.

The real treat was that as well as getting an extended two hour zodiac cruise (far longer than normal), it gave us all the opportunity to take a step back and get a deeper appreciation of what’s happening in Antarctica as our guide talked us through the science behind what we were doing. Few people ever get the chance to visit the region, but even fewer have the opportunity to really observe it in detail, look at the changes in the ecosystem and play a part in increasing our understanding of this fragile corner of the planet. 

Recording data on a Fjord Phyto citizen science project
Recording our sampling data on the zodiac

Our guide also reminded us that this sampling was something that polar cruise ships were ideally set up to do. Throughout the season they can collect phytoplankton at the same location at different times, allowing researchers in the lab to analyse how the populations may change throughout the year in far more locations than any scientist could hope to visit. 

On a more prosaic level, we also got a kick out recording that the sea temperature was a nippy -0.6C ahead of doing the polar plunge later that day. It certainly felt that cold!

Viewing phytoplankton under a microscope
Looking at our phytoplankton samples on board

Back on board, we took our samples to the citizen science lab and spent a happy hour looking under the microscope at what we’d collected. I’d never seen phytoplankton before or give much thought to what it might look like. Each water droplet contained a parade of tiny green shapes like bottles, tubes or beads on a necklace. It seemed incredible that seemingly insignificant blobs were the keystones of the Antarctic food web – trapping sunlight and carbon to provide all of the food for the first level of life,  to be eaten by krill, who in turn are lunch for everything from fish to penguins, seals and whales.  

What happens next to those samples though, I wondered? Our diligent dipping in the Southern Ocean was only the beginning. To learn more about the rest of the story, at the end of my trip I spoke to Allison Cusick, a PhD candidate at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in University of California in San Diego, who is the lead researcher on the Fjord Phyto project. 

Allison Cusick and Martina Mascioni of Fjord Phyto in Antarctica
Fjord Phyto lead researchers Martina Mascioni and Allison Cusick (in green) with citizen scientists in Antarctica)

Cusick explained that all the samples are stored on board until the end of the season when they can be sent to the laboratory for analysis. Half of the samples come to her lab, with the other half being sent to her colleague Dr Martina Mascioni of the Universidad Nacional de La Plata near Buenos Aires in Argentina. Over six years, a lot of work had gone into designing the project, she advised me, to make sure the protocols we’d used out on the zodiacs were both tourist-friendly (something I could attest to) and collected samples that were good enough to stand up to the rigours of laboratory analysis. 

What exactly are they looking for, I wondered? Well, in Argentina there’s a lot of information generated about how many phytoplankton per volume of water was collected, what species they are identified under the microscope and even how much organic carbon they are contributing according to the species. 

Photo of a phytoplankton identification guide
Consulting a field guide to phytoplankton

In San Diego, the samples undergo DNA and isotope analysis as well as looking at salinity temperature profiles and chlorophyll in the water from the surface to depth the samples were taken at. One reason for doing this and building up a better understanding of the health and variety of the phytoplankton is explicitly tied to climate change. As glaciers melt freshwater into the Antarctic fjords, the local salinity of the sea is affected. How might that affect the phytoplankton – and therefore the life that depends on it?

While collecting samples in the field is quick as I had learned, the rigours of academic research are far slower. But Cusick and Mascioni are already publishing some of their results and presenting it at a scientific conference, using samples collected by more than 400 citizen science zodiac cruises in Antarctica.

One of the first ever blooms of phytoplankton was recorded that could potentially be a species never before documented before, while the frequency of sampling means they have been able to determine different assemblages of species at different times in the year. 

Allison Cusick of Fjord Phyto working in a laboratory
Allison Cusick analysing phytoplankton samples collected by citizen scientists

Only by collecting base data can scientists start to build up a fine-grained understanding of how a complex ecosystem works. That data then starts to generate entirely new sets of questions. What species are thriving at different times, and is that related to the changes in freshwater, or the increases in water temperature?

Questions like this go far beyond the scope of a polar cruise, but better understanding how dipping a sample pot to collect phytoplankton gave me a richer appreciation of the interconnectedness of Antarctica’s ecosystem. It was a thrill to have taken part – and who knows, maybe I even helped discover a new species in the process. Who ever gets to do that on their trip?


To learn more about Fjord Phyto, visit the project website

If you’d like to learn what citizen science programme you can get involved with on a polar cruise, Swoop Antarctica are the experts to talk to. See our blog series about projects our Antarctic specialists have taken part in or visit our website for more.

Avatar photo

Daniel Brooks

Polar specialist

Daniel is an Antarctic specialist at Swoop and a keen photographer, scuba diver and seasoned traveller. He has explored both the Antarctic Peninsula and the Weddell Sea region, encountering every Antarctic penguin species there is to see along the way.