What Do Whales, Seabirds, and Seals All Have in Common?

Tuesday was a day off for the staff of Palmer Station. The day was sunny and calm—perfect conditions for a favorite off-duty pastime called recreational boating. We boarded a zodiac with station staff including the carpenter, logistics supervisor, satellite communications engineer, and utility mechanic. We loaded up with sunscreen, donned sunglasses against the brilliant white light, and pulled on orange float coats for safety. Everyone had a camera at the ready, and we set off to explore icebergs and islands.

For us it was a great introduction to the animal inhabitants of Palmer Station. We saw mammals, flying birds, flightless birds, and even a small but indispensable animal that keeps the whole ecosystem ticking. Can you guess what it was? Join us on our zodiac tour in the slideshow below, and find out the answer at the end:

Queen Elsa’s CastleThe Science Team’s “Castle” More Than Meets the EyeMy, What Big Teeth You HaveLunch Buffet Is OpenThe Adelie Penguin Colony in Our BackyardThe New ArrivalsEnter the HeavyweightsThe Currency of Life in Antarctica

Because krill are at the heart of the food chain, scientists pay a lot of attention to them. Krill are also at the center of Project CONVERGE. The team wants to know whether tides and convergence zones help bring together krill into concentrations high enough to serve as feeding hotspots for penguins. Radar helps the team map the currents and convergence zones. But how do they find out where the krill are? In our next post, we’ll go out with the scientists to answer that question.

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  1. Danielle January 7, 2015 at 3:03 pm #

    Leopard seals are really deceitful – those big, brown eyes look so sweet until the seal opens its mouth!

    • Sergio Flores January 16, 2015 at 2:25 pm #

      I think that this blog is very interesting to the humans!

  2. Ms. Dunbar January 8, 2015 at 7:12 pm #

    My class was wondering if the Leopard seals tried to bite the boat. They really liked the unique perspective of looking into its mouth. Does Chris Linder have to use special camera housing because of the extreme cold?

  3. Ann Olson January 9, 2015 at 10:17 am #

    lovely blog and spectacular pictures! However,on the slide Lunch Buffet, there is a mention a seagulls.No such seabird exists.There are Many Gulls though…

    • Hugh Powell January 10, 2015 at 4:34 pm #

      Hi Ann – You’re right—there’s no individual bird called a “seagull”; however, I think the commonly used English word “seagull” works fine for referring to the overall group. The specific gulls in the photo were identified as kelp gulls. I’m a birder, too, and it has been a thrill to add this magnificent species (pretty reminiscent of a great black-backed gull) to my list of larids… Thanks for mentioning this, Hugh

  4. Georgia January 9, 2015 at 10:22 am #

    The seals are so amazing! I love the great pictures you are able to capture!

  5. Natalie Osborne January 9, 2015 at 1:33 pm #

    This picture is so amazing!!

  6. Ms. McBride January 9, 2015 at 2:05 pm #

    One of my students was wondering if there are other top predators besides leopard seals and whales.

    • Hugh Powell January 13, 2015 at 11:06 am #

      Hi Ms. McBride – There are no other traditional top predators in Antarctica, such as birds of prey, wolves, polar bears, etc. Skuas (large, brown gull-like birds that we’ll show you in a future post) do attack and kill penguin chicks, so they might be considered a top predator of sorts. Penguins are close to being top predators, although some of them do get eaten by leopard seals and occasionally orcas. Hope this helps—thanks to your students for asking an interesting question! – Hugh

  7. Ms. McBride January 9, 2015 at 2:10 pm #

    Another question that one of students asked is, “What is the most unique species that you have seen in your experience in Antarctica?”

    • Hugh Powell January 14, 2015 at 3:06 pm #

      Hi Ms. McBride – thanks for passing along this question and sorry it’s taken a while to answer. I think everyone who works down here has their own idea of the most unusual or favorite species. I think my favorite animal down here is the Wilson’s storm-petrel—it’s a bird that’s not much bigger than a swallow that almost never lands on either the water or the land, except to crawl into its nest which is in a burrow on a rocky island. Amazingly, they also fly all the way up to New Jersey and are fairly common over the water once you get a few miles offshore. Another contender is definitely the snowy sheathbill, which is related to gulls and sandpipers but looks like a chicken or a pigeon. They are a little mischievous and occur mainly around Palmer Station, where they hope to get into our trash, like raccoons back home. I’m sure some people would say that leopard seals are the most unusual—a cute, agile seal with big eyes, but even bigger teeth, that ruthlessly eats baby seals and penguins. And then there’s the amazing southern giant-petrel, the favorite bird of penguin biologist Donna Fraser. They’re the biggest bird down here, with a fierce hooked bill, enormous floppy webbed feet, beautifully dappled feathers, and a disposition that is sometimes cranky, sometimes calm. In the next week or so (depending on weather) we’ll run a post about some of the other animals that are down here so you’ll have a better idea—and perhaps you and your students can choose your own favorite animal. Thanks – Hugh

  8. Brianne O. January 10, 2015 at 6:15 pm #

    That’s awesome! Thanks for contributing your time and effort into these really cool pictures. My science class is definately excited to see more!

  9. Collin January 11, 2015 at 11:15 pm #

    What would happen if that krill was not there anymore? What would be those animals food sources? Or, would they not be there at all.

    • Hugh Powell January 13, 2015 at 10:35 am #

      Hi Collin- Good question. Krill are extremely important to Antarctic animals, and if they were to disappear it would cause major problems for the animals that eat them. This is different from most ecosystems, including in the forests and fields around your home. Usually there are multiple options for an animal to eat, and if one source of food declines they can switch to another. This is why scientists like to use the word “food web” instead of “food chain.” But in the Antarctic, krill are the major link between the abundant, microscopic phytoplankton and the larger animals. Whales and penguins do sometimes eat fish, but if krill were to disappear their numbers would probably decline as well. Thanks for asking- Hugh

  10. brian francisco January 15, 2015 at 2:37 pm #

    how do you get so close to the animals without really disturbing them?

    • Hugh Powell January 16, 2015 at 7:37 pm #

      Hi Brian, This is a good question, because it’s important that we don’t disturb the animals we’re studying here. In general, we just try to move slowly, calmly, and quietly toward the animal. If it starts to appear scared or suspicious, we stop or move away. We also make sure that we don’t approach animals closely unless there’s a good reason for us to do so. On the other hand, penguins around here are quite curious about people. Sometimes we just sit still and the penguins walk up close to us to investigate. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  11. Amber morgan January 23, 2015 at 11:45 am #

    Nice action pictures but where will all the animals go if the food supply runs out and the ice starts to melt

    • Hugh Powell January 24, 2015 at 10:53 am #

      Hi Amber – Great question – that’s one of the main questions that the scientists are trying to figure out. The short answer is that animals can only live in a range of conditions they’re adapted to, so when the climate changes or the food supply changes, their main option is to move someplace where the conditions are still favorable for them. If they can’t find those conditions, then they will probably not survive. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  12. Destiny burgos January 23, 2015 at 12:12 pm #

    This blog is very interesting to me and i really like this blog

  13. Aaliyah January 28, 2015 at 11:31 pm #

    How do you get this beautiful pictures done so nicely, and at perfect timing ?

    • Hugh Powell January 31, 2015 at 6:34 pm #

      Hi Aaliyah – I asked Chris Linder and he said, “practice, practice, practice.” He takes around 2,000 pictures a day and is always thinking about where he needs to be and what settings he needs to have on his camera so that he’s ready at the exact moment something happens. Thanks for asking – Hugh