IN DEPTH

Penguin pursuits: Antarctic expert Dr Colin Southwell in search of seals and seabirds

'SECOND HOME': Dr Colin Southwell has spent almost 18 months on the Aurora Australis icebreaker.
'SECOND HOME': Dr Colin Southwell has spent almost 18 months on the Aurora Australis icebreaker.

Whether counting roos from a plane, seals from an icebreaker or penguins on an Antarctic island, it all adds up to a day's work for Dr Colin Southwell.

The Hobart-based vertebrate ecologist specialises in large-scale wildlife surveys and his work developing a remote camera system to monitor petrels and Adelie penguins in East Antarctica has this year seen him awarded a prestigious Antarctic Medal for his service to the Australian Antarctic Program.

The 40 remotely-operated cameras withstand harsh conditions and give scientists an insight into the birds' breeding and foraging patterns, and are now being used around Antarctica by several other countries.

They have also become a critical part of ecosystem monitoring for the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) - an international treaty body which governs human activity in the Southern Ocean.

"The science I do is to try and contribute to the management of human impact. We try and use the predators of krill to see if fishing is affecting the marine ecosystem," said Dr Southwell.

In his 26 years with the Australian Antarctic Division, Dr Southwell has spent 15 summers on the ice, with his early work leading a circumpolar survey of pack-ice seals.

"It sounds like a big switch from monitoring kangaroo farming to going to the ice, but it wasn't really that much of a change for me," said the 66-year-old.

"When I was involved in kangaroo management I was doing a lot of big scale survey work across the continent, flying planes and counting kangaroos to see if the populations were going up or down and using that information for setting quotas."

So when the Division needed someone to do a large scale survey of crabeater seals, Dr Southwell was the natural choice.

"That was the kind of thing I'd done on the Australian continent. It was a natural progression to apply that to Antarctica."

This work involved flying along the 4000km coastline in a helicopter, counting seals then extrapolating the numbers. Dr Southwell said the challenge surveying seals is that most of the time they are in the water.

"We can only count the ones that haul out on the ice. So we had to catch seals on the ice and put trackers on them."

And unlike playful penguins - naturals on camera - he said seals are far less animated.

KEEPING HIS COOL: Dr Colin Southwell with a remotely controlled camera at an Adelie penguin colony on Odbert Island near Casey Station. Photo: Louise Emmerson

KEEPING HIS COOL: Dr Colin Southwell with a remotely controlled camera at an Adelie penguin colony on Odbert Island near Casey Station. Photo: Louise Emmerson

"All the actions for seals happens under water. When they come out it's like looking into someone's bedroom. All you see is someone lying down unconscious doing nothing."

Adelie penguin colonies, he said, are completely different. "It's just mayhem and action all the time. And they're really entertaining."

While Dr Southwell said he's seen many changes working in Antarctica for more than a quarter of a century - from the emergence of email to the first flights - the excitement heading there is the same every time.

"The first time was like getting in a spaceship and going to the moon.

"But I still get excited, especially going on the ship. There's this build up of anticipation, of going on a journey. Nowadays, taking up to a month to get somewhere is unheard of."

He recalls using the 'whizzer' - a five-letter telegraphic code used by expeditioners to communicate with family and friends from the 60s to early 90s.

With much of his work based away from stations on remote islands, Dr Southwell will often stay in a hut or camp in a tent for weeks on end. "When you're doing that it feels exactly now as it did 26 years ago and probably as it did 50 years ago."

Of course there are challenges.

With much of his work based away from stations on remote islands, Dr Southwell will often stay in a hut or camp in a tent for weeks on end. "When you're doing that it feels exactly now as it did 26 years ago and probably as it did 50 years ago."

With much of his work based away from stations on remote islands, Dr Southwell will often stay in a hut or camp in a tent for weeks on end. "When you're doing that it feels exactly now as it did 26 years ago and probably as it did 50 years ago."

"What people can't be trained for is the uncertainty," said Dr Southwell. "You can get stuck on the ice going down, you can wait on a station for a flight for weeks, you can go out to an island on a boat and find you're stuck there for some time - just you and the penguins."

And he said when it comes to the ship, this can be more challenging than life on a freezing station

Having been around almost the entire life of the Aurora Australis icebreaker, which completed her final voyage this March, Dr Southwell has spent around 18 months in total on the ship, describing it as a "second home".

"I had some incredible times on the Aurora, but some uncomfortable times too. There are rough oceans, and no privacy - more so than on a station."

And then there's the weather. "You've got to make do, sit through the poor weather and shiver a bit."

Adélie penguin populations have increased by 69 per cent in East Antarctica over the past 30 years. Photo: Louise Emmerson

Adélie penguin populations have increased by 69 per cent in East Antarctica over the past 30 years. Photo: Louise Emmerson

So is Dr Southwell looking forward to journeying south again on the new RSV Nuyina icebreaker next year?

He admits retirement is inevitable, but said it will be difficult to say goodbye to the ice. "In Antarctica, the challenge of being there is still a motivation. I've still got some trips left in me. "

And he says climate change is also still a big concern. "Most people think of the Antarctic being very remote, which it is. But there is a lot of impact from humans, in direct and indirect ways, starting to happen. It's going to be a real challenge in the future to manage those impacts."

Dr Southwell was one of six Australian Antarctic Medal recipients for 2020.

The six medal recipients - a station leader, voyage manager, refuelling expert, field training specialist, and two scientists - were announced by the Governor-General David Hurley.

The Australian Antarctic Medal was established in 1987 and 103 medals have been awarded since then.

This year, the other five other medal recipients were:

  • Professor Patrick Quilty AM (awarded posthumously) led the Australian Antarctic Division's science program for more than 18 years from 1980-1999. A geologist and palaeontologist, Professor Quilty first visited Antarctica in 1965. He played a leading role in the international Antarctic science community and published over 200 scientific research papers.
  • Bradley Collins has completed thirteen seasons of service to the Program, wintering twice and participating in over 34 Antarctic and sub-Antarctic voyages where he has made his most significant contributions as Refuelling Supervisor. He has been at the forefront of developing and refining safe procedures for AAD ship-to-shore refuelling operations.
  • Simon Cross has spent eight summers and a winter in Antarctica as a Field Training Officer. He played an instrumental role in the rescue, treatment, and medical evacuation of three injured expeditioners after a helicopter crash on the Amery Ice Shelf in 2013, inland from Davis research station.
  • Alison Dean has served as Station Leader at all of Australia's four research stations in Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic over nine winters since 2010/11, and is currently Station Leader at Casey. She provides exceptional leadership in building strong and resilient communities and leading teams through a number of high intensity operations.
  • Leanne Millhouse has worked for the Australian Antarctic Division over three decades. In her capacity as Deputy Voyage Leader, Voyage Leader and Operations Coordinator, she has played leadership roles in a number of crisis situations. Her calmness, flexibility, adaptability, resilience and excellent decision-making skills have made a substantial contribution to achieving a good outcome.

For more information on the Australian Antarctic Division click HERE