Dave of the Antarctic

I chat to Dave, an ocean modeller, about his recent scientific expedition in Antarctica.

dave gwyther interviewee
David Gwyther. Photographs by Dave.

How long was the trip, and how much of that time was spent at sea?

We left Hobart at the end of January aboard the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer and returned to port mid-March. We sailed south from Hobart, towards the Mertz Glacier, where we spent approximately a week conducting science. We then made our transit westward to the Totten Glacier region (which is approximately south of Perth). We spent the rest of the time in the large bay near the Totten Glacier conducting science. In total, we spent close to 6 and a half weeks at sea. As you can imagine, there are very few places to dock down there – the only places we could have pulled into would have been the French research base, Dumont d’Urville, or the Australian research station, Casey. However, these locations were a large way off course for us, and were never in the plan to visit. We had to be self-sustainable for the whole time at sea. When you think about it, this is a pretty significant undertaking! For example, the cooks on board did an amazing job of keeping fruit fresh, even towards the very end of the trip. Apparently, they would go down to the storage room every day and rotate every apple in storage so that it would not rot!

boat view ice antarctica

How did you fare being on the boat? What personal challenges did you face?

The biggest challenge I faced was seasickness. I had only been on a large ship once before – the Interislander across the Cook Strait between the South and North Island of New Zealand. I got pretty sick, even though it was a short trip. So I had a fairly strong expectation that I’d get sick again this time! I visited the GP then the pharmacy in Hobart and got all of the seasickness meds I could. Following medical advice, I started taking the medications almost a day before we left port. However, almost as soon as we were out of the Derwent River I began to feel ill. As we sailed south, I just got sicker and ended up spending almost 3 days between the bathroom and bed! I wasn’t getting any better, and one of my mates decided he’d go and find me a seasickness patch. These patches aren’t sold in Australia but one of my friends had brought some from the USA. I put the patch on behind my ear, and within 2-3 hours, I was up, very hungry and feeling SO much better! Luckily, much of the voyage was spent within the sea ice, where most of the swell and waves were diminished. I learnt my lesson for the transit back to Hobart across the Southern Ocean – I put a new patch on, and actually had a fun time in the BIG waves on the way back!

boat view ice antarctica

Were there any hairy moments – storms, thick ice – where you were concerned for your safety?

There were obviously very strict safety procedures on board as it’s a dangerous work environment. There are high voltage electricity sources, compressed air, very heavy metal objects which if not secured could fairly easily tip over on top of you, metal winch cables under extremely high tension and so on. Also, almost everything on the boat is metal, so if you trip down the stairs, or lose your footing because you’re not holding the rail while the boat rocks, it’ll definitely hurt. I suppose the hairiest moment was on the transit back to Hobart. There was a big storm out to our west, and it was really delivering on the reputation of the Southern Ocean (‘Roaring Forties’, ‘Furious Fifties’, ‘Screaming Sixties’, etc). We had some big swell (something like 50 ft waves) which made it almost impossible to use the shower (you’d get knocked all around the cubicle) and very hard to eat dinner (the plate would slide around the table). Luckily by this point I had the seasickness patch on, so I actually enjoyed the rocking! But the crew and the marine technicians (who handle most of the difficult operations on board) were so experienced and so safety-conscious that I never really felt in danger.

What wildlife did you spot down in the Antarctic?

We were incredibly lucky with the wildlife we saw. We saw countless penguins; both Adélie and Emperor penguins. The Adélie penguins in particular are quite hilarious to watch as they comically shuffle over the ice. We also saw lots of seals – thousands of Crabeater seals and a few Leopard seals (which are one of the top predators in the region, so it was great to see them). We also saw lots of whales – mostly Humpback whales, but I was lucky enough to see a Killer whale. It breached just portside of the bow (front) of the boat and dived below the boat. That was a pretty exhilarating experience, as it was probably only 10 metres away. We also saw lots of other birdlife – Snow Petrels, Cape Petrels and Great Petrels, as well as Sooty and Wandering Albatross. Seeing the Albatross in the wild was pretty amazing. Interestingly, even when we were in the middle of the ocean, it seemed these birds would come and visit us. It was like they were just curious about this massive orange and yellow thing floating in the ocean! 

What was the most amazing sight you observed?

For me, hands-down the most amazing sight was the Aurora Australis. We saw several good Aurorae on our voyage, but one in particular stood out in my memory. We were on the nightshift, which meant we worked from a bit before midnight until just after noon. As you can imagine it was a very long ‘work day’, and made especially hard in that we didn’t get a whole lot of daylight. However, one benefit was that we saw some amazing aurorae! One particular aurora was incredibly bright and vividly green – we sat out on the bow of the boat and just stared at it. The other benefit of nightshift was that we had both the sunset and sunrise on our shift. Consequently, I got some amazing photos of the sun setting and rising over icebergs, penguins, sea ice and/or the Southern Ocean!

Aurora Australis Antarctica Southern Lights

In terms of the reasons for your scientific expedition, what were you there to observe/measure?

Well, the cruise was a collaborative, multi-disciplinary cruise. Some of the main focuses were on marine geology and sedimentology (to try to understand the geological history of the region, including the dynamics of the ice sheet in the last glaciation); oceanography (to try observe the properties of the water in the region like water temperature, and whether it could possibly be causing increased melting of the Antarctic ice shelves); seismic geology (to observe the sub-bottom layering and determine the past history of deposition) as well as marine biology and plankton studies. We even had a ‘yo-yo camera’, which we’d winch to the bottom of the ocean and tow. It would ‘yo-yo’ up and down and each time it came close to the seafloor it would take a picture. There were some amazing photographs of cold water corals, crabs, fish and octopuses. They were even lucky enough to get a picture of a fish hiding inside a coral. Getting this research done and photographing these things is pretty amazing when you consider the bottom of the ocean was perhaps 500 or 600 metres below us! 
I’m an oceanographer and so I spent most of my time either working on the back deck deploying oceanography equipment, or analysing output from the ocean model that we’re running. This was my first occasion working with oceanography equipment in the field and I feel that I gained a huge amount of experience from the opportunity. For example, we were deploying a small probe off the back deck, which we’d let sink to the bottom of the ocean. As it sunk, it would measure the temperature, salinity and depth. This data grants us an understanding of the structure of the water column, potentially answering the following questions: What is the density of the water present? Where did the water originate (is it from somewhere close to Antarctica, or is it water that has traveled from the North Atlantic)? How strongly stratified is the water column? Is this water that could be driving increased melt of the Antarctic ice shelves? It was a lot of hard (cold) work out on the back deck, but at the same time it was a lot of fun. It’s also rare for someone that spends most of their time on computers (such as an ocean modeller like myself!) to actually get hands-on experience, but I’m so pleased I did!

Did you happen to spot any vessels belonging to the Sea Shepherd or Japanese whaling fleet while you were passing through the Southern Ocean?

We didn’t see any Sea Shepherd or Japanese whaling fleet vessels. However, we did see the French research vessel (L’Astrolabe) and the Australian icebreaker (Aurora Australis). The fact that we happened to pass by these vessels – literally and figuratively in the middle of nowhere – is just astounding. The Southern Ocean is a ridiculously BIG place!

 icebergs antartica pink sunset prettyicebergs shadows antartica sunset pink pretty

Would you do it again?

I would absolutely do it again. I learnt so much from my time on board. In particular I gained a large amount of field work experience, which I feel has improved my understanding of how the ocean works. Next time however, I’ll make sure that one of my US mates brings me some of those seasickness patches!

 icebergs Antarctica scientific expedition

Real-life wildlife warrior

I chat to Ebony from Wildcare Australia about being a volunteer carer for injured and abandoned wildlife, and the best ways to get involved in wildlife rescue in your area.

wildlife carer            wildlife carer
Meet Ebony. All images from Cooked by Stars

Is wildlife rehabilitation a paid job for you or do you do it in your spare time?

Unfortunately, wildlife caring is pretty much always done in a volunteer capacity. The only time you can do it as a ‘career’ is by working with captive animals at zoos or in a medical area at a wildlife hospital which deals with the animals before they go to a carer.

What training / qualifications do you need to look after Australian native wildlife?

It varies depending on which state you live in. You are best off looking up your local parks and wildlife department and seeing what permits are needed. In Queensland, you need to join a wildlife group and then complete training every year on the particular species you want to keep a permit for. Certain speciality species like koalas, cassowaries, tree kangaroos (etc.) have restricted permits which take more training to obtain.

How much of a time commitment is required? Does it vary per species (i.e. possums vs. flying foxes)?

Species play a big role in determining the time you will need to commit each day. Baby birds might need to feed every 15-20 minutes from sun up to sun down, whereas a pinky joey will feed every 2-3 hours. Feeds just go up in lengths of time from there. Aside from feeding, you also have to consider the time spent administering medications, cleaning out cages and washing bedding, as well as vet checks, rescues and food prep (preparing bugs for some species, cutting native leaf every day for others).
flying foxes wildlife shelter rehabilitation

Could someone who is working full time ever be able to do this kind of job?

If you work a 9-5 job you can still be a carer, however it will depend on the species of animal you want to care for. Some workplaces allow animals at work which means you could still care for babies on feeds around the clock (depends if you are okay with minimal sleep too!).
There is also the option of caring for injured adults or juvenile animals that only need growing or recovery time in aviaries. Reptiles often just need feeding once a week. The main thing to remember is the length of time the animal will be in care. If you get a baby animal, you could have it anywhere from a few months (some birds) to over a year for roos. This means you are pretty restricted when it comes to going away on weekends or nights out.

Could you explain a bit about the process?

I rescue for the group Wildcare Australia and also for the RSPCA. In these situations, a member of the public contacts one of the organisations and then their call is directed to me if it’s in my rescue area. A lot of animals also come to me via other carers or the RSPCA Wildlife Hospital. Plus, I’m the ‘Possum Coordinator’ for Wildcare in Brisbane, so all the possums that come into care in our group get called into me and I work out who they need to be placed with (often the ‘homeless’ stay with me).

Once the animals are with me it really depends on their age, condition and species as to how long they will need to stay. A possum that is on 4 hour feeds will take about 6 months to get released back into the wild. As they grow, you give them more independence by placing them in larger and larger cages and having less and less interaction with them, until they are in an aviary and you are putting in the foliage for them to eat before they wake up.

An adult with an injury will be kept for medicating and then released back into its territory as soon as possible.
Some species, once they’ve reached a certain age, will go to a ‘crèche’ which will assist them in making new family groups before release (such as bats).
flying fox babies caring for wildlife

What’s the hardest part of the process?

There are a lot of times filled with sadness and heartbreak. Realising the amount of love and time you give to an animal does not always transfer into restoring health. Having to know when euthanasia is the kindest option.

What do you love the most about what you do?

Furry fluff balls!!

What’s the most common reason that native animals are sent to your care?

The main reason animals come in is due to human activity. Cars and domestic animals are the cause of most injuries. Keep pets inside at night! Well fed pets still hunt!.
possums wildlife rehabilitation

Of the animals you receive, how many are injured, and how many are orphans needing to be raised to maturity?

The majority of animals that come into care will be babies or juveniles. This is purely because most injured adult animals have to be euthanised due to the severity of their injuries. In Queensland, we have a policy that animals that are not able to be released back to the wild have to be put down. Most native species are very territorial and have only a very short amount of time they can be away from their home turf before another animal will move in. A male brushtail possum or kookaburra (for example) has about 9 days until he needs to go back to his home, so only injuries that can heal in this time are viable for treatment. Even some species of reptiles are affected by this. Unfortunately, there is no option of just hoping they find another home or kick out the new inhabitants, as these animals are already compromised and will actually die without a secure home.

What’s your most memorable wildlife rescue experience?

I don’t really have just one that I can pinpoint. Mostly just feeling really lucky to spend so much time seeing how wild animals grow up and witnessing so much that most people will never see. It is sad knowing babies lose their mums but really amazing being the closest thing to a replacement.
Possum wildlife shelter

What tips would you give to someone interested in contributing to wildlife rescue?

Get in touch with a local wildlife group and see where you can start. Even if you’re just interested, you can always attend courses and start learning. If you know a wildlife carer – spend some time with them! Then you can get an idea of what area of caring might fit with your lifestyle.