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Penguins in Antartica


Conserving Antarctica


Beyond the muffled silence and icy white oblivion, Antarctica is a complex web of life – a busy ecosystem which once thrived. From whales to microscopic phytoplankton, colonies of pottering penguins, swirling schools of krill and circling albatross. Yet, in recent years, the words fragile, threatened and declining are commonplace in discussion regarding Antarctica. Research is fundamental in the race to reverse this narrative of doom – but it’s often constrained by vast expenses and complex logistical challenges.

In Conversation Dr. Mercedes Santos

By pairing marine scientists and conservation experts with Pelorus’ private yacht expeditions, we enable vital research to take place in the world’s most far-flung locations. Back in December, Dr. Mercedes Santos joined a Pelorus client expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula.

Santos is a researcher of the Argentinean Antarctic Institute, although currently on license while working for the Marine Protected Areas of Argentina as thier National Director. Her research interests focus on conserving the ocean, particularly on marine spatial planning and socio-ecological systems – she is currently working on a joint Argentine-Chilean proposal to turn a 670,000 km area west of the Antarctic Peninsula into a Marine Protected Area (MPA).  We caught up with Santos to hear about the trip and her critical work to conserve Antarctica.



“Antarctica has been a beacon of international diplomacy, scientific and peaceful cooperation for 60 years. History will judge us harshly if we fail to protect the world’s last large and unique wilderness.”

Dr. Mercedes Santos

Can you tell me about your trip to Antarctica with Pelorus?

 The places we were able to go in a short period of time was amazing! Normally, I spend three to four months in Antarctica, so this was a short period of time in comparison, but we were able to visit so many places and see penguins, elephant seals and whales, and we were able to be on the ice fast! It was amazing, really, I’m so happy.


What kind of research were you doing whilst there?

We wanted to check some cameras and record a breeding sight but the most important reason for me being there was to tell the story of the Marine Protected Area that we want to establish in that area. This is a proposal Argentina is working on together with Chile and it’s being discussed in CCAMLR which is The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.  To adopt the MPA you need consensus from every country part of the CCAMLR [25 and the European Union] so it’s quite the challenge. We have been working on this since 2012 and it’s come a long way but still, we don’t have an MPA – but it’s necessary to keep trying.

What are the main things you hope to achieve by introducing the Marine Protected area?


We know that in the Antarctic Peninsula, where this expedition was done, there is the clearest effect of climate change and it’s also where the largest krill fishery operates – so you have different pressures on the ecosystems. With the establishment of the MPA we want to reduce the stress on the ecosystem and these species and build resilience, allowing them to better recover when they experience the effects of climate change.

We also want to have a strong research plan that can track and follow the changes of fishing activity so, for example, we can have a clear understanding if the amount of krill that is being fished – and the places where it’s being fished – is having a negative effect on the different predators and the biodiversity.


So you are not yet sure whether krill fishing is having a negative impact on the wildlife and biodiversity?


There is a strong discussion about this and there is evidence to suggest that it does but it’s not so much about the amount of krill, it’s more about the fishing in a very short space of time in particular places – that concentration of the fisheries is of some concern for researchers. If we do not have a better understanding now of the effect then, in time, it’s going to be more difficult, so it’s better to understand this now – sooner rather than later.


Does a marine protected area mean that there will be no fishing allowed in that area, or does it mean that it will be more rigorously controlled?  


The proposal that we have has two different management areas, a general protection zone [no take zones] and a krill fishery zone where the krill fisheries are allowed. In the areas where it is allowed there will be a research and monitoring plan which will help us to continue to understand the effect of the fisheries. The good thing is that if this MPA is adopted it will be internationally managed so all the countries will have to contribute to the research and monitoring plan. 

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You mentioned that you monitor penguins, what are the key areas you observe? 


My team, which I am nowadays a bit on the side of, study the breeding and feeding ecology of penguins. So we want to know how many birds arrive at the colonies every year, in what conditions, how many chicks they produce and in what conditions these chicks fledge. We also monitor where and what they feed on. 


Are there any notable findings which you have discovered recently?


Yes, we work with three species of penguin which are chinstrap, gentoos and Adélies. We have observed that the Adélies and chinstraps are doing very badly – there population is declining between 40 to 70 percent and we think this is mainly because of some effect of climate change. On top of that it could be a combination of stress related food availability, maybe because of the concentration of the fisheries.  

Gentoos, which are more flexible in their feeding and breeding behaviours are coping better with the variable environmental conditions. Generally, penguins decide to breed on a certain date, the same date every year more or less, but gentoos decide to wait if the weather conditions aren’t good – or they have a second hatch. They will also move their nest if the previous hatching was not successful and they have a much more flexible diet. We have observed that gentoos are moving south, expanding their breeding distribution and as a result, their populations are increasing. But Adelies and chinstraps are declining and it’s very sad to see. 


How much research currently takes place in Antarctica?


A lot does take place, but it is expensive and in terms of logistics, it is difficult. However, there is a strong commitment from different countries to do the research. The cooperation is very good! It is wonderful to see how people work together for conservation. Particularly during Covid-19 it has been very difficult to put the people on the ground in Antarctica to do the research. It is very useful nowadays that the tourist industry is supporting scientific work and it’s a good way to keep doing science even in difficult conditions.


Stay tuned for more updates from Santos and her progress with the creation of the MPA in Antarctica.