Don’t eat penguin snow – Antarctic advice from Iain Staniland

For more than two decades Dr Iain Staniland has worked for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), carrying out research on Antarctic wildlife and producing numerous scientific publications. He created the blog – Antarctic Dad and has spent a combined total of four years living in the great white south… Keep reading, we may be some time… 

What does your current position involve?

“I am a Senior Scientific Officer. Basically, I run the BAS research on seal tracking, so we track using satellite tags and GPS tags, and we look at the foraging behaviour of, mostly, Antarctic fur seals around the Scotia sea.”

Can you talk a bit about the ecosystems you work on and what kind of state they are currently in?

“The Scotia Sea is one of the most productive regions in the Southern Ocean so the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia,  and South Sandwich Islands etc, provide a lot of breeding territory for penguins, albatross and seals. It’s very hard to say what the state of the ecosystem is. Everybody thinks the Antarctic is this pristine environment, but actually, since man arrived there with James Cook that’s not been the case. They spotted the seals and hunted them to near extinction. Then industrial whaling started and they were in turn driven to near extinction with king penguins taken at the same time.

Larger penguins were often used to stoke the fires and strange things like that whereas the smaller penguins tended to be ignored and their populations may well have expanded. Like with most ecology, it is very difficult to know what the baseline was (what it used to be like) to say what it should be now. But actually, it seems relatively healthy. We are certainly detecting the effects of climate change but disentangling that from the population changes after they’re rebounding from exploitation is quite difficult. There are a lot of indications that krill are being affected, and when they decline all of the krill predators then struggle to find food. We’re seeing those effects in years when there is low food availability.”

Those poor, poor polar bears… That’s a joke.

What are the best and worst parts of your job?

“Well the best part I guess is going to see amazing places that not many people get the opportunity to go and see. It’s spectacular scenery and amazing wildlife. As a biologist it’s the wildlife that I find most interesting and the nice thing about the wildlife there is it tends not to be scared of people, generally things don’t have that natural fear of land predators. The penguins will come up to you if you sit still and you can get right up close to a wandering albatross. It’s an amazing thing. Fur seals tend to chase you. They are a lot more aggressive so it’s a bit more difficult with them … and then obviously seeing whales at sea and getting paid to go cruising down the Antarctic Peninsula is quite something.”

Alright show off, anything bad?

“Now I’ve got a young family it’s leaving them behind. It’s not home sickness as such but missing your family, with young kids, a lot can happen in the three months that you have to be away.”

Have you always wanted to work in Antarctica?

“I was fascinated by Antarctica as a kid and going to work in interesting places was one of the things that got me excited by biology. So, I was inspired by it, but no, I did my PhD in fish biology and that’s where I naturally saw myself going. When the opportunity came up with BAS though I leapt at it, and I can remember at my interview I quoted reading or hearing about Scott of the Antarctic, which I think everybody does… I never thought I’d get to work with charismatic megafauna as you call them, or you know, marine mammals. Most people I had assumed that were in that field had always wanted to work with them and everything in their career was geared towards it, but actually, I studied feeding behaviour in fish and it just naturally progressed to doing feeding behaviour in seals.”

Some may worry that they need to specialise early and focus on a specific species

“Marine mammal biology, and it’s the same with a lot of biology, is quite strange in that people do get species focussed and then learn the techniques around what they need to study that species. But there is equally just as much, coming from the other side – getting to know a technique particularly well, like being a geneticist or a physiologist, and then applying that to different species. That’s actually just as viable a way to get into things.”

What advice would you give to someone specifically looking to work in Antarctica?

“A lot of it depends on what you want to do. One of the nice things about the British Antarctic Survey, and a lot of the other Antarctic research operators, is every single trade is needed… If you specifically want to work as a scientist then it’s a case of looking out for opportunities and getting experience. The vast majority of our entry level positions are animal handling jobs so people getting experience of animal handling and lots of different kinds of animal handling is really important. It doesn’t have to be specifically with Antarctic wildlife.

Even in the UK there are seals, they’re not Antarctic fur seals but there are seals. You can go out and volunteer, do an internship or get a summer job. Getting experience ringing is very important for our ornithological work so you can join a local bird club. Target what you want to do and what’s going to make you stand out. That’s also going to get you connections and your name will start to be recognised. It’s a community, they’re all the same faces, particularly in the Antarctic where it’s quite a small scientific community, even if it is international. Yes, you have to have a certain level of education but actually people who have gone out and got experience, their CVs always stand out.”

Iain also tells me Shackleton’s profile has gone up a lot more than Scott’s since he had his interview so you should probably quote Shackleton instead.


What prompted you to start the blog – Antarctic Dad?

“I think more and more as a scientist you start to realise that this sort of thing is another way of gaining impact. We’re judged – when applying for grants, within our institution etc, on what impact we are having. Traditionally that’s been based on scientific papers, talks at conferences and things but actually now, it’s judged by how you can get it out there, the publicity… I think blogging is what people are doing to try and highlight their science and get their message across to the public, as well as to other scientists.

Also, a lot of my friends see me disappear off to the Antarctic but they don’t actually know what I do, other than I work with seals. I’m rubbish at writing diaries so I thought I would write it as a blog.  And I can get some information out there on what life’s really like. What it’s like to live in a tent, things you wouldn’t necessarily think of, like not being able to melt snow in certain places because the penguins are breeding on the snow and you don’t really want to eat snow that penguins have stood on. Those sort of little things people can pick up on and get inspired by.”

‘Avoid eating snow littered with penguin faeces’ yep I’m inspired.

In one blog entry you talked about a hole in your wellies and how devastating the experience was, can you talk about how being isolated impacts your work?

“Yeah, that’s a prime example of always have spares.

We have much more food on the base and in the freezers than we need just in case the ship doesn’t get in and we have spares for everything we possibly can have spares for. We used to rely very much on radio communications and so people were trained in repairing radios. I did two and a half years on Bird Island and we had an incident where the generators broke down. We had two generators, one stopped working and then the other one stopped working. So, over the radio, somebody helped us patch the two together and get one working. Now normally as a scientist you wouldn’t have to worry about how your power is getting through but, in those situations, you do. And without that power the heating goes, it’s hard to pump the water and all those sorts of things. We also have advanced first aid training in case something happens because although some bases have a doctor, not all do. Those little challenges make the job really interesting because you get to try your hands at lots of different things, but you also need it because in times of trouble you can’t always just call for help.”

It sounds a bit like being an astronaut

“Yes, it is, and actually the Mars expeditions and those sorts of proposals have looked to the Antarctic situation. It’s probably the easiest way to simulate isolation in the world at the moment. Things like how the microbes pass between people, what happens to your gut fauna if you’re isolated for a long period of time. There’s a whole range of issues associated with those long-isolated journeys into outer space which people look to the Antarctic to try and answer.”

Cooooool… Get it, because of the temperature.

Anyway, if you want to read more about Iain’s adventures then check out the aforementioned blog here and be sure to stay on Conservation Careers for more articles like this one.

Further Reading: Kick-starter online training for Early Career Conservationists

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