2017-18 AMLR Copacabana Studies

Every austral summer, the US AMLR Program conducts seabird studies at the Copacabana field station in Admiralty Bay, King George Island. Each week during the short season, the field research team sends updates on their work. In case you missed it, the field station is now closed but their reports are available below.

Sit Rep #3: 24 January 2018 Final Week & Camp Closing

Camp Closing Operations:

  1. Several projects were undertaken at camp in an effort to better organize supplies. We organized items for removal from camp into 4 tightly-packed fish boxes. Items include everything from glass trash, duplicate kitchenware, expired fire extinguishers, and technological derelicts from the 80s, 90s, and early aughts.
  2. We also cut and installed new window shutters on the main Copacabana Hut. The hut is ageing gracefully but desperately needs a fresh coat of paint and new exterior doors on the lab and bunk room.
  3. Copacabana Field Station was closed on 24 January 2018 at 11:45. We are grateful for the staff at Arctowski Station (Poland) for zodiac support. We will remain at Arctowski until extraction to Escudero Station (Chile), currently planned for Friday 26 January. The hut was left is good condition with all major systems, including the electrical system, generators, water supply, and fuel winterized and safely stowed.

Science Stuff:

  1. During our last week in camp, all studies that we were able to initiate were concluded. 
  2. We estimated the length frequency distribution of Antarctic krill with several diet collections from Adelie and gentoo penguins. The mean length of krill in the diets was 41mm and there is a strong presence of juvenile ( less than 35mm) krill in the diet.
  3. We recovered photographs from 13 time lapse cameras and we have initiated classification of photos for estimating breeding chronology and reproductive success of Adelie and gentoo penguins.  At the time of closing, 5 of 6 cameras for Adelie penguins have been classified using 10 or 11 nests per camera. All cameras were redeployed with fresh batteries and SD cards.
  4. In an effort to expand our monitoring here at Copa, we also deployed a time lapse camera on Copa Rock to monitor breeding pairs of giant petrels.
  5. We concluded 8 deployments of dual GPS and time-depth recorders on gentoo penguins.  Dive depths were routinely in excess of 80m, with several birds diving over 120m. GPS data to estimate foraging areas await processing.
  6. Delayed and asynchronous breeding among gentoo penguins resulted in only a partial chick census this year.  The satellite colonies we were able to count contained roughly 2900 chicks.
  7. Finally, we successfully deployed 10 overwinter satellite tags on fledgling Adélie penguins.

Sit Rep #2: 15 January 2018

Science Stuff:

  1. On Tuesday, 9 January we captured four gentoo penguins and attached instruments to their backs. Each bird was fitted with both a time-depth recorder and a miniature GPS unit. We are testing this configuration of instruments on penguins to prepare for next field season when the U.S. AMLR Program will deploy oceanographic gliders and moorings (all with acoustics payloads) to study fine scale variations in the density and distribution of krill. Our predator studies will be integrated with the oceanographic studies so we might better understand the fine-scale interactions between krill, krill-dependent predators, and the krill fishery. To date, we have recaptured three of the four birds we instrumented. All instruments have worked well (although we are still learning some of the ins and outs with these), and the three birds regularly made dives to about 120m. We will not be able to explore the position data from the GPS units until we have an internet connection.
  2. We have started collecting samples of penguin vomit. The results from such work will also link to the oceanographic observations planned for next season. The accepted way to estimate krill biomass from an acoustics survey requires an estimate of the size distribution of krill in the survey area. Since the gliders and moorings cannot collect krill, we plan for the predators to collect those krill. We have only collected a few samples thus far, but it appears that the average size of krill in penguin diets may be smaller than it was last season.
  3. We completed our census of Adélie chicks at Copacabana. We counted 2761 chicks, about 250 fewer than last season. Most of the decline appears to have occurred in three colonies, with one of these only producing two chicks. We do not expect this colony to be around much longer.
  4. As we reported in our last sitrep, we continued to walk circles around the penguin colonies here at Copacabana. We are exploring whether we can use handheld GPS units to measure the area of each colony and then estimate the number of nests given a separate estimate of nests per unit area. We are unsure whether the handheld GPS units we currently possess provide sufficient accuracy for this work. We believe that it will likely be preferable to use unmanned aerial systems for such work because walking around the colonies often disturbs the birds.

Camp Operations:

  1. We completed our first full week of work for the 2017/18 field season here at Copacabana. Several camp improvement projects were completed. We initiated repairs to our water collection system. Several barrels required new plugs, seals, and valves. We were fortunate to fix our main collection barrels just in time for a storm to refill them completely.
  2. The storm also provided a much needed opportunity to conduct a deep cleaning of all our food-storage areas. Mold and mildew continues to be problematic in these areas given the short period of time available each year to open, dry, and clean them.
  3. The storm also provided us new insight into the condition of our Iridium antenna, which is many years old. Immediately after the storm our antenna was not functional, but, as temperatures rose, the antenna started to work again. We have never experienced this in previous storms and will purchase a new antenna as soon as possible.
  4. Two other substantial improvement projects may not be completed until additional parts are brought to camp. We plan to replace the 8 gel cell batteries in our battery bank, but our new batteries are not exactly the same size as our current batteries, thus we cannot use the existing cables that connect the batteries in parallel. We also plan to replace 4 propane wall heaters, but the new heaters are plumbed differently than our current heaters. Stay tuned - we have ideas to rectify both problems.

Other Cool Stuff:

  1. We visited Arctowski Station on Saturday evening. Arctowski hosted a birthday party for one of its overwintering crewmembers, and we were fortunate to share in a delicious cake. On the way to Arctowski we found the carcass of a long dead beaked whale. We do not know what species of whale it s, but Arnoux’s beaked whales occur in our study area.
  2. Our BBQ is back in action! The CopaQ has been a rusty, moldy hulk for several years, but we used spare parts from a different model and modified our existing hulk to make a functional (and safe) CopaQ2.

Sit Rep #1: 8 January 2018

Camp Opening:

  1. The Copacabana Field Camp was opened by Drs. George Watters and Jefferson Hinke on Saturday, January 6th at about 1745 hrs. We thank AGUNSA (port agent), the Chilean Antarctic Institute (INACH), the Chilean Air Force (FACH), and our Polish friends and colleagues at Arctowski Station for their excellent logistical support and fantastic hospitality. We made it from Punta Arenas to Copa in just about 9 hrs! We also thank Ben Wallis and his crew with Ocean Expeditions who helped us out by pre-staging some heavy supplies (e.g., eight mammoth 12V batteries) here at Copa last month. Ben and his crew also removed some old gnarly trash for us (lucky Ben!).
  2. Copa was unoccupied for roughly one year prior to our arrival, but we returned all power, heat, lighting, water, appliances and two-way radio communications to operational status by 2300. The camp itself, all our equipment, and our food supplies were mostly in good condition. As usual, mold happily grows in various locations (e.g., the pantry shelves), but no evidence of leakage was observed. Unusually, two of our water barrels were empty on arrival. In one case it appears as if ice pushed old tubing off a fitting and in another it caused a stopcock to fail. Also unusually, somebody (or people) broke the lock off our pantry door. We do not think anything is missing.
  3. After opening, we spent good portions of the next two days cleaning the huts (there is still more to do - some of our mold is still living in symbiosis with us for now), staging gear for work around the penguin colonies, and putting up rain gutters for water collection. We have also started work to replace tubing, fittings, etc. on our water barrels. Although the exterior of the huts remain in fair condition, several doors and window covers require replacement. We have a long to-do list this year, including replacing some of these failing window covers, replacing our battery bank, and replacing several propane heaters.
  4. To carry on the tradition of the last four seasons here at Copa, we dined on pasta puttanesca topped with “cave-aged” Copa parmesan (our cave is our freezer room) our first evening in camp. Our special cave-ageing process (just leave cheese here in the dark over the winter) creates a parmesan like none other. If you just look at the cheese funny it crumbles on its own.
Copacabana camp site at opening 2018Copacabana camp site at opening 2018.
Adelie colony at Copacabana.Marking perimeter of Adelie colony at Copacabana.


  1. We deployed 9 of 10 radio transmitters on gentoo penguins (the 10th is a reference transmitter that we glue to a rock) nesting on Copa Beach, each with two chicks (aged one to three weeks), to measure foraging-trip durations for the next few weeks. Our estimates of foraging-trip duration will be submitted to CCAMLR (Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources) for inclusion in the annual set of CEMP (CCAMLR Ecosystem Monitoring Program) indices that can be used to characterize conditions here in an area where the krill fishery may operate. Long foraging trips indicate poor conditions, and short trips indicate good conditions.
  2. We never arrive at Copa early enough to count the number of nests established by each species of penguin. The number of nests is another CEMP index. This year we are attempting to develop a new method of estimating the numbers of nests established here at Copa. We will try to estimate the number of nests established by computing the area covered by each colony and multiplying this area by the nest density (nests per square meter). To estimate the area of each colony we are walking the perimeter with a GPS unit. Today we set out some test plots of known area and walked around those with the GPS units. If anyone was “watching” us with satellites or whatever, they would be amused by two scientists walking in rectangles for an hour or so (“got our steps in!). We found that the GPS units estimate area of known-area plots within about 3-5% accuracy. After the calibration walks, we walked around all of the Adélie colonies here at Copa. The largest colony was estimated to be about 850 square meters. As a rough rule of thumb, the literature indicates something like one nest per square meter, so a colony of this size would include about 850 nests, 1700 adults, and as many as 3400 chicks. We plan to conduct a chick census in the next week or so.
  3. All remote cameras installed last year to record breeding activity survived the winter and are in good condition. One camera did not have birds breed around it (although there were birds breeding there last year when we installed the camera). We plan to collect images from all cameras, service existing cameras, and install new cameras in the coming weeks.

Other Cool Stuff:

  1. The weather at Copa has been awesome since our arrival, and we have been working outside as much as possible (that is why we still have a symbiotic relationship with our mold). Our Polish colleagues tell us that a storm is on the way, so we are saving all the interior work for that eventuality.
  2. Tonight we are eating a meal that features pork loin, potatoes, and canned beets. The beets have a “best by” date of December 2010. Of course that’s best by in the real world; at Copa the best by date is whenever you eat things.
  3. We portaged our canoe to the lateral moraine on the south side of the Ecology Glacier. If you would like to imagine what this is like, imagine carrying something that weighs about 80 lbs on top of your shoulders; you can’t see in front of you; you are walking over rocks that range in size from pebbles to massive boulders; you are avoiding penguin nests and elephant seals; and you are doing all this for about a mile in a slight breeze (canoes are good sails).
  4. Until next week - Jefferson and George.
Field team arrival, all safe and sound!Field team arrival, all safe and sound!