From his experience of living among two colonies of penguins and albatrosses at the South Pole, José Xavier has drawn his conclusions about the impact of global warming. Everyday life in the company of these creatures has made him feel like just one more animal on the planet.
Perhaps being classified as a professional traveler does sit well with José Xavier, a scientist at the Institute of Marine Research, Coimbra University, who talks about his sixth scientific expedition to the Antarctic as though he were telling us about his adventures on an extended holiday. “My last stay (eight months) on Bird Island was quite rewarding. I spent the days working directly with animals and the rest of the time exchanging opinions about them “. That was what he would do with the other three scientists – Darren Fox, Stacey Adlard e Ewan Edwards – who shared the “spectacular“ scientific base with him on the tiny island that is part of the Georgia archipelago, in the south of the Antarctic.
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I think, therefore I am
This total passion for what he does is not new. José Xavier was always a dedicated and capable student. While in the second year of Marine Biology at the University of the Algarve he made a resolution: “I decided not to do my work experience in Portugal and I began taking part in research projects at the university. I knew that I wanted to be a scientist and I felt that the course itself was not enough, and for that reason I took part in scientific projects and managed to get myself involved in several research projects, helping masters and doctoral students”.
When taking part in a research project on cephalopods (octopuses, squid and cuttlefish), the opportunity arose to go to Cambridge, in the UK, for work experience with Professor Paul Rodhouse of the British Antarctic Survey. He was there in 1997 studying squid movement in the oceans, using data that was being sent by other scientists on oceanographic research ships. “During that year I wrote an article about squid movement and also helped to create a project to learn more about them”.
His research into squid continued and he received an invitation from the investigation centre to continue the study of this species during his doctorate. “I spent the first four years identifying squid from their beaks. In fact it was through cephalopods that this adventure began.”
When they asked him if he wanted to go to the Antarctic he became excited. “The moment they told me that I had a doctoral scholarship I replied that I would go for however long they wanted, one week, two or three.” And suddenly, in 1999, at the age of 23, he was on Bird Island at the South Pole, an experience which lasted seven months. The day-to-day was spent installing devices – which enabled satellite tracking – on the backs of albatrosses, and thus providing the coordinates of the bird’s position. Through these devices it was possible to find out the location of the squid, on which the albatrosses feed, and in this way learn about their distribution in the ocean. At that time, 40 or 50 species of squid were found in the bird’s diet, many more than the five that had been caught by the oceanographic research ships up until then.
“We used the albatrosses as scientists. We got to know where the birds were interacting with fishing boats via satellite tracking. The wandering albatross could disappear within 20 or 30 years due to crossing paths with fishing boats, getting caught on fish hooks and drowning.” The research that he did demonstrated that the use of heavier fishing lines prevented the birds from taking the bait.
Scientific conclusions apart, the seascape had a lasting effect on him. “I had the sensation that I was entering a different world. Sailing from the Falkland Islands it takes two days to reach the Antarctic Ocean. It was summer, and I began to see gigantic icebergs and animals breeding. There were albatrosses in the sky, whales around the ship, penguins swimming; it seemed like a planet within the planet.”
After the first expedition, five more followed, three on board an oceanographic research ship and two on which he returned to Bird Island. The main purpose of the research project on the last journey – which took place between March and November 2009 – was to study the way that penguins and wandering albatrosses are adapting to global warming. This time, instead of satellite, they used GPS to monitor the creatures. “I was studying the effect of the change in climatic conditions on the food chain of the Antarctic Ocean. I was interested in the abundance of squid and prawns in the ocean, because these are the most typical food in the diet of penguins and albatrosses. The Gentoo penguins felt the effects of the shortage of krill and that year had to feed on small organisms present in the ocean. For this reason they began to lose weight and the breeding season started later.”
If the Gentoo penguins were the ones that suffered most from the climatic changes, the albatrosses, the largest marine birds in the world, were not affected by the alterations because they were able to travel distances between five and ten thousand kilometers in search of food.
José Xavier explains that the wandering albatross only reproduces every two years and it is still not known “how they navigate at sea and, mainly, what clock they use to know that it’s time to return to their breeding colonies”. The scientist relates in his blog Ciência Polar (Polar Science) that it is on Bird Island that these animals meet their mate and take the first steps towards having a family. It was fascinating to witness the reunions of these travelers that spend most of the time at sea, returning to the island only to breed. “When they meet, the din is so loud that you feel they are interacting again.” Because of this, the scientist concludes, “If albatrosses spoke Portuguese it would have been them that invented the word ‘saudade‘ (homesickness)”.
The experience on Bird Island can only be compared to an expedition of National Geographic magazine. “The relationship with the animals is special. It isn’t like it is here where we go for a ride on our bicycles and the birds get out of the way. There I was in the middle of the penguins, they would look at me with curiosity but without any sort of distrust and I felt as though I was merely one more animal.” Nevertheless, things were not always so tranquil. On one occasion José Xavier was in a valley surrounded by seals and came up against some bolder creatures. “Antarctica fur seals have got sharp teeth and it’s not enough to simply go “Shoo! Shoo!” When they opened their mouths it seemed that they were telling me: today you can’t pass”. And indeed he didn’t pass, he turned back and went around the obstacle. “These animals can weigh 200 kilos, so have to be respected.”
Throughout the eight months that he spent on the island there were routines to be adhered to. He would get up as soon as the sun rose, which in April happened at seven in the morning and in June at eleven, and it was his job to brand the Gentoo penguins so that he could know how often they came on land or if any had been killed by leopard seals. He also sometimes went to the colony of albatrosses to equip them with GPS. “I would head for the other part of the island, 20 minutes from the base, whether or not there was a storm. From this experiment we concluded that albatrosses are flexible to climate changes, traveling as far as Brazil in search of food.”
Despite not having much time for leisure activities, José Xavier remembers the film nights on Sundays and Wednesdays. Another of his pastimes was cooking. “Whoever was cooking on Saturday had to make soup, a starter, a main course and dessert. Once I tried to make pastéis de nata (custard tarts). But I cooked everything, with my family and friends sending suggestions.” The ingredients for the meals, from rice with duck, bean stew and chicken soup to Chinese or Italian food, came from an area of the base that resembled a supermarket and was stocked twice a year. If Friday was the day for housework, Saturdays or Sundays were certainly not leisure days. Even if he did not visit the penguin or albatross colonies, there was lots of work to be done in the laboratory. The exception to the rule were days with no wind and a clear sky. On those days, as well as carrying 15 kilos of material on his back, he also took a camera and found time for both work and play. “If the weather was really exceptional we would go snowboarding on the mountain.”
And why spend almost a year exiled at the South Pole? The answer is quick and spontaneous: “To be able to contribute to the development of science. The research done will give origin to a series of publications. As a matter of fact, I am thinking of going back there again.” The unrepeatable moments that he spent there are registered on the blog cientistapolarjxavier.blogspot.com.
by Maria João Veloso
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