Penguinologist Dr Tom Hart on penguin behaviour, conservation and exploring South Georgia
What did you study?
I studied biology for my undergraduate degree. I specialised in statistics and developed an interest in marine ecology.
Did you always want to be a penguinologist?
No, but in retrospect it’s not a big surprise. I always wanted to do something that had a marine, conservation and ecology component. I was gradually drawn to colder and wilder places until I ended up on penguins.
What does a penguinologist do?
There’s no typical day. In the field, we’re out changing cameras and taking samples. There’s a good chance we’ll land on some out-of-the- way island by Zodiac (an inflatable boat). In the office, there’s a lot of organisation to make each field season happen, and data analysis.
Tell us about your project with Quark Expeditions in Antarctica
This year I’m primarily on Quark ships going around South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula, servicing the camera network and renewing it.
How do you work with Quark Expeditions?
Quark Expeditions has been an incredible supporter, giving us spaces to do sampling, but the idea for the camera network came from trying to capture local knowledge that guides had onboard and that wasn’t being captured by science.
It’s now very much a two-way process; we give Quark Expeditions and the guests onboard information about penguins and they work with us to try and get us to our sites. It’s a really tight team and I love swapping ideas with the expedition leaders and staff. It’s great when everyone is there with a similar mindset – and the excitement and love of Antarctica is tangible.
What’s your favourite species of penguin?
Macaroni penguins – the first I worked on and a charismatic, angry little bird. They nest on some fairly steep slopes around sea cliffs and they form large colonies, which can be incredibly noisy.
What problems do penguins face today?
Climate change, fishing and direct disturbance. Outside Antarctica, I‘d also include pollution. The sea is a changing, exploited ecosystem.
What is Penguin Watch?
Penguin Watch is a citizen science site, where volunteers come and count the penguins in our images. We take these images every hour throughout the year, at many different colonies, using rugged time-lapse cameras. We find people like seeing and learning about penguins at the same time as helping us with our data.
What are your future plans for it?
We’re going to launch a new version this year that includes new species from more locations. Also, we’re going to try a new approach to count penguins from aerial photos and pole cameras (a GoPro on a long stick).
What’s the best part of your job?
Seeing things that very few people have ever seen and the excitement of discovering something new – it’s a rush.
What’s been your career highlight?
Being part of the team that created the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands Marine Protected Area was pretty special. Also some of the really remote landings – Zavodovski in the South Sandwich islands, which has about 1.3 million breeding pairs of penguins, or the Danger Islands in the Weddell Sea. Alternatively, the first time I got to South Georgia – it was love at first sight.
Give us your best penguin fact
They can projectile poo over a metre out from the nest. People often say how smelly penguin colonies are, but you get used to it. I barely notice it, but that could speak volumes about my personal hygiene!