Royal Navy’s mission in ‘one of most remote places on Earth’ to pick up penguin populations

The Royal Navy has made a "hazardous" trip to "one of the most remote places on earth" to help scientists study shrinking penguin populations.

Research ship HMS Protector is studying colonies of the birds in the South Sandwich Islands – so off the beaten track even the Royal Navy only calls in once a decade.

Described by the Royal Navy as “one of the most remote places on earth,” the chain of islands lie more than 1,300 miles east of the Falklands and are home to around three million of the flightless birds.

By landing on the uninhabited islands, recording the penguins and using drones, scientists hope for a better understanding of the impact of climate change and other environmental factors on the colonies.

Captain Michael Wood, HMS Protector’s Commanding Officer, said: “Visits by ships to these territories are exceptionally infrequent and hazardous".

A five-year mission to survey the polar oceans

Normally based in Plymouth, HMS Protector and her 70-strong crew of sailors and Royal Marines are on a five-year mission to survey the polar oceans and put a stop to illegal fishing in some of the most important waters on the planet.

Captain Mike Wood and some of HMS Protector's ships' company

Credit: Royal Navy

Credit: LPhot Belinda Alker/Royal Navy

The islands, which are sovereign UK Overseas Territories, are thought to be home to 1.3 million breeding pairs of chinstrap penguins, nearly half the world’s population.  

They live alongside around 95,000 breeding pairs of macaroni penguins and several thousand pairs of gentoo penguins.

Despite being at the northern edge of their breeding range, an unexpectedly large population of Adélie penguins (about 125,000 pairs) also live there.

The populations have fluctuated in recent decades.

Resurgent whale and fur seal numbers eating the krill in the ocean upon which many penguins rely were initially thought to be the cause, following bans on whaling and overfishing.

However, more recent scientific thinking puts the shrinking numbers down to climate change, melting sea ice and rising temperatures.

The British government aims to protect and manage more than 4 million square kilometres of ocean around the UK Overseas Territories through the Blue Belt Programme.

Saunders Island, South Sandwich Islands

Credit: LPhot Belinda Alker/Royal Navy

A team lands on Saunders Island, South Sandwich Islands to collect drone imagery

Credit: LPhot Belinda Alker/Royal Navy

The scheme – the largest marine conservation programme of its kind in the world – supports the protection of environments around the UK Overseas Territories of Ascension Island, St Helena and Tristan da Cunha, British Antarctic Territory, British Indian Ocean Territory, Pitcairn Islands and South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands.

These territories are home to some of the most biologically valuable and unique life on Earth, from the butterfly fish of St Helena to the vast penguin colonies of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands.

Dr Tom Hart, of the Department of Zoology at Oxford University, said: “The more data we get on these islands, the more we are able to disentangle the effects of climate change versus eruptions.

“The whole of the archipelago is a Marine Protected Area, so they are an important contrast to understanding the threats to wildlife elsewhere in the Southern Ocean.”

Earlier this month HMS Protector became the first Royal Navy ship to visit both the Arctic and the Antarctic within six months, some 8,500 miles apart.

With few satellites overhead, the ship’s crew will have very limited opportunities to speak to their families over the festive period.  

They will spend Christmas visiting the British Antarctic Survey Station at Rothera (67°S) but will remain Covid distant from the team already there.

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