Laura Smith is one of the most interesting people we’ve met in the world of Antarctic travel. With her husband Federico, Laura co-owns Quixote Expeditions, which operates a sailboat and a small ship that travels to Antarctica via fly-cruise. Laura, on the other hand, is actively involved in a wide range of facets of the Antarctic tourism industry. She currently chairs the Polar Citizen Science Collective board of trustees in the United Kingdom. To complete this fascinating project, researchers have teamed up with polar guides and travelers to gather data from the field.
To learn more about this growing organization and the importance of supporting citizen science projects in Antarctica, we met with Laura.
Citizen science is a term used to describe the practice of ordinary people participating in
People with no formal training in science conduct real research as part of citizen science projects. Citizen science encompasses a wide range of topics. In some cases, the projects are small and local, while in others, the scope is global. In some cases, no training is required to collect data; in others, a small amount of training is necessary. All of this stems from the fact that you and I are collecting data for scientists to analyze. There is a big difference between “citizen science” and “citizen research,” and this distinction is critical. On small expedition ships, how does this work? Everyone is welcome to participate.
Science can benefit greatly from the Artcic and other smaller expedition ships that sail to places like Antarctica and the South Pole.
As a result, the data gathered by a government-sponsored science cruise is often only a snapshot of a brief period of time. It is possible to collect data over the course of an entire season using a fleet of passenger expedition ships that can stay in the region for up to five months.
It’s no secret that doing citizen science is good for the community, but it’s also a great way to improve the guest experience. A small expedition ship’s itinerary can accommodate a wide range of projects, all of which require varying amounts of time and effort. When a ship is in transit, some of the science projects take place on the ship’s deck, such as taking photos of clouds to verify NASA satellite images.
Science in the hands of the people
When the need for water collection arises, other projects in the zodiac may be undertaken. Currently, a net is being towed to collect phytoplankton, which guests will help filter out of the water as part of another project. On the ground, there are a number of other projects that take place. Observing penguin rookeries or taking pictures of snow algae are a few examples.
Each operator will select a subset to perform onboard, as it is preferable to perform a few well than a large number poorly. If citizen science is something you’re interested in, make sure to ask before booking, as there are plenty of operators who do. Once onboard, it’s common to sign up for activities or join a science zodiac. In addition to collecting data, the operators will give presentations to explain the projects – how the data collection methods work as well as how the data will be used – in more detail.
Operators benefit from the assistance provided by the Polar Citizen Science Collective (also known as the Polar Collective). UK charity The Polar Collective works with scientists and operators to make citizen science happen through collaboration. There are a number of things that we do for you, from providing educational materials to working with scientists to ensure that the data collection process works on an expedition ship. For these projects, we also assist in training of on-board guides who will serve as hosts.
To what purpose did the Polar Citizen Science Collective come about?
In spite of not being a founding member of the polar collective, I am currently its chair. Five guides founded the Polar Collective in 2017. Trying to incorporate more science into the onboard programming was a challenge for each of them. Once they’d found a few, they decided to get together and share what they’d learned with the rest of the world. From there, the Collective has grown. Additionally, we are actively working with scientists who need data in the polar regions to get their projects onboard in an approach that is friendly for citizens to participate.
Our vessels and our struggles were similar, even if I wasn’t a part of the Collective. I jumped at the opportunity to join the Collective’s board of directors because its goals align perfectly with my own in the Polar regions.
Is there anything you’d like to tell us about your current projects?
To collect phytoplankton, we towed a net and filtered it onboard my vessel as part of FjordPhyto. The phytoplankton samples that we collect can also be examined under a microscope. Phytoplankton can be found in a wide variety of habitats, some preferring saltier water while others prefer fresher. As the amount of fresh water from melting glaciers increases, scientists can begin to predict what will happen to the fjord’s phytoplankton population and how that might affect animals further up the Antarctic food chain by observing the fjord’s phytoplankton population over the course of one season.
Some exciting new projects, including one focusing on snow algae are in the works for the collective. Then I’d like to shift gears and talk about Antarctica, as well as you.
What is it about Antarctica that you enjoy most?
Antarctica fascinates me because it appears to last forever while also evolving constantly. It’s comforting returning to a familiar place, but there’s always something new, like more snow this year or an iceberg that makes it inaccessible, when you return. Icebergs, like clouds, are constantly shifting, rolling, and morphing into something new.
How about you? What is your favorite landing page or website?
Whalers Bay on Deception Island is one of my favorite spots to land. What amazes me most about this place is that it was once home to humans who had to endure so much hardship. However, it serves as a reminder of a time when whale oil was the most valuable commodity in the world. I always wonder if, in 100 years, future generations will look back and think the same way about our petroleum use. It all seems so barbaric now. Remember how common whale oil was in society, not just lanterns, but in a wide range of other products, like petroleum today?
Your favorite Antarctic animal?
Of course, choosing a favorite amongst all of them would be difficult. A geological background has made identifying birds difficult for me, and it has taken a great deal of time and effort to get it right. That’s why I prefer slow-moving animals. The Weddell seals are always beautiful to me. I’m totally ready to make a soap opera out of the interactions between people who use Gentoo. There is so much action and intrigue.
An anecdote of your own?
My husband built a sailboat for our first trip to Antarctica. In addition to us, there were two other people. My husband and I were on our honeymoon at the time. An incredible first trip to Antarctica, I highly recommend it. We had a lot to learn, but we worked hard to get the information we needed, like where everything was located and what the rules were. On my very first trip, I was able to participate in some citizen science!