From crawling through colonies of penguins to studying albatross and working as a naturalist for Aurora Expeditions, Dr Jaimie Cleeland’s PhD has seen her travel to our planet’s deep south.

What have been your career highlights since University?

“I completed my PhD in Marine and Antarctic Science at the University of Tasmania in 2018 after living on subantarctic Macquarie Island for three summers. My research focussed on albatross and the impacts of commercial fisheries, climate change and invasive species on the birds’ foraging, breeding and populations.

I was awarded a Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research Fellowship to travel with the British Antarctic Survey to further advance albatross research methods. The Fellowship led to a field role with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds on remote subantarctic Gough Island in the South Atlantic. There I ran several research projects investigating interactions between seabirds and fisheries and the impact of invasive mice on breeding seabirds. These projects have had tangible management outcomes, supporting the Marine Protected Area designation process for Tristan da Cunha and the eradication of mice from Gough Island.

In between research, I have been lucky enough to travel to all three of Australia’s Antarctic stations as a Watercraft Operator – driving jet barges and small inflatable boats to deliver cargo and personnel between the icebreaker Aurora Australis and station.

In my current role as a Fisheries Scientist at the Australian Antarctic Division and the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, I continue to support evidence-based conservation and management. A focus is the analysis of bycatch species, such as skates, sharks and seabirds, for fisheries operating in the Southern Ocean.”

Could you tell us more about your work on remote Gough Island for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds? What you were doing each day and why, and what made the experience memorable?

“Gough Island is one of the remotest islands in the world, situated almost halfway between Africa and South America. Visiting and working on this island is like entering a scene of Jurassic Park, with prehistoric cycad-like ferns scattered over the lowlands, waterfalls cascading off the mountainous escarpment and pterodactyl-like cries from southern giant petrels flying overhead. My year as a field biologist on Gough was filled with so many memorable experiences, from carefully holding a newly hatched Tristan albatross while a tracking device was deployed on its mother, to long after-dinner discussions about life, culture and politics in Africa with my nine overwintering colleagues, most from the South African National Antarctic Programme.

My daily routine involved monitoring of flying seabirds, penguins and seals as well as supporting a myriad of science projects. One project investigated pathways for parasites and disease into Antarctica and involved crawling through a smelly rockhopper penguin colony looking for parasitic ticks and dodging sharp beaks!”

Could you please tell us more about your work as a naturalist for Aurora Expeditions aboard the Polar Pioneer?

“From Patagonia in South America I jumped aboard Aurora Expedition’s tourist vessel and headed south across the treacherous waters of the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula. This part of Antarctica is so unlike the area where Australia’s stations lie. Instead of the thick ice sheets and monstrous tabular ’bergs that I am familiar with, I was surprised by steep mountainous peaks, tiny channels, hanging glaciers and a scattering of small islands. During the summer this environment and the highly productive waters around it are dense with wildlife and provided the most incredible experiences – orcas riding the ship’s bow wave, minke whales popping up next to my zodiac and sleepy leopard seals snoozing on an ice floe as I cruised past.

Travelling home via the subantarctic island of South Georgia meant reuniting with wandering albatrosses, the subject of my PhD thesis, and revealing their remarkable life history to the expeditioners onboard. It is a real privilege to be a naturalist with Aurora Expeditions because, not only do I have the opportunity to share these wonders with the most adventurous people, I am also able to advocate for the Antarctic’s ongoing protection.”

What do you enjoy about your current work as a fisheries scientist at the Australian Antarctic Division and the University of Tasmania?

“The most rewarding part of my new role at the Australian Antarctic Division and the University of Tasmania is that I see the science I do having real-world impact. I am able to work directly with fishing industry and government management authorities to provide the latest research on bycatch species, such as skates and sharks, to ensure fishing in the Southern Ocean is sustainable and remains so under future climate change scenarios. I am also lucky enough to work in an inspiring team that work tirelessly to achieve this goal!”

Were their particular experiences doing the PhD that stand out to you?

“Working in the subantarctic makes you become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Often you are hiking through Southern Ocean squalls that make your hands so cold your fingernails sting and turn your nose into a constant dripping tap. It sounds tough, but you soon become addicted to being in the environment that albatrosses are so well adapted to. To see an albatross on a nest is a rare and special thing – they spend the majority of their lives at sea, scouring the roughest oceans for prey.

While working in an albatross colony was an obvious highlight of my PhD, I was most empowered by the scientific pathway from making observations in the field, to using statistics to understand the threats albatross face. I published these results for other scientists to learn from and used them to advocate for conservation and changes in policy at the international level.”

What advice would you give to your younger self?

“Uncertainty is okay. You will get used to it and even shine through prolonged periods of it.”

Image credits:

Toby Story (Antarctic Peninsula), Kate Lawrence (Dr Jaimie Cleeland with albatross chick)