Travel can be one of the great attractions of a year away from campus. For BSc Zoology student Katarzyna Komarowska – Kasia to her friends – a placement took her literally to the ends of the earth.
She’s returning for her final year of studies with tales to tell from seven months spent working at the Henryk Arctowski Polish Antarctic Station on King George Island, more than 1,000km south of the Falkland Islands and 14,000 km from Kasia’s native Poland.
The station operates all-year round in an inhospitable climate and gives scientists and researchers the opportunity to conduct ambitious, multidisciplinary research programmes and to co-operate with the best scientific institutions from other countries. And it’s clear Kasia made a real difference to their survey work.
Kasia’s journey to Arctowski Station was a lengthy one in more ways than one. She wanted to spend her placement studying bird life and had seen a number of requests to other research stations turned down. Instead, she had turned to an opportunity to work at a bird sanctuary in Bolivia and started looking for flights to take her there.
Everything changed when she heard back from the Arctowski Station. “I was waiting for about two months not expecting anything at all,” Kasia recalls. “All of a sudden I got an email that said they were very interested in employing me and to invite me for an interview.”
With the placement team at ARU helping to smooth the path, by August Kasia was making the long journey to King George Island, which is part of the South Shetlands off the coast of the Antarctic mainland. The first sight of her new home was quite something. “We arrived first at the Chilean station and it was all white. The major thing I saw from the Hercules plane was snow and pure whiteness.”
And there was also some extreme weather to get used to, with August being winter in the southern hemisphere. Temperatures around the island regularly dropped to -20C and lower, and wind speeds topping 140 km/h. Luckily, there was plenty to keep Kasia busy studying birds and cetaceans as she joined the team of 15 people who had worked at the station through the winter.
Kasia already possessed a licence to ring birds, allowing researchers to track their movements to study migration and dispersal as well as population change over time. The station had not had anyone with a ringing licence for many years. My boss told me to ring the King Penguin at the station. It had been there for a few years but no-one had ever had a ring licence,” Kasia recalls. “So the only King Penguin on King George Island was ringed by me.”
There were many other bird species to be watched too, gathering information on the skuas and southern giant petrels that make the island their home. Kasia relished the chance to get involved in the station’s work, spending as much of her time as possible outside, although in winter there are only a few precious hours of daylight each day.
That hard work was much appreciated, with a testimonial from her supervisor congratulating Kasia for her contribution to the “great success” of the expedition overall. Kasia is praised for the “great and reliable job” that she did, with the testimonial singling out her work with the petrels and also noting: “Your way of carrying out the skuas’ breeding success survey was a masterpiece.”
As well as the regular tasks around the station, Kasia was also able to explore further afield. On one trip they visited the top of a mountain that was close to the end point of a survey. “When we got to the plateau, we found there was a lot of life going on,” she recalls. “We managed to explore a bit of land that had not been explored for wildlife since the station had been there.”
Now, Kasia is returning to ARU after her amazing adventure. She writes a blog about her experiences studying wildlife and she’s determined to continue to follow her passion – wherever it takes her next.