It was a relief for Australian Antarctic Division penguin ecologist, Dr Barbara Wienecke, to finally find a career that she was passionate about.
After ‘happily stumbling’ through odd jobs in tourism, pharmacy and horticulture, half-finished degrees in agriculture and an interest in anthropology, she found her niche in seabird research, and particularly penguins. Now, 20 years later, her passion and dedication to her research, and the birds she studies, has been recognised with an Australian Antarctic Medal.
‘It’s extraordinary and humbling that my colleagues thought it was worthwhile putting my name forward for an Antarctic Medal,’ she says.
‘Personal glory is not what I’m after. I hope that whatever we find out about these beautiful birds will help convince decisions-makers that they’re worth protecting.’
It’s not hard to see why Barbara struggled to find a niche; with her enthusiastic wonder of the natural world, her willingness to give anything a go, and her ability to stride through challenges with a cheerful and positive disposition. When life is endlessly fascinating, it’s hard to settle on one thing.
One thing was certain though; when she left Germany two days after finishing high school, Barbara knew she wanted a career in the outdoors. She headed to Israel to work in a Kibbutz for 13 months, and here she developed an interest in agriculture. She returned to Germany to study agricultural science at the University of Bonn, but when the Dean went purple and raged at her suggestion that she spend a year in Namibia – her birthplace – undertaking practical work on a farm, Barbara quit.
She moved to the Netherlands in pursuit of a more suitable agricultural course and ended up working at Floriade; a flower and garden show. An encounter with an Australian rose grower while she was there saw her move to Sydney to work. A few months later she moved to Western Australia and began a Bachelor of Science at Murdoch University.
‘I’d worked out by then that I wanted to study biology and I promised myself that I’d finish my degree this time, even if it killed me,’ she says.
True to her word she completed her degree and promptly packed her bags for Europe. After a dalliance in tourism she returned to Murdoch University to begin an Honours project on little penguins on Penguin Island.
‘The first thing my supervisor said to me was that I should not fall in love with the birds because I would not be able to do my PhD on them,’ Barbara says.
Within weeks Barbara was not only in love with the penguins, she had, unknowingly, established the course of her future. At the end of her Honours year Barbara walked into her supervisor’s office and said: ‘Ron, you will write a research proposal and when you get the money you will hire me as your assistant and I’m going to continue to work on the birds. They still need my help and we need to fix up the island.’
This determination to champion the protection of seabirds and their habitat from humans and later, climate change, was to become the defining theme throughout Barbara’s career.
In 1993, immediately after she’d completed her PhD, Barbara got a job at the Australian Antarctic Division, working with fellow Australian Antarctic Medal winner Dr Graham Robertson. Her first job was to investigate the foraging (feeding) ecology of emperor penguins at Auster Rookery, near Mawson, using satellite tags and dive recorders.
‘It was the first time we successfully followed 12 females for the entire period of their winter absence,’ Barbara says.
‘The breeding biology of emperor penguins was reasonably well understood but we’d never been able to observe the birds outside their colonies, and satellite tracking was really useful for that.’
Barbara has lost count of the number of times she returned to Antarctica, but 20 years on she continues her satellite tracking work on emperor penguin colonies at Auster, Taylor Rookery (also near Mawson) and Amanda Bay at Davis. She has also spent time tracking Adélie penguins and snow petrels on the continent, King penguins on Macquarie and Heard islands and black-browed albatrosses in southern Chile.
Like all fields of science, Barbara’s research has thrown up more questions than it’s answered. When we think we know a ‘truth’ about something, along comes the exception to the rule.
For example, emperor penguin colonies are known to inhabit the fast ice – ice attached to the continent – which provides a habitat suitable for raising chicks. However, Barbara and other penguin ecologists have recently confirmed the existence of colonies on a giant iceberg that calved off the West Antarctic Ice Shelf many years ago. The physical nature of the berg is such that the colony can survive. Rather than sheer ice cliffs, it has an ‘ablated’ (eroded) area that stretches gently down to the sea ice, providing a link similar to that between fast ice and sea ice.
‘I could not believe there were chicks on top of the iceberg. I would have fallen out of the helicopter if I hadn’t been strapped in,’ Barbara recalls.
Barbara also relates a story about a Russian scientific party who set up a tent on the Shackleton Ice Shelf in the 1970s. They were surprised by a group of 30 penguins surrounding them the next morning.
‘We observe penguins in certain situations and think we understand what they are doing,’ she says
‘But we really have to look beyond what we know. Why haven’t we seen emperor penguins on ice shelves before? Because we’ve never looked!
‘It’s fantastic when the unexpected happens because that’s when you learn things.’
In between her trips to Antarctica Barbara has also spent time in the Argentine subantarctic and on longline ships in New Zealand, studying black-browed albatross interactions with longline fisheries. Her longline work in the ling fishery off New Zealand was particularly challenging because she knew birds would be killed during line-weighting experiments. But with albatross populations in freefall as a result of fisheries bycatch, it was research that had to be done.
As a result of Barbara’s and her colleague Dr Graham Robertson’s research, subsequent technological developments with industry, and policy decisions through the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, seabird bycatch has been reduced to almost zero in the longlining fisheries that overlap with the birds’ foraging and migratory patterns.
‘Sometimes individuals have to pay a price to save the population as a whole,’ Barbara says.
Barbara has also paid a price; of sorts. She's been bitten, scratched and rebuked by her research subjects, she’s spent sleepless weeks on cramped, wet fishing vessels, and years of her life in field huts and tents, battered by blizzards, rain and bone-chilling cold.
She recalls the six weeks she spent tracking black-browed albatross on the Argentine island Diego de Almagro, which receives some eight metres of rain a year. Barbara and two colleagues had to regularly climb 600 m up a mountainside covered in vegetation so dense they had to crawl over it. It was bitterly cold, incredibly windy and constantly wet.
‘But the wildlife was incredible. There were resident sea otters, seals, orcas and steamer ducks. We saw Andean condors, snipes and hummingbirds – who would have thought! I was sitting outside my tent in my yellow rain jacket one day when a hummingbird came right up to me and buzzed me for a few seconds.’
Barbara has lost none of her enthusiasm for field work or her research subjects and plans to continue the long-term monitoring of emperor penguin colonies, teasing out natural variability in populations and the birds’ response to climate change.
‘We don’t know the consequences of climate change,’ she says.
‘It’s not just that the fast ice will deteriorate; it may impact on their food supply. Emperors have a wide variety of prey but we don’t know which fish species will be affected. It’s all very well to say the penguins may be able to prey switch, but is the prey even there in the first place?’
She is also excited to have a student commencing a study of the genetic differences between birds from different colonies.
‘We’re beginning to wonder how faithful emperors are to their natal colonies. When you see the distances they travel and overlay the tracks of birds from different colonies, there’s a massive overlap. They are gregarious birds so it’s not inconceivable that they could join another group.’
Perhaps her dedication to her chosen path is best put by one of the tourists Barbara befriended during one of her many trips on tourist vessels as a bird expert. When she encountered her friend out on deck smoking a fine cigar and contemplating life he told her: ‘I’ve been talking to the big man up there and he said to me that we really need people to make sure that we don’t stuff up this planet. And you, Penguin Barb, are one of the people who are doing just that.’
Corporate Communications, Australian Antarctic Division