Krill take to the air for science

Antarctic Krill
Antarctic Krill (Photo: Russ Hopcroft)
Krill biologist Rob King with the containers in which the krill will be flown back to AustraliaThe Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) C-17A Globemaster III will transport the krill from Wilkins AerodromeScientists on board Australia's icebreaker Aurora Australis will collect krill from the Southern Ocean

22nd November 2016

The Australian Antarctic Division will attempt to fly thousands of live krill from Antarctica to Australia for the first time.

Scientists are trialling an aerial transport method using the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) C-17A Globemaster III to transport 10,000 krill in containers from Wilkins Aerodrome, near Australia’s Casey research station, to Hobart.

Antarctic Division krill biologist, Rob King, said it could potentially be as little as a day and a half from when the krill are caught in the Southern Ocean, to being in the aquarium in Hobart.

“This is the first time anyone has attempted to fly krill back from Antarctica,” Mr King said.

“It will provide a wonderful opportunity to undertake research on krill in prime condition, and particularly females, which are laden with eggs.”

The krill will be collected from Australia’s icebreaker Aurora Australis, near Casey research station, and put into four 1000 litre containers.

The containers will then be loaded onto a barge and transferred by sled to Australia’s Wilkins Aerodrome.

“The tanks will be pumped full of oxygen and wrapped in a thermal blanket so they won’t freeze on the two-hour journey across the ice cap, where temperatures can drop as low as minus 30 degrees,” Mr King said.

“Once loaded onto the C-17A they’ll fly the 4.5 hours back to Hobart and then be transported by truck to the Division’s aquarium.

“Using eggs direct from the Southern Ocean for our research will give us a clearer and more accurate picture of what’s actually happening in wild populations.”

Australian Antarctic Division Operations Manager, Robb Clifton, said the trial flight was a great example of how Australia’s Airlink, now boosted through the support of the C-17A, can enable scientific research in Antarctica.

“As well as providing essential cargo and supplies to Australia’s Antarctic stations, the C-17A is providing scientists with direct access to the ice and the ability to transport samples, like live krill, back to Australia,” Mr Clifton said.

Krill that are caught in the Southern Ocean for research can take up to 6 weeks to return to Australia on the Aurora Australis.

“It will be a logistical challenge to coordinate the ship and plane, and to keep the krill alive on the journey back, but if we can transport the krill safely it will contribute to important research,” Mr Clifton said.

Antarctic Krill are the keystone species of the Southern Ocean ecosystem. They feed on a wide variety of southern ocean phytoplankton and zooplankton and are themselves prey for larger animals such as whales and seals and penguins.

More information

Krill science 

[Video]

Flying Krill video

Video transcript

Rob King – krill biologist

The research we’re doing is all about understanding what’s actually happening in the Southern Ocean. While we have closed the life cycle in the lab, and we can rear the eggs and the offspring in the lab, it could be different using eggs from the actual Southern Ocean that have received the nutrition that the animals are receiving in the Southern Ocean as opposed to the lab population.

If we can catch krill going into Casey station on the Aurora Australis, we’ll unload them into IBCs which are 1,000-litre bulk liquid carriers. When the flight comes in, they’ll be taken out of here, loaded onto sleds, and then wrapped in a thermal blanket so that they won’t freeze on the way up to the airport. They’ve got to make a three-hour drive on a sled up into temperatures that are minus-20 or minus-30, so this is going way out of the comfort zone for krill, and then try and fly those back using the C-17. We return krill to Australia from the Southern Ocean within about a day-and-a-half of being caught. That’ll bring perfect quality eggs to the laboratory in Hobart, which is something we’ve never had before; wild reared eggs.

We need to study these krill because they’re the principal part of the Antarctic ecosystem. They’re like the keystone species. They feed on 250 species of plants in the ocean, the phytoplankton, and then they pass that energy up to all the charismatic megafauna; the things like whales and seals and penguins. If something happens to the krill population and they’re not there, all of these vertebrate predators are affected, so it’s very important to understand it, especially with climate change occurring now.

[end transcript]