Antarctic marine research aquarium

Large tubes of green and orange liquid that fill refridgerators.
120 litre Antarctic phytoplankton cultures for use as krill food. (Photo: Antarctic Division)
The many tanks and pipes of the aquarium filtration system.Dark water filled tanks with equiment on the side.The outside fo the building where the krill aquarium is contained.Two large tanks full of water under artificial lighting.Scanning electron micrograph of cultured phytoplankton for feeding to the krill: Geminigera cryophilaScanning electron micrograph of cultured phytoplankton for feeding to the krill: Phaeodactylum tricornutumScanning electron micrograph of cultured phytoplankton for feeding to the krill: Pyramimonas gelidicola

We maintain a marine research aquarium to study Antarctic marine organisms. Much of this research is on the physiology, behaviour and reproduction of krill. Most years we collect live Antarctic krill from the research vessel Aurora Australis. Once aboard, the animals are kept alive in tanks of chilled sea water until the ship returns to Hobart. They are then put into buckets of chilled sea water which are packed in ice and moved to the aquarium at our headquarters in Kingston, Tasmania.

Unlike a usual low temperature research facility that cools the whole laboratory to control the water temperature of the tanks, the aquarium is a recirculating sea water system in which the water is chilled directly.

  • The air is kept at about 18°C and scientists can do their experiments without wearing freezer suits.
  • Heat exchangers maintain the water in the tanks typically at 0.5°C although temperatures as low as −1°C can be reached.
  • The water is recirculated continually at up to 1.5 litres per second. It passes through a group of filtering units with the whole system volume of the main holding tanks (approximately 8000 litres) being filtered every 90 minutes.

Most of the krill are kept in this system and are fed different types of live and dead phytoplankton and microencapsulated vitamins and minerals. The tanks get a typical Antarctic photoperiod (number of hours of daylight) to copy the lighting conditions that they would receive in the Southern ocean.

In addition to the 8000 litre system which holds the bulk of the laboratory krill population, there is a separate experimental system of approximately 24 000 litres. This can be used to change water chemistry, temperature and lighting for a wide array of experiments. Some experiments involve short-term measurements and observations while others are longer term studies that may require rearing krill through several years.

Our research capabilities have been enhanced by our success in getting wild krill to school and reproduce in the aquarium. Antarctic krill kept in the aquarium mature, mate and spawn as they do in the wild and their larvae survive and reproduce themselves. This achievement allows us to study their early life stage in detail, which is key to understanding their survival through the harsh Antarctic winter condition. 

Our research provides a greater understanding of how krill contribute to the Southern Ocean ecosystem. Research performed in the aquarium is published in international peer reviewed scientific journals and as documents for the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).