Scientists from the Australian Antarctic Division will investigate the impact of micro plastics on the Southern Ocean food web and use innovative technology to undertake an Antarctic whale survey during an international circumnavigation voyage of Antarctica later this year.

The ‘Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition’ is a philanthropic project initiated by polar explorer Frederik Paulsen and coordinated by the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.

The three-month voyage will visit 13 of the major island groups surrounding the Antarctic continent, including Australia’s Heard Island.

The voyage will depart Cape Town in December and will call into Hobart

Australian researchers will lead seven of the 22 projects planned for the voyage which were selected through a competitive scientific assessment process following a world-wide call for applications.

Australian Antarctic Division scientists will be joined by international scientists from a range of institutions, along with Chief Investigators from Curtin University, Monash University, Swinburne University and the Museum of Western Australia.

Australian Antarctic Division Principal Research Scientist, Dr Dana Bergstrom, will lead one project investigating the impact of micro plastics on the Southern Ocean food web.

Micro plastics are generated by two major pathways: primary micro plastics, such as microbeads, and secondary micro plastics, derived from the breakdown or wear and tear of larger discarded plastics.

“Millions of tonnes of plastics reach marine environments every year and while the Southern Ocean is assumed to be relatively free of pollutants, increasing quantities of plastic are washing up on sub-Antarctic islands and on the Antarctic coastline,” Dr Bergstrom said.

“By sampling surface waters for free floating micro plastics, as well as looking for evidence of ingestion by zooplankton, seals and seabirds, we will investigate the extent to which micro plastics have reached the Southern Ocean ecosystem and whether they have entered the food web.”

A second project led by Australian Antarctic Division Marine Mammal Acoustician, Brian Miller, will undertake the first circumpolar survey for Antarctic whales in a single voyage.

Dr Miller said that the current status of many whale populations remain poorly known.

“Many species of Antarctic whales make loud distinctive sounds, and within a species these sounds may vary with the geographic region in which they are recorded,” Mr Miller said.

“We will use new instruments and methods to listening to the whales which will provide us with data on the distribution of Antarctic, sub-Antarctic and sub-tropical whales.”

“There will be a highly skilled team of international experts in this field on board, and supporting us from ashore, and we’ll be working hard during the voyage to make the most of this unprecedented opportunity to cover the entire Southern Ocean in a single voyage.”

Mr Miller said precise information on whales is important for the conservation and management of the Antarctic marine environment.

Australian Antarctic Division Chief Scientist, Dr Gwen Fenton, said the voyage is a valuable opportunity for Australian scientists to work alongside international colleagues.

“With very generous philanthropic support, particularly from Mr Frederik Paulsen, the voyage provides a rare and exciting opportunity for Australian scientists to participate in an international scientific expedition,” Dr Fenton said.

“It is particularly pleasing to see so many Australian-led research projects being selected to take part and demonstrates the leading edge science being undertaken by Australian scientists.”

The Australian Antarctic Division is on both the technical and steering committee for the expedition. The national polar programmes of France, Norway, Russia, South Africa and the United Kingdom are also involved.