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Supporting Science

The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty designates Antarctica as a natural reserve dedicated to peace and science.

IAATO and its members adhere to this principle and actively work to advocate and support science and research on the continent.

Since its inception back in 1991, IAATO has taken a proactive role in managing pressure on the Antarctic environment, working within the framework of the Antarctic Treaty System to help visitors have an enriching experience while having no more than a minor or transitory impact. Part of this work involves supporting scientific research and forming successful collaborations that will help IAATO and policy makers make better decisions about Antarctica’s ongoing protection and long-term future.

Each year, IAATO submits Information Papers about its activities, including statistics, to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, advocating for the responsible management of all human activity in Antarctica. IAATO also regularly seeks expert, independent advice to analyse and publish data to facilitate discussions internally and at policy level.

Conservation Planning for the Antarctic Peninsula

IAATO, the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) and Monash University have commenced a collaborative project to develop a Systematic Conservation Plan (SCP) for the Antarctic Peninsula. Systematic Conservation Planning is a routine approach employed by conservation scientists to aid decision makers in managing whole landscapes involving multiple stakeholders and multiple objectives. The plan will inform the Antarctic community on how best to manage biodiversity, science and tourism together in the region, and contribute to the sustainable management of IAATO activities into the future.

As human activity grows across Antarctica and as environmental change becomes more pronounced, we must determine how to best conserve Antarctica’s unique biodiversity and environments. The Antarctic Peninsula, home to much of the continent’s biodiversity, has a comparatively mild climate and close proximity to South America, making it the most visited region of Antarctica for both science and tourism.

Improving the management of human activity in the region is a key priority for IAATO, the Committee for Environmental Protection and many Antarctic Treaty Parties, where an integrated approach is required to maintain multiple intrinsic values and stakeholder needs, particularly where human activity is highly concentrated. SCAR and IAATO jointly proposed a collaborative project to develop an integrative, evidence-based approach to site management, incorporating science and tourism activities and all known biodiversity features (such as breeding seabird colonies, vegetation, and invertebrates). SCAR, IAATO and project partners are utilising the SCP approach to develop a SCP for the Antarctic Peninsula that will deliver quantifiable, evidence-based solutions for the simultaneous management of tourism, science and biodiversity in the Antarctic Peninsula region.

Stakeholder engagement will form a crucial part of the process. If you are an interested scientist or other party, find more information here.

Scientific Support

Each season, between November and April, IAATO member companies provide logistic and scientific support to scores of researchers and station personnel from national Antarctic programs and Antarctic organizations. This includes providing platforms for collecting data in the field and/or transporting personnel, equipment and supplies to stations, research camps or other vessels. With regular departures to the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia throughout the season, IAATO vessels provide a cost-effective transport link and often engage in charter work for national Antarctic programs or other projects.

Long term monitoring projects are particularly important, especially in areas like the Antarctic Peninsula which is undergoing significant environmental change and where there is a lot of overlapping human activity in the form of research, fishing and tourism. IAATO operators annually carry researchers in support of projects such as Penguin Watch and the Mapping Application for Penguin Populations and Projected Dynamics (MAPPPD ). Both projects aim to alert scientists to any environmental change and help them understand what is causing it. In turn, policy makers, industry and other stakeholders can use this information to make decisions about managing human activity for the benefit of Antarctica.

Specific requests for logistic or other support should be made to individual companies or the  IAATO Secretariat.


Citizen Science

Many IAATO operators encourage Antarctic travellers to collect data through citizen science initiatives, usually as part of a collaborative project with professional scientists.

These projects make science more accessible, fun and engaging, but also generate cutting edge science in the otherwise under-studied and tricky-to-get to polar regions. Citizen science allows everyone to be more than just visitors by experiencing Antarctica in a more hands on way, developing a deeper understanding of, and appreciation for, this beautiful place. Through this heightened level of participation, our guests are more likely to become true Antarctic Ambassadors.

And you don’t need to be in Antarctica to get involved. You can help Penguin Watch researchers by counting penguins now from wherever you are.

Count penguins now

Identifying, understanding and acting for whales

IAATO expedition vessels form valuable platforms for research, harnessing the power of thousands of whale-watching enthusiasts. Over the years, data collected by scientists, guides and visitors have helped identify and track marine mammals in Antarctica and across the globe, expanding our knowledge of their behaviour, populations and distribution. For example, we now know there are at least five different ecotypes of killer whale in the Southern Ocean. Although their ranges overlap, they do not mix socially and specialise in catching different prey. The Type D killer whale has remained elusive for decades, but in 2019 a pod was finally encountered by an IAATO vessel, allowing scientists to take photographs, underwater recordings and genetic samples.

Happywhale encourages citizen scientists to upload their images of the mammals they encounter on their travels to its website. Identification experts can then examine these pictures to see if they match any whales already stored in the database, or if they are new to science. The contributors are notified of the results and can follow ‘their’ whale on its travels.

Such research informs conservation management decisions. In 2019, IAATO took the unprecedented step of establishing vessel slow areas covering more than 20,000km2 in the Antarctic Peninsula region.

Upload your whale pictures to Happywhale here.

Taking Cloud Observations & Atmospheric Measurements for NASA’s GLOBE Observer

Citizen scientists in Antarctica and across the world are recording cloud cover to help scientists understand how surface and air temperatures are affected by it, and how clouds will respond to a changing climate. Clouds affect how much sunlight is being absorbed by the earth and how much heat escapes back into space. When a GLOBE Clouds observation is taken within 15 minutes of a satellite overpass, the data are matched to NASA satellite data for further analysis.


Find out more about GLOBE

Surveying seabirds for the Antarctic Site Inventory

Seabirds can tell us an amazing amount about the environment they live in, including about the populations of the prey they eat, such as fish and krill which is usually difficult to study. Because they come back to breeding colonies to raise their young, it is also possible to learn about their populations and how they are changing over time. Citizen scientists travelling to Antarctica are able to participate in at sea or on shore surveys, contributing to the Antarctic Site Inventory, a long-term monitoring project coordinated by Oceanites, Stony brook University, New York, and other partners.

Sampling phytoplankton for FjordPhyto

Phytoplankton is at the base of the food chain supporting all marine life. Scientists from the project FjordPhyto rely on samples of phytoplankton collected by Antarctic travellers. The samples, collected during the austral summer, help them understand how melted glacial water affects phytoplankton populations in fjords along the Antarctic Peninsula.

Find out more about FjordPhyto

Measuring abundance of phytoplankton with a Secchi Disc

The distribution, composition and abundance of phytoplankton is altering as oceans are affected by climate change. By lowering a Secchi Disk vertically into the sea from a stationary vessel, citizen scientists are able to record the ‘Secchi Depth’. This is the depth when the Secchi Disk disappears from sight. The Secchi Depth measures the clarity of seawater which, away from estuaries and coasts, indicates the amount of phytoplankton at the sea surface.