Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

Oksana Savenko
Oksana Savenko’s life-long passion for marine biology landed her a 15-month stint in Antarctica. Photo by Ihor Dykyy

Coastal Job: Antarctic Whale Researcher

One of Ukraine’s few marine mammal specialists defies loneliness and frosty temperatures to study whales in the Southern Ocean.

Authored by

As told to Susan Nerberg

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Some people work in cubicles, others work in kitchens, but the most intriguing workplace of all may be the coast. Meet the people who head to the ocean instead of the office in our Coastal Jobs series.

Oksana Savenko is a Ukrainian marine biologist studying marine mammals and ecology, a job that has taken her on whale research expeditions from the Black Sea off Crimea to the Pacific Ocean off the Kamchatka region in Russia’s far northeast. Her latest objective is to bolster biological sciences at Ukraine’s Akademik Vernadsky research station in the Antarctic, to complement the station’s strong legacy in geophysical and meteorological sciences.

Ever since I pursued my first marine mammal research by myself as a high school student, observing and identifying dolphins from the shore in the Black Sea, I dreamed of studying whales and seals in Antarctica. But women were prohibited from joining scientific expeditions there at the time. So I started working in other regions in the North Pacific but always kept the Antarctic in mind.

I spent eight years on field projects in the Russian far east, researching Steller sea lions and western gray whales before I got my first real job with the Ukrainian Scientific Center of Ecology of the Sea to study dolphins in the Black Sea. I’m now one of a few marine mammal specialists in Ukraine. This led to an opportunity to work with the National Antarctic Scientific Center of Ukraine and come to Antarctica for two weeks in 2018. I collected samples for different institutions—water, plankton, benthos, sediment, whale and seal feces—but my main goal was to conduct marine mammal observations and compile photo identification catalogs. It was kind of crazy, but because so few scientists can visit the region, we have to collaborate on collecting and sharing data. I was invited back to survey marine mammals and started a 15-month position at Vernadsky this past January. I feel very lucky to be here.

We are two biologists at the station. Among other studies, we do biopsies to collect tissue samples from whales—mostly humpbacks. It’s always interesting to meet whales; they behave differently every time, so you never know what to expect. It makes me a bit sad to collect biopsies because I don’t want to disturb them. I just want to stop the Zodiac and watch them, enjoy their curiosity. Sometimes their behavior looks like communication, like they want company.

I also take identification photos, and I collect water samples to study population dynamics using environmental DNA. It’s good to combine this data with the data from the tissue sampling. Most whale research in the Antarctic takes place in the summer, when more scientists are here, so it’s really important to come in winter, to understand population dynamics, distribution, how many females are pregnant, and other aspects of their life cycles throughout the year.

There are many challenges working in the Antarctic. It’s lonely—we’re only 12 people at the station over winter. The lab doesn’t have the proper equipment for DNA analysis and for measuring other biological markers. It’s also challenging to use time efficiently—sometimes technical issues arise and even cleaning and station repairs take time.

The most surprising thing so far was when we saw a southern right whale. It was the first time in 23 years that the species had been seen in the area around our station. And there was the one time we went by Zodiac to a very remote island. Normally, it would be too far, but the weather was exceptionally good, and other boats were in the area. We saw so many Weddell seals there. The most exciting part for me was that it felt like a first expedition. The island was not unexplored, but other scientists said they never went that far in Zodiacs. It made me feel like an explorer.