Arctic Row is an expedition to benefit the Arctic ecosystem, the most pristine and vulnerable in the world. The rowers have partnered with the Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation and The University of Alaska Fairbanks to conduct scientific research on the role of whale olfaction in feeding habits in the Arctic Ocean and collect plankton samples to increase understanding of this key food source for marine mammals.
Without Arctic Row, the research lacked sufficient grants. It costs $25,000 per day to charter a 24-hour research vessel. Arctic Row offered to do the research at no cost. New York Times wrote about Arctic Row’s scientific plans on the front page of their website in March.
The Arctic Row expedition presents an unusual opportunity to conduct scientific research with absolutely no carbon emissions or negative impact on the Arctic ecosystem. Our minimalist and human-powered trip will be completely self-sufficient and will rely only on the strength of the crew to propel our boat at approximately four knots through the Arctic Ocean. These relatively slow travel speeds create ideal conditions for both animal observation and plankton collection.
The first scientific goal of Arctic Row addresses a long-standing scientific mystery. How baleen whales locate dense swarms of ephemeral and patchy krill (zooplankton) prey at sea is unknown. One possibility is that they use their sense of smell. This hypothesis is akin to the recent and startling discovery that some seabirds use olfaction to find zooplankton. Birds are now known to home to a specific natural chemical (dimethyl sulfide or DMS) that occurs in locations where zooplankton feed on phytoplankton (microscopic plants). Olfaction has been completely overlooked in scientific studies of whale behavior. Yet, baleen whales have functional noses, and simple observations of whale behavior at sea can support or refute the hypothesis of homing to chemical cues on the hunt for food. The crew will observe, film, and record data on each whale sighted including the species, direction of travel, wind direction and wave direction. If whales are homing to chemical compounds like DMS, one would expect travel into the wind, so as to detect chemical information. Whales may also exhibit a zig-zag movement pattern, as they “track” an odor plume from downwind. Data are significant, as this will be the first study of its kind to include multiple species, and confirm or refute patterns of a pilot study in Alaskan waters. The ability to predict whale movement based on simple environmental cues is a powerful tool that lends itself to management and conservation decisions.
The second scientific goal of Arctic Row is to create a thorough zooplankton sample transect along the entire path that the team will travel. The specimens and findings collected will be added to the public library of data on zooplankton and will be incorporated into the research of Dr. Russell Hopcroft of the Institute of Marine Science at The University of Alaska Fairbanks. This achievement is significant because it will provide high-quality and thorough specimens at a cost far below that required to organize an independent scientific study of a similar magnitude.
Another goal is to help mankind discover the changes in the Arctic climate. The team will accomplish this goal by connecting followers of the expedition from around the world with the Arctic ecosystem as we explore one of the world’s most pristine but endangered habitats. To do so, we will be documenting on film all aspects of the expedition from early preparations, fundraising and training to the voyage itself, the animal species observed and scientific research conducted. We will also undertake and document a tour of American schools to share the scientific findings and lessons learned from our unique voyage. While at sea, the crew will be connecting followers around the world through the Arctic Row website, Facebook, Twitter, and will offer real-time boat tracking and daily updates from the crew throughout the journey.
In conjunction with leading climate change researchers the team will take advantage of the historic nature of the expedition to observe and highlight the pace and extent of climate change in the Arctic in live interviews with mainstream media outlets. A sample of the media outlets and programs that have stories forthcoming and/or have expressed interest in covering the expedition includes: Outside Magazine, Men’s Health Magazine, NBC News, CNN, and CBS News.