ASC Adventurer, Laura Smith braves ice fields and frigid water for science


Laura and her crew wrote down observations of penguins and whales for ASC researcher Julie Hagelin. Photo credit

Laura K.O. Smith recently returned from sailing the Antarctic Peninsula while collecting data for two ASC studies on whale and penguin behavior. Sailing on Quijote, a 40-foot sailboat designed and crafted by her husband, Federico Guerrero, the crew departed January 27 from Ushuaia, the capital of Tierra del Fuego, commonly regarded as the southernmost city in the world. 

Guerrero began building Quijote in 2008, and launched her maiden voyage in 2011. Guerrero and Smith had always dreamed of sailing the Antarctic Peninsula, and Quijote was built with that rigorous expedition in mind. Smith said the vessel did well on the journey that began with Deception Island and continued south through the Argentine Islands to Vernadsky Station, crossing the infamous Drake Passage twice and carefully meandering through seemingly endless ice fields.


Quijote was built to manuver icebergs and other hazards found in colder waters. Photo credit

For Smith and Guerrero, the plan was simple in theory: build a strong boat they could live on while completing various expeditions around the world. “We just wanted to travel on a ship that we built and enjoy it,” Smith said. The Quijote offered the adventurous couple the freedom they desired. Smith, however, wanted to add to the journey. When She became aware of ASC through an article in Adventure Journal, she immediately hopped on board. “I saw that it was exactly what I was looking for,” Smith said. 

She had experienced difficulty in the past attempting to contribute to scientific research. “The research needs to be basic enough to be able to do it without fear of messing up or getting bad data,” Smith said. “Had I done something with geology, I would need permits to collect samples in Antarctica. In the end it was better for us to do observations, and from a scientist’s perspective, it takes effort to coordinate to make sure you’re getting the right match.”

ASC found Smith the right match when it paired the crew with Julie Hagelin, a researcher studying whales and penguins. Hagelin is collecting data to determine if baleen whales (filter feeders) use scent to track down food. Scientists recently discovered an olfactory bulb in baleen whales, and if the gland is more than a defunct relic of evolution, Hagelin postulates that the massive mammals use this bulb to track plankton from their signature sulfur scent. Smith documented whale sightings by noting the direction they were swimming in conjunction with wind direction.

Hagelin also conducts research on penguin colonies that will determine if the flightless birds use their right and left eyes differently. Observations of paths that are formed during high snow pack suggest that penguins may walk in uniform lanes and pass on the same side each time they meet, similar to drivers on a two lane road. 


The crew checking in at Palmer Station. Photo credit:

The crew documented 26 whale sightings, sometimes eyeing a long traveler or observing up to eight of the docile creatures in a group. They identified humpback, minke and fin whales. The team was also able to capture incredible images of penguins interacting in their harsh environment. 

For Smith, participating directly in citizen science is a meaningful way for her to directly understand the landscape. “When I travel, I feel like I’m taking, taking, and taking, and it’s nice to now have a strong connection where you’ve been and a sense of giving back.”

Smith said becoming an ASC adventurer helps her stay in touch with her scientific background. “For me, it meant a lot; it was a way to give back,” Smith said. “It put our trip in a broader context. We have other trips to Antarctica planned in the future. Hopefully we stay involved with ASC.”  For a full account of Laura’s adventures in the arctic, visit her blog here.

– Dylan Jones