The Quest to Save Antarctica's Most Important Species

The Quest to Save an Antarctic Kingdom Before It Falls Into Ruin

Stephen King unfurled a map on the hood of a colleague’s car in Winchester, England. Traveling across the countryside, in the middle of World War II, the car’s crankshaft had given out, stranding the pair of crop researchers on the side of a dusty back road. On his map, King carefully began to trace lines with his index finger, looking for a route home. In the distance, a motorcycle roared. 

As the two-wheeler approached, King noticed it was moving at warp speed — and it was entirely horizontal. The driver, an Army dispatch rider, had lost control. The bike came sliding in King’s direction and slammed into the car. He jumped a nearby hedge, avoiding a fatal collision. 

The hedge was so tall King couldn’t climb back over it, so he rushed to a nearby gate and back to where he’d left his map. The dispatch rider’s helmet was full of holes. King stopped a passing car, and shortly after, ambulances arrived on scene. The paramedics offered King a ride home. When he was back in the city, he finally looked down at his gumboots. They were overflowing. 

With his own blood. 

Stephen’s son, Rob King, heard his father tell this story in gripping detail “at least annually.” The crazy part: His father hadn’t actually jumped the hedge. He’d been hit by the bike and thrown over it. The dramatic tale stopped all of King’s children from wanting to own a motorcycle. 

All except Rob King, a krill biologist at the Australian Antarctic Division.

Left: Stephen King in the 1940s. Top right: Rob King relaxes by his bike at night. Bottom right: Rob King’s BMW 1150GS in the outback. 

Rob King

In the world of Antarctic krill, the 6-foot-6 Rob King is a giant — literally and figuratively. 

His fascination with the ocean began on the beaches of Devonport, Tasmania, where he’d play in the water with his siblings. In his youth, he’d built aquariums on his front porch, and his passions carried through to his doctorate, when he turned his attention to Antarctic krill. The crustaceans are one of the most ecologically important species in the Southern Ocean, providing the key source of nutrients for Antarctic megafauna like penguins, whales and seals. Without them, the food chain would collapse. 

In the late 1990s, the task of designing a new $1 million aquarium in Kingston, Tasmania, to house Antarctic krill fell to King unexpectedly. But he was ready. He quickly drew up plans and delivered them to the Australian Antarctic Division. Three years later, King’s doctorate remained incomplete, but the new research facility opened its doors. Within weeks, it began to fill with krill that King had captured while traveling on Australian icebreakers to the frozen south. 

Then King’s life went in the same direction.

His marriage broke down, and, he says, he “lost his mojo.” He’d had his fill of krill and wanted a change. “I did the midlife crisis thing,” he explains. He told his boss Steve Nicol, one of the world’s eminent krill scientists, he was going to quit. Nicol suggested taking a year of leave without pay instead. King wanted to leave for good but begrudgingly accepted the offer. 

He’d reached such a low point that, during his time off, he decided he’d do the one thing his father’s near-death experience taught him not to do: He bought a motorcycle. “The story had no power,” he says. He purchased a BMW 1150GS, “the classic, ultimate off-road touring bike,” to travel around the world. 

But six months into his trip, he started to think about the krill he’d left back in the aquarium at Kingston. He phoned So Kawaguchi, a Japanese krill ecologist who had inherited the aquarium after King departed.

“How are things going?” King asked. On the other end of the line, Kawaguchi’s voice was flat.

“All the krill are dead.”

Antarctic krill are one of the biggest krill species on the planet. An adult can measure up to 2.5 inches in length.

Pete Harmsen/AAD

The kingdom of ice

The Antarctic krill, Euphausia superba, rules the Southern Ocean. Upward of 300 trillion individuals call the waters home, and their kingdom extends over a region five times larger than the US. 

That kingdom is under threat. As the ocean warms as a result of human-induced climate change, Antarctic krill will need to adapt to changes in ocean acidity and sea ice coverage. If they can’t and their kingdom shrinks, it could have disastrous effects on the Antarctic ecosystem. 

The free-swimming crustaceans are a keystone species in the Southern Ocean. They’re critical for marine predators like whales, seals and penguins to feed on and fundamental to the atmospheric carbon cycle. 

The slender, shrimplike swimmers are so crucial to the food chain because they swarm in the trillions, nibbling on phytoplankton drawn to the surface by currents and sunlight. The phytoplankton remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during photosynthesis and provide a food source for krill. Because krill feed at the surface but move deeper in the water on a day-night cycle, this helps lock away the excess carbon deeper in the water when krill excrete waste.  

And when krill are eaten by predators, the carbon passes up the food chain again. When predators like whales die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean, taking their carbon stores with them and locking it away closer to the seafloor, where it can remain for years.

Krill larvae are also important in carbon removal. During the day, these krill come up to the surface and take shelter under the sea ice that forms at southern latitudes during the winter months. Here they are protected from predators, but they are also privy to an expansive dinner buffet: the underside of sea ice is covered in carbon-rich algae. 

Sea ice is particularly important for Antarctic krill — the underside is packed full of algae, which the krill feast on.

Jackson Ryan

The Australian Antarctic Division has a long history of krill research. Japanese krill biologist Tsutomu Ikeda initiated the division’s fledgling program in 1982, helping to establish the first Antarctic “aquarium” and bring back crustaceans from the Southern Ocean to Australia for the first time.

During this time, krill captured by Ikeda and division scientists were bundled up in trawl nets, which are dropped off the back of ships and balloon out in the water, nabbing huge amounts of sea life. If the krill survived the journey to Tasmania, they’d be kept in five-gallon buckets full of seawater on the floor of a cold room. These early catches helped Ikeda raise krill from the egg to the juvenile stage in 1983 for the first time, facilitating an explosion in understanding the creature’s life cycle and potential vulnerabilities.

But capture and storage of krill has always imposed limitations on study and how much scientists can learn about the creatures. Trawl netting causes krill to be squashed, lose limbs or, at worst, die. As scientists move them from net to bucket, the krill are ripped from their home in the open ocean and exposed to a vastly alien environment — akin to flinging a human into space without a space suit. 

King wanted to change that.

Return of the King

When Kawaguchi delivered the news that all the krill were dead, King’s crisis year was cut short. “I cannot leave this job if the aquarium is broken,” he thought.

King returned to Tasmania in 2003, after six months off, teaming up with Kawaguchi to investigate the source of the accidental annihilation. The pair began scouring the aquarium for clues, sampling water as evidence, interrogating aspects of krill biology under the microscope. King pointed out where to focus the search, Kawaguchi went to work analyzing metals in the water. Before long, they’d sniffed out the problem. 

The aquarium builders had used cadmium, a metal chemically similar to mercury, to weld segments of the structure together. As chilled water circulated through the aquaria, the metal leached into the system, accumulating over time and poisoning the krill populations. The tanks became crustacean cemeteries.

After clearing out the corpses, King’s passion was reignited. He’d gotten his mojo back. There was work to do.

Even after replacing the cadmium welds, the pair noticed the krill still “didn’t look right,” he says. Something else was going on in the tanks. “We pulled the whole thing apart and cleaned it with a toothbrush,” King explains. The culprit this time was a type of temperature-resistant joint paste, again leaching chemicals into the water. The deep clean seemed to, finally, do the trick.

“It’s gone gangbusters ever since,” King says.

The early difficulties in establishing a laboratory population demonstrate just how sensitive Antarctic krill are to changes in their environment. Minute discrepancies in chemical concentrations can adversely affect the krill’s physiology and lifespan, torpedoing captive population numbers and forcing researchers to head out on expensive, long voyages south to replenish stock. 

The curious krill carnage investigated by King and Kawaguchi had one obvious link: Unintentionally, humans had altered the crustacean’s environment, leading to dire consequences.

In the Southern Ocean, the natural habitat of E. superba, the same thing is occurring on a much grander scale.

The poisoned kingdom

The Southern Ocean, which covers an area of the Earth larger than the US and China combined, is home to some of the most violent, dangerous waters in the world. It’s a raging beast that has been ragdolling ships and ensnaring Antarctic vessels in its icy grip for more than a century. 

Though its reputation among mariners is despicable, it serves a valuable purpose as an arbiter of climate change. It’s home to the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, the strongest current on Earth, which facilitates exchanges of heat and carbon between the water and the atmosphere. 

At the boundary between sea and air, the Southern Ocean is changing, and it’s particularly vulnerable to further changes that could unbalance the world’s climate ever further.

The Southern Ocean is a carbon sink, drawing down carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere. Its cool temperature sees it suck up more carbon dioxide than other oceans, according to Jessica Melvin, a Ph.D. student studying krill at the University of Tasmania. 

Crabeater seals, despite their name, love to feed on Antarctic krill.

Pete Harmsen/AAD

It’s difficult to accurately measure how much carbon dioxide gets locked away via these processes, but recent research suggests the Southern Ocean could take up around 2 billion tons every year, about four times as much as the Amazon, with summer periods increasing that figure as algae bloom. 

But as humans burn fossil fuels and pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, more is forced into the ocean, causing its acidity to rise. 

The change disrupts carbon cycling and can have significant impacts on marine life. Just like cadmium leaching into an aquarium, the carbon dioxide disrupts critical biological processes in a range of species that utilize calcium carbonate to build shells and skeletons. In the freezing waters of the Antarctic, where life occupies extreme niches, the effect of unchecked ocean acidification could be disastrous.

Scientists aren’t yet sure just how much acidification will affect Antarctic krill populations, but there is reason for hope, at least in the short term. Antarctic Division scientists have shown that small increases in carbon dioxide concentration might even benefit the krill. They were able to live longer in captivity than those exposed to current carbon dioxide concentrations. This, the scientists think, is because Antarctic krill traverse through the water column throughout their life cycle, exposing them to differing levels of carbon dioxide and making them more adaptable to small changes over time. Large, fast changes might still pose a problem.

Although higher temperatures might not necessarily be “completely negative” for krill, it could affect their range and increase competition for food by enabling other, more adaptable species to flourish instead. Populations could plummet. And if the krill go, then megafauna like whales, seals and penguins will follow. However, Melvin says there are still holes in the knowledge.

And it’s those holes that King and other scientists at the Australian Antarctic Division can help fill. To understand the impacts of climate change on krill populations, they need to be caught more routinely and studied with the least disturbance possible. Fifteen years ago, he had a dream that could revolutionize the process. Aboard the space station at the end of the world, it has finally come to fruition.

The duck’s nuts

On a quiet Sunday morning a few months ago aboard the RSV Nuyina, Australia’s new, state-of-the-art Antarctic icebreaker, I went fishing for krill. Not off the side of the ship with a net or a rod, like you might expect, but right in the middle of the engine room.

I placed bright yellow earmuffs on my head and descended thin metal steps to the “wet well,” a room King dreamed up for capturing krill over a decade ago. It’s a simple room with beige walls, a small desk and a microscope sitting along one side and a huge tank rests, elevated, in the center. On the Nuyina’s first voyage across the Southern Ocean in December, the wet well was set to be operated for the first time.

The room may be King’s dream, but it’s something of an engineer’s nightmare. It required punching several holes in the hull of the ship, which connect to a watertight room via steel pipes. As the Nuyina sails across the Southern Ocean, the holes are opened, allowing water to rush in. Around 800 gallons of seawater pour into the room every minute. 

Anton Rocconi stands at the end of the filter table, inside the wet well, with a net at the ready to capture Antarctic krill.

Pete Harmsen/AAD

Sea creatures that find themselves in the vicinity of the hole in Nuyina’s hull are sucked into the tube; racing through it like they’re on a super-chilled Slip ‘N Slide. They arrive on a table in their dozens, tumbling into a tank where a scientist sits, net in hand. 

I scoop up the crustaceans and move them to a plastic bucket filled with ocean water. They continue to zip around the bucket and sometimes “lobster” — speeding backward with powerful kicks of their tail — or scoot around the edges of the bucket. One of the expeditioners asks if I think krill have feelings. Staring into the bucket or watching them zoom away from the net, I’m certain they do. 

The wet well is revolutionary for Antarctic marine science. It has major advantages over the classic trawl net that has been a staple of krill collection for decades. King and his protege, aquarist Anton Rocconi, have no doubt the krill are coming in with less damage than they’ve seen in the past. “You’re talking 50% to 60% survivorship in a trawl, and we’re talking over 95% survivorship here,” Rocconi says. Just days after the wet well was opened for the first time, over 2,000 healthy krill poured in. Rocconi called it “the best day ever.”

An Antarctic krill trawl net being hauled aboard a voyage in 2016. The pink-red bulge contains thousands of krill being dragged to the surface.

Nick Roden/AAD

And it’s not just krill. Buckets quickly filled with the tiny flapping wings of ghostlike sea snails and the bioluminescent-like sparkles of the gelatinous comb jellies. Rocconi captured a small translucent squid, speckled with fiery eyes, and even a see-through fish. He released both back into the ocean. 

“This is the duck’s nuts supply chain for live specimens out of the Antarctic,” King says. That’s Australian slang for “the best” supply chain.

Other Antarctic surveys will continue to fish for krill with nets, as will krill fisheries, because they can provide a huge number of adult specimens from deeper in the water column. The wet well won’t replace trawling because it requires new ships to be built, but it does give scientists around the world access to pristine, healthy specimens, providing new opportunities to study the life and physiology of Antarctic krill in an ocean that is becoming warmer and more acidic.

Rob King studies a krill under the microscope from a desk inside the wet well.

Pete Harmsen/AAD

The prince

After breakfast one morning, I clamber down to the Nuyina’s science deck and make a beeline for two blue shipping containers at the aft. This is where King and Rocconi have been storing the captured krill for the journey back to the Kingston aquarium.

I open the heavy door and peer inside the container. King and Rocconi are tinkering with hoses, chatting about their captives. Standing a head taller than Rocconi, King is hunched over the plastic tanks lining the sides of the aquarium, peering down at the krill. It’s here that an oft-repeated scientific maxim rings in my head. “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

King is the embodiment of the phrase. Not just because of his size, which has proven problematic on past icebreakers (there are jokes that he’s left skin on the doorways in Australia’s previous Antarctic ship, the Aurora Australis). Rather, it’s obvious he’s not interested in the personal accolades or accumulating mountains of scientific papers but in building on the work of Kawaguchi, Nicol, Ikeda and those who came before him. And he wants to give back in the same way they have. He seems happy providing the shoulders for others to stand on. 

He recognizes that Rocconi will, in some sense, inherit his kingdom. “I had a bit of a start on him, but he’s catching up now,” King says with a laugh. The exuberant Rocconi, who sports a curly mullet and a knitted headband and who lights up when asked about his tanks of marine life, is helping design a new, state-of-the-art aquarium in Tasmania that will form the backbone of Southern Ocean research for the next few decades.

Anton Rocconi inspects a krill catch in the aquarium aboard the RSV Nuyina.

Pete Harmsen/AAD

He sometimes spends afternoons on the ship leaning back in a recliner or awkwardly on a couch, notepad in hand, sketching out plans to support that lofty ambition.  

“We’re never going to generate the Southern Ocean in an aquarium,” Rocconi says. “But trying to get something as close as you possibly can to what we see in the wild … is what we’re trying to achieve.”

Construction of the next-generation aquarium is still a way off, but combined with the RSV Nuyina’s wet well, it will usher in another generation of krill research, improving our understanding as climate change threatens to disturb the delicate ecosystem around Antarctica. 

Rocconi, then, will likely inherit a new kingdom from King at perhaps the most important time in the creature’s history, as climate change threatens to upend its ecosystem. That doesn’t overawe him. He, like many scientists, is anxious about the climate, but it’s clear he’s following the Rob King playbook. He’s a burgeoning giant in his own right.

“It’s about inspiring the people who can do the work and giving them the tools to do what needs to be done,” Rocconi says.

The monument

On the banks of the Mersey River in Devonport, Tasmania, a bronze monument stands 10 feet tall featuring seven poppies flowering out of the Earth. It’s inscribed with a dedication to Stephen King, Rob’s father, for his pioneering work in establishing the state’s lucrative poppy industry.

Two decades after his motorcycle mishap, the elder King went looking for the best place to try to cultivate poppies in the southern hemisphere. He ended up in Tasmania. The memorial notes how he helped foster a culture of research and innovation throughout the 1960s and ’70s, particularly in “field production and factory processing,” which led to great advances in poppy farming techniques. 

As a result, Tasmania accounts for around half of all licit poppy supply in the world today, with around 400 farmers planting and harvesting the plant to produce opioid painkillers such as morphine. Stephen King, at 6-foot-5, provided giant shoulders to stand on, too. He gained a reputation as the father of Tasmania’s poppy industry, his son notes.

“I was always very proud of that,” he says. “He worked his ass off.”

An Antarctic krill under the microscope. You can see its pumping its hair-like legs through the largely transparent exoskeleton.

AAD

Before making the fateful call to Kawaguchi, King was ready to ship his motorcycle to Chile and continue his hog trip across the planet, driving up to Alaska before heading to Europe. The phone call irrevocably altered his path. Since returning to the aquarium in 2003, he’s taken one holiday — a honeymoon to Fiji with his second wife, Anna — and he’s thought about returning to complete his trip, but he says he’d rather visit London and “spend a week or two in the Natural History Museum.”

A few days before the Nuyina returned to Hobart, I catch King for a chat just before dinner. While he’d been preparing the captured krill for transfer from the ship to shore, I’d been reading up on his father’s memorial in Devonport and wanted to know: What would a monument to Rob King look like? 

“This is a really bizarre question,” he tells me, wincing a little. “There’s a lot of people who’ve done amazing stuff who could be well monumented. So Kawaguchi works twice as hard as I do.”

King isn’t wrong. Decades of krill research, incremental improvements in aquariums and breeding techniques and a purpose-built room in an Antarctic icebreaker show that it takes a village of giants to protect the krill’s kingdom. It’s not about the monuments. King wants to leave the Earth better than he found it. 

He then tells me the story of a post-doctoral student who, on completion of his project, handed him and Kawaguchi handcrafted krill he’d purchased at Hobart’s famous Salamanca market. The creatures were silvered, constructed of old spoons, forks and scrap metal. King says the trinkets are just beautiful — they mean more to him than any monument with his name on it.

Rob King

Updated May 4: The motorcyclist was an army dispatch rider, not writer. 
Corrected May 4: The original article said krill larvae come to the sea ice in the evening. This happens during the day. The larvae descend to depth in the evening.

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