B121 cruise report is now available!

If you are interested in a full report about the expedition, it is now available for download here. We give a full review of our activities during the expedition and publish a set of preliminary results.

If you are in a hurry, your can read the summary below:

The Belgica121 expedition (B121) ventured to explore the marine biodiversity of the West Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) to test the concept of using a nimble sampling platform, the R/VAustralis, a steel hulled, fully rigged motor sailor. Named as a tribute to the first international scientific expedition in Antarctica lead by Adrien de Gerlache in 1897-99 (onboard the Belgica), B121 took place between February and March 2019, sampling 15 stations in 22 working days in an area extending from the Berthelot (65°19.751 S, 64°08.263 W) to the Melchior Islands (64°19.246 S, 62°55.375W). Deploying 20 different types of gear (both traditional and modern), the B121 team gathered over 1700 samples that will be brought back to Belgium for further identification (by taxonomic experts) and analyses (isotopes, population genetics or genomics…). The team focused on biodiversity assessments, from the intertidal to subtidal zone (20 m) in coastal areas with contrasting characteristics regarding their exposure to glaciers, oceanographic characteristics and intensity of touristic activities. Other projects included population genetics studies, trophic ecology, environmental DNA, microplastics surveys and more (see full report below for details).

The use of R/V Australis for coastal studies deemed to be extremely efficient, in terms of environmental impact (ca. 150x less CO2 emissions than a Polar class icebreaker) and reactivity, allowing the team to adapt the sampling efforts in function of the weather or anchoring conditions. Fully devoted to the expedition, the ship allowed the B121 team to sample in shallow areas, not accessible to icebreaker and too far away from research stations, and which have been under sampled.Regarding the biodiversity census, the B121 expedition worked on various realms/taxonomic levels including the intertidal, soft sediments, macro- and megabenthos, fish, birds and marine mammals. Seven stations were investigated for the intertidal (MI, NH, UI, SK, HI, GR and FH) with a total of 121 measurements in quadrats. The average number of species per station was 18. Kidderia bicolor (bivalve), Obrimoposthia wandeli (flat worm) and Laevilitorina caliginosa (gastropod) were the most abundant organisms (up to thousands of individuals per m2).
Sediment type (9 to 22 meters depth) ranged from complete silt in the anoxic inner basin at the anchorage site of Hovgaard Island or Neko Harbor, to sandier and well oxygenated sediments of Green Reef. At a first glance the macrofauna pre-sieved samples showed very poor communities in the anoxic sediments, with only small gastropods and few motile taxa such as amphipods, which were present in small numbers. A qualitative analysis of macrofauna will be carried out and biomass will be estimated for both soft sediment metazoan size classes and referred either to surface (for the core and Van Veen sampling) or to sediment volume (for the scooping sampling method).

Regarding the mega/macro benthos (9 to 20 meters depth), 53 common species were identified. They were frequently observed directly in situ during the 38 dives performed at the nine sites, or after the dives when watching the 12 video transects… In total, 164 fish specimens were collected, most of them belonging to five species, i.e. Trematomus newnesi,Notothenia coriicepsHarpagifer antarcticusTrematomus bernacchii and Notothenia rossii. The spatial distribution of samples is patchy with most specimens collected at Føyn Harbor and Useful Island. Several localities yielded less than a dozen fish preventing spatial comparisons of fish catches. Fish samples collected represent a valuable collection of the Antarctic shallow water fish fauna, which is dominated by notothenioids. Regarding the birds and marine mammals, a total of 46 standard counts were carried out all along the cruise track (from the Beagle channel to the southernmost visited site of the cruise at Berthelot Islands along the Antarctic Peninsula and the Drake passage. 26 species of birds, 3 species of cetaceans and 4 species of pinnipeds were observed. Finally, several attempts (in 4 different locations) were unsuccessfully ran to sample snow petrel feathers for a project on this species phylogeography and taxonomy.

Other projects were carried out during the expedition, focusing on habitat mapping, population genomics and eDNA sampling to gain further insights into the region’s biodiversity levels. Twelve video transects were carried out, one or two at each station, to characterize the shallow habitats. Although Antarctic shallow benthic communities are usually considered depauperated with very low biomass and abundances compared to deeper communities of the Antarctic continental shelf, preliminary results suggest the occurrence of highly diverse shallow communities depending on local conditions. A preliminary correspondence analysis of common taxon distribution suggests marked differences between the considered stations. An in- analysis of the video transects and the relative surface mapped will help further describe biotic interactions and community composition and diversity. The population genomics project was carried out to advance a technological pilot study undergoing in the framework of the RECTO project. A range of organisms were sampled for this purpose, including 83 ostracods, 227 amphipods, 65 bivalves, 16 sea stars and 81 fish.The pilot study focuses on the evaluation and optimization of reduced representation sequencing protocols, more specifically RADseq.. Eventually, RADseq should yield thousands of genotypes per specimen, which will help to identify any potential local adaptation patterns possibly linked to the contrasting environmental and community conditions. For the eDNA project, 8 sampling events were conducted at four major stations that correspond roughly to the widest spatial extent of the expedition. DNA will be extracted from the filters in dedicated eDNA lab spaces at the KU Leuven. Subsequent high-throughput sequencing of the obtained metabarcoding libraries should enable species-level presence-absence detection.

Complimentary projects were ran during the expedition, including a microplastics survey,oceanographic measurements in selected sites, biogeochemistry and trophic ecology as well as macrophotography. For the microplastics survey, a total of 36 samples of sediment and organisms were taken at eight sites between 5m and 20m depth. Sea stars and filter feeding bivalve were sampled for the biotic part of this project. Analyses will be performed in collaboration with Heriot Watt University (Edinburgh, UK) as a part of a PhD thesis ongoing at the ULB Marine Biology Lab. With regards to the oceanographic measurements, 17 CTD casts were carried out in ten sites to characterize water masses parameters. A deep (400m) cast was carried out before Arctowski Peninsula (AP) in conjunction with an eDNA sampling effort. Biogeochemistry analysis will be carried out on soft sediment from the different sampling sites. Sediments will be characterized at the University of Ghent analyses to determine the granulometry (median grain size, size fraction%), total organic matter content (TOM), Total Organic Carbon (TOC%) content, Total nitrogen content (TN%), and pigments content. For trophic ecology, 156 samples counting 24 different species and over 650 specimens were collected at seven sites between 8m and 20m depth. Water and sediment samples were collected at each site. Specimens of seaweeds were sampled as potential food sources while other organisms were collected from different trophic guilds, among primary and secondary consumers, filter feeders, predators/scavengers and terminal consumers. Isotope analysis of ∂13C, ∂15N, and ∂34S will be carried out at the University of Liège. Trophic models will be developed to characterize species trophic niches and plasticity, as well as the main structures of trophic networks in shallow coastal habitats of the visited sites. Finally, 143 specimens were macro-photographed during the expedition. The most photographed phyla were Arthropoda (56 specimens) followed by Echinodermata (23), Mollusca (18), Polychaeta (14) and Chordata (10). Both overview and close up pictures of the specimens were captured.

From the initial results, in terms of sampling diversity of projects and fuel efficiency, it appears that the B121 expedition was extremely successful. Further analysis is of course needed to better characterize the biodiversity and run the multiple analysis, but it is recommended that the concept of using a more nimble platform for shallow biodiversity works in the Southern Ocean should be more widely considered, as a complementary approach to traditional approaches which are either based in research station, or along logistics-driven polar icebreaker routes.

Food web studies

Among the many research projects conducted during the B121 cruise, trophic ecology has taken an important place for divers and fish specialists all along the campaign. But what is it about ? Beyond the formal and bit severe words, trophic ecology can be simply and instinctively recapped by the famous idiom “you are what you eat” ! Every single piece of snack each of us ingests or drop of liquid we are happy to sip not only contributes to maintaining our whole body in good shape but also, and insidiously leaves its indelible mark in our organs. This holds true for all living beings and for isotopes as well ! Analyzing the composition of organisms in Carbon, Nitrogen and Sulfur stable isotopes can tell us a lot about the long story of what they usually eat and where they have been living. Eventually, analyzing the isopotic composition of organisms living in close vicinity to each other in a same place can help unreveal biological interactions between them in the food chain that is, who’s eating whom and what. That’s why specimens of some common and key species of the visited sites were sampled at the sea bottom, from seaweeds to sponges, worms, starfish, sea urchins and fish, to caracterize main food web elements and compare them between sites. The complexity of food webs is also a condition of ecosystem resilience facing climate change, the more redundant and complex biotic interactions are in a food web and the more likely the ecosystem is to resist to change. Let’s wait a bit and see what isotopes will tell … !


Through the eye of the needle

On March 20th, we were working in Foyn Harbour, our latest station, and completing the sampling. Everything is fine, and now the team’s work has reached an optimum in terms of fluidity and efficiency. But the time has come to leave. With Ben, we are keeping a close eye on the weather forecast, and the time is right to head back to the mighty Drake. First, we were planning to leave on the next day, but then we felt it would be best to set sails earlier, late afternoon or in the evening  at the latest. This was a bit earlier than anticipated, but very strong westerlies are forecasted in a few days, as well as headwinds towards the end of the crossing, next to Cape Horn. No time to waste anymore. After a last dive in Enterprise Islands (right next to Foyn Harbour), on a shipwreck, we pack all our gear and get ready for the crossing. Done in a little more than an hour. We prepare the ship, and by the time we are ready to go, snow starts falling heavily, significantly reducing the visibility. We still need to cross the Gerlache Strait, and pass by the Melchior Islands to make our way to the open ocean. Not that easy with no visibility, icebergs and reefs all around us. The radar is our eyes, and we sail very slowly… At 0:30, we hit something, and the familiar noise of the hull against ice sounds really loud. Close encounter with a big iceberg. The hull of the Australis was spared this time, but not the anchor, properly bent. 

But we manage to reach the Drake Passage at the end of the night and start the crossing. A long crossing again.

The Drake Passage gives me this strange impression of being in a time capsule. Everybody gets ready and braces for the crossing. Our bodies go in standby for 3 days. I’ve spent most of the time in bed, probably seasick. Any normal life task is very demanding and you struggle to get your ideas together. The final part of the crossing, once we’ve reached Cape Horn is tricky as well: the ocean is still rough, and we get the false impression that the crossing is over, when there is still a full night of navigation, this time closer to land, closer to rocks. 

At that point, and this is why I called this blog “Through the eye of the needle”, we checked the weather again and realised that 2 hours behind us, the storm was closing the path with very strong winds, the kind you don’t want to find yourself in. Lesson is, and probably for the rest of the expedition: always listen to your instinct. When it tells you its time to leave, leave!

The Beagle channel brings serenity after the crossing, and we reached it at the end of the crossing, enjoying a very peaceful ending to the expedition, reaching our final destination, Ushuaia.

Final relief for all.

Now that we are back to the connected world, we will feed this blog and our website, so keep up with us.

The B121 expedition in a few figures:

22 sampling days

226 gear deployments

1739 samples

38 scuba dives

1727 nm

4280 l of fuel

Mission accomplished.


Crowdfunding: we made it!


After setting up a crowdfunding campaign via kickstarter, we now have additional funds to produce a really fantastic documentary about our expedition, which will be directed by Lilian Hess.

And all our Backers made this possible! Thank you very much for your generous support all over the world. It is amazing to see so much enthusiasm about Antarctic research. Thank you!

We will update everyone through various channels with news about our expedition, the documentary production process and how we spend the funds from this crowdfunding campaign.

Currently, we are completely absorbed with the preparations for the expedition. The dates are set: We will leave Brussels for Ushuaia on the 19th of February and return on the 28th of March. Our exact departure dates from Ushuaia to Antarctica will be weather depended.

Stay tuned!

The B121 team

Getting students onboard

Last year, a group of three students from the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB)  approached us in the framework of their course on science communication. They were interested in organising a post-expedition conference on Belgica120. As we unfortunately needed to turn around after our first attempt, Lea, Maya and Géraldine decided to draft a general audience paper in Science Connection, a journal edited by the Belgian Science Policy Office. The paper has now been published and you can discover their work here (in French of Dutch): FR- NL-

Launching our crowdfunding campaign!

Marking the 121st anniversary since the first Antarctic expedition in human history, an international team of nine scientists embarks on a journey to the frozen continent. Our choice of transport: a small sail boat.

We are launching a crowdfunding campaign to support the  preparation of a documentary about this extraordinary adventure. This documentary is an intimate account of a small group of ambitious individuals, who are passionate about introducing a more sustainable way of conducting Polar research to the science community. The harsh beauty of the Antarctic landscape is reflected in the rawness of the footage, which will be captured by the scientists themselves – above and below water. Some of the most deeply poetic and profoundly personal texts have been produced by the original explorers during what we today refer to as the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration”. While the old diaries speak of the struggle for survival, this documentary rather resembles a first-hand video journal about the fervour that comes with realising ones aspirations, the hope for making a change, the strains of the sea, and the intensifying pressure of no escape.

More information on our kickstarter project page…

From B120 to B121: a team is born

The Belgica120 crew left Ushuaia on Feb the 25th, around 10 am, next stop Antarctica. After finalising the last details, going through the initial briefings and getting the Australis ready, we set sails out of the Beagle Channel, towards the Melchior Islands along the Antarctic Peninsula.
The initial timing was set to an initial 12 hours to get to Cape Horn, then 2.5 days to cross the Drake Passage to the Peninsula. Everything was going fine, we were getting familiar with the boat (and with sea sickness) and steaming at 8 knots towards the South.

Ben setting the sails

On the second day of navigation, something went wrong with the engine’s gearbox (there was a big “bang” and rumble, like a rolling bag of bolts), and we had to stop the engine, after approximately 1/3 of the distance. The Australis is a 50/50 boat: it is designed to steam using to propulsions modes: engine and sails. Without the engine, Australis cannot be manoeuvred precisely, and the general design of the boat (shape of the hull and sails) does not allow here to sail close to the wind.
After stopping the engine, Ben and Simon (the captain and first mate of Australis) started investigating the mechanics and tried to find a solution to fix the gearbox. Unfortunately, it was impossible: the part that snapped was a shaft inside the gearbox. Ben called me to the wheelhouse to inform me there was no way they could fix the problem at sea. Simon and Kari (our cook) were there as well. There was this dreadful moment of silence, as I realised we were in an actually delicate situation. We were well engaged in the Drake Passage, our engine was useless, and we could only rely on our sails to turn back to Ushuaia. At this moment, the wind was in the right direction. We swiftly decided to tack, set all sails and head north. At the same time we decided to inform all ships around us that we would probably need assistance in a reasonable delay. I informed the team about the situation, and that we would probably have to delay our attempt. There was a big disappointment of course, especially given the amount of effort that went into preparing this expedition, and the high hopes we all had… but there was not much more to do than accept the situation and work our way out of the Drake.
The other “detail” we were worried about was the weather: strong winds were announced to hit us in a couple of days.
Under sails, with the wind strong enough and in the right direction, Australis made an amazing job. She was actually sailing at 8 knots in 25 knots of wind. But we couldn’t get closer than 60 degrees in the wind. Thanks to her speed we beat the storm, which passed behind us: one problem less. We managed to sail ca. 175 nm (320 km) before receiving assistance…
Meanwhile we managed to get in touch, by radio, with an Argentinian navy vessel, the Puerto Argentino, who confirmed they would give us a tow, as soon as they cached up with us (they were about 100 nm behind when we first contacted them). So the situation was more or less under control. A few sailboats passed us on our way to the North, always making contact to make sure we were alright. Our situation was never critical, nobody felt unsafe at any moment. On our way back, we had many contacts, including also with a Chilean Navy ship, the Sibbald. They offered to escort us up to the coastline. We didn’t really understand the purpose of that offer, as we were in need of a tow, before the situation became actually dangerous.
The wind was now coming from the North, and we were making extremely slow progress. If we didn’t get a tow, it would take us days to get back. The more time we spend at sea, the higher the chances we get hit by bad weather.
At this point we were about 30 nm East of Cape Horn. The Puerto Argentino had catched up with us, in the morning of the 28th of February. After some contacts with the vessel to coordinate the towing manoeuvre, which is always risky, the navy ship sent us a towing cable, which we successfully attached to the bollard. This was a great relief for me, until about 3’ later, the captain called us on the radio to inform us he had received the order not to tow us and let go the cable. At first I thought I was dreaming alive. I couldn’t believe this nonsense. Why would they let us go after risking a manoeuvre to start the tow, knowing we could never make our way back to safety? Two extremely tense, nerve-wearing hours started: we were trying to save time, hoping we would at least be towed over a reasonable distance, but the navy ship was just staying in place, probably on purpose. Ben was trying to call everyone he could to unlock the situation, so that the captain would get the authorisation to tow us. We also tried to call our networks in the area to get things moving. But the captain of the Puerto Argentino kept insisting on the radio that we should let go the tow cable. He sounded more and more nervous as the Chilean Navy vessel was approaching. Our nerves were worn, and we finally let go the cable, despite the fact that we didn’t get the point. As the Puerto Argentino left us behind, we got in touch with the Sibbald, which was now very close, and which again offered to escort us. We didn’t set the sails, and let ourselves drift to make a clear point that we couldn’t manoeuvre to safety. After about 10 minutes, they contacted us on the radio and offered a tow. Instead of being relieved, I was still wondering what kind of last minute trick would happen to us. But everything went well apart that the Sibbald was going to let us go somewhere in the Beagle Channel, as we were getting close to the Argentinian border.
Ben arranged a pickup by a tugboat from Ushuaia, and after a few more hours of towing we were safely brought back to our dock.

Our last tow to Ushuaia…

We think the behaviour of the Argentinian Navy vessel was linked to the fact that we were in Chilean waters. I think we will never know…
During the whole process, we had some time to think about how we could turn this into something positive. Even if its been a huge disappointment (and I think its safe to say especially for Ben and myself), the Belgica120 expedition was a first attempt. Its an expedition, and its Antarctica. We’ve learnt a lot during these few days, about the Australis, about ourselves and about our future project. Thanks to the B120 team keeping very calm and positive, and moreover to the Australis crew for handling the situation with amazing skill, we got ourselves out of a situation which could have become critical.
We now have a year to prepare for our next attempt, which of course will go by the name of Belgica121… stay tuned!