Sailboat full of Portuguese researchers in successful Antarctic expedition | Polarjournal
The researchers aboard the El Doblon sailboat were satisfied with the results they gathered during their expedition in Antarctica. Photo: Coastantar 2024
The researchers aboard the El Doblon sailboat were satisfied with the data they gathered during their expedition in Antarctica. Photo: Coastantar 2024

The expedition increased Portugal’s research independence, had a low carbon footprint, and allowed research in otherwise inaccessible areas.

Zooplankton, permafrost, lichens, The Antarctic Treaty, microplastics, earthquake, volcano and tsunami risks, and potential energy savings at Antarctic stations.

The list of research topics on a two week scientific expedition aboard the 24-meter-long sailboat El Doblón, completed in March of this year, was long and diverse. But almost all the researchers aboard the sailboat did have one thing in common: their nationality.

Among the scientists, 10 were Portuguese while one was Spanish, and the last was a Frenchman representing The Chilean Antarctic Program. This crew composition represented an important step in Portuguese Antarctic research. 

“For us in Portugal, it was really a great event. It allowed us to test a new model of doing research in Antarctica which would suit a country like ours that doesn’t have a research station. If it becomes a regular thing, it could help us become less dependent on other countries,” Maria Teresa Cabrita, Executive Director at the Portuguese Polar Programme states. 

“But, at the same time, it also reduced our carbon footprint, it allowed us to do research in areas that are not easy to access; areas where big vessels cannot go, and it allowed us to cooperate with some of our closest partner programs: Spain and Chile,” she explains further.

The expedition made several stops on and around the Antarctica Peninsula during its two weeks of sailing. Map: Coastantar 2024
The expedition made several stops on and around the Antarctica Peninsula during its two weeks of sailing. Map: Coastantar 2024

Long marination

The idea of doing an entirely Portuguese Antarctic expedition had been long underway. However, due to budget constraints and lack of funding, it did not materialize. Not until last year, when Maria Teresa Cabrita and her colleagues proposed the idea to the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology.

They were finally fully ready to support the expedition, and when The University of Lisbon also decided to fund it, the expedition, which was named COASTANTAR 2024, was ready to set sail.

“This idea had been marinating for a long time, so when the right conditions materialized, we were very happy,” she explains.

El Doblon, the sailboat the expedition had chartered was built in Canada but now sails with a flag from Panama. Photo: Alegria Marineros
El Doblon, the sailboat the expedition had chartered, was built in Canada but now sails under the flag of Panama. Photo: Alegria Marineros

A mountain retreat

The new project meant that a subsection was added to The Portuguese Polar Programme’s annual call for funding. In it, researchers could argue why their project was especially appropriate for the Antarctic expedition.

In the fall, after the 10 Portuguese and the one Spanish researcher had been chosen, they all met for a retreat ahead of the expedition. The retreat took place in Serra da Estrela, the highest mountains in mainland Portugal where snow and cold weather is a regular occurrence.

“They all got a little taste of the cold environment, and they all got to know each other. All their projects were presented, and we tried to create synergies and to get them to interact,” Maria Teresa Cabrita recalls.

Interdisciplinary research

The selection process did take into account that The Portuguese Polar Programmes wished to include a wide range of topics. And luckily, when the applications had come in, they were, indeed, diverse. 

They included several projects in the natural sciences like the impact of climate change on zooplankton, and the human impact on Antarctic microbiomes; all of which benefited from the many different sampling sites that the expedition visited.

But it also included several projects from other branches of science. One project, for instance, researched the architecture of Antarctic buildings and how they might save energy, and another project researched public policy and interviewed research personnel on Antarctic bases.

“It went really, really well, and it showed us the value of doing interdisciplinary research like this,” says Maria Teresa Cabrita. 

El Doblon spotted by some Antarctic residents.  Photo: Alegria Marinos
“El Dóblon” spotted by some permanent Antarctic residents. Photo: Alegria Marineros

A success to be repeated

The cruise itself took place from February 9th until February 23rd. Before and after that, research had been land-based research was conducted on King George Island and Anvers Island.

In early March, the researchers returned to Portugal. Their reviews of the cruise were positive but with room for improvement. For instance, a refinement of the process, a longer expedition time, and potentially fewer sites visited were among the points of evaluation.

“We really need more people supporting the organization, not just before but also during the expedition. We were just three people with classes and other things going on as well, so we really need more people to be able to do it comfortably,” Maria Teresa Cabrita states.

But the minor hiccups did not dilute the project’s overall success.

“In terms of the scientific results, it has been really positive. The researchers just got back but from what we have heard they were able to collect lots of interesting results from areas where it is not easy to go. Hopefully, it will provide a wide range of interesting publications,” Maria Teresa Cabrita concludes.

“Now we hope that we will get to do it again next year.”

Read more about the projects from COASTANTAR 2024 here.

Ole Ellekrog, Polar Journal

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