Oksana Savenko

Researcher, and research associate of the National Antarctic Science Centre. Oksana is the first and so far the only woman who participated in the two-year-long expeditions to the Akademik Vernadskyi station.

"Without supporting science and researchers, we can lose the scientific potential that has been built up over the years": work in Antarctica, research of marine mammals and future challenges

A story by marine biologist Oksana Savenko

About the decision to become a marine biologist

My interest in researching marine inhabitants was born when I was a kid. I remember borrowing my first book about whales and dolphins from the district library and being fascinated by the stories about them. Like many of my peers, I admired Jacques Cousteau’s documentaries, which inspired research and conservation of the oceans. I read a lot and was really interested in books about travel, especially about the sea and polar expeditions. I wanted to become part of this unique community and witness the true mystery of scientific discovery.

Sometimes, this wish did not seem quite feasible to me. I had to face different difficulties. For instance, it took me a long time to find a job that would be connected with my speciality and allow me to study marine mammals. I had to find my way around it — I had to earn money for my research and do it as a hobby. I would go to Crimea and look for dolphins there. The efficiency of such “scientific activity” was low, but, in the end, I am glad that I did not give up on my dream back then. Eventually, I got to the first “real” expedition, and after a few years, I was able to turn my hobby into a profession.

Another significant obstacle on my way was the long-term ban on the participation of women in Ukrainian Antarctic expeditions. Women were not included in yearly expeditions for over twenty years, and only a few could get into seasonal trips during this time.

In the end, I was lucky: when Yevhen Oleksandrovich Dykyi became head of the National Antarctic Science Center, he abolished all the gender restrictions on participation in expeditions. I had valuable experience in whale research, which was relevant to our station. Despite this, it took me a long time to learn to be efficient and achieve professionalism in my work.

About the study of marine mammals and work at the “Akademik Vernadskyi” Antarctic station

My main specialization is the study of marine mammals: dolphins, whales and seals. I am interested in their distribution patterns and various aspects of the ecology of these animals, as well as the impact of climate change on their populations. I have experience in cetacean research in the Black and Azov Seas and have also participated in international expeditions in other regions, mainly in the North Pacific Ocean.

Over the past five years, I have participated in two seasonal and two yearly Ukrainian Antarctic expeditions at the Ukrainian scientific Antarctic station “Akademik Vernadskyi”. It turned out that specialized studies of cetaceans were not carried out at our station before — I was invited to initiate a programme of multi-year studies of these marine mammals and expand the pinniped research programme.

My work at the station consisted of carrying out my programme and a number of other tasks in various biological areas. Depending on the expedition, it could be the selection of marine bacterioplankton samples, penguins’ records, collection of additional data, etc.

I am delighted with the development of the marine mammal research programme that I initiated five years ago at the Ukrainian Antarctic station. Other biologists and I successfully carry out these studies within the framework of the long-term biological monitoring programme of the National Center for Biological Sciences. Thanks to the fact that our research on cetaceans is currently integrated into international programmes and successful cooperation with teams from other countries, in a short time at the “Akademik Vernadskyi” station, it was possible to obtain essential results, some of which have already been published in scientific publications.

It so happened that our station has significant advantages for certain types of research. Thanks to this, we managed to conduct the first thorough research on humpback whales in the Antarctic Peninsula in the winter. These whales were still in the Antarctic at a time when they should have long since returned from the Antarctic feeding areas to the breeding areas located in tropical waters. It turned out that climate changes, particularly fast in ​​the Antarctic Peninsula, significantly affect the seasonal migrations of whales.

About work during a full-scale war

My life has changed significantly, even though I was far from Ukraine. I was at the Akademik Vernadskyi station when the full-scale Russian invasion started. I remember working at the computer, and my colleague came into the office and informed me that Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities were being bombed. I was not able to understand and accept these words immediately. They seemed like a stupid joke, a mistake — even though the news had been announcing the war for weeks. 

Later, the station’s residents gathered together. Everyone tried to contact their relatives, and some coordinated the evacuation of their loved ones and transferred money to families and the army from the very first minutes of the war. My parents and brother were in Kyiv: the few hours I waited for news from them seemed like an eternity to me.

We felt powerless at the station. The first days, we did only the most necessary work and hardly left the station — it seemed impossible to stay without an Internet connection for at least an hour. Everything was changing too dynamically. But when it became apparent that our army was successfully repelling the enemy, we realized that we had to prepare for a long struggle. We also tried to be helpful in some way — we transferred money to volunteers, wrote appeals and letters to the polar community and other Antarctic stations, gave interviews to journalists from different countries, and used the Internet to the benefit of our soldiers. At the same time, we tried to implement the scientific programme in full.

Two of our seasonal colleagues, Andriy Zotov and Serhiy Shutiaev, returned to Ukraine earlier in tourist ships in order to join the army and defend the country as soon as possible. After the return of the main expedition team, some of the colleagues also immediately joined the ranks of the army.

How important is your research now?

Now I have the opportunity to take my research to a new level. During the Ukrainian Antarctic expeditions, we managed to take tissue samples from whales. In the past, we have given samples to colleagues for further research. Now I have the opportunity to learn how to do laboratory research independently, taking from my American colleagues the unique techniques they agreed to share.

We also managed to make acoustic recordings of whales and seals, which I am learning to analyze from experienced specialists. The same goes for other samples and data as well — I now have the opportunity to learn new field research methods that I can apply at our station. Thanks to this opportunity, Ukrainian scientists will be able to be more independent and participate not only in the selection of samples and data but also in the further stages of their analysis.

Synchronization of research protocols allows us to combine data obtained at different stations into common databases, which ultimately makes it possible to perform better analysis and get better results.

We will need this experience for Antarctic and cetacean research in the Black and Azov Seas.

Why we should support science now

The war is our greatest challenge now. However, we must not forget other problems, particularly climate change, pollution of ecosystems and the reduction of biodiversity, the risks of which have only increased due to Russian military aggression.

In order to know the current state and dynamics of marine ecosystems, it is necessary to perform their annual monitoring consistently. Many water areas, where research is usually carried out every year, are either occupied or inaccessible due to hostilities. But as soon as the opportunity arises, it is necessary to continue the work to the extent that is currently possible. This is important for assessing ecosystems’ actual state and determining war’s impact on them.

It is possible to carry out research in a timely manner only under the conditions that researchers and scientific institutions receive funding. Without the support of science and scientists in this challenging period, it is possible to lose the scientific potential that has been developed over the years. And without advanced science, our country has a dubious future.

Finally, Antarctic research is carried out within the framework of our international obligations, which must also be carried out despite war. In particular, in this way, Ukraine chooses a worthy place among other states, which is an investment in the quality of our future after victory.