Episode 6 | From Seals to Stormzy

In the final episode of series 2, Alok Jha talks to Polar Conservationist and explorer Prem Gill to find out what Antarctic seals and Grime music have in common. 

Prem is a PhD candidate leading the "Seals from Space" project with the Scott Polar Research Institute, British Antarctic Survey & World Wildlife Fund, and a researcher working on Frozen Planet. 

Outside of this, Prem is interested in increasing opportunities for underrepresented and disadvantaged groups in polar and conservation science. As the founder of Polar Impact and British Antarctic Survey’s Diversity Champion, he has used his research to spearhead projects which attract and retain talent from non-traditional backgrounds. 

Listen to the podcast below

Making music Seals from Space: the Grime Song

Prem is passionate about increasing access to and diversity in polar science, and believes that a physical connection to the Polar Regions is key. Alongside his research, Prem collects recordings of Antarctic seal sounds and turns these vocalisations into grime music to foster interest, understanding and more diverse access to Antarctic seals and their habitats. Listen to his music made from the eerie noises of Antarctic ice seals below.

Listen to Prem's music

Why does Antarctica matter to you?

"Antarctica and the polar oceans, drive life as we know it today, society as we know it today, all the fisheries across the world are driven by the nutrients transported in the currents from the Southern Ocean - all of this is driving the world as we know it today, it impacts everyone globally. The polar regions are changing the most rapidly and will have some of the largest impacts across the globe. So Antarctica can't not matter. It drives everything."

Listen to previous episodes

Episode 6 Transcript From Seals to Stormzy

Alok Jha (00:01): Let me take you on a journey to the coldest place on earth and it's last and greatest wilderness on A Voyage to Antarctica. Hello and welcome to A Voyage to Antarctica brought to you by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust. I am your host, Alok Jha. What do Antarctic seals and grime music have in common? This week I'll be finding out from Prem Gill, a polar conservationist and polar explorer who's crazy about all things wildlife, sea ice and nature. Prem is a PhD candidate leading the Seals From Space project with the Scott Polar Research Institute, British Antarctic Survey and World Wildlife Fund. He's also a researcher working on the BBC program Frozen Planet. Beyond that Prem is interested in increasing opportunities for underrepresented and disadvantaged groups in polar and conservation science as the founder of Polar Impact and the British Antarctic Survey's diversity champion. He's used his research to spearhead projects which attract and retain talent from non-traditional backgrounds. He's hosted week-long citizen science and hackathon events. He's also used the sounds of Antarctic seals to produce, you guessed it, grime music.

Alok Jha (01:26): What kinds of seals are there and how are they different? I mean, the amount that I know about seals beyond their general amazingness in terms of what they look like and everything is that I know that Weddell seals, for example, everyone thinks of as cute and amazing and lovely to look at and, you know, their perfect sort of cylindrical round things essentially. And then there's the Leopard seals, which are something else entirely in terms of slightly more sinister creatures. And that's what we hear anyway. Tell us the main types of seals, which one's your kind of personal favorite?

Prem Gill (02:01): Okay. Yes, yes. So you've mentioned, I guess the big players that everyone knows the very, very adorable Weddell seal and the slightly scary, but cool leopard seal.

Alok Jha (02:13): They are scary, I'm not just trying to anthropomorphize here, but they are slightly scary.

Prem Gill (02:20): I mean, I think it's the lack of visible neck on a leopard seals, it's just shoulders and muscles and head, yeah. And it does have a slightly serpentine look to it and a bit of a grin going on, which at certain angles is not so great, a bit creepy, I would say. But for me personally, I love all the seals, of course. And I guess within the groups you've mentioned there's six species of seals in Antarctica. So you have your fir seals and your elephant seals, which really drive the early exploration in Antarctica, because they were being hunted for their fir for markets in China, New York, London. You also had elephant seals being hunted for their oil. But outside of that, you have the ice seals. Now they weren't really hunted extensively. There was no sort of commercial sealing industry based on the ice seals. But they are, you know, amongst the most numerous seals globally. So you have the crabeater seal, there's the ross seal, which is very small. Very rare. I think there's any about 70,000 an estimated population of 70,000 for the ross seal. So they are the most, well actually, no leopard seals there's only 30,000. So you have your ross and your leopard seals, which are both relatively rare, they're quite solitary. And we, we really don't know much about the ross seal or, I mean, I, myself, I just know what it looks like and that's about it. And then yeah, you have the leopard seal, which is the biggest seal species to exist. It is, it's big, it's muscly, it's bulky. It's actually more like a, it's more like a fir seal in its build than it is a Weddell seal. So it's just to say, there's a distinction between fir seals and sea lions and what you call true seals, the ones without ears, which are the crabeaters, the Weddles, the ross and the leopards. But yeah, the leopards are a bit more like a fir seal. And for those who have been to Antarctica, we all know the fir seals are quite athletic creatures compared to a chubby little Weddell seal and they can chase, chase the person down a beach and run as fast as the human down a beach. And they're, yeah, they have quite, quite a bad bite from, from what I hear.

Alok Jha (04:55): They can chase a person down the beach? That's not what I want to hear. How did you get interested in those animals? I mean, of course we all love seals because they're beautiful and cute, but, but what got you into them?

Prem Gill (05:11): So my interest in seals began with witnessing the world's most rare seal, which is the Mediterranean monk seal. And this was during my undergrad at Cardiff university, studying Marine geography. And we were in Greece doing field work and we had a report that, you know, monk seals were in the area. However, we were aware that these were really elusive and shy animals and that typically it was extremely difficult to spot them because they would normally be hiding away in these secluded coastal caves. However, I did spot one and it was on a sunbed surrounded by tourists. Yeah, so it was just lounging away on a Saturday surrounded by tourists who was just yeah, just, just having a great time, eating kebabs and drinking beer.

Alok Jha (06:07): Cocktail and slippers.

Prem Gill (06:09): Exactly, exactly. And I saw that scene and I thought to myself, well, wow, if this is how easy it is to monitor the world's most rarest seal, how easy would it be to monitor the most common seal? And it turns out that seals with the highest abundances are the seals within Antarctica. And they're actually super, super, super difficult to monitor simply because they live in within that sea ice region, which is notoriously difficult to access and monitor.

Alok Jha (06:38): But go back even further. What got you interested in Marine biology in the first place? Were you someone who was always every school holiday going off into the sea, looking for creatures and things to look at? Were you constantly watching David Attenborough go around the oceans. What was it that got you into all of that?

Prem Gill (06:57): You've just mentioned one of the reasons which is definitely watching a lot of nature documentaries. But for me it was a weird mix of playing a lot of Pokemon games. So as a kid, I didn't really engage in the countryside that much, my parents are from the Punjab, they're from India. And even though they themselves are from quite a rural region, I think the weird thing that typically happens with a lot of sort of immigrant kids is that in the UK, engaging with nature and doing recreation with nature suddenly yeah, it's just quite a foreign concept, so it doesn't happen that much. But with me, I was a big fan of playing Pokemon and that got me really interested into the concept of sort of, you know, finding, searching, researching wild animals and at the same time, I was watching all these nature documentaries where I was aware that 'hey, in England, there's owls, there's badgers, foxes theres seals, there's all these amazing creatures,' which to me were, you know, more or less Pokemon because I didn't see them in real life, but I sort of knew they existed. And then I, yeah, I suppose the countryside and nature became this really interesting, exciting almost mythical place because of that weird mix of really becoming intrigued by it, but not actually getting to visit it. And that really made me quite interested in exploring and wishing to understand these regions and get better, you know, just a better grasp of what's going on.

Alok Jha (08:40): I suppose if you say that as a child, communing with nature, perhaps wasn't seen as something that you did just, just because that, you know, we, we do what our parents tell us in many respects, don't we? We see what they show us and I suppose if you don't see it, then your journey into Marine biology is, you know, as far away from that as possible, isn't it? So it's, it's like, it's, you're thinking there is stuff out there and I want to go and see it as far away as possible. And you've chosen the furthest place that you could possibly choose to actually do your research, which is, which is as ambitious as it gets. So it's quite impressive all the way in Antarctica. So you're marine biology PhD, and then, you know, of course you're making documentaries now as well.

Prem Gill (09:23): Yeah, yeah. It has gone full circle. I remember when I was in my first year of my undergrad watching the original Frozen Planet and I remember even discussing some of the scenes that got me interested in orchids from Frozen Planet in my interview to go to Cambridge to study my PhD in Antarctic studies, looking at seals from space, and now I'm working on Frozen Planet 10 years later from the original. So yeah, it's really gone full circle and I'm in a very, very, very privileged position to be able to do this during the pandemic and sort of put my research on pause and look at the polar world from another lens.

Alok Jha (10:06): You can't get away with calling a project Seals From Space and making it sound very scifi without explaining what that means. Tell us what your project actually is.

Prem Gill (10:15): Sure. So my project is the study of Antarctic seals using very high resolution satellite imagery. And essentially for this I'm studying seals along the Antarctic peninsula, one of the most rapidly warming regions of the world and we're using satellite data that's so high res, it's 30 centimeters per pixel, but that not only can we see seals, we can see baby seals. And if a seal has just given birth, when we take the images during the breeding season, you can even see blood on the sea ice from wherever seals have given birth all the way from space in these satellite images. So this is essentially yes, it's a super sophisticated way of counting seals and it's a really cost-effective way. And it's a really safe way of counting seals because prior to investigating the uses of satellite imagery to count seals and penguins and so on, all of the wildlife monitoring in Antarctica was done from planes and ships. And as you can imagine, this is something that costs quite a lot of money. It can be dangerous at times, going into the pack ice regions. And as a result, you also have quite a large gap in between surveys. So there's a lot of spotty data because of this. And as a result, we don't really have robust population trend data, or even robust population estimates for a lot of the Antarctic seals. So the hope is by using satellite imagery and investigating how accurate this technique, isn't really investigating all the different ways we can explore, not just the seals and their habitat across the whole of Antarctica. You can begin to start getting an insight, not just into the population trends, but also what drives their distribution. And what's happening with that habitat.

Alok Jha (12:54): In this series and the previous one we've talked about the history of Antarctica in terms of how it was first imagined and cited by whalers, essentially in the Southern ocean, but seal hunting, commercial seal hunting was also part of that whole that whole period and this sort of late 19th century and beyond before Antarctica was explored by the people, you know, the famous now Scott and Amondson and all of those people. I'm just curious about how we got to the point of protecting seals. I mean, all wildlife on Antarctica now is pretty much protected seals, especially. I'm just wondering, you know, what sort of happened between the sort of violent, vicious age of sealing and killing everything we could to now, you know, very carefully monitoring these beautiful animals from space.

Prem Gill (13:58): Yeah, so you brought up a very, very, very interesting topic. And just to say, I could be completely wrong on this, but I think it was actually hunting of seals, I think that came before the whaling. So, I could be completely mistaken, but the way I understand it is that however reports of these really large populations of seals on islands, such as south Georgia from explorers like James Kirk in the late 18th century, that's what drove the very earliest exploration of Antarctica. So James Weddell, for example, who has the Weddell seal named after him and the Weddell seal, he was one of these early seal hunters. And like you said, it was, it was interesting in that on one hand yeah, violent people were killing sales, depleting them at incredible rates. I mean, within upon south Georgia the population of first seals, for example, they were pretty much depleted within decades. And then on other islands with smaller populations, such as the south Shetlands, it only took three seasons, so essentially three years for that population to become decimated itself from its discovery. So you had this this, this exploration of Antarctica being driven by the first seal trade by markets in Canton in China, in Europe, in New York. As I mentioned, I used those populations of fir seals became depleted very quickly. So it just didn't become very viable once the population was decreased so heavily. So you had a closure of the sealing industry and it was after that, that a lot of legislation came in to protect the seals. So some of the earliest legislation was within the Falkland islands, I believe, which had a complete ban on fir seal hunting. And then after that, you had in the 1970s, a conference held in London and essentially you had the convention for the conservation of Antarctic seals. That was, that was created, that was signed and that banned the hunting of fir seals, elephant seals and Ross seals, which is a very, very rare seal. And it provided quotas to catch the ice seals. So Weddell seals, crabeater seals, leopard seals. There were quotas to catch those, but I mean, really there wasn't any sealing since the 1950s. And the only source of seal hunting we really had was for dog food. So scientists were still killing seals after the 1950s to feed the dogs, which were used in early Antarctic exploration and research, but the removal of dogs occured in 1994, because there was worries that a distemper virus could be spread from the dogs to the seals. So really since 1994 seals virtually been you know, fully protected, they're not hunted anymore. And it was around the 1970s, 1990s that we started to get I guess, modern, comprehensive studies of seals going on. So yeah, that, that's the kind of journey.

Alok Jha (17:38): You're a researcher who tracks seals and goes to some of the most extreme places on earth to do this sort of thing. But that's not all the things you're doing. You're also looking at ways to make polar science more accessible. You're very active as a science communicator to try to get young people involved in these ideas in the way that you were inspired by Frozen Planet and other places, just tell us a bit about the work you're doing on that front. Your Polar Impact project. What, what does that aim to do?

Prem Gill (18:10): Polar Impact, also known as the Minorities in Polar Research Network is all about highlighting supporting and connecting minorities, indigenous people, people of colour from within the Polar research community and really just sharing who they are, what they do and try and change the traditional sepia toned images of the polar explorer. And try to give this fuller, richer picture to show that it's, it's been this field, which has in some ways always been quite diverse, quite global. Not just recently, but I'll say historically, and at the same time, I'll say support ethnic and racial minorities who are currently within the polar research field.

Alok Jha (18:59): And so how'd you do that? What kind of events, or what kinds of things are you trying to do on that front?

Prem Gill (19:04): We do a whole variety of things. So we, we try to provide opportunities for people from underrepresented groups to gain polar experience. And one of these ways I've done that is I hosted a citizen science project where I got funding from the British Antarctic Survey to host 12 students from underrepresented or disadvantaged backgrounds to come along and work with me in the British Antarctic Survey, where I taught them and trained them in how to use satellite imagery to monitor polar wildlife, penguins and seals while at the same time also gaining some data by having them map the sea ice habitats and the seals within my satellite images. And that was a really amazing week. And I also provide them opportunities to meet lots of amazing senior polar scientists over coffees and so on. So I taught the students how to go about studying polar wildlife. Then it provided them something that's a real privilege. And it's something that's very difficult to obtain, which is the privilege of being able to make a connection and study polar wildlife, which typically has only been restricted to people who go down to the poles. But looking at these satellite images, they were looking at colonies that no one else had ever laid eyes upon. And they were the first people to see that seal, to see that pup, to see some colonies. Yeah. And that world, so that was really amazing.

Alok Jha (20:40): They were contributing to the actual conservation work there were they?

Prem Gill (20:44): Yeah. So they were contributing to a research project that's with the university of Cambridge, the British Antarctic Survey, the WWF. So, you know, these big towering names within the world of polar conservation, they were all significantly contributing to that research. And with their help even after lockdown, I sort of had this little army of trained up volunteers. We continue doing research throughout lockdown and we we've built one of the first, very high resolution, sea ice habitat datasets for Antarctic seals. From that and, you know, there are all these young sort of students who had no, no experience with polar research prior to this. But, but not only did they get trained up and in sort of the state of the art techniques that gave them a, a avenue into polar research conservation, even though, you know, for a lot of them, they perhaps don't have the means or the capacity to have lots of exotic fieldworks in exotic locations or in polar regions, they were trained in high-impact conservation. They were trained in techniques that would enable them to potentially conduct high impact research with regards to polar conservation and the proof of the pudding for that came on the final day. So on the final day of this week long, a citizen science project, I had to go to Barcelona to present at a conference. And I my supervisor, Peter Fretwell, very kindly took over sort of, you know watch the students for me and help them out. Because my supervisor was, you know, away from his office in a different environment, he, he began to just I think perhaps maybe out of a bit of boredom or out of interest, he began to look at some satellite imagery in just some different random locations. And he ended up discovering these brand new emperor penguin colonies. So not only did my students get trained up in the skills to monitor polar wildlife, they were there when this big discovery was made. And I, I think, you know, but very quickly my supervisor wrote that up into a paper and submitted to nature and so on, and then it came out and it was this big, big, big, big news story. And there was so many phonecalls going off to my supervisor and yeah, my students had that full experience and I was quite jealous that they were in the room when a brand new emperor penguin colony was discovered. I have to say.

Alok Jha (23:14): I need to take a deep breath here because you've just listed so many things you've done. I can't believe one person can do all of these things in a normal amount of time. So you're doing a PhD and you're researching for a documentary series and you're doing about seven different projects to bring underrepresented groups to Antarctica virtually and through science. And so, so I mean, I find that incredible that you're doing all those things. So, you know thanks a lot for your time right now. I feel like I'm taking away from one of these really important projects, to be honest. Can you tell me just in the moments we have left and you mentioned just now explorers of colour and in, in the past century, and even now the history of Antarctica, as we've said, said so many times in this podcast and as anyone who's expressed any interest in it knows, it's very white. The history is very white and the history is very male. We've talked a lot in the series about how women started to get opportunities to explore and then start to get towards an equal footing with men in the past 50 or so years. And it's not seen as a strange thing at all, and it should never have been, that women on the continent now being researchers and scientists and engineers and all sorts of other things. Is there still an issue in terms of people from non-white backgrounds in Antarctica?

Prem Gill (24:42): What I would say is that when it comes to polar research, I think one of the issues is in terms of just the image of who a polar researcher is. And as you've mentioned, it's often, you know, the, the, the go-to images often a perhaps wealthy white bearded, sepia toned image of a man who's been funded by the queen to go on a polar expedition. And that certainly isn't the case. Now we have a whole variety of people across the globe conducting polar research. And even within nations, there's a much wider cross-section of society involved in polar research, but there's still definitely an issue of that image. And I think for many people, children in particular, from a very young age, I think you, your beliefs of who you can be and what you can do can be driven by simply what you see and in particular what you don't see. So if you don't see women polar explorers, if you don't see polar exploreres of color, it's really easy to just presume, well, that's not what I'm capable of. That's not what I can do. So what, I mean, one of the main reasons I sat up Polar Impact is for the few ethnic and racial minorities are currently involved in pilot research is to really provide support to them, to ensure they're retained because it's not, it's not a new story of having ethnic and racial minorities in Polar research they've always been involved, but there hasn't necessarily been that retention because it has been potential issues. So I hope to provide this network to support people and enable to basically retain these individuals who will become future role models. And I think so many of the role models when it comes to polar researchers and people of colour, unfortunately at times it can be people who have left and then they become role models. You know, after their careers are finished, I suppose where I want people who are sort of existing in the polar research environment, who are people of colour presently to be able to just exist within this field and flourish within this field, to be able to become these future role models and over lockdown I've been giving talks at schools. And I think one very sad thing I've noticed is that if I give a talk at say an independent school where the teacher might be someone who has friends like me, who, who work on Frozen Planet, who have PhD studying polar regions, who might have worked as tour guides on Polar ships, when I'm talking to their children, these kids will often ask me, what can I do to be like you? How do I become a polar Explorer, a polar researcher, or a seal scientist. Whereas if I give a talk to a school in say a state school and a bit more of a working class area, those children won't ask me how can we become a polar Explorer? They'll just be really excited to talk to me. And they, they're essentially saying, thank you for sharing this experience with us because we'll, we'll never experience it. And the teachers too, not, not because of any fault of their own, but they say stuff like 'thank you so much for sharing this. It must be amazing to be this person.' And they're much less likely to ask how can we be here? Cause I guess, yeah, for a lot of working class kids being, being a polar scientist is a bit like an astronaut. You know people do it, but not you. I guess for other people it's a viable thing because you know people who do it.

Alok Jha (28:34): I expect you're the kind of person who, even if you're not asked how to, how to become a public speaker, you'll tell them anyway, just in case,

Prem Gill (28:42):

Of course, I'll tell them.

Alok Jha (28:44): That's your one man escapade.

Alok Jha (29:07): I can't let you go without asking you about your art installations though. So as well as all the other things we've talked about as if that wasn't enough to be doing, you've been making art installations with seal sounds and grime music. Now you'll have to forgive me. I'm not a grime aficionado, so you're gonna have to explain what it is first of all. And then just tell us about the project.

Prem Gill (29:31): Yes, yes, yes, yes. So where do I even start? Okay. So grime music is a genre of music from east London created by the black community there. And it's influenced by a whole bunch of stuff like Garage and Rap and Jungle. But it really, for me, it's something I grew up with in my teen years. And a lot of grime music was made on, it was all made on the computers and even on game console sometimes in youth clubs. So a lot of grime music has a very almost retro synthy, almost kind of like electronic sound to it if I want to really generalize. So that's what I grew up with hearing those sort of electronic noises which I was a big fan of, for my musical tastes. And then yeah, I, I, was studying Antarctic seals and I came across a video of an Antarctic seal making some noises. And for those of you who haven't heard, what an Antarctic seal sounds like it's very, it sounds like the lasers in a scifi seventies film. Maybe it sounds like a spaceship laser. It's very, it's very otherworldly. It's very weird. Some people tell me it sounds like the Dr Who opening theme tune, but a whole host of descriptions. It's just these other worldly cosmic noises. And another thing I noticed is that not only do the seals make these really weird other worldly sounds, but we also have a base in Eastern Antarctica called Holly, which has a space weather radio station. So the radio waves that are related to the Southern lights and are picked up by a very light frequency radio receiver, when you sonify these it creates sounds that essentially sound just like the Antarctic seals, so I thought, oh, that's cool. So I'm like ooh seals, space, they sound the same, this is great. And around this time I was sort of giving my, thesis during the first year of my PhD and I was invited to give a talk alongside some very important, impressive people from the departments of the European space agency and these other amazing organizations and companies. And I thought, well, yeah, I'm the only student. And I was, I was very worried. Nobody would be listening to my talk. So to get around that, I created a little pop quiz where it's like, here's some sounds, is it seals? Is it space? By the way, my PhD is seals from space. That was the idea. So yeah, I, I went ahead with this pop quiz, which is great. And I use it as a way to also get rid of my anxiety before any talks, it works brilliantly. I gave the quiz and someone came up to me from the Institute who makes techno music on the side. He was like, hey lets make techno music, and I said, let's do grime instead. And then suddenly this whole project just spread out of it. And we're looking to include VR with other members from the Institute. And it's just, yeah, it's just snowballed into this very, very crazy thing. And when I was down in Antarctica, actually I was trying, trying my best to collect audio recordings of the seals, as well as all my scientific measurements or the seals using my field spectrometer, but yes, sorry, I've gone on a really weird tangent.

Alok Jha (33:06): Have you got a DJ name?

Prem Gill (33:09): I don't, I don't. I mean, I do need a grimy, my friend Jules, he, he's the, he's the man behind the decks on all of this. He has a very fancy studio, but I mean, I guess. This is not my name, but I do sometimes I, there is a weird demo proof of concept album out there by an artist called Sealzy, which yeah is seal plus Stormzy, it's all very, very uncool.

Alok Jha (33:41): Even I know that Stormzy is a very famous grime artist. Even I know that. So yes, Sealzy I'm hoping that when we edit this, that right now, people will be listening to a bit of this Sealzy music.

Alok Jha (33:48): Why does Antarctica matter to you?

Prem Gill (34:15): Antarctica and the polar oceans, it drives life as we know it today, society as we know it today, all the fisheries across the world are driven by, you know, the nutrients exposed from the Southern Ocean, the currents that transport the nutrients, all of this is driving the world as we know it today, it impacts everyone globally. The polar regions which are changing the most rapidly. They are some of the more sensitive regions and they will have some of the largest impacts across the globe. So Antarctica, can't not matter. It, it drives everything.