"Ta da!" says Dan Stavert, our Assistant Expedition Leader striking a dramatic scientist stance. "We're now working for Nasa."
A buzz of excitement ripples through the group as we gather around a computer screen on the deck of the Greg Mortimer, Aurora Expeditions' sleek 126 berth-expedition vessel en route to Antarctica. Below us, an almost lake-like Drake Passage stretches to the horizon. However, our attention focuses skyward.
"Nasa has satellites in space to study Earth's clouds," Dan explains. "Through this cloud survey, we're ground-truthing their data. If the satellite above us picks up data that's way different to ours, it sends an alert to Nasa. Good data helps get rid of errors. It's a matter of quality through quantity."
Via an app (The Globe Program), we discuss, debate and decide our multiple-choice responses to a series of simple, but thought-provoking questions – What does the sky look like? What per cent is cloud-covered? What type of clouds? What shade is the deepest blue part of the sky?
"Clouds affect the atmosphere and vice versa," Dan says. "We know the climate is changing, but what is it going to change to?
Citizen science programs are gaining momentum, especially onboard expedition ships.
"We started the program with a few activities in our last Antarctic season and this year we have eight," says Dr John Kirkwood coordinator of the citizen science program.
After more than 15 years with Aurora Expeditions, and a lifetime in polar and marine research, John sees the program as a way to bridge the gap between the scientists and the general community. "It demystifies science. As a scientist it's rewarding to see how people really get involved in collecting data, knowing it has a real purpose."
Over our 22-night expedition to Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, citizen science opt-in activities are woven into the daily schedule.
Wings and fins
Although many of us spend spare moments outside scanning the skies and seas for wildlife, seabird surveys run for around 40 minutes and are formalised with data sheets then uploaded directly to a scientist through the Oceanites program.
"Any change in the environment due to climate tends to impact seabirds first," John says.
We take turns to scribe, adding satisfying strokes to the tally of each species we spot. Juggling binoculars and long lensed cameras we move around the outside decks orientating what we see like the hands on a clock.
"Giant petrel at 9 o'clock. Albatross – (could be a light-mantled) at 6 o'clock. Porpoising penguins coming through at 4."
Sometimes Antarctic terns suddenly appear out of wave crests. Other times Antarctic shags flap their wings like thrashing machines trying to keep up with the ship, while the maestros of the sky; petrels and albatross, create reflective patterns as their wing-tips dip into the steely water.
As time goes on, we start to recognise the behaviour of the birds as well as their appearance.
It's the same with whale spotting. The tell-tale blow of whale breath can happen anywhere, anytime. If someone snaps a photo of a whale, particularly the underside of a humpback's fluke (tail), they can upload it to Happywhale to have it identified and help scientists track the migration of whales.
What lies beneath
Other citizen science activities happen on excursions. The day I sign up for the Fjord Phyto Zodiac cruise, the weather is bitter. Hunkered down, sleet pelts our bodies swathed in at least five layers as John expertly navigates the Zodiac through a gallery of sapphire-tinged icy masterpieces carved by time. Slushy ice scrapes across the hull and somewhere in the distance a glacier rumbles. It's raw. It's beautiful. And it makes us feel like proper scientists.
Tucking into a sheltered corner of the fjord, John cuts the motor and we set to work.
The word phytoplankton doesn't exactly slip off the tongue, but we soon learn its importance.
"It's the basis of the Antarctic food web and contributes to more than 50 per cent of the Earth's oxygen," John explains as he assembles the equipment. "The project is looking at the impact melting glaciers is having on phytoplankton."
After dragging a small net through the frigid water, we filter out the phytoplankton with a pump. Peering at the couple of blobs of a brownish substance we're left with, it's hard to fathom without these microscopic plant-based organisms drifting in the Southern Ocean, there would be no krill to in turn feed the penguins, seabirds, seals and whales. Not to mention, every second breath we take.
Keeping it pristine
Another project has us on our hands and knees with bemused penguins as an audience.
Microplastics are a threat to all waterways on Earth. Through The Big Microplastics Survey, a collaboration between the University of Portsmouth and Just One Ocean, our job is simple. Without disturbing any habitat, after scooping the surface of several small areas along a shoreline, we mix the sand with seawater before sieving it through to trap any plastic fragments.
Over the 3197.81 nautical miles we travel, a mighty cheer goes up at each of the four sites across the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands where we test for microplastics and detect none.
Citizen science projects are a way for little things to contribute to the bigger picture. "By connecting and engaging with the environment, we hope people then become ambassadors," says John.
The ripple effect is a powerful tool.
For information on upcoming expeditions with Aurora Expeditions, see auroraexpeditions.com.au