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Cancelled Antarctic killer whale study reinstated following 1 NEWS story

A high-profile Antarctic study cancelled by the University of Canterbury (UC) has been saved and will be reinstated following revelations aired by 1 NEWS.

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Researchers secured support from Antarctica New Zealand to head to the ice. Source: 1 NEWS

Killer whale researcher Dr Regina Eisert has secured the support she needs to head to the ice as an independent scientist, after parting ways with the university, and will continue her expedition as planned.

Government agency Antarctica New Zealand has confirmed it will offer logistical support to Dr Eisert for the seven week expedition, due to start next month, providing certain requirements are met now the scientist is working outside of a university.

UC had decided to cancel the expedition, looking at killer whales in the Ross Sea, and cited a “complex employment matter”.

However, following questions from 1 NEWS, it made a quick U-turn and opted to pay out the scientist’s contract and allowed her to pursue the trip independently.

It’s understood the university has now decided to support the study behind the scenes, offering financial support, storage space and use of a certain permit, in a complete turn-around from their previous decision.

They would not comment today other than to say the university is “delighted to have resolved this matter to the mutual benefit of both parties”.

Dr Eisert spoke out for the first time after the news, thanking the university for changing its mind.

“It's a massive shambles, but I'm really glad that everyone's sort of stepped up to the plate and dealt with it,” she says.

“We all need to sort to put some of these issues aside, and say what's actually really important here, and I'm very pleased and very grateful how people have stepped up to make that happen.”

The study was the third year of an ongoing monitoring project, analysing how killer whales are responding to a new marine protected area (MPA) in the Ross Sea, which protects one of their major food sources.

It is largely independently funded through a grant, given directly to Dr Eisert.

The scientist says the trouble began when Antarctica New Zealand sent a routine “support level agreement”, or ‘SLA’, to the university to outline the considerable taxpayer-funded support they were willing to give to the expedition.

“It’s actually an offer, it's basically a grant they're giving us, where they say we'll give you this many helicopter hours, and we'll give you this much support, and so on,” she says.

“The host institution needs to sign that, and it's really just acknowledgement, saying ‘yeah, great, we'll agree that you're providing this support to our scientist’, and that's the bit where it got hung up, and that didn't get signed, and then everything sort of went south from there.”

She says the decision not to sign the SLA at such a late stage, following months of planning, was unprecedented.

“That was very surprising, and I don't think this has ever happened to Antarctica New Zealand before,” she says.

“I'm not surprised that they didn't know initially how to deal with it, because it throws all their planning into disarray as well, because they do things like arrange extra helicopters, and so on, and they make a lot of arrangements so they can't suddenly undo and give to somebody else.”

Antarctica New Zealand approved the new independent approach and a team of five will now fly down to the ice next month as planned, including young master’s degree student Shanelle Dyer.

She joined the team after winning a prestigious Antarctic scholarship will study Weddell seals.

“It's super exciting, because I mean I've been working on this for a year and a half, and to actually physically get to be there and do the work hands on, that's really exciting,” she says.

The former head of Antarctic policy at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Stuart Prior, was delighted to hear the trip was back on.
“It is a very wise decision for this research to go ahead,” he says.

“It is a third year, of a three year project, in the course of the three years in my experience it has already attracted international attention.”

The university is now supporting the very science, it once tried to cancel.