Watch Biologist Mia Cerfonteyn at Work

How a cat person from South Africa finds herself studying oversized seabirds in the sub-Antarctic

Mia Cerfonteyn is a South African biologist who researched seabirds in the sub-Antarctic and Antarctica. She loves the interconnected nature of science and has studied botany, zoology and even forensic science. These interests and her love for the ocean led to her current field: marine microbiology. She now lives in Reykjavík, Iceland where she researches phytoplankton diversity and abundance in the ocean for her PhD based at the University of Iceland and Matís. 

 As a child I loved reading and hanging out with my pet cat, Suzie. I read the book Born Free by Joy Adamson, which told the story of a woman raising a lion cub and their beautiful friendship. The hope of one day befriending my own lion led me to study zoology. Since then, science has taken me on many unexpected and exciting adventures. I lived on the volcanic and sub-Antarctic Marion Island for a year researching albatrosses and catching the soft, massive birds with their 3-meter wingspans. I sailed to Antarctica to observe cute penguins drifting past on icebergs and watched the startling white Snow-Petrels gliding through the sky. The great thing about science is that it makes you part of an international community, and you end up with new friends all over the world. 

“So far I have yet to befriend a lion cub, but my adventure has just begun”.

Marion Island
I’m catching a Wandering albatross on Marion Island. These birds live at sea and only come to the island to breed. They have the longest wingspan of any bird at up to 3.5 meters! Photo credit: Chris Oosthuizen 2011
The first time I caught a Wandering Albatross! You have to hold their bills, because they bite HARD. As soft as they are, they don’t much like being hugged. Photo credit: Ben Dilley 2010
Summer in Antarctica
Summer in Antarctica, where the sun shines for 24 hours a day! The temperatures might be freezing, but when the sun shines I can imagine I’m back in South Africa. Photo credit: Mia Cerfonteyn 2015
Adelie penguins
I love travelling by ship, especially when it takes me to weird and wonderful places. On the ice you can just sit and watch the adorable Adelie penguins waddle past you. Photo credit: Hardie Pienaar 2015
Caterpillar tractors
When we’re not on ships, we get to travel over the Antarctic continent by Caterpillar tractors. They moved super slowly, but it was so much fun! Photo credit: Mia Cerfonteyn 2015
All seabirds, fish, and marine mammals depend on the food produced by our oceans. Here I am catching zooplankton (tiny sea animals) with a net to see how much food there is in the waters around Iceland. Photo credit: Anouk Lyver 2017
When I don’t have a ship, I just go down to the Reykjavík harbor to sample phytoplankton (tiny plants that live in the sea). They are so beautiful to look at under the microscope! Science is everywhere. Photo credit: Mia Cerfonteyn 2018
After all of my adventures, I need to go back to the laboratory at Matís in Iceland to analyze my samples. Here I’m extracting DNA from my samples to help identify the different phytoplankton species I caught. CSI style! Photo credit: Kristín Edda Gylfadóttir 2018

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