Jan 27: Process Study 2

Post by VIMS graduate student Lori Price

After our little break at Avian Island we immediately began our second of three Process Studies. This process study is focused in the waters surrounding Avian Island to look at the environment where the penguins are feeding and the quality/types of the food the penguins are eating.

The set-up for the CO2 experiments.
The set-up of Grace Saba's CO2 experiment features large gas cylinders hooked up to bottles to bubble varying amounts of gas to achieve different levels of CO2. The gray screening simulates the light levels that the organisms experience at the depth the water was collected (about 10-meters deep). The bottles are inside the large gray tubs. Photo by Grace Saba.

The intensive study began with Dr. Grace Saba, one of our phytoplankton post-doctoral researchers (and her team of helpers), setting up a complicated CO2 addition experiment to see how different levels of carbon dioxide affect the phytoplankton, bacterial, and viral communities. She had previously done an experiment at the beginning of the cruise to test the effects of increased CO2 levels on krill. These experiments involve very intensive set-up and sampling every few days and their entire group has been working very hard and they have already been seeing some interesting preliminary results!

Researchers sample zooplankton.
Caitlin Smoot (L) and Kim Bernard (R) pick large zooplankton from a net tow, then bring the rest of the sample into the lab to finish sorting. Photo by Ken Legg.

We then moved on for some intense sampling, hitting stations that were only about an hour apart and doing the full suite of sample collection at each station, including all of our net tows. Our sample processing rapidly got backed up and we had to slightly alter the way we were processing our tows to make sure we finished in time.  About halfway through the Process Study we received satellite tracks from three of the penguins the bird researchers had tagged when we dropped them off on Avian Island.  Based on those tracks, we shifted our sampling to include the locations where the penguins were feeding just a few days prior and continued our intense sampling.

Needless to say, we all worked around the clock to finish processing our samples, and even had time to squeeze in some experiments. It was an exhausting Process Study but in the end will provide very valuable information in the area where thousands of breeding penguins feed. And again, another perfectly timed break was scheduled for us to visit Rothera Station, the British base on the Peninsula that hosts the British Antarctic Survey and some of our British collaborators.

Jan 25: Avian and Adelaide Islands!

After a few weeks of living on a boat it was nice to set foot on dry land again when we visited Adelaide Island, a rocky island located just off the edge of the Antarctic continent.

Post by William and Mary undergraduate Caitlin Smoot

After a few weeks of living on a boat it was nice to set foot on dry land again when we visited Adelaide Island, a rocky island located just off the edge of the Antarctic continent.

Penguins on Avian Island.
Penguins on Avian Island.

Before our day trip to Adelaide Island we dropped some birders from our group off at nearby Avian Island. Avian Island is home to thousands of penguins. The birders spend a week living on the island and studying the penguin colony. As you can imagine, living on a rocky island filled with penguins can be pretty rustic. The birders subsist on dehydrated food and collect diet samples from penguins. How do you collect a diet sample from a penguin? You can’t just ask it to share its food with you. The birders temporarily capture a penguin, fill its stomach with warm water to make it throw up, and then collect the vomit in a bucket. The birders bring the stomach contents back to the lab to study later. It sounds pretty gross, but it allows the birders to get a better idea of what exactly the penguins are eating.

After a few weeks of living on a boat it was nice to set foot on dry land again when we visited Adelaide Island, a rocky island located just off the edge of the Antarctic continent.
VIMS researchers approach Adelaide Island aboard a Zodiac.

After we dropped the birders off at Avian Island, the rest of the group made our way to nearby Adelaide Island. We took Zodiac boats from the Gould to the island. Zodiacs are small inflatable boats that hold around ten people each. The short trip to the island was beautiful. From the Zodiacs we could see penguins swimming in the water and then shooting out of the water to rest on icebergs. We also saw huge elephant seals, which can weigh thousands of pounds, resting on the rocky shores. From a distance the large elephant seals look like sausage links!

The abandoned Chilean science base on Adelaide Island.
The abandoned Chilean science base on Adelaide Island.

Once we arrived at Adelaide Island we spent the afternoon exploring. There is an abandoned Chilean science base on the island that is kind of spooky! When the base was abandoned the Chileans left many supplies and other items like food, books, and pictures behind. There was even an abandoned pool table.

Most people hiked around the island to stretch their legs after living on the boat. The island offers some great views of snowy mountains and deep blue water studded by bright white icebergs. Several skuas also live on the island. Skuas are large brownish grey birds that feed on penguin chicks. They can be pretty territorial; they will dive bomb you if you get too close to their nests. We were careful to keep our distance!

Despite the amazing wildlife, great views, and spooky abandoned base, my favorite part of the trip to Adelaide Island was the silence. I didn’t realize how noisy life on the ship was until I was sitting on the rocks at Adelaide Island listening to the sound of the water lapping at the shore. It was a welcome break from the exciting, if sometimes noisy, life aboard the Gould.

Jan 19: Mooring Recoveries and Some Bad Weather

Posting by VIMS graduate student Kate Ruck.

The LTER cruise was designed to happen every austral summer (Dec.-Jan. in the southern hemisphere) for a couple of different reasons:

  1. This is the most productive time in the ocean waters of our sampling grid. There are plenty of phytoplankton (single-celled plants), which means there are plenty of animals eating the phytoplankton.
  2. It’s the time of year when the waters around the peninsula are the most accessible by boat, because all of the sea ice that built up during the winter has now melted.
  3. The weather is usually at its mildest during the summer, maximizing the number of days that we’re able to work while out at sea.

But we are in Antarctica and the weather can change very quickly. Recently, I helped to deploy a net during my shift on a relatively calm, overcast day, only to retrieve it about 30 minutes later in 30-knot winds and growing swells. The bad weather persisted for the next couple of days. The winds never got bad enough to stop our work, but they were persistently strong and the ocean swells reached about 15 ft. The boat was rolling so much that it was tossing loose equipment off of our workbenches and we could see water washing over the portholes in our labs. During this time we had to retrieve a few moorings that have been sitting in the ocean since we deployed them last year, making for a couple of exciting moments on the back deck.

Marine technicians aboard the Laurence M. Gould recover a sediment trap from the waters of the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo courtesy of Kate Ruck.
Marine technicians aboard the Laurence M. Gould recover a sediment trap from the waters of the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo courtesy of Kate Ruck.

A mooring is basically an instrument that’s suspended in the water column with a heavy weight on one end that sits on the sea floor and some type of buoyancy on the other end that keeps the whole set-up upright. We have two types of moorings that we use in our work; a sediment trap and four temperature/depth moorings.

The sediment trap is a big funnel-shaped contraption that sits 150 meters below the surface of the ocean and collects particles that are sinking from the surface waters toward the sea floor. The particles are collected in the funnel and then deposited in large, plastic bottles that contain a preservative. The trap is set on a timer, so the bottles will rotate and we can collect samples from very specific times during the year. The bottles are set to smaller time increments during the austral summer, when the ocean is more productive and there are more particles in the water, and for longer times increments during the winter when the ocean is less productive and there is a low particle level in the water.

The summer is so productive down here because when we’re this far south on the globe there is a longer period of daytime light then there is further north. And when you get below the Antarctic Circle (which we crossed a few days ago) you can get 24 hours of full sunlight. The high levels of light fuel phytoplankton growth, which in turn supports a large, high-energy food web. When all that life eventually dies, it sinks through the water column and is either buried on the ocean floor or acts as a food source for animals that live below the surface waters of the ocean. The sediment trap is useful because we can measure how much of that productivity in the surface waters is sinking to depth.

The temperature-depth mooring is a much simpler concept. It’s constructed from a very long piece of rope (~350 meters) with sensors attached at regular intervals. The sensors measure their depth from the surface and the temperature of the surrounding water. These measurements are taken every 15 minutes and we download all of the data when we pick the mooring up the next year. This huge amount of information is useful because there is a lot of warm water coming up onto the Antarctic continental shelf, which is melting the sea ice around the peninsula. Having the sensors at different depths in the water column, in different places around the waters of the peninsula, can help us pinpoint where exactly all that warm water is coming from.

PAL-LTER researchers and crew recover a mooring under high seas. Photo courtesy of Kate Ruck.
PAL-LTER researchers and crew recover a mooring under high seas. Photo courtesy of Kate Ruck.

We collected three of the temperature/depth moorings while the weather was rough. To collect a mooring, our electronics technician (ET for short) sends a radio signal that disconnects the mooring from its weight, and then the buoys attached to the mooring rise to the surface where they are spotted by a group of people on the bridge. A bunch of us collect outside on the back deck while the captain repositions the boat to get near the mooring and then one of our marine technicians (MTs) throws a grappling line to catch the mooring rope and then everyone helps to pull the mooring line on board. It’s not an easy task when the weather is rough. The captain wants to get the mooring as close to the stern of the boat as possible, which means he has to back the boat into some pretty large waves. Our poor MTs were getting wave after wave crashing on their heads as they were tossing the line, trying to hook a mooring that’s bobbing up and down in the waves. They’re strapped to a short safety line that’s set up like a dog run, allowing them to move port to starboard on the deck but keeping them about half a foot from the open ocean at the ship’s edge. Once they hook the mooring and haul it on board, they pass back the ropes and sensors to the science crew and the whole set up is hand-carried inside to be disassembled. It was a couple of exciting days to break up the routine of our usual station work.

Jan 17: Time for Science!

We reach our first oceanographic sampling station and began to collect zooplankton using three different nets.

Post by VIMS graduate student Lori Price

Shortly after leaving Palmer Station we reached our first oceanographic sampling station and began our science! We are part of the Palmer Long-Term Ecological Research project (PAL-LTER) which has been sampling the marine ecosystem along the Western Antarctic Peninsula for about 20 years now.

There are several scientists involved in this project—a physical oceanographer who studies the water masses and currents, a bacterial guy who studies, yes … bacteria, a phytoplankton guy who also operates gliders, Debbie the zooplankton person, and people that study the seabirds. Gliders are autonomous underwater vehicles—a fancy phrase for a torpedo-shaped vehicle that glides in the water, collecting information on water quality. It’s the latest, greatest piece of technology being used by oceanographers.

Each scientist has their own team of technicians and graduate students that help out with the research and do some side projects on their own. At each regular sampling station (which takes about 7 hours to complete), each group has their own task to perform to collect samples, which becomes like routine clockwork after the first few stations (unless something goes wrong or breaks … knock on wood). These stations are laid out like a grid along the Peninsula from north to south, extending about 200 kilometers (120 miles) offshore. We sample the same stations every year, providing a nice long-term dataset.

Chance (black hard hat), one of the marine technicians, and Caitlin (white hard hat) deploy the 2-meter net. Photo by Joe Cope.

At each regular station our zooplankton group collects critters using three different nets—a very large square-frame net (2m x 2m) to collect larger zooplankton like krill and salps (gelatinous animals, kind of like jellyfish that don’t sting), a smaller square-frame net (1m x 1m) to collect smaller animals (like copepods), and a small ring net (0.5 m) to collect microzooplankton (very tiny single-celled zooplankton). The nets are attached to a cable and towed behind the ship to a certain depth. There is a bucket (called a cod end) at the end of the net that collects all of the zooplankton. When the net is brought on board we dump everything that we catch into a big tub. All of the animals we catch in the two larger nets are sorted and counted live on the ship. Most of the critters are large enough that we can easily identify them, although sometimes microscopes are needed for the slightly smaller zooplankton that we catch. The contents of the small net are preserved immediately and processed in the lab back home.

Researchers get the MOCNESS ready to deploy. The section of the back deck painted yellow is the “danger zone.” If you’re standing there when the back doors are open, you must be tied into the ship. Photo by Miram Gleiber

At three stations called “process study stations” spaced out along the grid close to penguin feeding areas, we stay for about three days and do more in-depth sampling. Our zooplankton group does day and night MOCNESS tows at these stations. MOCNESS stands for Multiple Opening and Closing Net Environmental Sensing System and is a large, complicated frame that can hold ten nets at a time. The nets can be triggered to open and close at different depths so that we can sample the zooplankton community at specific depths. We do day and night tows because some zooplankton are known to vertically migrate. This means that they are found in the surface waters at night in the cover of darkness to feed, and then they migrate deeper during the day to avoid being eaten by some predators that rely on their eyesight to hunt and feed in the surface waters. Using the MOCNESS, we can sample specific depths during the day and night to see if any of the zooplankton species show this behavior.

In addition to the MOCNESS and our regular net tows, I do experiments for my thesis research at these process studies. I do two experiments, called dilution experiments, that measure microzooplankton grazing on phytoplankton and bacteria. They are very time-consuming to set-up and take down, but I always have someone to help me to make things go quicker and also to make it more fun. Dilution experiments are kind of tricky to do and don’t always work exactly how you would like them to, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this year they will go well.  I’ll keep you posted.

Our group also does fecal-pellet production experiments to measure how much the krill and salps are pooping. Not only do we measure how much they poop, but we also do sinking rate experiments to measure how fast the krill and salp poop pellets sink. That literally involves putting a piece of poop in a clear tube of seawater and timing how long it takes to fall a certain distance. We have poop races sometimes. This might sound a little bit ridiculous, but it’s actually very important. The ocean removes a lot of the carbon dioxide that’s in the atmosphere, which phytoplankton use when they photosynthesize (if you remember your Intro to Bio class, plants use CO2 for photosynthesis, removing it from the atmosphere). Zooplankton eat the phytoplankton, packaging them into fecal pellets that they poop out. Some of the fecal pellets break down in the surface waters and the carbon in them in released, but some fecal pellets make it to the ocean floor and the carbon in them is buried by sediment. This cycling of carbon by zooplankton, part of the “biological pump,” removes carbon from the atmosphere and puts it in the deep ocean. So, poop really is important!!  Especially today with the ever-rising CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.  And we think it’s fun playing with poop sometimes too!

Jan 14: Palmer Port Call

Post by VIMS graduate student Kate Ruck.

Before we can really start our work, the Laurence M. Gould (LMG) needs to make a stop at Palmer Station to unload fresh food and supplies for people onshore and to also pick up some people and lab equipment that we’ll need for the cruise.

Palmer Station is one of the three United States bases in Antarctica, with South Pole and McMurdo being the other two. It is the mid-sized station of the three, with the population maxing out somewhere between 40 and 50 people, while McMurdo is the largest (~2,000) and South Pole is the smallest (20 to 30). It’s located on the southern end of the beautiful Anvers Island in the western Antarctic Peninsula, tucked in and slightly sheltered from the open Southern Ocean.

Our stop at Palmer Station is always a little bittersweet. We say goodbye to some of the people that we’ve gotten to know and enjoy during the Drake crossing, scientists that use the LMG as a passenger ship instead of a research platform. But we also say hello to members of our own team who have been living and working at Palmer Station since October. They’ve been working from the labs on station and they also use zodiacs, basically heavy duty inflatable rafts, to sample the waters in the immediate vicinity. The boating limit around Palmer station is about 2 miles, encompassing a large number of islands that support a number of marine bird populations. All science is pretty much restricted to this area, but teams from station work hard to make the most of the natural world that is available to them.

The port call is usually a very busy time; off-loading cargo, on-loading whole labs, using the scales and chemical supplies at station to fill in the gaps we’ve noticed in our own labs on the boat. But during our brief stay, we usually manage to squeeze in some last minute shore time and a bit of sight-seeing for the people who have never been to station before. One of the stops usually includes a zodiac ride to an Adelie penguin colony on one of the nearby islands. Half of the island is open to visitors and we’re allowed to walk around, observing the adult penguins huddling over their already large chicks. Predatory skuas fly by overhead, waiting for an opening provided by a careless parent. Skuas have also been known to be interested in the humans that come to the island, with stories of this very large bird trying to snatch the hat right from your head.

We also make time for a quick hike around the “backyard,” a large stretch of rocky land behind Palmer Station. This stretch of land behind the station includes rocky hills that lead up to a small glacier, which we’re allowed to walk up to get a better view of the beautiful surrounding islands, water, and mountains. The only dangers associated with the glacier are the deep crevasses that form and a safe path created and marked with threadbare blue flags. Ice all around Palmer Station has been receding over the years, opening up dangerous crevasses that can be very deep.

The day ends with station extending an invitation to the boat inhabitants to have dinner “cross-town.” It’s meant to be a bit of a joke, as the entrance to the station galley is only about 30 meters from the gangplank of the boat. This is a very kind gesture by the station folk, as it essentially doubles the amount of food that their cooks have to prepare. It’s also something that the group from the boat values because the food on station is so amazingly delicious! After about a day and a half of steady work and some late afternoon socializing, we’re ready to begin our cruise.

Jan 5: Drake Passage

We were scheduled to leave port on the 29th for the 4-day journey across the Drake Passage to Palmer Station. However, the blizzard that crippled the U.S. East Coast left some of our scientists from New Jersey, Delaware, and Boston stranded.

Post by VIMS graduate student Lori Price

Greetings from aboard the Antarctic research and supply vessel Laurence M. Gould, which we will call home for about the next month! We have almost completely crossed the Drake Passage and are a couple of hours from arriving at Palmer Station, a U.S. research base located on the Antarctic Peninsula.

The research vessel Laurence M. Gould, Photo by Deb Steinberg.

For most of us, our journey began on Monday, Dec. 27 with a 24-hour flight to Punta Arenas, a small city at the southern tip of Chile where the ship was docked. We were scheduled to leave port on the 29th for the 4-day journey across the Drake Passage to Palmer Station. However, the blizzard that crippled the U.S. East Coast left some of our scientists from New Jersey, Delaware, and Boston stranded. After countless frustrating hours on the phone with the airlines, they finally got their flights rescheduled for a few days later. Our last passenger arrived in Punta Arenas the evening of January 1 and we left as soon as she was on board.

Fortunately, everyone from our zooplankton group made it to Punta Arenas as scheduled and we had plenty of time to make sure we had all of our supplies and were able to completely set up our lab. Our zooplankton group includes Debbie Steinberg: the principal investigator for the zooplankton component of the project; Joe Cope (Debbie’s long-time technician); Kim Bernard (a VIMS post-doctoral researcher who we’ll pick up from Palmer Station where she has been since October); Kate Ruck (one of Debbie’s Master’s students); Caitlin Smoot (a recent graduate of William and Mary); and myself—Lori Price—Debbie’s other Master’s student.

These past couple days on the ship have been slow and relaxing because there isn’t too much we can do before we start our science (other than the set-up, which we’ve already done). It’s been great catching up with old friends many of us have worked with before, and getting to know the new scientists and crewmembers on board the ship. There has been a lot of reading, catching up on sleep, watching movies, and playing board and card games. I have actually been working a little bit to get ready for the experiments I will do on the cruise. I have to make sure the bottles I use are extremely clean so I acid-wash them, which includes soaking them in 10% HCl (a weak acid solution to remove any residue that might be in the bottles) and rinsing them five … yes five … times with extra clean filtered water. It takes a long time and is very monotonous, but Caitlin has been helping me out a lot to make it go much faster.

VIMS graduate student Lori Price deploys an XBT (expendable bathy-thermograph) in the middle of the Drake Passage. The device measures water temperature and depth. Photo by Tim Hollibaugh.

We have also been taking turns participating in a survey of the Drake Passage, which the ship does each time it crosses the Drake. We drop probes called XBTs (expendable bathy-thermographs) about every 45 minutes to measure water temperature with depth. The data are sent back to someone in the States who then keeps track of the currents and water masses in this area (different water temperatures indicate different water masses). At certain locations we also collect water with the flow-through system on the ship to analyze for salt content, nutrients, and other water properties. We take four-hour shifts to help with this data collection, which is a fun way to break up the monotony of the crossing and get to know other passengers at the same time.

This crossing has been perfect—the weather has been great and the seas have been very calm, which we are always grateful for considering the Drake Passage can have some of the worst seas in the world. I have heard stories of horrible crossings, but this is my third year going down to Antarctica and I have yet to experience a bad crossing. I hope to keep it that way. We will reach Palmer Station this afternoon, spend the rest of today and tomorrow offloading supplies for station and loading supplies and equipment that we will need for the cruise. If everything goes as planned, we will leave the morning of Friday, Jan. 7 to begin our sampling. Everyone is well rested now because we will need all of our energy when the science begins!

VIMS Blogs

VIMS Blogs provide first-hand accounts from faculty, staff, and students at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science as they conduct research in Chesapeake Bay and beyond. The blogs also give you the opportunity to interact by posting questions and comments. Learn about the thrill of scientific discovery and the agony of da’ muddy feet!

Our student, faculty and staff bloggers are all volunteers and we are enormously grateful for their collective stories about VIMS research.

The statements and opinions expressed in the blog posts and subsequent comments do not represent the official position or policy of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science or the College of William & Mary. In the spirit of community and conversation, comments are allowed and encouraged. However, VIMS reserves the right to remove any comments deemed inappropriate, offensive, or not on topic.