January 17 – On the Open Seas

Post from William & Mary undergraduate student Kharis Schrage

When our research team set off from Palmer Station last week, I’d like to think the real research began.

Picture1Our cruise has scientists from all over the United States studying a variety of topics, from marine mammals to hydrology, phytoplankton, and our team’s focus on zooplankton. Along with our studies, there is a grid of oceanographic stations along the West Antarctic Peninsula that are sampled every year during these cruises. At each of these stations, a “CTD” sensor is cast to collect data on water Conductivity and Temperature at different Depths. (see Mar Arroyo’s previous post). While this is occurring, the whale biologists go out in the Zodiac, and our team deploys two nets off the back deck. When our nets come up, each needs to be processed—which requires sorting, counting, and measuring all the contents.

Picture2We mostly focus on shrimp-like crustaceans called krill, but there are other cool things like juvenile fish and squid, planktonic snails, and jellyfish! It takes anywhere between two and eight hours to complete the processing, so we usually complete two to three cycles per day. We did a few special net tows on the first day called MOCNESS (multiple opening closing environmental sensory system), which is a big fancy contraption with eight nets that open and close at discrete depths, so we pulled a 36-hour day!

Picture3The boat operates 24 hours a day and I’m on the night shift (midnight to noon) with Joe and Katie (a volunteer from Texas A&M Galveston), while Debbie, Tricia, and Jack are on the day shift. Luckily there are Midnight rations, or “midrats,” so we get to have some breakfast when we wake up. The best part about being on the night shift is that we get to see both the sunset and the sunrise! At this point, both occur only about an hour apart, so the sun dips below the horizon while the sky stays colorful, and then it pops back up nearby. They are by far the most beautiful I’ve ever seen!

Picture5The boat rocks a bit when we get seas more than a few feet so we have to keep all the drawers in the lab locked. Thankfully, we have no-slip place mats in the galley to keep our food in front of us. Tricia’s birthday was this past week, so we decorated the lab and the cook made her a cake at lunchtime. We watch movies in the lounge when we’re traveling between stations, and we have just started a ship-wide cribbage tournament! Jack taught me how to play last week so I’m ready to go!

Picture6The other day we found sea ice. We broke through it slowly but surely. The crunching was really loud and it jostled the boat a lot, but there were seals everywhere so it was really cool! Yesterday, we dropped the birders off at a field camp on Avian Island where they will camp for the next four days studying penguins. While we were waiting for them to get settled in, we got to take a Zodiac ride around and look at the glaciers and penguins and seals. It was spectacular! Now we are on our way to our next station, so back to work!

– Kharis