February 8: Coming to a Close

Blog post by William & Mary undergraduate student Kharis Schrage.

When Jack left off last week, I was the murderer in our ship-wide game. I was on the night shift, but there were people I had to kill off at dinner, so I woke up to kill them, but then at 11:30 pm I was challenged and killed off with just 30 minutes to go. We started a new murder game with specific targets, locations, and “murder weapons” – Debbie took out both Tricia and me. My demise came via a guitar and Tricia’s via a bucket. In other game news, Tricia is the only one from our lab still in the cribbage tournament – we’re banking on her!

EDSC_03370 copyAnyways, we deployed moorings and sediment traps on our way up from Charcot last week, which apparently went well! We cleaned up the lab and inventoried everything, entered data, and packed. We even had a King Neptune Ceremony where us “pollywogs” who hadn’t passed through the Polar Circle before were “tried for our crimes against King Neptune” by the “shellbacks” and had to perform a skit to appease him! Joe got to be King Neptune, Debbie was his Queen, and Jack was their baby! We made a whole morning celebration of it – it was lots of fun!

The last few days before Palmer Station, we spent in the northern bays so that the whale team could work. For a few days, anytime we went out on deck we were practically guaranteed a whale sighting. In Wilhelmina Bay, we saw dozens of humpbacks (and took hundreds of pictures)! It was spectacular! We even got to go on zodiac rides to watch them bubble feed. Our last evening there we saw a family breaching, and that was especially exciting!

FFDSC_0034 copyAt Palmer we all took a final hike up the glacier – it was nice to stretch our legs after being on the boat for a few weeks. After lunch, we got to go to Tourgison Island to see the Adelie penguin colony! There are a few hundred penguins on the island. They smelled pretty bad, but they’re also really cute, so it was worth it. We had to stay back an appropriate distance, but sometimes they approached us while we were sitting which was cool. The chicks are just growing out of their fluff and looked kind of funny! They were chasing adults all over the place trying to get food. That evening Jack and I did the Polar Plunge and then hit the hot tub. It was a great end to our trip.

Monday we started our journey home. It is quite bitter sweet. I have had such a great time getting to know everyone and experiencing this place. It has been the most incredible, surreal few weeks. The science went well, the people were fun, the wildlife was amazing, and the scenery was fantastic. We could not have asked for a better cruise.

Dr. Deborah Steinberg (L) with Kharis Schrage.
Dr. Deborah Steinberg (L) with Kharis Schrage.

– Kharis


February 1: Charcot Island

Post from VIMS graduate student John “Jack” Conroy.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

2305 local time

64 30.81 S 66 04.56 W

This is the 25th year of Palmer Antarctic Long-Term Ecological Research (Pal LTER), but the far southern region of our study area has only been included within the past decade. There had been Adelie Penguin sightings along the southern end of the Western Antarctic Peninsula, but it was unclear where these birds were living. In 2008, the Pal LTER group went searching for southern Adelie colonies. They initially didn’t find anything, but close scrutiny of pictures from Charcot Island revealed pink splotches dotted with black and white. Black and white specks, of course, were tuxedoed Adelie penguins, and the pink came from their krill-colored poo. The LTER group realized current charts misplaced Charcot Island and proceeded to map the surrounding area. These efforts revealed a submarine canyon akin to those driving high productivity near Palmer Station and Avian Island where they had been studying penguin colonies for over two decades.

Charcot Island as we are slowly making our way out of the sea ice (Photo by Debbie Steinberg)

Adding Charcot Island to the research area made it possible to expand the hypothesis that a climate gradient along the Peninsula is driving the ecosystem. The northern region of the Antarctic Peninsula has undergone the world’s most rapid winter warming over recent decades and has transitioned from a cold, dry polar climate to a warmer, wetter conditions. Therefore, studying the ecosystem in the south informs our historic understanding of the northern region before its climate shift. However, heavy sea ice has prevented the Laurence M. Gould from making it to Charcot Island since 2013, and we were eager to venture further south this year. 

Emperor penguin on ice floe (Photo by Joe Cope)
Emperor penguin on ice floe (Photo by Joe Cope)

The ice reports were not looking great, and Captain Ernest half-joked, “We’ll make it to Charcot. The question is how we’ll get out.” Easterly winds pushed ice offshore and helped loosen up conditions near Charcot. We made it and the bird ecologists were able to census the small Adelie penguin colony on the island. All the other science groups sampled coastal waters and in the submarine canyon. We found high abundances of krill supporting the penguin population. Progress was slow for a few days as we pushed our way through sea ice, but we but we are back in the open water and on schedule. 

The scene of my murder (Photo by Tricia Thibodeau)
The scene of my murder (Photo by Tricia Thibodeau)

We are played a game called “Murder” on board. An individual holding the Queen of Spades can eliminate other people, but only if they are alone. I had a nice run as the killer but was ousted after an aggressive spree. Don’t tell anyone, but Kharis is the murderer now. The game ends at midnight.

– Jack

January 26: The Rothera Pitstop

Post written by VIMS graduate student John “Jack” Conroy.

1611 local time

69 35.99 S 75 37.01 W

Laurence M. Gould tied up at Rothera (Photo: Debbie Steinberg)
Laurence M. Gould tied up at Rothera (Photo: Debbie Steinberg)

Early Saturday morning, we arrived at the British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera Research Station on Adelaide Island. This marked the halfway point in our thirty days of research west of the Antarctic Peninsula. The Rothera pitstop has become a tradition on the Palmer Antarctica Long-Term Ecological Research cruise. Most of us on the Laurence M. Gould were craned over to solid land via the ship’s “man basket,” a small platform surrounded by ropes. As we were offloaded, men and women living at the British base were lifted onto the Gould. Both groups had been looking forward to Saturday as a nice change of pace from life on ship or station. A group stayed behind on the ship to host the Brits as they spent the day sailing near the island, eating large American meals, getting some productive science done, and trading stories.

Snow cat on the glacier as we prepared to hike up the glacier (Photo: Joe Cope)
Snow cat on the glacier as we prepared to hike up the glacier (Photo: Joe Cope)

The rest of us were welcomed with tremendous hospitality on station. After light English breakfast fare, we split up into groups for the day’s activities. Debbie went on a flight along the Peninsula to survey whales and to scout ice conditions. They saw about 35 humpback and minke whales, even catching pictures of them as they fed on krill and pooped! Tricia and Kharis went skiing down one of the mountains surrounding Rothera, getting rides on snow mobiles for run after run. Joe and I joined a group in a snow cat (little truck with snow treads) for a bumpy ride up a glacier. We jumped out and tied up to one another as we marched to the end to the end of the glacier and then scrambled up a rocky peak for an incredible view of the area. All of us went on an afternoon stroll around Rothera Point surrounded by seals, penguins, and ice bergs. 

The afternoon’s main event was a soccer match held on the runway, pitting the heavily-favored Rothera against the Gould. This annual game had been on hold for a couple years, and we were eager to renew the friendly rivalry. Chief Scientist Oscar Schofield (Rutgers) put on an inspired performance in goal, holding Rothera to a single, measly goal. Kharis led the Gould attack, but a few close misses kept us off the scoreboard. Veterans suggest this was the strongest American performance since the legendary 1-0 victory in 2011. We ended the day with “band night” as musical groups from the British base put on quite a show!

– Jack

Everybody was still friendly after the soccer match.
Everybody was still friendly after the soccer match.

January 25: A Full Week of Science

Post by the VIMS Palmer-LTER Research Team

Screen Shot 2017-01-26 at 2.37.39 PMAfter dropping off the birders at Avian Island, we had a full week of science ahead of us. We traversed 100’s of kilometers to sample near the coast and offshore in the deeper regions of the peninsula. When we reach a predetermined station (i.e., sampling location), collaborating labs on the ship deploy an AC-9 that measures turbidity and particle size in the water. The Conductivity, Temperature, Depth (CTD) is then deployed to the bottom of our station. When we sample near the coast, the bottom depth is relatively shallow (~300 m) so it takes less than an hour for the CTD to return to the surface. However, at the deeper, offshore stations we reach up to 3000 m and the cast can take 3 hours!

1A fun thing we do at our deep stations is to send the CTD down with colored Styrofoam cups which shrink to more than half their size due to the immense pressure they are exposed to at 3000 m. It is a fun keepsake to give to friends and family upon our return from the cruise. Once the CTD has returned to the surface, it is time for our zooplankton tows! We do a two meter (2×2 meter) square net with a large mesh size to catch large zooplankton like krill. We then deploy a smaller 1 meter (1×1 meter) net to catch smaller zooplankton such as copepods. Occasionally we will also do additional tows to catch animals to be used in experiments.

Limacina helicina antarctica
Limacina helicina antarctica

Dr. Steinberg has been using Antarctic Krill, Euphausia superba, and gelatinous salps, Salpa thompsoni, to conduct fecal pellet experiments as a way to measure zooplankton contribution to carbon flux (through poop!) in the WAP. Her Ph.D. student, Tricia, is also conducting experiments with an open ocean snail called a pteropod. Tricia is interested in determining how increasing temperatures and limited food availability affect pteropod respiration and excretion. She has been conducting a series of these experiments and so far has found that pteropods exposed to high temperatures (~4 °C) and low food may be the most physiologically stressed.


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


January 6 – Preparing for science at Palmer Station, Antarctica

Post by VIMS Graduate Student Tricia Thibodeau

After a successful crossing of the Drake Passage we finally arrived at the Antarctic Peninsula! We lucked out and had a very smooth crossing and the Drake Passage was jokingly referred to as the Drake Lake among everyone on the ship. Hopefully, we’ll receive the same seas on our return voyage!

Our good weather continued to follow us along the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) as we arrived at Cape Shirreff to drop off two field biologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) field camp. The camp is specifically designed to study the seal colonies present in the region. Afterward, we continued the rest of our journey to Palmer Station passing through the beautiful Neumeyer Channel! It is extremely narrow, so at times we seemed to have a 360 view of mountains.


We had a friendly greeting at Palmer Station as we arrived in port and then began to offload cargo. The Laurence M. Gould Research Vessel is the only ship that is an appropriate size (260 ft) to dock at Palmer Station. The other research vessel deployed to the WAP is too large to dock. In addition, there is no airstrip for airplanes so all food, trash, and equipment to and from Palmer Station must be distributed through the Gould. Our first of two days at port was primarily dedicated to delivering needed cargo to Palmer Station. The second day we loaded scientific equipment and supplies to use for our research on the ship.


We had some fun as well in the evenings including a dip in the Palmer Station hot tub (best view in the world!) as well as a trivia night. We also got to hike up the glacier right behind the station a few times. It was a great opportunity to get some fresh air and exercise, as well as get yet another spectacular view! Last but not least, we got a zodiac tour of the surrounding islands and stunning views of a humpback whale, a truly memorable experience.


A special treat for our VIMS lab was getting to spend time with recent VIMS graduate, Randy Jones. He is enjoying his first year as the Lab Manager at Palmer Station and was very helpful getting all of the supplies we needed for the cruise.


Early on the morning of Friday, January 6th we departed Palmer Station to begin our science! We’ll discuss this in our next blog post so stay tuned!

– Tricia

January 1 – Ringing in the New Year

Post by VIMS Graduate Student Tricia Thibodeau

View of the LMG from Punta Arenas, Chile
View of the LMG from Punta Arenas, Chile

To ring in the new year, we did a bingo night where people donate prizes and then we play a couple rounds of bingo to win them. Joe and I from the zooplankton lab won some rounds, yay! We won some soup, temporary tattoos, gum, and chapstick–the ultimate prize pack ;-). We played some card games until midnight and then celebrated the new year on the bow of the ship with apple juice and club soda (no alcohol allowed!). Made it a special way to ring in the new year.

View of Patagonia as we land in punta Arenas
View of Patagonia as we land in punta Arenas

Although the Drake passage is notorious for its rough seas and high winds, we have thankfully had a very calm crossing. We’ve been jokingly calling it the ‘Drake Lake’ with just a small roll noticeable. Most people haven’t had to take any sea sickness medication because it’s been so calm.

As we cross the drake passage, we’re helping to deploy some Conductivity Temperature Depth (CTD) sensors off the ship. This contributes to an oceanographic survey through Scripps Institute of Oceanography that’s been going on for over 25 years. The CTD we deploy is this little canister looking thing we just throw off the side of the ship and it measures temperature, depth, and salinity.

Enjoying card games waiting for midnight on new year's eve
Enjoying card games waiting for midnight on new year’s eve

The survey is 24/7 so select groups of people volunteer to deploy the CTD’s at all times of the day. Kharis and I have been working an 8am-noon shift while Jack and our Joe have been good sports and took the midnight-4am shift. Yesterday we spent most of the afternoon setting up our plankton nets. We saw some dolphins while we were on deck setting them up so that was very cool!

– Tricia

Peale's dolphins off the Argentinian coast
Peale’s dolphins off the Argentinian coast

January 1: PAL-LTER Expedition Underway!

Post by VIMS Graduate Student John “Jack” Conroy.

1 January 2017

11:29 pm local

59° 22.081’ S 62° 38.215’ W

Tricia Thibodeau modeling with the Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) mannequin in Punta Arenas. Photo by Jack Conroy.
Tricia Thibodeau modeling with the Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) mannequin in Punta Arenas. Photo by Jack Conroy.

Happy New Year! I left Virginia after breakfast last Tuesday and arrived in Punta Arenas, Chile in time for a late Wednesday dinner. This small port city at the end of South America hosts the 230-foot research and supply vessel Laurence M. Gould, our home for the next six weeks.

After a day spent loading the ship and trying on “Extreme Cold Weather” gear, we departed from Punta Arenas. Friday afternoon we sailed through the Strait of Magellan and then turned south towards the Drake Passage. This stretch of water between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula is known for strong winds and rough seas, but we have been fortunate with calm weather thus far.

A victorious Kharis Schrage in her immersion suit. Time: 24 seconds. Photo by Alec Chin.
A victorious Kharis Schrage in her immersion suit. Time: 24 seconds. Photo by Alec Chin.

These first couple days have been focused on getting organized while we wait to start sampling. We set up shop in the Gould’s wet lab, which was totally empty when we arrived. Now you might confuse it for the zooplankton ecology lab back in Chesapeake Bay Hall. We also assembled our workhorses for this cruise: a 2-m2 net to catch large zooplankton and a 1-m2 version for smaller critters. I’ve spent free time looking for birds and whales, talking science with friends, and getting to know new faces.

Deb Steinberg, Joe, Tricia, and Kharis wondering how all our gear is going to fit in the wet lab. Photo by Jack Conroy
Deb Steinberg, Joe, Tricia, and Kharis wondering how all our gear is going to fit in the wet lab. Photo by Jack Conroy

There’s a fun community on the ship as much of the crew, staff, and science team has worked together for years. We all gathered for New Year’s Eve bingo with prizes including snowman Pez dispensers, temporary tattoos of dogs wearing shoes, and a neon toilet light. The VIMS zooplankton lab made out great as both Tricia and Joe won bingo rounds. (Kharis also claimed gold earlier in the day when she dominated the race to don our survival suits during safety training). The foghorn served as our fireworks when we counted down the end of 2016 on the bow.

I’m off to drop a temperature sensor over the side of the ship. This will continue to a long-term dataset NOAA uses to monitor the Drake Passage. Here’s to a happy 2017!

– Jack

Meet our 2016-2017 VIMS Bloggers

During the next few months, VIMS scientists will be providing an inside look into their experiences as they visit the waters around Antarctic on research expeditions. Mar Arroyo, a first-year VIMS graduate student affiliated with Dr. Elizabeth Shadwick’s laboratory, will take part in a cruise to East Antarctica from mid-December through January. Meanwhile, researchers led by Dr. Deborah Steinberg will be taking part in the Palmer Long-Term Ecological Research Program (PAL-LTER) at the U.S. Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula from late December to mid-February.

Shadwick Lab Expedition

Mar Arroyo

VIMS graduate student Mar Arroyo

I’m a first-year graduate student in Dr. Elizabeth Shadwick’s lab at VIMS. I received my BSc in Marine and Atmospheric Science from the University of Miami in May 2016, with a focus in chemical oceanography. At UM, I spent more than 60 days at sea, participating on research cruises with NOAA and CLIVAR/GO-SHIP. I’m interested in inorganic carbon chemistry in the Southern Ocean and the impacts of the changing sea-ice environment on the carbon cycle. For the next six weeks, I will be on a voyage to the Southern Ocean and the Mertz and Totten Glaciers in East Antarctica on the RV Aurora Australis. The Totten Glacier has been recently named the fastest thinning glacier in East Antarctica. I’m excited to see the changes to the carbon system from years ago because of this glacier melt.

Steinberg/PAL-LTER Expedition

Patricia Thibodeau

VIMS graduate student Patricia Thibodeau
VIMS graduate student Patricia Thibodeau

Growing up on the coast of Maine, the ocean has always been an important part of my life. Studying at Bowdoin College, I realized I was very interested in the interactions between the physics and biology of the ocean. Plankton are the ideal organisms for studying these interactions as passive drifters of the ocean. The Antarctic represents an environment still relatively understudied, particularly regarding plankton. My interest in climate change and plankton led me to pursue my Ph.D. in Dr. Steinberg’s zooplankton ecology lab. For my dissertation, I have the opportunity to conduct research on the Palmer Antarctica Long-Term Ecological Research cruise every January. Specifically, I am studying pteropods, open-ocean snails important in food-web and biogeochemical cycling, and how they may be affected by climate change in the region.  

John Conroy

VIMS graduate student John 'Jack' Conroy
VIMS graduate student John ‘Jack’ Conroy

I am a first-year graduate student at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science working with Dr. Debbie Steinberg. Our research group is participating in the 25th annual Palmer Antarctica Long-Term Ecological Research (PAL LTER) cruise this January. I went on my first PAL LTER cruise two years ago as a William & Mary undergraduate and have since hung around the Steinberg lab with hopes of getting back to the ice. My broad scientific interest lies in how ecosystems respond to climate change. Rapid warming in the region we study—the Western Antarctic Peninsula—has lead to substantial ice loss in recent decades. I am excited to join researchers from around the world working to identify the implications of these changes.

Kharis Schrage

kharis_schrageI’m a senior honors student at William & Mary. Knowing I wanted to study marine biology, I joined Dr. Jon Allen’s lab during freshman year and started working on both the ecology and development of acorn worms. Since then I’ve participated in field courses in Virginia, Wales, and Bonaire. Last winter I spent three weeks at Lizard Island research station in the Great Barrier Reef doing developmental work on Crown of Thorns Seastars. I spent last summer on an honors fellowship in Maine doi
ng my Honors thesis on acorn worm ecology and intertidal zonation. Dr. Steinberg offers a spot on the cruise to a William & Mary undergraduate each year, and this year I was lucky enough to get chosen! I look forward to expanding my research experience through this trip!