Nov 25: The Spirit of Sydney

Post by W&M undergraduate Domi Paxton.

With the start of the diurnal tide on November 21, Kim and I have gone out sampling every day that we can. We have had several successful days, completing all 26 GPS points on our sampling grid. In addition to good sampling, we have been able to see lots of wildlife. Minke whales have surfaced several times off in the distance, penguins often swim past us, and the other day we saw a leopard seal napping on a piece of ice! It was too bad neither of us brought our camera that day.

The Laurence M. Gould pulled into station on Saturday, and left on Sunday taking with it some fellow Palmer Station members from the University of San Francisco. We will miss them here on station and in their honor completed another polar plunge!

The Spirit  of Sydney amongst the pack ice.
The Spirit of Sydney amongst the pack ice.

In addition to the Gould, we had some other exciting visitors at Palmer Station this weekend! The Spirit of Sydney, a 60-foot Antarctic expedition support yacht, pulled into Arthur Harbor on Saturday. The crew of the Sydney has several things on their agenda. In celebration of the 100-year anniversary since Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole, the crew will be skiing onto the Antarctic continent and being the first to set foot on several mountains. The crew is also supporting an environmental campaign to “Sing for the Penguins” of Antarctica, where everyone is encouraged to give a tone to the penguins. All the tones will be put together into a grand choir and played for the penguins in a concert.

A few of us were able to take a Zodiac out to the Spirit of Sydney to meet the crew and see the ship. It was a really neat experience getting to see how they live, hear some stories, and learn all about their mission.

November 23: Gliders

Post by W&M undergraduate Domi Paxton.

The other day I went out with the phytoplankton group from the Rutgers University Coastal Ocean Observational Lab to release one of their Slocum Gliders.

The Slocum Glider
The Slocum Glider

Gliders are released in harsh environments (like Antarctica) to make real-time observations when it is too dangerous to send out a human. They measure things such as dissolved oxygen, temperature, and chlorophyll (a measure of phytoplankton biomass) over large spatial domains. As the glider travels it dives up and down taking measurements, surfacing to send its coordinates back to the lab.

To release the glider we loaded it into a Zodiac and head for Outcast Island, one of the outermost islands surrounding Palmer. We then continued on for about a mile to give the glider a wide berth; you have to release them far away from land because they take a very long time to turn (rudder on the tail). We then attached a buoy and rope to the glider for a test dive, after its successfully completed that (with instructions sent via satellite from Rutgers) it returned to the surface and we took off the rope and let it go for good.

Sadly, that day the glider didn’t do so well, it was swimming backwards and the phytoplankton group had to retrieve it. However, since then it has been released again and is successfully navigating itself around Palmer Canyon.

Nov 13: Freshies

Post by W&M undergraduate Domi Paxton.

Several things were in the works at Palmer Station this week. The RV Laurence M. Gould docked at station to bring two new scientists who are studying birds down here in Antarctica. The Gould only stayed for a day, as it needed to continue on to conduct a research cruise with scientists on board.

The arrival of the ship meant a busy day here at the Station; several of us formed an assembly line across the ship and gangway to help unload cargo. And of course, everyone was excited to have new “freshies” (fruits and vegetables)!

Domi Paxton prepares to launch the towfish.
Domi Paxton prepares to launch the towfish.

There was a bit of a setback with our Towfish—a piece of plastic where the cable connects to the echosounder broke off. However, we had the part on Station and thanks to our Instrument Tech the Towfish was ready to go the next day! Kim and I took it out for a test run and found that everything is working smoothly once again.

This Sunday we had great weather, which allowed for lots of recreational activities on everyone’s day off. Here at Palmer you can go boating, hiking up the glacier, skiing and snowboarding, camping, or just explore around the rocks in the backyard.

This week several groups went out recreational boating. My group went around to different points, getting a good look at the glacier and the Bahia Paraiso (a sunken cruise ship). We hoped to see some leopard seals, but instead were able to see a family of elephant seals on Torgersen Island.

An Adelie penguin watches over its egg.
An Adelie penguin watches over its egg.

In addition to elephant seals, Torgesen Island is home to several penguin colonies. I was lucky enough to see some eggs, which look like a pale yellow tennis ball under the penguin. We also saw several skuas, birds that prey on the penguin eggs and young.

Now it’s time to hope for additional great weather and sampling days! Starting November 18, Kim and I need to sample everyday as the diurnal tide rolls in.

Nov 1: Boating Training

Post by W&M undergraduate Domi Paxton.

Due to some of our sampling destinations being outside the normal 2-mile boating limit this year, Kim and I were required to participate in additional boating training.

We have the boating limit here at Palmer Station because of the amount of time it takes for help to reach you in the event of an emergency. Inside the normal limits, the Ocean Search and Rescue (OSAR) team can reach you within 10 minutes. However that amount of time lengthens the farther out you are, and extended training allows you to know what to do until help arrives.

For training, Kim and I took turns putting on an immersion suit and jumping overboard into the water to await rescue. For the first jump, the person in the water is conscious and able to help you get them back into the boat. The second time, however, the person in the water pretends to be unconscious and the person rescuing them has to try to get their body as high up out of the water as possible and lash them to the boat with rope or bungee cord. Since it is only Kim and I boating together, we needed to feel prepared to rescue each other and know what to do in that situation.

I feel much more comfortable now driving the boat right up to the overboard victim and getting them onboard. We will both be very focused on staying safe and inside the boat!

After a week of work, we celebrated Halloween at Palmer Station last Saturday. It was really fun to have everyone together and to see just how creative everyone was with their costumes.

October 28: Krill!

Post by W&M undergraduate Domi Paxton.

Luckily, there was a break in the high winds and sea ice, so Kim and I were able to accomplish several things this past week! We were able to go out sampling a few times, allowing me to learn more about our equipment and earn some boating experience.

Antarctic krill Euphausia superba. Photo courtesy of Uwe Kils.
Antarctic krill Euphausia superba. Photo courtesy of Uwe Kils.

So far we have seen several krill aggregations on the echo sounder, and yesterday we were lucky enough to see the krill themselves swimming around under the brash ice! At the moment there are only juvenile Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) in the area, but later on in the season we expect to see more of the large adults. Antarctic krill can live for 6-8 years and can grow up to 60 millimeters in length.

A group of scientists from the University of San Francisco studying phytoplankton, led by Dr. Deneb Karentz, actually caught some krill in one of their net tows and much to our appreciation, brought them back for us! We measured the krill lengths, which we then use with the acoustic data to calculate krill biomass and abundance. All of the krill measured were smaller than 20 millimeters, which means they are most likely a year old. We have also seen a lot of foraging activity from the penguins and seabirds in the area, it looks like it might be a good year for krill!

Oct 24: Echo Sounder

Posting by VIMS post-doctoral researcher Kim Bernard.

Our echo sounder, or DT-X as its manufacturer Biosonics call it, sends sound waves out at a frequency of 120 kilohertz (kHz). The sound waves bounce off animals, like krill, in the water and return to the echo sounder. The acoustic returns are logged and later analyzed.

The data we get from the echo sounder allow us to figure out what is in the water and how much of it is there. For every acoustic return we have a date and time stamp as well as latitude and longitude coordinates.

Our target animal is the Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba), and we are trying to understand what drives its distribution patterns and densities near Palmer Station. One of the reasons we are interested in this is because the Adélie penguins that breed on the islands here feed on Antarctic krill.

An echogram showing an aggregation of krill—this is what we will be looking for when we head out on our Zodiac!

Oct 23: The Polar Plunge

Post by W&M undergraduate Domi Paxton.

Residents of the Palmer Research Station warm up in the hot tub following their annual Polar Plunge.

We’ve had an exciting week here at Palmer Station! First and foremost, the ‘polar plunge’ was completed as the Laurence M. Gould pulled away. All participants stripped down into bathing suits and jumped from the boating pier into the freezing Southern Ocean. Your whole body instantly goes numb so the water doesn’t feel that cold—but running through the snow to the hot tub was a little chilly.

After waiting for the sea ice to move out and the winds to calm down, we were finally able to have our Boating II course! It was my first time driving a Zodiac so I was really excited. We practiced driving around, landing at islands, and working the GPS. In addition our boating coordinator put on an immersion suit and flung himself into the water several times so that we could practice “man overboard” drills and retrieve him.

The Zodiac Ms. Chippy.

On Saturday Kim and I went out on our Zodiac (Miss Chippy) to calibrate the echo sounder. After making it through some brash ice (accumulation of floating ice chunks) we set to work trying to calibrate, but without much success due to currents and wind. We ended up moving back into a part of the brash ice that was slushy—this allowed us to stay still enough to retrieve some data. So although sea ice is normally a nuisance with boating, it proved to be helpful!

The Leopard Seal towfish.

To help us suspend our echo sounder off the side of the Zodiac, it attaches to the bottom of a wood structure shaped like a whale, complete with a dorsal fin. This year, the whale needed a new paint job. Kim and I started off by sanding away the old paint and then I spent a few days adding new coats. We decided to decorate it as a leopard seal, complete with spots and teeth, however the dorsal fin proved to be a little bit of a problem – so I painted it orange and we’re claiming it’s a leopard seal in disguise.

October 15: The Voyage to Palmer

Post by W&M undergraduate Domi Paxton

The research vessel Laurence M. Gould.
The research vessel Laurence M. Gould.

After 9 days of traveling, I finally arrived at Palmer Station, Antarctica! I flew from Dulles International Airport down to Santiago, Chile and then landed in Punta Arenas, Chile to await my voyage by sea, aboard the Laurence M. Gould research vessel. I am working on a zooplankton acoustics project with a Post-Doctoral student Kim Bernard from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. I will be living at Palmer Station until I return home at the end of December.

Before heading to the ship, I made sure to rub the toes of a statue in the main square of Punta Arenas. It is a local tradition to ensure safe passage across the Drake (waters separating South America and Antarctica). One observation I had about the city, is that it is ruled by dogs. They are everywhere, roaming around in packs, sitting at street corners and outside shops, and occasionally escorting you as you walk through their turf. The city even has trashcans marked only for food scraps, specifically at dog height.

A dog on the streets of Punta Arenas, Chile, gateway to the U.S. Palmer Research Station.

While going across the Drake Passage, all of us helped deploy Expendable Bathy-Thermograph (XBT) and Expendable Conductivity Temperature Depth (XCTD) probes. XBT probes measure water temperature, while XCTD probes tell us water temperature and conductivity. A group of scientists is studying the ocean currents in the passage, and hope to release these probes for the next 50 years to obtain data. Some of the ship crew joke that by the end of the project, there will be stepping-stones across the Drake where the probes were dropped. The procedure is to shoot the probe out and let it transmit data for a few minutes, which is then repeated every 30-45 minutes.

Domi launches the XTD probe.
Domi launches the XTD probe.

Additionally we obtained seawater samples, to measure oxygen content and nutrients in the water. Here I am in the process – I really was excited to be helping, I must have that face on because I had left my hat inside (it was around -13 degrees Celsius with the wind chill).

Our fifth day at sea, we stopped at the King George Island to unload researchers and supplies to the Copacabana (Copa for short) field camp there. I was a ‘sherpa’, which meant I helped load supplies off the zodiacs and onto land. It was a lot of work, but nice to be so active after a few days at sea. We were able to see penguin colonies hanging out around the field camp, and a few even wandered over to see what we were doing on the beach.

A group of Adelie penguins on King George Island.
A group of Adelie penguins on King George Island.

 

So far at the station I’ve gone hiking up the glacier in our backyard, and will soon learn how to drive and operate Zodiac boats. I’m excited to get the season started!

Oct 8: Back to Antarctica

VIMS post-doctoral research associate Kim Bernard will be returning to the U.S. Palmer Research Station on the Antarctica Peninsula for another field season beginning in mid-October. Traveling with her is W&M undergraduate Domi Paxton.

Their research, part of the ongoing Palmer Long-Term Ecological Research Project (PAL-LTER), focuses on the distribution patterns of Antarctic krill in nearshore waters, and on how these patterns change across time and space. They relate their findings to physical drivers, such as tidal phases, and to the foraging ranges of Adelie penguins. Krill are an important part of the Antarctic marine food web, providing the main source of energy for marine mammals, penguins, seabirds, and fish.

During the upcoming field season, which will stretch into February 2012, Bernard and her colleagues will use acoustics to detect krill aggregations and to estimate their abundances and biomass. They will also try to collect krill samples from net tows to measure length frequencies of the krill in the area.  Most of the work will be done from a Zodiac fitted with an echo-sounder—the researchers will go out every day during a diurnal tide and then for up to 5 days into the following semi-diurnal tide to monitor how the tides affect krill distribution patterns. (The Antarctic Peninsula is one of a few places in the world that experiences both tidal types.) She expects to see 4 or 5 series of diurnal to semi-diurnal tides and will attempt to sample all of these.

Bernard will also be going out on the research vessel Laurence M. Gould to conduct an acoustic survey of the head of the Palmer Deep Canyon (which is too far offshore to reach using a Zodiac from Palmer Station).

Bernard says that her work will “contribute to the PAL-LTER through improving our understanding of the physical drivers of krill distribution patterns, and will provide important information in terms of key penguin foraging areas.”