March 5: Rare visitor at Palmer Station

The crew at Palmer Station receives a rare visit from royalty as a large adult male Emperor penguin appears in the station’s “backyard.”

Blog post by VIMS graduate student Lori Price

Our days here on station have fallen into a routine—sampling when the weather is good, then sample processing, lab work, and data entry when the weather doesn’t allow us to get out on the Zodiacs.

Changes in our routine, such as the recent crevassing adventure, are a welcome treat and we had another nice surprise yesterday. I woke up yesterday morning and went to the galley for breakfast, ready for a day of monotonous lab work. I checked the white board on the wall, something we all do regularly as it contains pertinent information for people on station and is the most efficient way to spread news quickly. To my surprise, a large note on the white board said “Royal visitor to Palmer Station: Emperor Penguin in the backyard!” (Watch the video.)

Emperor Penguin
Emperor penguin near the glacier behind Palmer Station. The scar on his back is thought to be a healed wound from some kind of attack. Photo by Brian Nelson.

Maggie, one of the scientists on station, had been out in the backyard checking on some of her equipment when she had come across the large bird.

I quickly ate breakfast and prepared for the trek out to the backyard, the rocky area directly behind the buildings on station. We hiked to where the penguin had last been seen and sure enough, he was standing right there in the same spot. It was an incredible sight!

We saw an Emperor penguin last year a couple of hundred meters away from the ship during the cruise down near Charcot Island. But this bird was about 10 feet from us and very easy for even a non-birder to identify.

I asked Marc, one of the birders, if the penguin was lost because Emperors are usually not seen around here. He said that the closest breeding population of Emperors that he is aware of is on the other side of the Antarctic Peninsula. But, from what they’ve seen this year, penguins can travel much farther than he ever thought possible.

The birders have been tracking Adélie penguins with satellite tags, mainly to study their foraging patterns around Palmer Station. However, this year some of the penguins left the area before the birders could remove their tags, which is good and bad. Good because they were able to track several of the penguins that traveled down the Peninsula several hundred kilometers in a matter of days (pretty amazing if you think about it); but bad because they lost several very expensive satellite tags.

Marc isn’t aware of anyone tracking Emperor penguins, but if Adélie penguins are any indication of the traveling ability of penguins, then if the Emperor penguin is off track it might only be off of its course by a few days. In other words, if he is lost he’ll probably be fine and find his way soon, and he certainly didn’t look nervous from what I could tell. He seemed pretty content to stand by himself in the rocks behind station. Apparently he’s still there today, so we’ll see how long he sticks around. If it makes him feel any better, he brought some excitement to our little community.

March 1: An icy cure for cabin fever

The glacier behind Palmer Station is a much-appreciated afternoon retreat and provides a welcome cure for “cabin fever.”

Blog post by VIMS graduate student Kate Ruck

Work at Palmer Station is mainly directed at the marine environment or the dynamics of the many nearby islands that are accessible by Zodiacs within the 2-mile safe boating limit. This can result in some major cases of cabin fever, as the area near station that is accessible by foot is limited to a few square miles of land and glacier in the station’s “backyard.”

GSAR members Bob Devalentino and Paul Queior escort VIMS post-doc Kim Bernard outside of the Glacier's safe zone. Picture by Kate Ruck
GSAR members Bob Devalentino and Paul Queior escort VIMS post-doc Kim Bernard outside of the Glacier's safe zone. Picture by Kate Ruck

The glacier is a much-appreciated afternoon retreat and Raytheon crewmembers carefully mark the path up to the top of the glacier that is safe for foot traffic. The shape of this lane of solid ice is constantly changing throughout the summer season as temperatures warm and ice melts, revealing some potentially dangerous crevasses—cracks in the glacier can be many meters deep.

Most of the danger lies in narrow, deep cracks that are hidden under thin layers of snow or ice. Unsuspecting hikers can plunge through under their own body weight and fall many meters before being stopped by the narrowness of the crack or by a sturdy pile of snow/ice called a snow bridge.

Like everything else at Palmer Station, safety reigns and there is a team called Glacier Search and Rescue (GSAR) that specializes in first aid, crevasse travel/rescue, and first response. They regularly run drills and create potential recue scenarios to familiarize themselves with the glacial terrain; to ensure the gear they use is readily available, neatly stored, and in proper working order; and to sharpen their effectiveness in case a real emergency should ever arise.

Members of the GSAR team lower eager station residents into one of the many crevasses that riddle the glacier behind the station.  Picture by Kate Ruck.
Members of the GSAR team lower eager station residents into one of the many crevasses that riddle the glacier behind the station. Picture by Kate Ruck.

Occasionally the GSAR team will also offer their experience, knowledge, and services to the folks around station who are interested in climbing or want to get some time off of station. Usually once or twice a season, when the weather is particularly nice, a few members of the GSAR team will haul out their rescue gear to host a day of introductory crevassing. It’s a welcome opportunity for everyone to get out of the confines of station and a rare chance for us marine biologists to experience a more terrestrial aspect of Antarctica.

Kim Bernard (our resident post-doctoral researcher) and I were the first group of climbers up the glacier. We met the GSAR guys in the safe zone and then we all donned harnesses and clipped into a sturdy rope for our travel outside the flagged safe zone on the glacier. As we headed out, we organized ourselves into a zig-zag pattern, so that if one person were to fall or have the ground collapse beneath them, the two people on either side would have time to dig into the ground and serve as an anchor to prevent everyone from falling in.

We passed a lot of open crevasses before we found a spot that would be suitable for lowering people in and letting them climb back out. Once there, Kim and I sat down and watched as the guys created three anchor ropes in the ice, set up the necessary belays, and attached crampons to the snow boots we borrowed from the recreation aisle of the station warehouse. I’ve done a little bit of climbing before, but this whole set up was completely new to me and I tentatively took charge on my own rope as I made my way towards the ice edge. There was no reason to worry though, the GSAR team is so competent and experienced that their confidence and clear direction put me at ease and I was repelling myself down the ice wall of the crevasse.

Kim Bernard lowers herself into and ice crevasse in Palmer Station's 'backyard'. Picture by Kate Ruck.
Kim Bernard lowers herself into and ice crevasse in Palmer Station's 'backyard'. Picture by Kate Ruck.

Kim was about 10 feet to my left and we were able to make our way down together, snapping pictures and admiring the huge icicles and remarkable ice ribs that form from melting water falling down the sides and into the crevasse.

Once we were about 60 feet (20 meters) in we were lucky enough to hit a snow bridge that would support our combined weight. The GSAR team set up some belays on the other side of the crevasse, lowered ice picks, and let us try our hand at ice-climbing back out. It was pretty difficult to be the first one up, as we had to clear out a lot of the inferior snow to find strong foot- and handholds with our crampons and ice picks, but after some struggle we both made it to the top.

After some celebration we passed on our crampons and ice picks to the next group of climbers that had made their way up, and then watched their descent, yelling words of encouragement and snapping pictures. Once there was a lull in the climbing, we clipped back into the rope, the GSAR team escorted us back into the glacier’s safe zone, and we made our way back to station.

The members of the GSAR team ended up staying out on the ice from 11 am until 9 pm making sure that all willing parties got their chance on the ice. It was a very generous and valiant effort that we can only hope to return one day.

Video: Exploring a Crevasse

Feb 23: Stormy Weather

For the past couple days we’ve been in the middle of a bad weather system with sustained winds around 30-40 knots and gusts reaching 70 knots (80 mph)…

We’ve been lucky with having relatively good weather since we arrived at Palmer Station in early February. Although the weather hasn’t been perfect—with most days being overcast and sometimes rainy—we’ve usually been able to go out on the Zodiacs to do our sampling.

Normally calm water near Palmer Station the day after a storm where sustained winds were 30-40 knots, gusting to 70 knots.  Photo by Lori Price.
Normally calm water near Palmer Station the day after a storm where sustained winds were 30-40 knots, gusting to 70 knots. Photo by Lori Price.

For safety reasons, we aren’t allowed to use the Zodiacs when the winds get above 20 knots (23 mph). Although we aren’t forbidden to go out when it’s raining if the winds are low enough, it makes sampling pretty cold and miserable. However, for the past couple days we’ve been in the middle of a bad weather system with sustained winds around 30-40 knots and gusts reaching 70 knots (80 mph). Needless to say, everyone stayed inside and did a lot of much-needed lab work and data processing. When I had to go outside to walk between the two main buildings I was getting blown around by the wind. It’s a good thing there are railings on the walkways!!

The Zodiacs that we use stay in the water at all times and between sampling trips they are parked in the “parking lot” right outside of the main laboratory building, securely tied to the rocks by bow and stern lines. Last night, however, because the waters got so rough with the high winds, the lines became tangled and started shredding. This morning, the support staff, with the help of some scientists, made a heroic rescue of the Zodiacs, getting them all out of the water safely. I guess we won’t be sampling for a while!!

The winds are calming down a bit and the barometric pressure is rising, so hopefully tomorrow will be a bit nicer and we can get back out on the water.   These past couple of days have been nice though, because we’re forced to take it easy and catch up on some important lab and computer work.

Feb 15: Life at Palmer Station

There are no janitors here, so everyone makes weekly contributions to the maintenance and upkeep of the station, which is unusual in a lot of the larger research stations. It’s a nice thing to do because even though it cuts into the time that science devotes to work, it gives every one a sense of responsibility and ownership for the space in which we all live and work.

Greetings from Palmer Station Antarctica! We’ve been here for about a week now and it was a hurried transition. The end of the cruise crept up on the people who are now staying here. It was rough to realize you only have two days to organize and collect everything you might need for science until April.

Adelie Penguins colony with Palmer Station and the R/V Laurence M. Gould in the background. Picture by Grace Saba.
Adelie Penguins colony with Palmer Station and the R/V Laurence M. Gould in the background. Picture by Grace Saba.

Palmer Station is located on Anvers Island at 64.77°S and 64.05°W.  The station and the icebreaker R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer (NBP) were both named for the American seal hunter and explorer of the same name. He is recognized as the first American to see the Antarctic Peninsula at the age of 22, while searching for new seal rookeries to hunt south of Cape Horn.

The population on station is currently 35 people, which includes the Raytheon support staff and all of the science groups. The population will peak in about a week when 7 scientific divers arrive on the Laurence M. Gould, along with some resupplies for the station.

There are 2 main buildings, Bio and GWR, which stands for Garage, Warehouse and Recreation. The Bio building houses the galley, the science labs, and a floor of rooms. GWR houses another floor of rooms, the station lounge, DVD and book collection, the store, garage, warehouse, and gym.

According to the USAP website, Palmer Station has an average summer temperature of 36°F, an average winter temperature of 14°F, and winds that can reach up to 70 knots. The winter sea ice around the station has declined so much that it is now the only Antarctic research base that is routinely accessed during the winter.

For all the work, I have to say I’ve been really enjoying my time here. It’s a much slower paced lifestyle than the cruise. Everyone still works very hard, but with station stays sometimes lasting into the 7-month range, people make more of an effort to preserve their afternoon personal time. It’s easy to push hard for one month on the boat, you just start to loose your energy towards the end, but sustaining that pace for multiple months isn’t healthy and everyone tries to turn the station into more of a home or a community.

There’s a white board in the galley that acts as a sort of activities message board that notifies every one of meetings and work responsibilities, but also acts as an invitation to afternoon movies or games of cards. There are no janitors here, so everyone makes weekly contributions to the maintenance and upkeep of the station, which is unusual in a lot of the larger research stations. It’s a nice thing to do because even though it cuts into the time that science devotes to work, it gives every one a sense of responsibility and ownership for the space in which we all live and work. Safety and efficiency are also high priorities and the science support here move mountains to make sure we’re able to do the work we have planned.

VIMS post-doc Kim Bernard takes a break from zooplankton sampling off of a Zodiac near Palmer Station. Photo by Kate Ruck;.
VIMS post-doc Kim Bernard takes a break from zooplankton sampling off of a Zodiac near Palmer Station. Photo by Kate Ruck;.

Most of the fieldwork at Palmer Station happens from Zodiacs, heavy-duty rubber rafts with 40-75 horsepower outboards. The boating limit is restricted to about 2 miles offshore, for safety purposes. This distance equates to about a 10-minute top speed Zodiac ride, which is the maximum amount of time that the Ocean Search and Rescue team (OSAR) feels comfortable leaving you in the water.

I’ve never had any previous boating experience, so they set you up with a day-long intensive Zodiac tutorial with the boating coordinator on station. They teach you how to drive, how to land, how to get in and out of the “parking lot,” the man-overboard drill, and boating safety. Then they give your group its own Zodiac and basically cut you loose. It’s been a lot of fun trying to get familiar with everything. Ice conditions are low and the weather has been overcast and wet but mild. Perfect for beginners.

Transitioning to this new platform has been tricky. You learn how much you’ve taken the monster capabilities of the huge research ships for granted when you’re trying to do the same types of science out of a 10-foot boat with a platform winch. For example collecting water for one of Lori’s dilution experiments would take 2 CTDs and about 30 minutes on the Gould. Now it takes an hour and a half trip on the Zodiac with 3 separate casts of 3 Niskin bottles that are tethered together and deployed on a small winch called a davit. We’re slowly working out methods that will serve us for the rest of our stay here. Efficiency will come and we’re all sure it’s going to be a productive stay.

Feb 4: We’re Done! (With the cruise)

We do net tows in the middle of the sea ice, at a station further south than the L.M. Gould has ever been before!

Post by VIMS graduate student Lori Price

After our visit at Rothera we headed south to get the birders to Charcot Island to sample the small penguin population there and to do our third and final Process Study.

This southern part of the grid is exciting for us because for the first time we run into a lot of sea ice. After a few attempts getting through the sea ice, the birders were successful in getting their diet samples from the penguins. We then headed even further south where the satellite tracks told us the penguins were feeding and sampled a station at a location that is further south than the L.M. Gould has ever been before!

Sea ice at the final Process Study station south of Charcot Island. Photo by Kuan Huang.
Sea ice at the final Process Study station south of Charcot Island. Photo by Kuan Huang.

We did net tows in the middle of the sea ice, which is always an interesting experience. Three years ago the net got caught on a small ice floe and rocketed out of the water, completely destroying the entire net and steel frame. We vowed not to do that again this year. All of our net tows in the ice went fairly smoothly—I think we only caught ice in two of the tows. The second mishap ripped the net, which was replaced relatively easily. All in all, it was a successful ice-towing experience. We seem to be improving every year!

After finishing the third Process Study in the ice we headed back north, hit a few stations on the way, deployed some moorings (those pieces of equipment that stay in the water all year, collecting information on currents and water temperature) and basically finished most science operations.

Prospect Point. Photo by Will Daniels.
Prospect Point. Photo by Will Daniels.

The day before arriving back at Palmer Station we went to Prospect Point, a beautiful area where we can get off the ship and actually set foot on the Antarctic Continent (up until then we had only been on islands). There is a population of penguins on small islands in that area so while everyone else was stretching their legs Joe, Kim, Kate and myself got to help the birders sample some of the penguins! We helped hold the penguins while they took measurements of their bills and flippers and helped diet sample the adults. It was really fun learning how to work with and hold penguins properly. They are surprisingly strong and heavy, like little balls of pure muscle.

Finally, all of the science for the cruise was officially completed and we headed back to Palmer Station. Usually this is a very relaxing time because all we have left to do is pack everything up, which we can do during our 5-day trip across the Drake Passage. However, this year Kim, Kate and myself are staying at Palmer Station for another two months to continue our work, so things were a bit crazy and stressful trying to separate out all of the gear we needed for station from everything else that could stay on the ship.

We arrived on station Feb. 4 and spent the entire day moving personal and lab gear from the ship to station. That evening we had a little party to say goodbye to all of the ship folks, complete with a polar plunge and record-setting number of people in the hot tub on station. The ship left the next morning after all of our goodbyes and we did a proper polar plunge off of the dock where the ship had been.

Although the cruise is over, our blog will continue with our stories of science and everything else from Palmer Station where Kim, Kate and I will call home for the next two months.

Jan 31: Rothera Station

VIMS researchers aboard the Laurence M. Gould visit the U.K.’s Rothera Station and earn their first-ever victory in the annual soccer match.

Post by VIMS graduate student Kate Ruck

Rothera is a well-known British Antarctic station on Adelaide Island in Marguerite Bay and acts as headquarters for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS, for short), which is an active partner in LTER. For decades now they have been carefully maintaining long-term environmental data sets that are a huge contribution to our knowledge of the area.

The Gould makes a stop at Rothera about mid-way through our cruise every year to help maintain this international endeavor. It’s a welcome break in our now efficient routine and a definite highlight for all on the boat.

The morning starts with a passenger transfer where the American scientists are left on station and the British scientists take charge of the boat to sample waters around Marguerite Bay. They don’t have access to a boat as large as the Gould and are limited by how far out into the bay that they can sample from their small, rubber zodiacs.

Walkabout near Rothera Station.
The scientists and crew from the Gould take their 'walkabout' near Rothera station. Picture by Kuan Huang.

The U.S. scientists are treated to tea and snacks and a tour of station. Rothera is situated in a pretty sweet spot. They have a large glacier on one side of the station that provides access to the mountains further inland and also allows for recreation, providing the perfect place for summer skiing and snowboarding.

The other side of the station is ringed with shoreline that draws wildlife out of the water to bask in the sunshine. Our morning ashore starts with a ‘walkabout’ that includes views of ample wildlife (mainly skuas and weddell, crabeater and elephant seals), giant icebergs floating in the bay, and a stop by the memorial to the few, unfortunate people who have lost their lives while working down South.

After the walkabout, the Brits generously allow us to roam freely around the station. Some people relax in the lounge or library, use the rare access to the Internet, chat with other station workers in the galley, or wander back to the trail around station. We linger until the boat gets back to dock and we can change clothes for the upcoming festivities.

One highlight of the Rothera visit is our barely friendly annual soccer match. The Brits rarely get any outside competition and the LTER is one of their few recurring Antarctic visitors, so quite a rivalry has been built up over the years. The match takes place on the apron of the airplane hangar right before dinner. The apron is a gravel lot where they prepare airplanes for flight and is not ideal for what promises to be a contact game, but it’s the largest stretch of open, flat space on the whole base.

The U.S. soccer team after their historic win.
The U.S. soccer team after their historic win. Picture by Lihini Aluwhihare.

Trash talking begins promptly on our arrival, with the Brits casually mentioning how they’ve been practicing for about 3 weeks now. We counter with entirely fictional accounts of the new first mate that left semi-pro status in the U.S. to experience the beauty and wonder of Antarctica. But, in reality, no one expects it to be much of a competition. With their innate enthusiasm for U.K.’s national sport and their mostly male team the Brits have a long history of easy victory. In fact, LTER has not won a single game since the tradition’s inception. Until this year! Throwing off the conventional rules of the sport, each team was allowed 17 people on the field and we Americans managed a goal about midway and then tenaciously held on to the lead for victory! Needless to say, we were completely ecstatic. Our South African post-doc Kim Bernard had brought down her vuvuzela from home and we trumpeted our way back to the boat to get ready for dinner and then the party that the station hosts.

The party, affectionately dubbed “Gould Night’” by the Brits, is an event that’s highly anticipated at Rothera Station. The Brits put a lot of effort into the party. They transform their garage into a dance hall, complete with sound system, a stage, and lighting. They also black out all the windows to give it a dance hall ambiance by warding off the late night sun. There’s usually a station band that performs for the first half of the night and then a DJ that takes over until the end of the party. The opportunity to relax and dance is very welcome to the scientists and crew of the Gould. We’ve been running the boat 24 hours a day for about three weeks now and while everything has gone smoothly so far, the constant work and the routine nature of stations are beginning to wear everyone down. The one day ashore re-energizes everyone to push through to the end of the cruise.The party lasts until the wee hours of the morning, usually about a half hour before the boat prepares for departure at 6 am.

The next few weeks promise to be busy ones as we continue south on our sampling grid, to the colder, ice laden waters that have been less affected by the rapid regional warming and are more representative of the historic Antarctic ecosystem.

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 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.