Land ho! We reached Casey research station for the refuel and resupply effort. The Aurora is anchored in Newcombe Bay, and passengers are taken to land in inflatable rubber boats (IRBs). Casey is home to roughly 100 people in summer and less than 20 in the winter, mostly consisting of tradespeople who keep the station running smoothly.
The main living quarters at the station is called the Red Shed
(long red building in the photo above). There are several halls with cabins, but also common entertainment areas like a movie theater, video game corner, and even a bar!
To get fuel to the station, a hose line is run from fuel farms on land to the ship along the water. The mission the year is to pump more than 1 million liters of fuel, setting a record for the most fuel pumped to Casey. The whole refueling operation should take about 40 hours, so long as the weather holds. The ship is not allowed to be anchored in Newcombe Bay if winds exceed 30 knots. Southern winds could drag the ship and its anchor into more shallow waters.
Nearly all expeditioners are involved in the refueling, working 4 hours shifts with 8 hours of rest in between throughout the entire operation. I’m working on an IRB from 8:00 AM to 12:00 PM then again from 8:00 PM to 12:00 AM, with water craft operators Zane and Josh. We have to keep the water surrounding fuel line clear of ice and small icebergs.
Resupply began after refueling. Cargo from the ship is lifted by a crane onto a barge sitting in the water below. The barge is driven to shore where another crane lifts the cargo onto a truck. The same, but opposite, is done with cargo that is returning to Hobart. Casey sends back empty fuel barrels, waste, and recycling to Hobart.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
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.
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.
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 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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!