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.

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.

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!

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.”

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.