January 17 – On the Open Seas

Post from William & Mary undergraduate student Kharis Schrage

When our research team set off from Palmer Station last week, I’d like to think the real research began.

Picture1Our cruise has scientists from all over the United States studying a variety of topics, from marine mammals to hydrology, phytoplankton, and our team’s focus on zooplankton. Along with our studies, there is a grid of oceanographic stations along the West Antarctic Peninsula that are sampled every year during these cruises. At each of these stations, a “CTD” sensor is cast to collect data on water Conductivity and Temperature at different Depths. (see Mar Arroyo’s previous post). While this is occurring, the whale biologists go out in the Zodiac, and our team deploys two nets off the back deck. When our nets come up, each needs to be processed—which requires sorting, counting, and measuring all the contents.

Picture2We mostly focus on shrimp-like crustaceans called krill, but there are other cool things like juvenile fish and squid, planktonic snails, and jellyfish! It takes anywhere between two and eight hours to complete the processing, so we usually complete two to three cycles per day. We did a few special net tows on the first day called MOCNESS (multiple opening closing environmental sensory system), which is a big fancy contraption with eight nets that open and close at discrete depths, so we pulled a 36-hour day!

Picture3The boat operates 24 hours a day and I’m on the night shift (midnight to noon) with Joe and Katie (a volunteer from Texas A&M Galveston), while Debbie, Tricia, and Jack are on the day shift. Luckily there are Midnight rations, or “midrats,” so we get to have some breakfast when we wake up. The best part about being on the night shift is that we get to see both the sunset and the sunrise! At this point, both occur only about an hour apart, so the sun dips below the horizon while the sky stays colorful, and then it pops back up nearby. They are by far the most beautiful I’ve ever seen!

Picture5The boat rocks a bit when we get seas more than a few feet so we have to keep all the drawers in the lab locked. Thankfully, we have no-slip place mats in the galley to keep our food in front of us. Tricia’s birthday was this past week, so we decorated the lab and the cook made her a cake at lunchtime. We watch movies in the lounge when we’re traveling between stations, and we have just started a ship-wide cribbage tournament! Jack taught me how to play last week so I’m ready to go!

Picture6The other day we found sea ice. We broke through it slowly but surely. The crunching was really loud and it jostled the boat a lot, but there were seals everywhere so it was really cool! Yesterday, we dropped the birders off at a field camp on Avian Island where they will camp for the next four days studying penguins. While we were waiting for them to get settled in, we got to take a Zodiac ride around and look at the glaciers and penguins and seals. It was spectacular! Now we are on our way to our next station, so back to work!

– Kharis


January 5 – CTD Stations

Post by VIMS Graduate Student Mar Arroyo

1 – 5 Jan 2017
65° 7’ S, 121° 19’ E

The CTD rosette as it is lowered off the side of the ship.
The CTD rosette as it is lowered off the side of the ship.

The CTD rosette is a large metal frame with mounted sensors for Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth (along with any additional sensors such as chlorophyll, oxygen, turbidity, etc). Around the edges are 24 heavy duty plastic Niskin bottles that can hold 10 liters of seawater, each with spring-controlled caps on both bottle ends. The caps are hooked up to a trigger system that is electronically controlled from the instrument room on board the ship. The instrument room is essentially the brain of the operations. The CTD is lowered off the side by a cable to just above the sea floor, which could be over 3000 meters deep in the waters we are sampling!

View of the computer screens in the instrument room. A watchstander will ‘talk’ to the CTD from these computers.
View of the computer screens in the instrument room. A watchstander will ‘talk’ to the CTD from these computers.

Data from the CTD sensors is transmitted up the cable to computers on board. This allows us to see different features in the water column in real time, such as changing temperature or low oxygen. As the CTD descends, we choose what interesting depths (or bottles) we want to sample from. Bottles are closed on the way back up to the surface, capturing the water from that depth.

Me sampling for total CO2 from a Niskin bottle. After I collect the sample, I add an aliquot of mercuric chloride as a poison to kill the critters living in the seawater. This ensures that there will be no CO2 released into the water sample by respiration.
Me sampling for total CO2 from a Niskin bottle. After I collect the sample, I add an aliquot of mercuric chloride as a poison to kill the critters living in the seawater. This ensures that there will be no CO2 released into the water sample by respiration.

As soon as the CTD is back on deck, water sampling begins! Sampling at the rosette is like a strategic dance, with everyone taking their turn at each Niskin bottle at the right time. Volatile gasses, like oxygen and total CO2, are sampled first, followed by other parameters, such as total alkalinity, salinity, and nutrients. On this voyage, I’m sampling for total CO2 and total alkalinity.

Time is of the essence when sampling. We’re usually at the next station by the time sampling is finished and ready to put the CTD straight back into the water. Different stations are sampled around the clock. We’ve completed 20 stations so far in the Dalton Polynya!


January 6 – Preparing for science at Palmer Station, Antarctica

Post by VIMS Graduate Student Tricia Thibodeau

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

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


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


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


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


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

– Tricia

Dec. 30 to Jan. 5 – Dalton Polynya and Totten Glacier (almost…)

Post by VIMS Graduate Student Mar Arroyo

30 Dec 2016 – 5 Jan 2017
65° 7’ S, 121° 19’ E

Dalton Polynya and Totten Glacier (almost…)

After leaving Casey research station, we’ve spent a few days steaming east in open water or crunching through sea ice to reach our next stop two stops: the Dalton Polynya and the Totten Glacier.

The Aurora’s travel path in red. The black dots are CTD stations, both in the Dalton Polynya and in the waters in front of the Totten Glacier (more on this next).
The Aurora’s travel path in red. The black dots are CTD stations, both in the Dalton Polynya and in the waters in front of the Totten Glacier (more on this next).

The weather during the ~3.5-day transit was quite foggy and cold, with visibility less than 1 mile most times. Once we broke out of the ice reached the Dalton Polynya, the weather entirely changed. For those who don’t know what a Polynya is, it’s an open area of water surrounded by sea ice. It was super calm, with no wind present. The surface waters were so still that you could see the reflection of the clouds and icebergs on the water. There were penguins and seals on ice floes all around the ship.

Skyline in the Dalton Polynya. A polynya is an open area of water surrounded by sea ice.
Skyline in the Dalton Polynya.

As we reached the SW edge of the polynya, we headed for a narrow open crack in the pack ice along the edge of the coastline to reach the Totten Glacier. Most of the ice in the area is locked in by icebergs that are grounded on shallow banks, making it much more difficult to battle through. We were able to get through some of the pack ice, but after about a day of ice breaking, we couldn’t reach the Totten area of interest before the weather gave out. Strong winds (~40 knots) forced us to turn around and head back toward the polynya to wait out the bad weather.

A Weddell seal relaxing on an ice floe.
A Weddell seal relaxing on an ice floe.

Pro: CTD stations in the Dalton Polynya! More about this on the next post!


January 1 – Ringing in the New Year

Post by VIMS Graduate Student Tricia Thibodeau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Tricia

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

January 1: PAL-LTER Expedition Underway!

Post by VIMS Graduate Student John “Jack” Conroy.

1 January 2017

11:29 pm local

59° 22.081’ S 62° 38.215’ W

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Jack

December 27: Christmas

Post by VIMS graduate student Mar Arroyo.

27 Dec 2016

22:07 – 65° 19’ S, 109° 5’ E

View of the Heli Deck on Christmas Day

Merry Christmas! When is the best time to celebrate Christmas, if not Dec 25th? Two days later on a ship stuck in the ice! The voyage leaders and watercraft operators were working hard to finish off the final bits of resupply at Casey on Dec 25th, so Christmas was postponed.

Now that resupply is complete, we are making our way east to the Totton Glacier to begin marine science. Crunching through thick pack ice isn’t always forgiving, even for a huge ice-breaker like the Aurora. The captain decided to pause the ice breaking to give the pack ice an opportunity to loosen up. In the meantime, we celebrate Christmas!

The food spread arranged by the galley staff. This was only about 1/3 of the food served!

The amazing galley staff on the Aurora arranged a feast of a Christmas lunch, with more crayfish, ham, and fruit cake than you can imagine. There was also a special surprise of beer and wine to celebrate the holiday.

After lunch, we played games and exchanged presents. We had a visit from Santa Claus, who seemed to have lost his beard while traveling south from the North Pole. Santa brought presents for all 81 passengers on board. I got a kite!

Santa and sea ice
Merry Christmas from V2!


Dec 22: Casey Station

Post by VIMS graduate student Mar Arroyo.

17 – 22 Dec 2016 (66° 17’S, 110° 32’E)

Casey Research Station.

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

The Bronx, a hall with expeditioner cabins. I grew up in the Bronx in New York! It’s almost like home.

(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.

A barge is used to lay the  fuel hose across the water between the ship and land. © Will Hobbs.

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.

Zane, Josh, and I pushing away an iceberg in the IRB. © Amanda Dawson.

Dec 09: Getting Underway!

Post by VIMS graduate student Mar Arroyo.

Date: 09 Dec 2016
Time: 23:03
Location: 47° 10’ S, 144° 22’ E

The Aurora Australis at the port in Hobart, Tasmania.

Hello there! I’ve officially set sail on the RV Aurora Australis, a bright orange ice breaker. This ship is massive, at 311 feet in length and a capacity to hold 116 passengers. There are about 50 expedition participants, and many more crew members, aboard on this voyage.

Every week we have drills to prepare us for fires or other emergencies where we have to put on our survival suits and lifejackets.

I landed in Hobart, Tasmania about a week ago. Before coming on board, I had to attend days of training sessions ranging from hypothermia awareness to workplace safety to make sure we’re all prepared for the cold, harsh conditions in Antarctica. I once read somewhere that Antarctica is the only place on Earth similar to Space. I had to get ‘kitted’ by the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) to get the proper clothing and was given three duffel bags filled with thermals, coats, boots, gloves, hats, and more. Most of the outerwear is bright and fluorescent shades of yellow and orange. It was close to about 50 lbs of gear.

Waves crashing on the trawl deck at the ship's stern.
Waves crashing on the trawl deck at the ship’s stern.

For now, we are steaming toward Casey Station, a base in East Antarctica maintained by the AAD. We’ll be completing a resupply mission there, delivering 1.1 million liters of fuel and food for the winter season. The seas are a bit rough for now. The medical officers on board advised that we all have sea sickness pills on hand, even if we feel like we don’t need it. They were right.

Meet our 2016-2017 VIMS Bloggers

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

Shadwick Lab Expedition

Mar Arroyo

VIMS graduate student Mar Arroyo

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

Steinberg/PAL-LTER Expedition

Patricia Thibodeau

VIMS graduate student Patricia Thibodeau
VIMS graduate student Patricia Thibodeau

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

John Conroy

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

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

Kharis Schrage

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