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.

Jan 5: Drake Passage

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.

Post by VIMS graduate student Lori Price

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!

VIMS Blogs

VIMS Blogs provide first-hand accounts from faculty, staff, and students at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science as they conduct research in Chesapeake Bay and beyond. The blogs also give you the opportunity to interact by posting questions and comments. Learn about the thrill of scientific discovery and the agony of da’ muddy feet!

Our student, faculty and staff bloggers are all volunteers and we are enormously grateful for their collective stories about VIMS research.

The statements and opinions expressed in the blog posts and subsequent comments do not represent the official position or policy of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science or the College of William & Mary. In the spirit of community and conversation, comments are allowed and encouraged. However, VIMS reserves the right to remove any comments deemed inappropriate, offensive, or not on topic.