Tuesday, December 6, 2011

3 December - Back in NY

Sunset as we travel through the Straits of Magellan on our way back to Punta Arenas, Chile
So our cruise has finally ended. The past few days were a whirlwind of packing, labelling, copying photos from everybody that we've been living with for the past month and preparing to re-enter society. It's always strange getting off the ship and being able to 1) walk more than 300 feet in any direction and 2) see new people that you haven't been trapped with on the ship for the past month.

All our gear is packed up and ready for shipment north!
Many of us flew back to the States the day after we got back so our time on shore was a rush of last minute souvenir shopping, a delicious cruise dinner (Thanks Chief Sci Ann!), and mentally preparing for 24-30 hours of air travel back home.

Manhattan on our left as we fly into JFK.

All in all, it was a very fun trip. Stay tuned here as we'll try to post some results as we begin working up and processing the data.
My plane's shadow on the salt marshes of Jamaica Bay as we come in for our landing.


p.s. There are always surprises awaiting us when we get back home.  Like my two month old refrigerator dying while I was gone. I decided not to post any pictures of the contents on the blog. Thanks Frigidaire!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Yesterday we left Palmer Station and started our journey home.  On our way out from Anvers Island, we travelled through the ice under the bright, shining sun.  Many of the ice rafts had penguins and crabeater seals on them and we watched them scurry about as the boat loomed down on them (you’ve already heard about this in more detail from Little Melissa!)

We had one last stop to make before we could leave the Southern Ocean: King George Island.  There is a temporary field camp there, Copacabana, where the researchers study the colonies of three different penguin species:  Adelies, Gentoos and Chinstraps.  We went ashore to collect their garbage, work on their communication capabilities and pick up one of the researchers who is on her way home.  Lucky for us, we had about an hour of free time on the island to explore.  There were penguins EVERYWHERE.  You literally had to look down where you were walking so you didn’t step on them…it was amazing!  Here are a few pictures of the MANY penguins that we saw:
 Penguins penguins everywhere!  A huge colony of Gentoo penguins, with some Adelie penguins (and probably a few Chinstrap penguins) in the background.

A closeup of some Gentoo penguins.

 The small boat takes the first load of garbage back to the LM Gould while we stay ashore to take some photos…YAY!

All three penguin species nesting in the same area.  Back row, from left to right:  an Adelie Penguin, a Chinstrap Penguin and a Gentoo Penguin.

 Katie, Joe and Big Melissa stop to take a photo…what a great background!

 Peter Wiebe, one of my first mentors in the field of zooplankton ecology when I started working at WHOI…what a great experience it has been to sail with him!

We are currently on day 2 of our Drake Passage crossing and the weather is still pretty good.  The winds are kicking up a bit right now (gusting around 42 knots) but by the time it gets really bad this evening, we should be almost out of the Drake.  Then it is about a day and a half transit to Punta Arenas, Chile.  I am looking forward to enjoying one last meal in P.A. with everyone onboard before we all fly out on December 2nd.  But more about the cruise party later.  

Signing off for now…
Big Melissa

Monday, November 28, 2011

November 28, 2011 Northbound

After an amazing stay at Palmer Station, we left yesterday around 10 in the morning with a few extra passengers in tow. As we left, the folks at Palmer gathered at the shore and jumped into the water for a traditional Palmer Station style goodbye to the people who’d left on the Gould.
Even though it was somewhat overcast, it was fairly warm out, there was very little wind, and as usual, the scenery around Palmer was great. There wasn’t as much ice on the water as there was when we first arrived at the station 3 weeks ago, but there was still enough to provide crabeater seals and penguins ample space for relaxation above water and plenty of photo opportunities.

The islands and the ice leaving Palmer.
An Adelie penguin sitting on a piece of ice.
Five crabeater seals relaxing together on the ice.

We spent the remainder of the rest of the day packing our labs and securing them for the transit across the Drake, which could very well be a bit of a bumpy ride. Today we’re making our final stop before Punta Arenas at a small field station called Copacabana to offload some supplies and pick up another passenger. Anyone aboard who wants to go to shore will be taking a zodiac ride out from the ship and helping haul garbage from the station. More on that tomorrow.

Melissa M (a.k.a. Little Melissa, a.k.a. Munchkin, a.k.a. Muffin)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

27 November Palmer Station Round II

Our second stop at Palmer Station was much more pleasant than the first.  Last time it was extremely windy; this time there was barely any wind and it was almost 40 degrees for some of the day!   We spent part of the morning packing, but then spent the afternoon exploring and testing out our legs!
LMG docked at Palmer as viewed from Torgeson Island! Photo by K. Wurtzell

First, most of the science crew scaled the glacier in the backyard of the station.  How strange to walk more than 200ft in any direction (let alone uphill)!  It felt great to get some exercise and the view was well worth the walk.

Then, we embarked upon an adventure to Torgeson Island, which is a five minute zodiac ride from Palmer.   I was very excited to visit the island, especially because it houses an Adelie penguin colony!!  There were penguins everywhere!  Elephant Seals were on the island too.

We were especially lucky to be there because the penguins were laying eggs.  Many of the penguins had an egg, some had two! 
A Penguin  and his / her egg (The male and female take turns sitting on the egg).  Photo by K.Wurtzell
One of my favorite things to observe were the male penguins bringing their mates small pebbles.  If the female approved of the egg, it would be added to the nest, if not, the male would walk away with it and come back with another one!  ).  Photo by K.Wurtzell
 There were Skuas flying around the island.  Skuas will steal the penguins eggs to eat – didn’t seem like the Adelies liked having them around!   Photo by K.Wurtzell
The island was also inhabited by Elephant Seals.  They were huge!!  Most of them didn’t move the entire time we were there.  Photo by K.Wurtzell

Overall, it was an amazing  day!  After our penguin adventure we were invited to eat dinner at Palmer Station.   It was Make-Your-Own Pizza night!  Delicious!!  Then we all went up to the bar and celebrated the end of the cruise with some darts, pool, and dancing.  Great end to a great day!

We are currently on our way back to Punta Arenas, Chile, but will first be stopping at Copacabana field camp tomorrow!


26 November – Flandres Bay

: The halo of light around the sun is caused by ice crystals in the clouds. Interestingly, one of my colleagues at Stony Brook (Prof. Daniel Knopf) just gave a seminar that discussed these features (he's an atmospheric chemist) right before I left NY for this cruise.

I live in Flanders, NY (a small hamlet on the east end of Long Island) which is why I particularly enjoyed our sampling location for our final day of science on this trip which is Flandres Bay, the southernmost bay along the Gerlache Strait. (and no, that's not a typo, it's Flandres).

Calm conditions are ideal for small boating, as well as making some very pretty pictures with the mountains and glaciers reflected in the water.

I've had the opporunity to conduct scientific surveys in this area 3 times in the past 18 months. Working with researchers at Duke University, we were here in May and June of last year (2010), then last year on our cruise, we were able to spend a day in the bay in December of 2010. So yesterday's survey was another data point (November 2011) in studying this unique environment.

 If you look closely at the edge of this piece of ice,  you can see tracks made by a penguin (or two).

We encountered a lot of brash ice and small icebergs on our way from the offshore station to the shallower bay, so when we arrived here we did a CTD cast and then launched two small boats. One (with me and members of my team in it) was conducting acoustic echosounder surveys in the waters of the bay which are too shallow for the large boat to work in. We lucked out with phenomenally great weather – no wind, sunny skies (too sunny for  a few folks who got pretty bad sunburns), and an amazing amount of scenery including icebergs, bergy bits, growlers, and other ice formations, some wildlife (a few penguins, a seal or two, and the other boat saw a minke whale!) in an otherworldly environment.

Our home for the past month, the Laurence M. Gould.
While we drove around “mowing the lawn”, the other boat was sampling small, juvenile krill that were hanging around in the water next to (and underneath) pieces of ice. These animals were E. superba that  were maybe a centimeter (~ 1/2 inch) in length.  Our acoustic surveys generally consist of parallel tracks spaced evenly apart (that's why we say we're 'mowing the lawn') – in our small boat in these conditions our tracks aren't quite parallel as we head mostly in a straight line but we drive around pieces of ice rather than push through them as we don't want ice to go under the zodiac and damage our prop or  echosounder.

: One of our crack team of acousticians, Scout Watson, makes sure that our echosounder is working properly and collecting information about krill patches as we survey the waters of Flandres Bay.

This would be an example of some ice floes that we would like to avoid as pushing our way through some of this would take a long long time.
 It's not just the ice above the surface that we have to worry about!  The submerged portion of the ice pieces can be just as dangerous to our gear. Luckily on a day like today, the water is clear enough that you can see the underwater portions of the ice and avoid them pretty easily.

Everybody in the science party got a chance to go out in the boat today, and some of us (myself, Paola, and Chelsea) were out for about 9 hours in total. It made for a very long day, but very rewarding as well. One of my secondary objectives on this trip was to visit Flandres Bay and return to a place that I call “Krill City” which was a spot nearshore on the southern edge of the bay where we found an enormous bottom layer of krill back in June 2010. Last time I was here, there was virtually no krill in the water column (according to our echosounder), but this year I saw a pretty good amount of krill swarms so that may be a sign that this is going to be a good year for krill – and possibly explain why it might not have been a great year for salps since we had such a difficult time finding them this year.

Here are some more pics from today:

 A trio of penguins (pretty sure they were Gentoos) rests on the edge of a large piece of ice. Occasionally you can see them move from the water to the ice which they do by “jumping”/”flying” out of the water and landing on the ice – sometimes on their feet. It's pretty impressive to see happen.
This ice chunk had icicles on its edge.
 At one point, we had the LMG head in front of us to help clear a path in the ice for us which made our travel a bit quicker. We were able to collect data while we followed them down the middle of the Bay.
The Gould was always close by, keeping an eye on us.
The other small boat was towing nets in the water to collect krill.  When the zodiac's stopped occasionally, we would see individual krill pop up and appear underneath our boats. Maybe they thought our zodiacs were oddly colored pieces of ice. Small krill like hanging out underneath ice as there is algae (krill food) that grows on the bottom of some pieces of ice, and the rough surface of the ice bottom provides them nooks and crannies to hide from predators.

- Joe


I will admit, if you had asked me two days ago when my next trip to Antarctica would be, I would have been hesitant to rush back down here.  But the last 24 hours have completely made up for the past 24 days of bad weather and gray skies!  I finally see now why people come to Antarctica!

It all started when the winds finally died down and we headed into back into the straits along the West Antarctica Peninsula.  Up until 24 hours ago, the colors of the sky ranged from dark gray to light gray.  But the sunset tonight painted the sky and snow-covered mountains in ribbons of red, yellow and purple.  It was amazing.

The beautiful sunset at midnight.

 The shades of pink and purple paint the sky and the mountain tops of Anvers Island.

 Big Melissa, Katie and Joe pose for a picture on the bridge during sunset.

But the beauty didn’t stop there.  During the late spring and summer here at 64°S, while the sun drops below the horizon for a couple hours, the skies never go fully dark.  The sun set around midnight, but the skies still sparkled in the brilliant blues and turquoises of twilight.  Around 2am, the sun began to poke back up over the horizon and filled the sky again with purples, pinks, reds, oranges and yellows.  The colors danced across the sky, the water, the mountains and the icebergs floating next to the boat.

The AMAZING colors of the twilight sky as the sun began to poke back over the horizon.

 As the sun began to rise, the blue and purples switched to reds and oranges.

 A group of porpoising penguins in the distance.

As the sun continued to rise, the scenery became more and more breathtaking.  We continued along the Gerlache Strait into Flanders Bay.  As the boat forged forward through the ice, we encountered penguins sitting out on ice rafts and even a crabeater seal (many more pics to come)!  We took the small boats out into the Bay to do some surveys and enjoyed our most beautiful day of the cruise!

Kari and Allen get the small boats ready for a day of surveys.
All in all, the scenery of today makes up for this cruise of ridiculously bad weather!  It was great to have our last day of science be such a beautiful day.  I now finally understand why people come to Antarctica!

Signing off for now…
Big Melissa

Thursday, November 24, 2011

24 November Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving from Antarctica, everyone! In case you were wondering, yes we’re celebrating too!

A wire turkey, made by MT Kelley
The cooks aboard the ship have been hard at work preparing a Thanksgiving dinner complete with all of the Thanksgiving essentials – turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, etc.

The Thanksgiving lunch menu
The food tasted great and there was more than enough for everyone to have their fill. Personally, being a dessert girl, I felt it was necessary to sample not just one, but three of the five available desserts. I started with a Thanksgiving classic – pumpkin pie. The filling was made with real pumpkin straight from the squash and the crust was perfectly cooked. I then chased that with a bowl of ice cream which I washed down with some delicious apple cobbler and vanilla ice cream. Yum!

Delicious pumpkin pie and apple cobbler.
Immediately after lunch Thanksgiving we watched the Rugby World Cup between New Zealand and France. Not quite football, but it’s still a bunch of men running around with a ball and tackling each other, so the spirit was the same.
Unfortunately, because everyone is working on different shifts, there is rarely a time when everyone is up all at once, so just to make sure everyone gets their fill of Thanksgiving, we’re celebrating not once, but twice! First at lunch for the 12 – 12 crowd, then again at dinner for the 6 – 6 bunch. I’m also betting on leftovers at midrats. Hopefully there will still be some pie left by then, because once the lunchtime food coma sets in I’ll be sleeping soundly until my shift starts at midnight.
On another note, we’ve reached the final stretch of the cruise. Tomorrow will be our last day of science before returning to Palmer Station and then heading back to Punta Arenas. We’ll be heading to Flandres [Not a typo] Bay for our final stations where hopefully we’ll get some sunshine, calm waters, wildlife sightings, and photo opportunities during small boat ops.

Melissa M (a.k.a. Little Melissa, a.k.a. Munchkin, a.k.a. Muffin)

23 November What kind of penguin is that?

What kind of penguin is that?
Over the past few days we have been seeing lots of penguins! There are four main types of penguins along the Western Antarctic Peninsula, where we have been sampling:  Gentoo, Chinstrap, and Adelie.
Gentoo penguins (Pygiscekus papua) can easily be spotted by their slim orange-red beak.  Another distinctive feature is a patch of white feathers behind the eye.

Here are some Gentoos we saw on last years cruise.  They are  “porpoising “ – they leap out of the water as they swim, much like porpoises, which allows them to breathe while swimming. Photo by K. Wurtzell
Adelie Penguins (Pygoscelis adelia) can be identified by their black face and white eye ring.  They are smaller than Gentoos.   There is an Adelie breeding colony right by Palmer Station.

An Adelie penguin on a small iceberg during last year's cruise. Photo by J. Warren.
We have seen mostly Chinstrap Penguins (Pygoscelis antarcticus) this year.  They can be intensified by a thin black line that goes across their face, like the chinstrap of a helmet. Over the past few days there have been frequent groups of Chinstrap Penguins swimming by the LMG. Interesting fact -  Chinstraps are known to enjoy a “room with a view” and will use their bill as an “ice-pick” to climb up ice!  Cool!

 Some Chinstrap Penguins swimming near the ship.  I think they were just as curious of us as we were of them!
Everyone loves seeing the penguins!  It’s important to remember that our research – studying the zooplankton community, ties into penguins also.  Because krill are a major food source for all three of these penguin species, by understanding krill, we can indirectly learn about penguins, too!!

22 November – Shrinking Cups...

Styrofoam cups are decorated before being placed on the MOCNESS which went down to 1500 m. See the effects of the pressure at this depth on our cups at the end of the blog. ET Kris drew the awesome cup on the left, your author (and practicing non-artist) drew the magnificent turkey on the cup on the right.
Yesterday contained one of the most unusual traditions aboard oceanographic research vessels (compared to any other kind of ship) which was the Cup-Cast.  As you go down into the ocean, the pressure around you increases dramatically. At 10 m depth, an additional 1 atmosphere of pressure is pushing in on any object at that depth (the atmospheric pressure at the sea surface = 1 atmosphere – sometimes scientists do keep things simple and straightforward). However since water is much more dense than air, you get very rapid increases in pressure as you go deeper (1 atmosphere for every 10 meters you go down). This is why a lot of oceanographic instruments are placed inside pressure housings (metal cases that are designed to withstand the increased water pressure).

The ship's lounge is full of budding artists, colorfully decorating their souvenirs of the abyss.
If you have scuba dove (or even dived to the bottom of a swimming pool), you've experienced the increased pressure – most notably in your ear (which you can equalize by pinching your nose and trying to blow gently outward).  The increased pressure of the water is trying to squeeze the air inside of you and the pressure difference between the air pockets within your body and the outside are what causes that discomfort.

 Chief scientist  Ann Bucklin decorates her cup – which I believe contained a drawing of a chaetoganth (a zooplankton).
But there's another interesting feature of the pressure of the ocean deep. If you take a normal styrofoam coffee or drink cup (which is composed of cells of foam that are air-filled), and send it down deep, the air gets compressed out of the cells and the entire cup shrinks.

 More artists at work, MT Krista (left), MST Melissa P. (background), and non-MST Melissa M. (foreground) use markers to draw various designs on their cups.
So oftentimes on the deepest CTD cast or net tow of a cruise, all the folks on the boat will decorate cups that are placed in a mesh bag and attached to the instrument going down to the depths. And what comes up is a miniature version of what you designed.  Not to spoil the surprise, but if you know somebody on this cruise, you may be getting a cup as a holiday gift in the next month...

 And here are the post-cast cups. They shrank by about 80%. These were my cups so you can see why I'm a scientist and not an artist, although many of the other folks on the crew drew some really beautiful pictures on their cups.
On the science front, we've finally gotten several consecutive days of not-super-strong winds or rough seas, so we've been able to conduct our stations in a timely manner. This afternoon, I also did my second small boat survey which saw lots of aggregations of krill in the water column (including both patches of large adult krill, and smaller layers of juvenile krill). I wasn't the only one checking out these krill patches, as three humpback whales and a dozen or so Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins were in the area. The penguins were diving down and surfacing in a pattern consistent with feeding on the krill swarms below us!
Hope everyone has a good Thanksgiving Holiday!

Monday, November 21, 2011


“What’s in seawater?” I asked some folks in the lounge this evening (while watching our 3rd episode of the television series “Weeds” – I’m TOTALLY hooked!)  The answers I got ranged from “dinosaur pee” and ”the world’s toilet” to ”pollution from our ship” and ”whale poo.”  It has become apparent to me that perhaps it is time to have a quick lesson in what exactly IS in seawater and why are we out here studying it.

One aspect of the water we are interested in is its physical properties (such as its temperature, salinity and density).  We study these properties with an instrument called a CTD (Conductivity Temperature Depth sensor).  Both temperature and salinity (i.e. the salt content of the water) affect the water’s density.  In most parts of the world’s ocean, temperature is the most important factor controlling the density of the water.  However, the Southern Ocean is different.  Here, the temperature doesn’t change much…its cold…often.  The salinity, however, changes much more because of the melting of the seasonal sea ice. Therefore, the changes in how much freshwater is melting into the ocean from the ice change the density of the water here much more than the small seasonal changes in temperature.

  Deploying the CTD and Niskin bottles in order to study what exactly is in this seawater the ship is sailing through.
 A look at the vertical profile of the water column at one of our stations.  This information is being sent live over a data wire from the CTD, so we can see in real time what the water looks like!

Another thing we study when looking at the water is its biological and chemical properties.  In order to do this, we collect water from bottles (called Niskin bottles, named after Shale Niskin, who patented the bottle design in 1966) located around the CTD; we shut these bottles at various depths to collect water from the bottom of the ocean all the way to the surface.  We then filter this water to look at these properties.  The ALES lab is filtering water for chlorophyll.  This is a pigment found in the phytoplankton (the ‘plant plankton’ of the ocean).  By measuring the amount of chlorophyll, we can look at approximately how much phytoplankton (i.e. salp and krill food) is in the water.  This is a useful piece of information for us!

Paola and Chelsea pause for a photo while collecting water from the Niskin bottles around the CTD.  They will bring this water inside and filter it to look at the seawater’s various biological and chemical properties

The other science group on board, the Bucklin lab, is also filtering water for other clues about the environment here.  I’ll hand this over now to Paola to talk about what her group is interested in finding out about the seawater:

In our hunt for salps, we are trying to understand their distribution patterns and the chemistry of the ocean holds lots of clues as to where we might find these gelatinous critters!  The Bucklin lab is looking at both the nutrients and particulates in the seawater.

In the area of the Antarctic waters where we are working, concentrations of nutrients (nitrate and phosphate) are much higher than those found in other oceanic waters.  They tend to be lowest at the surface and greatest in the warm deep waters.

Particulates, alternatively referred to as particulate organic matter (POM), are tiny particles of solid material present in the water column. Particulates within the water column come in a multiplicity of sizes and from a great variety of sources:  dead phytoplankton cells, fragments from attached macroalgae, dead bacteria, dead protozoa, dead micro- and macro-zooplankton, crustacean exuvia, and fecal pellets, especially those from copepods, euphausiids, and salps.

Salps are indiscriminate filter feeders, utilizing an internal mucus net to capture particles as water is pumped through the body. Therefore, they are assumed to ingest all particulate matter (both living and dead) small enough to fit through their oral opening and large enough to be retained by the mucus net.  This may include particles as small as 1 to 2 μm.

So, if we want to look at the big picture and understand the behavior or occurrence of salps in the Southern Ocean, the characterization of the chlorophyll by the Warren Team will help with understanding the prey (phytoplankton) distribution. The Bucklin side of the analysis will help with understanding under what nutrient and particulate concentrations we tend to find salps more frequently.

  Paola concentrating on filtering the seawater for nutrients and particulates.

Well, that’s it for today’s lesson:  “What’s in Seawater?”  Hope you learned something!

Signing off for now…
Big Melissa and Paola Batta-Lona