194 years since the first American sighting of Antarctica

Nathaniel B Palmer

Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer

This week marks 194 years since the first sighting of Antarctica by an American.  Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer, after whom the research vessel we use is named, was a sealer, based out of Stonington, Connecticut, where you can still visit his house, less than an hour’s drive from our university.  Captain Nat, as he was called, was a successful sealer, and on a previous journey in 1819 had helped to bring in a cargo over 8,800 seal skins. Seals were valued both for their skins, and for their oil in the US at that time.

Nathaniel Palmer House

Nathaniel Palmer House in Connecticut


In 1820, Captain Nat was in command of the sailing sloop Hero, a small tender ship able to explore areas close to shore and seek out new rookeries to exploit. The voyage so far had been successful, as they had captured many seals in the South Shetland Islands. In November they headed south, as the summer was approaching, in search of new rookeries which might not have been hunted yet.  Sometime this week, various sources report the 16, 17, or 18, the Hero came along the Antarctic coast. They sailed along the coast for several days, but since they were more interested in seals than in science or geography, they did keep particularly good records, and finding the area had fewer seals than the South Shetland Islands, headed away to the north. In part because records were poor, it is unclear who first sighted the continent, with James Bransfield, William Smith, and John Davis also being claimed as the discoverers.

You can read more about Captain Nathaniel Palmer here.



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Come hear about krill in person!

Hello blog readers! We would like to cordially invite you to a couple of research presentations about our Antarctic projects coming up the Monday (November 24) of Thanksgiving week.

At 1 pm Alison will be giving a presentation about the krill and some of the other organisms we collected on the cruise:

“Distributions and Interactions in Three Groups of Small Polar Marine Organisms”

This talk is about 40 minutes, and is part of the defense of her PhD Dissertation

At 3:30 pm Mary will be giving a presentation about some of the observations of krill with the underwater camera:

“In Situ Quantification of Winter Vertical Distributions of Antarctic Krill As Seen Through a New Stereo Camera System”

This is a shorter talk, about 15 minutes, as part of the weekly student seminar series. In this week’s seminar, in addition to Mary’s talk, there will also be short talks about phytoplankton, marine geology, and marine chemistry.

Both talks will take place in the Coastal Institute Auditorium, on the Bay Campus of the University of Rhode Island, in Narragansett. These are research talks, so although if you’re not a scientist you may not know every word, I think you will still understand them, and hopefully find them interesting. And of course, questions are always welcome. Come to either or both, visiting the campus beach and library, or a walk to the nearby historical South Ferry Church could fill the gap in between. We hope to see you soon!

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Counting down to Antarctica & some fun facts about the ship

Less than a month until we sail off the dock towards the frozen south! There’s still plenty of planning and preparations underway, and we’re also busy working on the results from the last trip.

Today though, I thought I’d give you some fun facts about the Research Vessel Ice Breaker Nathaniel B Palmer, the ship we will be working on:

• The Palmer is 308’ (94m) long and weighs 4,800 tons.
• The ship’s draft, which is how far below the water line the bottom of the ship is, is 30’ – taller than a 2 story building!
• The highest point where you can be on the ship, in the Aloft Observation Station, is 80’ above the water surface – taller than a 7 story building!
• The Palmer has 4 engines, with a total of 12,700 horsepower, which is 195 times as much power as my car!
• The Palmer generates its own electricity, up to 4.63 million watts – enough to run nearly 4,000 hair dryers simultaneously!
• The steel which makes up the Palmer’s hull is a special low-temperature allow safe to -75 F (-60 C).
• The ship contains 14 miles of pipe of various kinds, and 511 miles of wire – enough to string from Boston, MA to Washington DC with some to spare!

You can find out more about the NB Palmer here.

RVIB NB Palmer in Andvord

The RVIB NB Palmer on a beautiful day in Andvord Bay

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And the boxes are off!

This morning we shipped off our 2 pallets full of supplies and equipment for our next cruise.

What did we fill 2 pallets worth of boxes with? An incredible variety of unique things. A lot of what we will use in Antarctica is provided by the US Antarctic Program, so we don’t have to pack common things like black markers, test tubes, beakers, etc, that all kinds of scientists use. Instead what we need to pack are the things that are unique to the projects we are working on. So we packed lots of little sieves we made ourselves, with different sized mesh on the bottoms. We use these to separate plankton from the water, and to separate the different kinds of plankton. Sieves with big holes are great when all I want are the krill (almost as big as crayons), and sieves with much smaller holes are what we need to get the copepods (which are about the size of a grain of rice).

We also packed our underwater strobe lights. Krill are good at escaping predators, and that includes escaping scientists’ nets. It’s not clear how exactly they can tell when a net is coming, probably partly through sensing the motion in the water ahead of the net (the bow wave) and also partly by seeing the net.  This can be especially a problem since some kinds of krill, like bigger krill or healthier krill, might be better at swimming away, leaving the scientists with a sample which is different from the population of krill as a whole, and thus a biased view of krill biology and ecology. Scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute found that if you put a bright flashing light in front of the net fewer of the krill swim away and escape. So our underwater krill disco party helps us to catch better samples of krill for all our studies.

If you’re envisioning our boxes heading south right now, your wrong, well, mostly wrong. Currently our boxes are all headed west by southwest, to a logistics center in Southern California.  International shipping is complicated and expensive, paperwork has to be just so to ensure customs agents are happy. So to make things simpler and cheaper for everyone, all of the scientists going to Antarctica ship their equipment from their university to a logistics center in California. At the logistics center, they check the paperwork, make sure all the labeling is correct, and combine things into bigger shipments, sending all the gear down to South America (or New Zealand for the scientists working on the other side of Antarctica) together, which is much cheaper. As you might imagine, this approach is not fast. We shipped our things a few days earlier than we needed to, but only a few, and our cruise is now just over 100 days away!

It’s nice to have the boxes on their way, rather than sitting in our hallway. And now that they’re off we can go back to analyzing all the samples we collected on the last cruise!



Getting started – with lots of bubble wrap!


Packing things for the MOCNESS


More lab things – figuring out what goes in each box before wrapping it all in bubbles

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Time to PQ!

“PQ” is US Antarctic Program speak for Physically Qualify – and basically means proving that you’re healthy enough to work on earth’s harshest continent with limited possibility for evacuation.  Last week we got our PQ packets – 14 pages of forms and instructions, now in the latest greatest clickable design. As the PQ packet informs us, if there were to be a medical emergency in Antarctica it would take several days or more to get the ailing person to a hospital. Which would be bad (obviously) for the ailing person, and a drain on resources which are better spent doing science.

And so – on to proving that we are not, in fact, ticking time bombs just waiting to be a logistics and PR nightmare in Antarctica. This is more involved than you might think. First there’s the interminable form of clicking “no” to pages of diseases and conditions you’ve never even heard of. Then there’s over 20 different blood tests to do.  Next you have to get a dentist to sign off that your teeth are fine, and send in original x-rays. And if you’re new to Antarctic research, haven’t PQed in a few years, or are old (us “kids” under 30 have it easy) there’s even more to do.  

Now, I despise dentists, and generally avoid all medical establishments as much as possible. So you can imagine I’m not exactly thrilled about the process of getting PQ. Last year it took the best part of a week’s worth of effort to get all the tests and all the forms in order and sent out.

But at the same time PQ is one of the early steps toward going to ANTARCTICA. It’s hard to explain how much I love being in Antarctica – and so getting the packet of forms is excited butterflies – one step closer to ice bergs and glaciers and penguins, and most especially krill.

And I will admit that I like getting to explain over and over and over that I’m going to work in Antarctica– even if I am explaining it to dentists/doctors/nurses.

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Antarctica in T- 8 months!

When we started this blog we were about to go to Antarctica. Like so many research blogs we started off with the excitement of field work. But science is about a lot more than going to exciting places, and going to places like Antarctica takes an incredible amount of planning and preparations. We are headed back to Antarctica in December 2014, and had our first group planning meeting last week. Yep, that is about 8 months before we leave; between this first planning meeting for the cruise and actually leaving the dock are Easter, July 4th, Halloween, and Thanksgiving. Many things can be figured out in these intervening months, but for now, among other things, we are figuring out how many of every type of supply and equipment we will need for the month at sea. Doing this now helps with budgeting for supplies, and makes sure there are no surprises about equipment availability.

This year supply requests are a lot easier since we know how many of everything we brought last time, and whether it was too little, too much, or just right. We didn’t run out of anything last year, but it would have been nice to have a few more of some things, like big plastic bottles for holding seawater samples and krill food. Most things were Goldilocks-just-right amounts. One thing which I ordered a few (OK a lot) too many of was markers – as my lab mates like to tease me about. I have a tendency to grab a marker in the lab in the morning and put it in my pocket so I have it with me all day, but then in the evening I forget to put the marker back, so the result is that the markers slowly migrate from the lab to my cabin. I estimated that everyone would misplace one marker per day for the whole cruise – which equates to needing 600 markers! As it turns out I am amongst the worst marker-klepto’s of our science party, and we only ended up using about 50 of the markers. Don’t worry – the extra markers were put to good use by the next few groups of scientists. So this year – way fewer markers. But not too few – it’s not like I can just pop over to Staples if we run out of markers in Antarctica!

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Cruise video!

Here is a short video we made with help from the URI publicity office showing some of our krill and other wildlife from the winter cruise.


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Adios Antarctica

Sunrise over the Straits of Magellan

Sunrise over the Straits of Magellan

Crossing the Drake Passage was challenging as multiple lows moved through the area. We could see the ship’s officers constantly evaluate and re-evaluate the weather as well as our course. They really worked hard to make the ride as comfortable as possible. We really had a very comfortable ride, especially given the sea state. After crossing the Drake Passage for several days, we passed Cape Horn and entered the Straits of Magellan. The winds, often reaching >40 knots in the Drake, and really picked up (to 50 knots) for a while. The tidal currents are in excess of 2 knots, unfortunately not in our direction of travel, so we were losing propulsion given our traveling speed is 10 knots. Nonetheless, our arrival in Punta Arenas is inevitable and much anticipated. Our science gear is all packed up, some of it, particularly our samples, will be shipped back to GSO or UMB. Other gear, sample jars yet to be filled, will remain in Punta Arenas for our next cruise.

This first cruise has been spectacularly successful and lucky. We did not miss any research time due to weather or equipment failure, all aboard are returning happy and healthy and we have hundreds of samples, both physical and electronic to reveal the many questions we are asking about E. superba’s ability to survive in the beautiful but challenging polar austral winter. The crew and the science staff on board were outstanding, motivated and dedicated to enable our research. We are immensely grateful to everyone and look forward to the next cruise. Once we arrive home (in the land of unlimited internet access!) more movies and pictures will be uploaded to the blog. We will certainly be in touch from our next cruise. Until then, many thanks for all your feedback and interest in this expedition.

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Headed home…

We’ve left for home and are heading across the Drake Passage.  We should be at the dock by Wednesday morning.


This is the rudder mechanism for the port side rudder.  The two big blue pistons spin the shaft to move the rudder.  When we transit the ship is put in auto-heading.  This is a mode that lets the ship steer itself.  These rudder pistons are constantly moving to change the rudder angle and keep the ship on the desired course.


Here is a photo looking out the front of the bridge. The view is great, but you can really feel the rocking motion of the ship this high above the water. The wind is about 45 knots blowing from the port (left) side of the ship.  The circle in the window is a small section of glass that is heated and can spin.  If spray starts to freeze on the windows this will keep a small spot open so you can look out.


This trip across the Drake Passage has been a bit more interesting than our last one.  On these graphs you can see we are moving between two stormy areas.  The dips in atmospheric pressure generally indicate bad weather.  The wind has also been strong, reaching more than 40 knots. On June 8th the wind sensor was frozen in sea spray and stopped working for a bit.  You can also see a big temperature increase when we turned left out of the Bransfield Strait to head northwest to South America across the Drake.  The water in the Bransfield is colder than the water offshore and it creates a boundary for weather patterns.


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Homeward Bound

Unbelievably, we are now homeward bound. At 1900 hours, the last CTD cast was completed, collecting water for a final grazing experiment. After that the marine technicians, with the assistance of scientists, got busy dismantling the larger pieces of gear, and bringing equipment inside. The Camera system with the 300 lbs of lead weight was hauled in and the heat turned up. On ship science of course is continuing for a few days, as incubations run their due course, live cultures are taken care of and some last on ship measurements are made. While the scientists were busy cleaning up and packing their equipment, the Nathaniel B. Palmer was occupied with 2 local missions, assisting Palmer station and the Lawrence Gould. After these missions were complete at 2100 hours on Friday night, the NBP turned northeast and started heading up the Gerlache straight for the long way home to Punta Arenas, which is not even home for most of us. We will be in Antarctica until June 9th at midnight and then headed into the Drake passage. The weather does not look as calm as on the way over, so we might get to see the Drake at its famous, stormy state. Irrespective, we are now irreversibly homeward bound and the excitement is evident in the scientists and the crew, some of whom are ending several months of deployment for a much deserved holiday.


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