Monthly Archives: December 2014

Punta Arenas Again!

Yesterday morning we pulled up to dock in Punta Arenas, Chile in the rain. All of the gear was offloaded with amazing efficiency. We carried all of the many plastic shipping crates out onto the deck onto cargo nets, and then the crane picked them up and put them on a truck, which then carried them up to the warehouse, where they will then be shipped out to Rhode Island.  Once everything to ship north had gotten to the warehouse, and the labs had been cleaned, us scientists had just about run out of work to do.

Many of us scientists headed out to town. It was great to walk further than 300 feet in a given direction! But we didn’t get far before running into more scientists. The LM Gould, the other US Antarctic Program research vessel, was also at the dock, getting ready to leave for their annual long term survey cruise. So when walked down the dock, we ran straight into onto of the scientists leading that cruise! Hugs and catching up all around. It was really nice to run into friends and colleagues from across the US, here in a small town at the end of the populated world. Antarctic research is a really great group of people, and it is great being part of it.

In town, we were busy picking up souvenirs for friends and family back in the Northern Hemisphere. We also stopped by the main square to thank the statue of Magellan for his help in two smooth passage crossings.

Caitlyn, Francoise, Alison, Mike, Ian, and Shaun thank the statue of the noble savage at the feet of Magellan for good weather both ways across the Drake Passage

Caitlyn, Francoise, Alison, Mike, Ian, and Shaun thank the statue of the noble savage at the feet of Magellan for good weather both ways across the Drake Passage


In the evening, we all went out for one last dinner together. It was a wonderful evening of talking about science, life, and everything, with much laughter and some not particularly coordinated tango dancing.

We want to thank all of our blog readers for following our adventures! Posts will probably be sporadic from now on, but I’ll be sure to update you on the progress of our analysis, and any papers or presentations. I’ll also try to add a bunch more photos and videos once we get back to the US and full internet.

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Last Day at Sea

Last night when we went to bed it was dark outside. Darkness seemed so weird to us – we’ve become used to the sun never really setting. The idea that sometimes you can’t see outside was a little disconcerting.

Today is our last full day at sea; we plan to arrive at the dock tomorrow morning. Outside the water has gone from the dark clear blue of the Antarctic to an almost teal green as we approach the coast of Argentina. The air is warm and damp, and smells like plants and dirt. Still though, we have penguins; up here there are Magellanic penguins splashing in the waves.

We’re finishing up lab packing and cleaning. We’ve packed up our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear to return it to the warehouse. All the lab supplies are packed up and we’re just waiting on official shipping stickers before we put the finishing touches on them and put them by the door ready to get craned off the ship.

We also went on a tour of the engine room today. The engine room is hot and loud – not my favorite place on the ship. It was interesting seeing the engines and shafts that drive the propellors, the generators that run the lights and everything on board, and the tanks which heat glycol to keep the deck from getting icy.

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Land Ho!

After a smooth crossing of the Drake Passage, this morning we came in sight of Cape Horn at the southern end of South America. We’ve still got over a day of transiting north along the coast before we get to the dock. We’re busy getting everything ready to ship back to the US. All the equipment has to be packed, with labels and export compliant packing lists. We also have to make sure everything gets input into MOCA, the Marine Operations Cargo Application, which we use to track all of our items as they ship back from Chile to Rhode Island. Samples have to be packed up too, with every jar double taped around the lid to make sure nothing leaks, then jars packed into bags with absorbent material in-case something does leak, and with lots of official accompanying paperwork for both Chilean and US officials. Yesterday we had the last of our weekly fire/emergency drills, complete with filling out our entry into Chile paperwork, and our last liquid nitrogen ice cream for the trip (sweet tea and raspberry this time). Michelle is also busy making the cruise music video – trying to get scientists to dance is a bit of a challenge. Outside the ship, Royal Albatrosses and Cape Petrels are swooping along above the wave crests.

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Merry Christmas!

All of us on the NB Palmer would like to wish all of you in blog-land a very merry Christmas!

Yesterday we had an incredible day! We went to paradise harbor so that we could safely use the crane to move equipment up to the upper decks for transit. It was one of those perfect summer days here with crystal clear air and bright blue skies. A few of us even got a touch of sunburn. In paradise harbor are tons of penguins! Many many Gentoo penguins scurried around in the snow. Some were sitting on rock nests incubating eggs, others were splashing at the water’s edge and swimming, perhaps hunting for krill. We also caught glimpses of Antarctic Skua’s – predatory birds best known for eating penguin chicks. And of course, we saw a few krill swimming near the coast as well. The mountains are incredible, and the chunks of glacial ice floating in the water were glistening in the sun. It was a wonderful end to what has been a very productive cruise.

We got everything put away and tied down safe for crossing, and in the evening, headed north. We’re headed north with lots of samples to analyze, lots of new data, and new ideas and understanding. We’re looking forward to analyzing everything, and figuring out what it all means. We want to learn the most we can about how Antarctic ecosystems work; with the hope that some of what we learn may help to protect this magical place in the future. The most famous song about my hometown is “I lost my heart in San Francisco” – for me though, part of my heart will always be here in Antarctica.

Christmas morning the ship passed between Smith and Snow Islands and we entered the Drake proper. Everyone is dressed in their most festive attire for the occasion; Michelle is wearing a Christmas sweater, Maria has on a holiday penguin sweater, Iain’s got a musical Christmas tie, Joe is wearing an elf hat, and Caitlyn and I are wearing antlers.

Now that we’re headed for home, there’s not much science to be done. We’re finishing up the last few experiments, and getting things packed away ready to ship back to our labs.

Today we celebrated Christmas with a White Elephant/Yankee Swap. Everyone brought or made a gift, and then picked a number out of a hat. The rules were simple: starting with number one each person picks a wrapped gift from under the tree, or instead of picking a gift they can choose to take one of the opened gifts from someone else. There was much giggling involved. The most popular gifts that swapped hands repeatedly were a hand-made model of our water collecting instrument that Francoise made, a penguin shaped memory stick, and a home-made bottle opener from Matt. One gift that didn’t get swapped much was a pair of lost socks! Someone had left a pair of socks under the desk where we sit to control the MOCNESS, and they had been there for most of the cruise – so Joe wrapped them up as a gift! Ian got a good laugh at the dirty socks all wrapped up nicely.

There’s been much talk of Christmas diner, and Mike has been extra busy in the kitchen for days preparing. Everyone is looking forward to a delicious meal soon!

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Christmas Eve!

Christmas eve has come on the Palmer!

We started our Christmas eve by taking apart the MOCNESS. Everyone pitched in to get the nets taken off the frame, and the cod-ends (the solid piece at the end of the net where everything you catch ends up) washed out thoroughly. The MOCNESS needs to get craned up onto the higher level dock tomorrow so that it will be safely out of the way of large waves while we cross the Drake; we wanted to take off as many of the pieces as we can before craning it. Many hands make light work and it was done in a twinkling. Meanwhile, we passed by a large tabular iceberg – a berg we recognized since it had gotten in our way a few days ago.

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Weather Day

Last night we planned out what we thought would be likely our last full day of science. We planned to look for krill on the acoustics for a few hours, then use our underwater 3D camera system to make observations of the krill, and then at 4 am to go out with the small zodiac boats, (the black ones in the background of the jump-rope photo) to collect sea ice and look at the microscopic plants which live in the ice. I’m really interested in what krill eat, and many people think they eat these ice algae, so I wanted to collect ice to compare it to what I see in krill stomachs. We’ve tried to collect ice a few times before on this trip, but always been stopped by weather or logistics.

I finished up an experiment around 11 pm, then coordinated people and gear for the zodiac work until midnight. At 2:30 in the morning I was bounding out of bed, pulling on all my layers of fleece and water proofs, and bringing gear up to where the boats are stored to get ready to go. But in the few hours I’d been asleep the wind had picked up. So we took off some of our many warm layers, and stood around the main lab as the ship moved out to where we wanted to sample – watching the wind and choppy waves out the window, and the wind speed on the data screens in the lab. We tried to be optimistic, but as we moved to our site the wind and waves only got worse – when we finally got there the captain called down to the lab to say he would not allow us to take the small boats out. Walking past one of the white boards I saw one of the crew start to write the words no-one wants to see “Weather Decks Secured”. Weather decks secured means no going out on the main deck or the bow without permission from the bridge.

So much for zodiac work, the wind blew away all the sea ice we wanted to sample.

So much for zodiac work, the wind blew away all the sea ice we wanted to sample.

So now we’re running an acoustic survey, because quite simply there’s nothing else productive we can do. It will be interesting though to see how the animals that we can see in the acoustics have moved since we last did a survey a few days ago. People are finishing up experiments today too, and some of the more proactive ones are even starting to pack. We’re all hoping the wind dies down and we can get in a tiny little bit more sampling before we have to head for home.

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Bransfield Day

Today we are sampling the Bransfield Strait. We’ve transited through the Bransfield several times as we move between the different bays we’ve been sampling, but we haven’t yet stopped to really see what’s going on in the Strait. Today we’re going to collect water samples and plankton samples at 4 points along a line going down the Strait. We’re interested in seeing what organisms are moving through the Strait. Water samples will also help us to understand whether the organisms we see are choosing to be in a particular spot, or if they are just being pushed along by the water.

We’ve only got a few days left here in Antarctica. Some people are stressed about collecting enough data by the end of the trip. Some people are looking forward to the comforts and freedom of life on land. I’m trying to absorb as much Antarctica as I can; maybe if I look closely enough at the penguins and mountains and krill, when I’m back in the US I can close my eyes and “be” back here.

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Ring nets all night long!

Last night we did a survey of Flandres Bay plankton using ring nets. The ring net is exactly what it sounds like – a net that has a metal ring around the top. We were using our 1 meter diameter ring net last night. The ring net doesn’t let us collect samples at different depths like the MOCNESS does, but it is much faster and simpler, and it lets us take samples in more different places so that we can get a clearer picture of where different plankton are. Starting yesterday afternoon and ending around breakfast this morning we did twelve ring nets all across Flandres Bay. We worked as a team, so I did a few net tows in the early afternoon, then Ted and Maria did several, and at night Iain and Michelle took over. While we were going from one of our sampling places to the next one an iceberg came right past the side of the ship!

Today we did some sampling in Andvord Bay, but since we didn’t find very many krill, decided it was time to continue on our way. Now we’re headed for Wilhelmina Bay, and are looking forward to sampling there tonight. It’s really interesting coming back to these bays where we worked in the very beginning of the cruise, and seeing how a few weeks later into the summer changes what kind of and how much phytoplankton there is in the water.

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A Blustery Day

Yesterday we experienced an Antarctic weather feature known as katabatic winds. Antarctica is the tallest continent – much of it is a long way above sea-level. You may have noticed from our pictures that the area we are working in is surrounded by mountains. Sometimes, especially on sunny days when the air right near the coast is warmed up by the sun and rises, the air from up on the tops of the mountains and plateaus flows down the mountain almost like a river of wind. This is what happened yesterday – with the wind funneling down the mountains and glaciers and out into the bay where we are working. It was pretty impressive feeling the power of the wind with nothing out here on the water to block it and winds gusting to 40 knots (nautical miles per hour). With wind that strong we try to plan all of our sampling so that the ship is going into the wind – that way the instrument gets pushed away from the ship, rather than getting pushed under it, and it’s easier for the ship to stay on a steady speed and direction. With the main part of the ship blocking the wind it was pretty comfortable working on deck, but when we turned you could feel the bite of the wind, and the salt spray being blown off the sea. All dressed up in water proof clothes, the wind really only hits your face, and a little bit your hands through gloves. I can only imagine what it must have been like for the early explorers of Antarctica to face these winds in the gear they had at the time. Conviently, since we’re so close to the land, the waves don’t have a chance to build up. If we had this much wind out in an open area, the waves would start to get bigger and bigger, but here in Flandres Bay, there’s just not enough space of water the wind can blow on (we call this “fetch”) to let the waves grow.

Today the winds have dropped, and the sea is almost glassy. We’ve only got a few more days to work down here, so we’re packing in all the sample and data collecting we can to try to answer not only the questions we came here to answer, but also some of the questions that have come up while we’ve been working here.

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The krill hunt is on!

Last night we had thrilling hunt for krill! We were trying to go back to an area where we had seen krill a few days ago, in one of the channels, but the way through the channel was blocked by icebergs. Outside the mouth of the channel though we saw on the acoustics that there was something that might be krill in the water!

Krill swim in schools, and the schools are pretty small, so it can be tricky catching them. To catch the krill, you need to make sure your net is in the same place as the krill are. Sounds simple, right? Not so much. The net is only 1 meter tall, and the water is over 400 meters deep, with the krill school in about 10 to 50 meters of it. To control where the net is you can change how fast the ship is moving, or how rapidly you are putting out or pulling in the cable which is towing the net. What makes it really tricky though is that the net is some distance behind the ship, but the acoustics are right under the ship, and the krill schools move up and down and all around sometimes in just a couple of minutes. It’s pretty exciting, trying to balance everything, control the net, and talk to the cable winch operator and the ship drivers on the bridge, all while keeping an eye on both acoustics systems, with help from Ted and Joe.

The krill hunt was a grand success overall! Lots of krill are now preserved in jars for analysis when we get back to the lab at URI. Our krill hunt has now moved back to Flandres Bay, where we were a couple of weeks ago. We’re hoping to catch some more krill, get some more video of krill, and see how things have changes as the spring continues to progress towards summer here in Antarctica!

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