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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Back in Open Water

Our plans to go south and sample Marguerite Bay were foiled by ice. We reached an area where the ship was only moving by 100s of meters at a time with much backing and ramming, and a decision was made to head back to more open waters to the north. So north we are, sampling in deeper waters off the shelf. It is frustrating to have to run north – I was really looking forward to collecting krill under the ice. Krill feed under the ice at this time of year, because there are lots of microscopic plants and animals which make the ice their home. I was hoping to catch krill near the ice and use them to find out which of these ice organisms they eat. It is also sad to leave the ice because I love that magical world, with everything sparkling white, seals resting on the ice, and mountains in the distance. Heading north felt like heading towards home – even though we still have over a week of working left – and I don’t want to leave Antarctica.

It’s hard to stay grumpy for long though here. Today as the water sampler was in the water, a whole group of penguins were hanging out around the ship.

We also took part in a cruise tradition this morning – shrinking Styrofoam cups. As you go deep into the ocean the pressure of the water on top of you increases – each 30 feet you go down adds as much pressure as all the air above us in the atmosphere! This pressure squishes the air and makes it smaller. It’s basically the opposite of why your ears hurt and pop when you go up in an airplane. We drew with water proof markers on Styrofoam cups, and then put them in a bag on our water sampler, and sent them down to 3,000 feet deep! When they came up they were much smaller since all the air inside them had been squished!

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Lots of Ice!

Yesterday afternoon we had planned out a very efficient day for today, full of sampling krill in open water and under the ice, collecting ice algae, and calibrating one of the acoustic instruments. But in the early hours of this morning, as we went to start towing our net to collect krill, it became clear that the whole plan was going to go out the window. The wind had been blowing steadily, though not particularly hard, from the north-east, and had packed the sea ice into the bay we were working in. There wasn’t any where left to tow a net that wasn’t so full of ice it would be hard to get the net back. After surveying around for a bit, we decided to just get out of the ice, and head to our next sampling location.

Heading out was slow going, even with an extra engine on-line we were only making a few knots and frequently stopping, backing, and ramming to get through the larger ice flows. Watching the ship break through the ice is incredible; the sea ice is snow covered and bright shiny white, as the ship rams the ice floe a thin dark crack appears as a jagged zig-zag across the ice. As the ship continues to press forward the crack widens into a line and then a swath of deap dark blue, and more cracks form at angles to the original crack, each widening and turning the floe into a mosaic of white and blue. You hear the ship sliding through the slushy broken ice, with a softer sound from sea ice, and a hard grating sound when we hit pieces of glacial ice.

We’re now solidly south of the Antarctic circle. A couple of days ago we crossed the circle at 66 degrees 33.44 minutes south. Many of us took a few minutes to go up on the bow to experience crossing this line. There is, of course, nothing particularly different about the ice just to one side or the other of the line; but is was still exciting. Hanging out up on the bow taking in the wonder of the sea ice we also saw a few seals! They are huge, but move almost like an inchworm on the ice. Much debate was had as to the relative speeds of seals and penguins – who would win a race on flat ice, ice with pressure ridges, or in the water?

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The world is white

Today as we transit down the side of Adelaide Island, the outside world is a wall of whiteness. The sea is covered by snow-covered ice, and the air is full of snow. Walking outside, it’s a blinding whiteness in every direction as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by little patches of golden brown ice algae, and sparkles of bright blue from upturned ice chunks. Stepping back inside the aquarium room, it takes a minute to adjust again and see inside the ship. The incredible difference between the world of white above the ice, and the dark blue in the sea below makes us wonder at the adaptations penguins and seals have to be able to see in such a range of environments.

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Active Antarcticans!

As you might have noticed on our profile pages, many of us enjoy playing sports in our normal lives in the US. On a boat, many of the sports we would play at home are not really possible; there’s just not space to go for a run, or play a soccer game. But we find other ways to be active.

Squeezing a few minutes of exercise into a busy day of science can be tricky, but many of us find it helps us work better. There’s a gym on board, and many people make use of the bike, treadmill, weights, and rowing machine. Chris got a competition going for the rowing machine – with various random categories in which to race, including a category only for people who can name all the species of penguins and seals in Antarctica, and a category only for people who can juggle three or more objects.

Matt also set up a ping-pong table in the hold, and there’s a ship-wide ping-pong tournament underway! We’re playing doubles, right now we’re in round-robin style play. When there are waves it adds an interesting element to the game, since when the ship rolls the ping-pong ball stays on its flight path but the table moves underneath it and the ball ends up in unexpected places.

My preferred form of exercise on the ship is jumping rope outside on the helicopter deck. I love the chance to be outside and watch the ice and the mountains, and breath in the crisp Antarctic air, while stretching my legs and getting my brain in gear for a busy day of science!

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Antarctic Air!

This morning we saw a sundog, a rainbow which makes a circle all the way around the sun! The air here in Antarctica is super clear, partly because we are a long way from human industries, and partly because it is so dry.

That’s why some of the world’s largest and most powerful telescopes are at the South Pole.

This clear dry air makes everything look closer than it is. Looking at a mountain, it’s hard to tell how far away it is without anything for scale. Sometimes it looks like we could walk somewhere in a few minutes, when really it’s 3 or 5 miles away! Penguins give a sense of scale – looking at a mountain that feels almost close enough to touch, but seeing that the penguins at the base are barely more than specks. The Gentoo, Adelie, and Chinstrap penguins we’ve been seeing here are mostly about knee high, so when they’re just specks it’s a bit of a double take realizing the mountain is much further than it looks, and also therefore much bigger.

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Another busy day in Antarctica!

Today was another busy day – getting ready to run some experiments! We have lots of big active krill we collected swimming around in 2 giant tanks and lots of 5 gallon buckets in the aquarium. We keep the doors from the aquarium room to the outside open all the time, so in the aquarium it’s like being outside, to help the krill feel as comfortable as possible. Krill are fast! I’ve worked with krill before, but mainly in the winter, when they are less active, and mainly with smaller individuals. When the krill are frightened, they swim really fast by doing what is called lobstering. In lobstering they basically fold themselves in half really fast and shoot backwards. It’s called lobstering because lobsters do a similar thing. It’s taking me a while to outsmart these fast krill – I don’t think I’d make a very good penguin!

Today was also Gabby, our Electronics Technical (ET),’s birthday! To celebrate we decorated her hard hat, with some random electronics testing cable, a toy pig of Joe’s named Sir Pingsalot, stickers, labelling tape, and a string of Christmas lights, among other things.

Mike the cook also made chocolate cake for Gabby’s Birthday. We’re lucky to have such a good cook as Mike – when everyone is working hard, and doesn’t have much choice in what to eat, it makes a big difference when the food is good. Cooking on a ship is no easy task – all the food has to be brought down for the whole month, and there’s a limit to how long fresh fruit and vegetables can last. It’s also a challenge to cook for a huge range of tastes – many of the ship personnel are from Louisiana, while most of the scientists are from New England, and some of the crew are from the Philippines. My favorite thing Mike makes: spicy hot cocoa – I’ll have to get the recipe!

As we get further south, we are running into more sea ice. Today we saw our first ice algae. Ice algae grows in the sea ice, and there is so much of it here it has colored parts of the ice orange!

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Sediment Sampling!

Yesterday one of the things we did was collect sediment samples from the seafloor. Iain, Ian, Michelle, Jess, Dave, and Eddie all helped to get the sediment out of the tubes it is collected in and carefully take samples to look at DNA, carbon and nitrogen, and to try to identify some of the organisms which live in the sediment – many of which scientists still don’t know much about. Sediment sampling is hard and muddy work –
but it’s also exciting seeing the creatures who live in the mud and the water right above it – yesterday we caught a jellyfish in one sample and a tube worm in another!

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Science in Andvord Bay!

Another very busy day of science as our first full day here in Andvord Bay.

As usual we started out with a 9 am water collection. Sonya and Harriet are looking at the different genes that phytoplankton are activating. Phytoplankton activate different genes at different times of day, for example in the daytime they might activate genes for collecting light, while in the darker night they might activate more genes for making molecules they need. Harriet and Sonya want to compare the activation of genes by phytoplankton in different bays and areas in Antarctica, so they need to collect their phytoplankton at the same time everyday so they can see the differences between places, without getting mixed up by the differences from different times of day.

Francoise also likes to collect water at the same time everyday because she is running experiments which run for exactly 24 hours. Francoise is looking at how much of the phytoplankton is eaten by some of the very smallest animals, the microzooplankton. To measure this she puts microzooplankton and phytoplankton in different concentrations in bottles, and measures how many phytoplankton there are at the beginning, and then again how many phytoplankton are left 24 hours later.

Sometimes a water collection at exactly 9 am is inconvenient for the rest of us, but we do our best to plan the other instruments around it.

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South to Andvord Bay!

Today we finished up in Wilhelmina Bay and transited south to Andvord Bay. Among the things we finished up were the quarterly testing of the life boat and fast rescue craft. The transit to Andvord was beautiful, with lots of penguin colonies – it was hard to leave the bow to get back to setting up experiments. Here in Anvord there is a lot of phytoplankton! The ship measures the level of chlorophyll, the colored molecule that plants use to turn light into food, continuously as we move along. In Wilhelmina most of the time we had between 1 and 3 micrograms of chlorophyll per liter of seawater. Here in Andvord we’ve seen concentrations above 30 micrograms per liter! Even just looking at the icebergs you can tell there’s more phytoplankton here – the part of the iceberg that you see through the water are colored with a greenish hue, rather than the turquoise blue we saw in Wilhelmina Bay. We can’t wait to start sampling in the morning and figure out which phytoplankton there are so many of and what kinds of zooplankton are here eating them!

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