“P” is for….

Palmer Station!  I love Palmer Station.  I am biased, it is true.  It is a “marine biology station” so I have been itching to get there.  As you saw from my previous posts, I got to experience a lot of the marine biology.  So now let me share a little bit of the fun quirky side of Palmer.

In the late 1980’s a foreign flagged ship spilled quite a bit of oil not too far from Palmer Station.  There was a bit of a mad scramble to get enough supplies in to clean up the spill and get folks into study the effects of the spill.  Palmer Station has adopted the boy scout motto.  They are now fully prepared for oil spills or to lend a helping hand should a nearby station or uninhabited island experience a spill.

As you can tell from the photo above, even for serious stuff, Palmer Station residents have a sense of humor or at least a sense of art about it.

Palmer is also famous for their amenities…

And their quirky traditions…

So now that you have seen a parting polar plunge I guess it is time to wrap up this blog for the year… well maybe two more photos

Its been a great trip to the Ice.


Well not really…

We paid a visit to Deception Island and things did not go as planned. Luckily they turned out well enough in the end and that is all that matters.

Deception Island is a partially sunken active volcano.  It is possible to sail right into  the active caldera through a narrow passage called Neptune’s Bellows.  That was the plan at the start of the day.  The island is so popular with tourists and researchers a like that the number of boats at any specific site is limited to 1.  We were third in the queue to enter the caldera and visit it’s 2 open beaches.  So we gave the “inner sanctum” a miss and instead went to a HUGE chin strap colony on the outside called Bailey Head.

By now you must be a little bit jaded by penguins, but I am telling you this place is special!  Our landing was a little bit adventurous.  We did a stern (or rescue landing)  where our expert zodiac handlers threw an anchor off the bow and let the stern drift close to shore.  Then as the wave was bringing us in (but not too far thanks to the anchor) we flung ourselves out of the boat and raced the wave up the beach.

Penguins on the beach had either just returned from a feed….

or were headed out to get some tasty krill.

To travel between the beach and the colony, the penguins had to take the penguin highway.

Now with all of those penguins on the penguin highway, you must be wondering about the colony proper.

The colony is essentially a moss covered amphitheater.  The picture above is showing part of one side of the bowl.  The penguins prefer the “nose bleed seats.” Some of the nests are nearly a mile and a half away from the ocean and involve a pretty steep vertical climb.  I was huffing and puffing by the time we got to the top of one ridge.  Never doubt that chinstraps are mountain goats!

While there were clearly a “poop ton”  (the official scientist term for a whole lot) of penguins at Bailey Head doing their utmost to make more penguins, you couldn’t help but feel that the place was a little bit empty.  In fact the colony has experienced a 50% decline in the last 30 years.  It seems that chinstraps through out the Western Antarctic Peninsula are in decline.

How can we help the chinstraps recover?  Well no one really knows the answer to that.  The population decline has coincided with rapidly warming temperatures in the Antarctic Peninsula.  No doubt, the chinstraps’ main prey species, krill, is struggling in the warmer waters.  Chinstraps too are struggling with increased rain and snow.  Penguin chicks, still in their fluffy down, are not meant to get wet.  A wet fluffy chick is a cold fluffy chick, and a cold fluffy chick doesn’t survive for long.  It rained so often while I was in the Peninsula region that I stopped counting.  It is not supposed to rain in Antarctica, or at least it hasn’t rained so much until very recently  (in  evolutionary time scales).

Clicky Penguins

For the past two days I have been shadowing (and helping out ) researches from the Antarctic Site Inventory project, conducted by Oceanites.  It has been can only be called heroic penguin counting.

Island 1

We landed at Cobalescu Island.  We “landed”  on a beach that was all of two rocks (but biggish rocks).  We timed our scramble out of the zodiac with the waves.  As soon as the driver said “Go” you had to be gone.  Our whole team of 4 plus our gear made it out it out lickety split.  Then we scramble along the rocks and up a steep snow bank (avoiding the penguin trails). It was a bit of an adventure because there were no previous recorded landings in the literature.

As it turns out, “chinstrap”  is the penguin word for mountain goat.  Boy do these guys climb, and we climbed up right after them.

So the researchers counted and I walked around the colonies with a GPS getting the outline of the colony for later mapping.  It was hard work doing all that scrambling while trying not to get blown off by wind.  In between colonies we had to slog through snow fields.  It was so hot that the snow was all soft and squishy.  I kept “post holing” or sinking up to my hip.  Sadly for me, the snow had fallen over lots of penguin  poop,  so I got covered in a mix of krill and slushy snow.  I then had to fill in that hole with nearby snow before moving on. If the holes are left, they are penguin death traps. Filled holes keep penguins alive!  Some places were so bad we were crawling on our hands and knees (G.I. Jane style) or sliding down on our bums.  It was hard work but somebody has to do it.

Island 2

We then went to Renier Island where the “locals” show off.  Sadly there was a LOT of poop and mud here.  I got filthy scrambling around and the camera case (after an iodine scrubbing) still smells like rotting krill.

Island  3

Next up we went to Fort point, which is home to  both gentoo and chinstrap penguins.  The researcher I was with focuses on the gentoo penguins.  They were so tightly clumped (and so many) that I got to help count the penguins with my very own clicker.  I also took panoramic photos of the colony so that the researchers can verify their counts later.  I learned that gentoos are both disgusting and adaptable.  They will nest in anything.

I guess it is not surprising, gentoos seem to have a lot of flexibility in their breeding too.  They do not have the extremely high site fidelity (on the scale of a meter) that Adelie’s have.  Rather gentoos are able to leave beaches that are no longer suitable and then establish new colonies the following year.  That’s probably why we see gentoos popping up all over the place.

I counted 650 gentoos on my clicker today. When they are all clumped together it is very hard work keeping them all straight (I got you, but not you).  I ended up pointing my clicker at the penguins to keep them all straight.  However, I was handsomely rewarded for my efforts.

Palmer Penguin People

I was lucky enough to get a tour  by the “Birders”, a group of scientists who have been studying the Adelie Penguins, Giant Petrels (“Geeps”) and Skuas of the Palmer Station surrounds since the 1970’s.  They have seen a sea of change.

Litchfield Island, now an Antarctic Specially Protected Area for its diversity of moss and lichen, was once home to a colony of several thousand Adelie penguins.  In more recent years the island has had increased snowfall, and even rain. It rained while we were at Palmer… I know right, rain in Antarctica?!  It is actually becoming a common occurrence in the Western Antarctic Peninsula.

Adelie’s love ice, are ice dependent actually because of their food-krill, so you must be thinking how can snow hurt them?  Well the snow falls all over them and their nests.  Their body heat is enough to melt the snow around its nest.  This can result in pools of water that drown the eggs.  To make it worse, if it rains after a snow, the entire colony can get flooded, killing all the eggs for that year.  When this keeps happening, the colony eventually goes extinct.

Now on to Torgerson Island

Torgerson is the closest Island to Palmer Station.  It is home to an Adelie penguin colony that is can be visited by tourists and  station personnel, so basically anyone.  The island has been split into an “Open” and “Closed” (or Restricted) zones. The closed zone is a sort of control for scientist working on questions about the impact of tourism. Only they can enter the closed zone.

You might think that splitting the island in half would make it easy to study the impacts of tourism.  The above photo was taken in the tourism zone, if you squint you can see one penguin.  However, you must remember that this half of the island happens to get a heck of a lot more snow that the closed half (due to its terrain and orientation).  Snow is therefore partially responsible for the differences in penguin numbers.

How different are the penguin numbers between the sides?  Let me show you.  The first photo is from the boat landing area at the boundary of the zones and shows the restricted zone. The second is from the same location and shows the open zone.

Now as you may have guessed, colony size plays a huge role in how vulnerable to climate, disturbance, predation etc the colony is.  The smaller colonies are more likely to loose eggs/chicks to skua predation and are more likely to loose an entire years eggs/chicks in a flood.  The colonies are the “open side”  were on average smaller to start with, and are significantly smaller now.  When the Birders are able to tease apart the impacts of weather, colony size, and tourism they will have one heck of an amazing paper.

We had a few  “guests”  at Torgerson Island…..

Now onto Humboldt Island.

This island, of course, has Adelie penguins, and I will get to them later.  What we came to see are some very special “Geeps” (Giant Petrels).  Giant Petrels are typically very scared of humans.  Most birds will fly away before a good, trained and careful researcher has an opportunity to get their data.  So the Birders started a habituation program.  Patiently and slowly (more than 10 years and running!) they got the Geeps on the island used to human presence.  Over the years the scientists were able to get closer and closer without disturbing the birds.  Now the Birders can walk right up to the Humboldt Island Geeps and attach a satellite tag while the bird is completely relaxed… don’t believe me?

Now for the visit with the penguins.  We were fortunate enough to get some demonstrations about proper egg and chick care.

Penguins must be very careful parents so that there eggs aren’t stolen by hungry skuas.

So in summary, Adelie penguins near Palmer Station are cute, trying to be good parents and protect the young from predation, but are struggling with the effects of warming (snow and rain) and possibly tourism impacts.

Here is your parting penguin…

Good Morning Antarctica!

We made it through the Drake and then some…we knew we were getting close.  Everyone was asking the crew  “When are we going to see cool Antarctic things?”  We were told that it would start getting good at 10 am.  So like kids on Christmas morning, we started wandering out to the deck at 6 am.  I was a sleepy head,  I didn’t make it until 6:45 am and then…














Before we knew it,  it was time to get ready to pull up to the pier.  All of the “Able bodied  Seamen”  (otherwise known as AB’s  or the guys who know where everything is and have secret stashes of cleaning products) donned their personal protective equipment and got ready.

Oh, Oceanography

So today I was fortunate enough to get see an Antarctic Peninsula Area oceanography demonstration.  It was so cool to see some of the gear used that I had only seen pictures of during my undergrad oceanography classes.  I won’t bore you by telling you how long ago that was!

The morning started off  with a CTD/Niskin bottle rossette.  And in English… Conductivity  Temperature Depth sensors.  The sensors measure what you would expect, with conductivity used to determine salinity.

The CTD package is mounted to a niskin bottle rossette.  Which is a fancy way of saying water collecting bottles arranged in a ring.

Next up we were supposed to launch a glider.  Gliders are so cool.  Let me say that again, in a different way.  Gliders are amazing.  You can fill them with the same types of sensors that you would put on a rossette.  Depending on battery type and amount of sensors, the glider can keep trucking along, taking data for weeks to over a year.  The gliders can have their courses pre-programmed.  They have a GPS units and an irridium phone.  So every time the glider surfaces, it re-orients its GPS and phones home to get further instructions.

Next up, plankton tows.  We used a net called a “MOCNESS”.  Because everything is bigger in Antarctica, this net is HUGE.  I decided that it is the “Mocness Monster”.  The scientists deployment the net study Euphausia superba, the basis of the Antarctic food web (other plankters, fish, penguins, and even whales eat these guys).  I guess when you get down to it, everyone down here is nothing more than a krill seeker.

And then out of the tow we found something I had only ready about it books, and drawn during my undergrad invertebrate classes. The dreaded, vicious and  voracious  chaetognath or arrow worm.  These things prey on copepods and anything else they can get their jaws around.

The Dreaded Drake

When I got on the LMG, the new mate asked the Captain if he had to shake the fire extinguishers when he did his regular rounds.  The Captain laughed and told the new mate that the Drake would take care of it.  It didn’t sound like a joke, but I sure as heck hoped it was!

Well, since you are reading this I clearly made it through the Drake Passage.  I won’t lie, it wasn’t fun.  The Drake lived up to its reputation.  It was blowing between 30-40 knots.   There were 30 foot swells and lots of rocking and rolling.  I have the bruises to show for it.  I kept all of my cookies (thank you very much) by using lots of sea sickness meds, and laying in bed with my eyes closed most of the day.  The horrible conditions last more than 24 hrs (** note while I thought this was horrible, I am now informed that it was only rough. To be considered horrible the waves needs to be at least 55 feet).

When it was all over I learned that we changed course to get out of the worst of it and that at one point the waves/current/swell was so strong that we made no forward progress.  Having been through that, I seriously question the sanity of yachtsmen who want to sail through that particular patch of ocean.

Despite the horrid weather we had several bird species as our near constant companions.  I got outside with my camera at the start and the end of the horrid crossing.

1)   I am not a bird nerd, 2) I haven’t had a lot of time to pull out the bird guides to give you more specific identifications , 3) Sorry Sad smile