Science on Deck

Last night I went to sleep and the boat was rocking and rolling. The wind was blowing more than 40 knots and waves were crashing over the main deck. When I woke up this morning it was dead calm. It felt like the ship wasn’t even moving. I had to go look out the window to check.

We were completely surround by soft slushy pancake ice  that quieted the waves and rolls right down. It newly formed first year ice,  so very easy for the ship to travel through.   The ice stayed parted after the ship passed, leaving a nice wide channel to deploy the research gear.

To catch zooplankton (small animals that float or weakly swim in the water column) we use a big winch to lower a very fine mesh net into the water. The net is pulled behind the boat for about a half and hour, before it is retrieved. We  do this about 6 times a day.

To prevent ice crystals from forming and blocking the net’s mesh, the net is stored in a heated container. It is then carried out onto the deck under the winch. The net weighs about 100 lbs, so it can be a bit awkward to move.

One of the main purposes of this cruise is determine how many of each zooplankton species live in the study area. To do that you need to know how much water was sampled, or passed through the net. The net has a current meter attached to it. It counts rotations of the propeller which is proportional to how much water went into the net.

The net will be lowered to about 170 meters,  left to stabilize for about 30 seconds and then slowly brought to the surface. We try really hard to avoid the ice- which can freeze and crush all the little critters in the net.

Once the net is back on board we hose it down to make sure all the zooplankton are gathered in the back or cod end of the net. For our net, the cod end is PVC pipe.  It gets a bit brittle in the cold Antarctic waters. If it hits the boat, it could shatter and release the catch. We protect it with foam and duct tape.

Krill and other critters get stuck in the mesh, so we hose it down to get our full catch.

So that’s how we get our samples. Now into the lab where we can see what we got.

Science in the Drake

Those of you who have followed my blogs in the past know that the Drake Passage and I are not friends. The Drake is a stretch of open ocean between South America  and Antarctica. Often there big waves and storms, but it is always rolly. This year the Drake and I are making peace. I got prescription seasickness medicine, and the Drake only had 10 foot(ish) waves. For once I am up, about, eating, and doing science in the Drake. Nancy Regan was wrong kids; just say yes to drugs… Well motion sickness drugs at least.

The first bit of science we did was to launch XBTs. XBTs are water sampling probes. They measure temperature down to 760 meters. The probe stays connected to the ship by a thin copper wire so that the data can be transmitted in real time. Once the probe crosses 760 meter depth, you snap the wire. The probe is then disconnected from the ship. I am betting that in areas of high interest to oceanographers the sea floor is littered with XBTs.

Sadly there are no flames or triggers involved in launching the XBT.  You just make sure the copper wire is connected and then tip it overboard.  We launched XBTs every 90 minutes for 24 hours.  The last one I launched was at midnight, when it was blowing 39 knots and lightly snowing.  Yeah, I am tough. Smile

We also launched a number of drifter buoys. The buoys will float for up to two years and transmit information on sea surface conditions and current speed using a satellite connection.

We released the drifter buoys from the main deck, which was completely awash with waves. Sorry no photos.  Basically we just dropped it over back of the boat

We are also starting to practice with the gear we will be using to collect the bulk of the data for this cruise. We did a very quick CTD (Connectivity, Temperature, Depth) cast to collect water samples at different depths.

The big checker doors open on the side of the boat at water level. The CTD is then lowered into the water while to boat is still moving forward. The bottles are triggered to open and close at specific depths. The first CTD cast was quick and shallow, just to get some phytoplankton (algae) samples on board.

Home Sweet Palmer

This year I am sailing on the R/V NBP (or the  Research Vessel Nathaniel B Palmer). The NBP is a huge hulking ice breaker. She is 308 feet long, 60 feet wide, and five stories tall including the Bridge. There is also an Ice Pilot house one floor higher. The NBP was built in Louisiana so there are lots of Cajun references. The most important though is the ship mascot, the Coonass

So lets take a walking tour of some of the public areas of the ship. These all start on the “Main Deck”-  below decks is the engine room and cargo hold (I think, but I haven’t been down there). Below decks is off limits without permission from the Captain.

At the bow (front) of the boat on the main deck is the galley (aka dining hall). We have a rather good chef on board who really cares about making food everyone likes. Sadly, he is so busy cooking and planning that I don’t have any pictures of him. His name is Mike  and he makes me vegetarian garlic free food.

The galley is pretty large. It has what you would expect like a serving line with steam trays and lots of tables and chairs.

Some of the crew are on board for more than six months at a time. It is very important for them to have a taste of home. The condiment collection is a bit out of hand, there are different condiments on every table, but hot sauces feature prominently in all collections.

Hot drinks are also really important. There is a large assortment of coffee, flavored coffees, creamers, and tea in the Galley. Of course for the true aficionados, there is communal espresso machine  in an office one deck up.

The chef picked out the tea collection which is further to the left. It includes English breakfast and jasmine green, yum.

The very important desert table includes necessities like milk, juice, cake, popcorn, and the very popular ice cream freezer. We eat a LOT of ice cream while at sea. The chef purchased $4,000 of ice cream for this cruise and it will all get eaten. There is always left overs and snack on the dessert table. No one will go hungry – or even get a bit peckish.

OK, enough about food. The rest of the main deck is take up by office space and science space.

One of the science freezers is currently filled with food for the Polish Arctowsky Station.  It will be months before they will get any more fresh food. In the summers, Acrtowsky station helps NOAA research teams camped nearby. NOAA repays some of the favor by bringing in fresh fruit and vegetables- a prized commodity.

The rest of the interior main deck is filled with science labs. I’ll show you those later when the science is up and running.

The 01 deck, one floor up, is the living space for the science party.

Each stateroom has two beds and a bathroom that was too small to photograph. Its more comfortable than you might think.

The 02 deck is where the party is.

The 02 deck also has the “hospital” which is only open when someone needs it. Sorry no picture. We have two EMTs on board  in case of injury or illness. Hopefully no one will need it this cruise.

The 03 deck has the staterooms for the chief scientists and some of the higher ranking crew. It also has the conference room. Which I must say is larger and better equipped than my department’s conference room at school. This room though is my nemesis. It is up high (so it moves a lot in the waves!), no windows, and we are usually looking at a t.v. screen.  In short, the perfect conditions to induce sea sickness.

Third floor is also access to the life boats. We had to get in them the first day at sea. The captain gave us a speech about how awful it is to be in the life boats. He also made us pack abandon ship bags with food, water, sea sick meds, and toilet paper. All of the crew and passengers can fit into one lifeboat. The NBP carries two fully enclosed lifeboats and a set of life rafts, just in case.


I have no idea what is on the 04 deck- we are not supposed to go on it. I think it is mostly the captains quarters and office space for the ships officers.

The 05 deck is the bridge and it is spectacular- or rather the views are just amazing.  The captain and officers are very friendly and we are almost always welcomed on the bridge.


Every member of the science team works a 12 hour shift. Shifts are scattered so that work goes on round the clock. It’s hard to get used to a late night shift, sleep happens.  I lucked into a noon to midnight shift, so it has been easy-peasy for me.

Right so the Palmer is a pretty comfy ship, filled with lots of good food. (Thanks Chef Mike and team!)

I am excited to get out off the Drake passage and let the real work begin.

Antarctic Gateway, Punta Arenas, Chile

This year I am participating in a US Antarctic Program (USAP) research cruise in the Western Antarctic Peninsula region. One of the closest ports to the Peninsula region is Punta Arenas Chile. The USAP, Chilean National Antarctic Program and several tour operators all use Punta Arenas as their gateway to Antarctica.

Punta Arenas is a great little Chilean town. Everyone is very friendly, which may explain why things move so slowly down here. There is a rather elaborate cemetery in town, that is well tended by the families of the deceased. It looks like a small version of the famous Recoletta cemetery in Buenos Aires Argentina.

Punta Arenas has a long history of explorers and scientists passing through. Magellan passed this way and is still celebrated in town. There are several statues honoring Magellan including this gem…

When we sail, we will sail through the Beagle Channel, which honors Charles Darwin’s famous ship. But before we set out we must honor Magellan by kissing his foot, seriously.

Magellan is atop the monument.  He is supported by a mermaid (naturally), and two native Patagonians. The foot of El Indio on the right hand side hangs down low. It has been polished from everyone kissing it and rubbing it for good luck and a safe voyage. I watched several ladies give it big sloppy kisses- so I used some hand disinfectant and gave it an affectionate rub..

We had a busy few days in port getting the sampling gear and the lab set up. Our Chief Scientist personally tested and inspected the new cod end protector. The part of the fishing net where the catch accumulates is called the cod end, it is very important to keep it safe from hitting the bottom or banging into the ship.

I helped put together the rest of the net that we will use to catch krill and other zooplankton. It was actually pretty easy.

The microscopes are all unpacked and secured, the net is ready, we have sorted out important things like where they keep potato chips, so we are ready to set sail. We leave tomorrow morning, or rather we leave to go to the fuel dock tomorrow morning and then wait 16 hours for the tanks to fill.

Icy New Beginnings

Hello all!

Welcome back to my cheesy blog. I cannot believe that this is the fifth trip I am taking to the Antarctic! Perhaps it is high time that I finally introduce myself. My name is Adrian and I am addicted to academics- um I mean I am a PhD candidate at George Mason University. One day I hope … to graduate.

For my PhD research I am looking at ways to design a new marine protected area (MPA) in the Western Antarctic Peninsula region. A well designed MPA would help conserve a wide variety of marine species and help make the fisheries more sustainable. That means I need to have a very good understanding of how the marine ecosystems function in the Western Antarctic Peninsula region.

This year, for the first time, I am travelling to Antarctica as a full fledged member of a science program. I will be on the zooplankton team for NOAAs winter oceanographic cruise. I believe my actual title is something like  “junior biological technician”, which accurately portrays that I have a lot to learn!

So, this year come with me as I learn about the little critters that live in the Southern Ocean and support the marine food web. We will be catching all sorts of odd looking animals. We expect- and hope- that there will be a lot of krill (a little shrimp like creature that is eaten by fish, penguins, seals, whales and even harvested by people).

It is also my first oceanographic research cruise on a big ship! I will be living and working on the RVIB Nathaniel B Palmer for about a month. The Palmer is the bigger sister ship to the RVIB Laurence M Gould (a.k.a “Fisher’s Price’s my first ice breaker”) that I travelled on a few years ago. It should be good sciencey times. Stay tuned!