Crossing the Drake, The Video

At long last  I have a good internet connection and can post the video from  our first crossing of the Drake.   This video was filmed through a window of the   “water tight door”  leading to the main deck.   If you listen carefully,  you can here the water spilling through the door when the wave crashes.  Don’t worry,  I was standing in a designated “wet room”,  so  there was no danger for the water to  collect and cause any harm.   There were all sorts of pumps and drains in place.    Enjoy the video!

Going out in glory

Our last few days aboard the Palmer  were a blur  of excitement,  packing  and sea sickness.  So how do you make a group of scientists  at the end of  a  month long  cruise  literally squeal with excitement?  Show them a species they have never seen before. 

On one of our last science days,  we spotted an EMPEROR PENGUIN FOLLOWING THE SHIP!   All caps does not even begin to  show the excitement.   Everybody who could get  out to the stern, RAN  out to catch a glimpse.  We woke sleeping people up to see the penguin.  We crowded on the back deck,  we literally squealed with delight.  It was thoroughly undignified,  but it was an EMPEROR PENGUIN.  We should not have seen one.  The closest Emperor Penguin colony is on Snow Hill Island on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula.  It traveled a very long way to get get near Elephant Island.  We  were gobsmacked.  Without further ado,  the emperor…

There were people onboard who have been going to Antarctica for ten years and never seen an Emperor Penguin.  This was a very big, exciting deal.  There is only one  lovely  picture,  to wow  you  with  because we were all so distracted looking at the penguin that there was very little photo taking.

So allow me to show  you  a lovely sunrise.  Shortly after we saw the emperor  we began our transit north through the Drake Passage.  This  crossing was much calmer.  We were blessed with calm seas and beautiful skies. 


It was a great cruise  filled with good science and good friends,  but now it is time to say good bye and head to port  and home.

Goodbye friends,  until we meet again.

Cup carrying scientist

Have you heard of the shrunken cups?  I am pretty sure that you have to have one to be considered a real ocean scientist.

Shrunken cups start off life as normal Styrofoam cups, just like the ones you have for take-away coffee.   Then you draw and color and write all over them .  Some folks  use them as  birthday cards.  Other folks draw memorable things from the cruise on them.  Cup art was very serious business for about two days.   We cleared off one of the science benches and turned it into  a crafting corner.  Every time we got a break,  we crowded around the table to draw on the cups.

Once we reached the station,  we stuffed the cups with paper towels,   bundled them  into a mesh bag,  and then secured to the deepest diving instrument we had.

We attached the cups to the CTD for the last station on the grid.  They took a return  trip to 750 meters  at station W07-01 near Elephant Island. 

The pressure at depth released a lot of air from the Styrofoam cells.   Our cups shrank nicely,  but they are still a little pliable.   That means if we had sent them deeper,  they would have shrank some more.   On the deep sea cruises,  scientists send their cups down to 2,000 or even 4,000 meters.  Even though it took a relatively shallow trip, my  cup still  shrank about  50%.   I know this  because I put a one inch reference line on the bottom  before I shrank it.  That line is now half an inch long

I drew some of my favorite (or  easiest to draw) things from the cruise  all around my cup.  Maybe you can recognize  Clione  limacina  Primno macropa, and Eusirus  properdentatus  on my cup.

I put an emperor penguin  (we saw one from a distance on this trip),  and the station information on the cup.

So there you have it,  I am now a cup carrying  ocean scientist. 

Scoping it out

As I mentioned in the last post,  we spend a lot of time  looking at zooplankton trough microscopes.  We have  3 main tasks that require scopes 1)  Distinguishing hard to identify species 2) cataloging the tiniest species we get in the net  and 3) determining the sex and stage (readiness for breeding) of krill.  I just learned how to sex and stage krill this year.  It is a combination of fun and frustration. All of their little bits are tiny tiny tiny and transparent,  so  only a few of the microscopes we have are good enough for the job.  Sadly the camera does not play well with those scopes,  so I can’t show you all about  krill bits.   I can, however show you the cool tiny creatures we look at.  

You can tell that I am working in the Antarctic  because there is a penguin sticker on the scope Winking smile.    That scope is my favorite scope.  It is also the oldest scope in the lab,  but it has the best lenses and light source.  The krill bits just jump right out on that scope,  usually.  All photos below come  from the lab camera scope. Most were taken by Javier Arata  as he has the magic touch with that setup.

We get a lot euphausids in the net.   When they are big,  we can easily determine the species.  But when they are small or missing their eyes we often need to use the microscope to look at their rostrums to determine the species. 

Our first contestant  Is Euphausia frigida.  As an adult frigida tends to be quite small, lacking in color, and it has round eyes that sometimes go missing or get squashed.  When you look at frigida under the  scope,  you can see that its rostrum tends to be blunt,  and doesn’t have a  crease in the middle.

In contrast.  Thysanoessa  macrura (T. mac)  has kidney bean shaped eyes,  and a pointy rostrum with an obvious crease down the middle.  Both T. mac and frigida tend to be small and colorless   so we spend a lot of time scoping these guys out.

Pretty cool  right?  Once you get used to looking  for the signs,  its really easy to  tell the species apart.

We are also really interested “baby krill”  or more  accurately ,  the larval stages of Euphausia  superba known as furcilia.  You can tell how old they are by counting the spines at the tip of their tales.  I am not kidding,  we count microscopic spines on tails.

Ok let’s zoom in on those tail spines.  

As the furcilia  grows it will  loose spines.  An F V stage has 3 spines,   and the oldest furcilia stage (F VI)  has only 1 spine.  Counting spines is a lot of zooming in and zooming out,  but its pretty easy once you get the hang of it.

Ok enough euphausids,  lets talk about copepods.  Copepods are awesome.   They are tiny little armored beasts  that feed and evade predators by doing this cool spiral dance.   There is a tremendous amount of copepod diversity down here We can recognize a handful of species that are pretty distinct,  but a lot of times  we can only determine the family or that it is a copepod.  Let me show you.

Candacia is great!   It looks furry or feathered.  it stands out amongst all other copepods.  Even though we don’t get many of them,  they are hard to miss,  and hard to misidentify. 

This mighty beast is Calanus propinquus.   We identify it by its size, color, and shape.  It is quite large for  a copepod.  We can actually see it as an orange speck darting around the sample.  Its shape is characteristic of the Calanid family of copepods.  So if it is not fully grown and pigmented,  we can’t tell if it is actually  C. propinquus  or some other calanid copepod.

So the copepod above is smaller than propinquus,  lacks color on the tail and antennae,  but has the same  body shape.  They look very similar,  but not quite the same.   We are confident that they are both in the same family,  Calanidae,  but that is as far as we can get.  One day we had to use  forseps (aka science tweezers) to hand pick 504 calanid copepods  for a diet study.  The little buggers are fast  and tiny,  so that was no easy feat.. 

Now to completely blow your mind,  we also get super tiny  crustaceans.   The critter in the bottom of the picture,  is a fully grown Scina sp,  and it is smaller than a Calanid copepod.  They are pretty weird looking,  but always so much fun to find.

We get an assortment of  fun tiny amphipods as well. 

Eusirus propedentatus is one of my  favorites.  Every critter in the Eusirus genus has   little boxing glove claws,  but in this part of Antarctica the only one with red gloves is E. properdentatus.

We get  little Primno macropas in almost every tow.   When they get larger,  they are quite purple.   They almost look like a purple outline of themselves in the big sample dish.

We also get  gastropds  in our samples.  We get these beautiful little shelless snails, that you might know as pteropods .   The two most common species and the only ones we can positively identify are below.

Let’s not forget the super fun looking polychaete worms we get.

And with that friends,  I think you are ready to join me at the microscope  to  “small frac”.   Small frac is when we take all of the water associated with the sample,  and strain it to isolate these tiny critters.  Then we mix all of the solid bits left behind with a specific and known amount of clean seawater.    We take sub-samples of this mixture and count every single critter we find in it.  We use gridded petri dishes to help us keep track  of what has already been counted.  We can then extrapolate  (multiply) to how many of each kind of critter  is in the full sample. 

Do you recognize anything in the grid cell above?    There should b e a few critters you have seen before.

Hope  you liked seeing the tiny, tiny critters.

What it’s all about

Spoiler alert,  the Hokey Pokey is not what this cruise is all about.  I am here with NOAA’s Antarctic Ecosystem  Research  Division.    Their mission,  the reason for their whole existence is to study Antarctic marine ecosystems  to support  fisheries management and conservation.  It’s a dual mandate that can be a bit conflicting at times. If you increase fishing   you could compromise ecosystem functioning.  If you  have too many conservation measures,  you could unnecessarily harm economically important fisheries.  The trick is to find the sweet spot that preserves biodiversity and ecosystem function while allowing for healthy sustainable fisheries.  The key to achieving this goal is through careful study and monitoring  of fished species  and all key dependent and associate species.  The largest fishery in the Antarctic is the krill fishery.  Mission one of this cruise is to understand how krill and associated zooplankton are distributed in in the region.

If  you want to understand  zooplankton,  you must become  zooplankton.  Or, you know,  just use a fine mesh net to fish some out of the water so you can study them.

Our net weighs about 150 lbs.  Most of that weight is in the steel frame  that holds the net open.   The net itself is about 25 feet long (I think but I haven’t actually measured it).  The net width, mesh size, and length are all fine tuned to ensure that the zooplankton experience the correct water velocity and don’t get destroyed in the net.

All that net leads into the “cod end”.  You can see from the photo that the cod end is slightly smaller than a five gallon bucket.  It is essentially a PVC pipe that has been capped off.   A few holes have been drilled into it and covered with very fine mesh to allow water out,  but keep microscopic critters in.

If there is a lot of slush in the water, the cod end turns into a giant snow cone.   We then have to melt the ice before we can start looking at critters.

Once everything is melted we pour the catch into plastic trays  and start the “picking and clicking”.   We pull everything large out of the trays,  identify and count them all.  We use handheld clickers, the same kind they use at events to keep track of attendance, to keep  count for each species

We are most interested in krill.  When we get a full haul of krill it is  ‘’game  on”.


Krill can form huge swarms of  millions of  animals.  When we find large swarms we just get over whelmed.  We cannot count and  take data on tens of thousands of krill  between tows.  At most we can count around 1,000 krill,  and sub sample about 200 of them  for length,  sex, and maturity.  One tow we got an estimated 35,000 krill.  That was time to subsample! Don’t think we are just lazy,  once krill die, they start decaying almost immediately.  Within minutes of death they turn to opaque mush.  It is nearly impossible  to see  their secondary sexual characteristics  or even measure them.

Ok the decay thing usually happens,  but Franken krill did not get the memo.  “What is a Franken Krill?” you may well ask. Well one day in a really big krill tow,  we found  the back half of a krill.  It was completely headless and then some.  Its little swimming legs were still beating,  its body  was opaque but not mushy.  We were fascinated,  so we put it in seawater on ice  just to see how long it would last.   It made it 24 hours, but then we forgot to change the ice. Franken Krill got warm, the dish filled with fresh water,  and then Franken krill was no more.  Who knows how long it could have lasted if we had been better care takers.

There are some big things that we can easily identify in the trays  like krill.  But a lot of the time  we must   ‘scope it out  to determine what species it is exactly.

Ok,  ok actually  we know what these are without scoping.  There are three  purple amphipods (Themisto gaudichaudi),  and two  pteropods  (the orange at the bottom is  Clione limacina).  The orange at the top is a sipunculid,  also known as a peanut worm,  There is an assortment of clear jelly organisms.  The ones with orange inside  are siphonophores (Diphyes antarctica);  the ones with yellow and brown inside are salps  (Salpa thomsoni)

How do we ID the amphipod above?  We use the micropes to look at eye shape, size, and color.   As well as head shape,  and the shape and length of legs.

The little amphipod is psuedorchomene  plebs.   We also spend a lot of time ‘scoping out larval fish.

Without a scope,  I can not tell you what these little guys are.  Most of the fish we get look like this.  Super tiny,  sort of white,  with big eyes.  We manly use eye shape  and positioning of colored dots (melanophores)  to determine the species.

We do between 2 and 4 tows during a 12 hour ship.  We just crank though all the picking, clicking, and scope work.  It can be exhausting.

So that is life in the zoooplankton lab.  We pick and click  24  hours a day,  seven days a week.  Thank goodness we work shifts!


PS while all this is going on ,  another team is busy studying water column properties.  They look for phytoplankton  (chlorophyll  and other chemicals in the water).  They get all of their sample from a CTD rosette  that  is lowered through the water column  immediately  before the net.  CTD is an acronym for connectivity, temperature, and depth.

The post with pictures of seals

You all know how I feel about seals. They are the absolute best!  I could watch them all day long  (Really, I could.  I once had a job in Australia where I watched fur seals all day long, and then in our free time we pretended the seals were soap opera characters.  Good times).  It is no surprise that when the weather is good and the sun is out,  my favorite thing to do down here is hangout on the bow watching  seals.   This year  the weather has been rough,  and  there have been relatively few seals hanging out on the ice.    Last year we had a few days of  “seal soup”  this year  we have had one day of  “seal sprinkles”  in slightly soupy weather.    Without further ado  here are some seals I saw  (and may have said some silly things to).

Fur seals are great, just great.   They are snarly and full of  personality.   This time of year we see a lot of big males  out on the ice.   “Fur seal”  is not just clever name.   They have amazing multi-layered  fur coats that keep them warm and insulated.  The outer layer is  composed of coarse guard hairs that help the seals shed water.  The guard hairs even keep water from reaching the inner coat while the seal is swimming  The inner layer is composed of the the softest fluffiest fur you have ever touched.    The densely packed soft fur traps air,  keeping the seal insulated   and toasty warm  under water and on the ice.

The photo above shows just how well the fur seal’s  coat insulates.   The white spots are snow that has dried and stuck to the outer guard hairs.  The inner fur  is trapping all of the seals body heat,  so the outer hairs  don’t heat up.  There is no melted snow on or around the seal.

Bar far the most numerous seal in the Western Antarctic Peninsula region is the crabeater.    

Crabeaters are phocids, or true seals.  They cannot rotate their front or rear flippers under them.  That means they can’t really stand up on ice or land like fur seals can.  They end up looking a bit like fat little inch worms when they try to move.   What crabeaters lack in grace  they make up for in teeth.

Crabeater teeth are amazing.   If a had a bigger lens (cough,  cough,  married to a photographer  and only have a tiny lens),  you could see  how intricately shaped this seal’s teeth are.   Despite the name,  crabeaters are actually krill specialists.  When they eat,  they take in big gulps of water.  They then close their mouths,  use their teeth as strainers to push the water out and keep the krill in.   Crabeaters are also pretty fierce  and will   aggressively attack any threats.  This is probably the reason that the seal eating killer whales tend to prefer the far less numerous Weddell seals. The ship passed very close to some crabeaters and we were treated to their snarly,  tooth- filled  threat displays.

Right,  well hope you enjoyed my seal photos.  This year has just been so very odd.  We have had a lot of ice,  but most of it was pancake ice  (very newly formed)  or  surprisingly thin first year-ice.  We have seen very little multi-year ice  which is what is needed to keep the   animal populations down here  healthy.  The past few years almost all of the ice  has melted out in the summer heat,  so it never gets a chance to build up.   The summers are hotter longer,  so the ice starts forming later during the winter.  It really shouldn’t be a surprise that the first year  ice  is noticeably thinner this year; at the start of winter this region recorded a record setting high temperature of 63 F.  Here is hoping that some of of this lovely newly formed ice sticks around until next year.

Well that is enough talk about the sad state of the sea ice, here are some parting penguins

Science-made Ice Cream

Ice cream is a BIG DEAL in Antarctica.    We eat so much ice cream down here it is insane.   On this ship we have a dedicated ice cream freezer in the mess hall.  It is always,  always stocked with ice cream bars and sandwiches,  sometimes pints.   People eat ice cream around the clock.  Some folks have ice cream at every meal  and for snacks.  I have heard folks swear that the way to beat sea sickness is to eat ice cream.  This post is devoted to some very special ice cream.

Every Tuesday at 12:30 sharp  we have a safety drill.  Everyone  onboard,  whether you are working,  hanging out,  or you are sleeping in the middle of your night,  must report to the muster station carrying full survival gear.  Then we wait in the room for an unspecified amount of time until the Captain releases us. 

To pass the time and make the drills more fun we make  ice cream  with liquid nitrogen.  There is a designated  dewar  and gloves.  The lab technician makes the liquid nitrogen onboard.  There is a little machine that bubbles away making liquid nitrogen 24-hours a day.  

The ice cream this week  was blueberry vanilla,  and it was a bit of a purpley grey color.  It didn’t photograph well,  but it tasted pretty good.  The secret to great ice cream   is lots of fast stirring and lots of liquid nitrogen.     When those two forces combine you get a nice  velvety treat.   So good!