Follow the R/V Point Sur on Her First Voyage to Antarctica

By Diane Wyse

On Thursday, November 29 the R/V Point Sur, MLML’s largest research vessel and a member of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System fleet, set sail for Palmer Station, Antarctica.  The ship and her crew, accessed for class cruises and interdisciplinary and inter-organizational research projects, will be making several stops through Central and South America during her voyage over the next several months.  You can even track the trip here.

The R/V Point Sur leaving Moss Landing Harbor (Photo: Andrea Launer)
The R/V Point Sur leaving Moss Landing Harbor, en route to Palmer Station, Antarctica. (Photo: Andrea Launer)

Over the course of her 8,200 mile journey the crew will post updates about all aspects of the cruise.  While we will miss the Pt Sur during her first voyage to Antarctica, we can look forward to exciting updates on the Pt Sur blog.

Sunset from the Point Sur off the coast of Mexico (Photo: India )
Sunset from the Point Sur off the coast of Mexico. (Photo: India Grammatica)

Stay tuned for updates and stories from the crew!

Closing Camp and the Long Ride Home

Great big ships are the Antarctic ticket home (photo: K. Green)
Kristen Green

by Kristen Green, Ichthyology Lab

March 2009:  Yesterday’s dawn revealed the greasy, orange Russian research vessel looming on the horizon. A few short hours later, the small green field station with white shutters where I’ve lived in for the past 5 months grew smaller as we sped across the bay in zodiacs towards our floating ride home.

The events of the past three weeks are a blur of inventorying, packing, and cleaning. Everything was counted down to the last pencil, and then placed in bags to inhibit moisture and mold over the winter. The satellite antennas, wind generators, everything that connected us to the outside world and generated our power supply was disassembled.

I felt ready to go, but wanted to climb to the top of Jardine, the 700 ft peak above Escurra Inlet. The weather had been unimpressive all week, but the morning of the extra day was miraculously clear and sunlit. We made the three hour trip from Copacabana, exploring some new routes over the glacier. Jardine is an eroding basalt monument, the remnants of a 25 million year old volcanic plug. From the top, all of Admiralty Bay was visible in stunning panorama. The scenery was crystalline, the light was just right. From this perspective, I could see a good portion of the area we worked in over the past 5 months. I tried hard to imprint this last, perfect view of the island.

photo (K. Green)

Now, sitting on the Russian ship, I feel drained. I just took the first consistently hot shower I’ve had in 5 months. Watching the rust-tinged water drain away, I felt like I was being wasteful. I’m too clean, the ship is too hot. I’ve spent months of my life on boats, but now I feel claustrophobic. The dull roar of the engine never ceases, the fluorescent lights flicker in tunnels of blue hallways.

Already I miss my life on King George Island. I wish I could sum up my experiences in the last five months with the perfect conclusion, like that last day on Jardine. Maybe the filter of time and distance will provide the necessary perspective, but for now, nothing I could write would be eloquent enough.

Kristen and her fellow team members signing off from Antarctica

Searching for missing penguins and avoiding projectile bird vomit

Kristen goes for the catch to get a satellite tag from a Gentoo penguin in a successful roundup (photo by P. Angiel)
Kristen Green

by Kristen Green, Ichthyology Lab

Before leaving my Antarctic camp last spring, we still had biological work to do which was a welcome break from the monotony of packing. The first was a last ditch effort to retrieve the last missing transmitter on a Chinstrap penguin. The satellite data indicated the bird was still coming to shore; sometime between 10 pm and 1 am, and somewhere in a three mile stretch of coastline between Demay and Patelnia. Dave planned to search at Patelnia and then walk back to Demay at midnight. My job was to search the colonies at Demay.

By 11 pm, I was starting to feel my headlamp wasn’t quite sufficient in  illuminating the distance I would have liked from fur seals. Surrounded by low guttural warning growls as I picked my way to the penguin colonies, I hailed Dave on the radio and was relieved to hear that he was on his way back. He too, was tired of waiting in the cold, navigating through minefields of territorial fur seals. We returned empty handed, morale sinking further as we tried to decipher Polish cooking instructions on the food stored at the tiny, unheated Polish refugio where we planned to stay the night. Later in the week the next satellite download revealed the transmitter had stopped transmitting signals all together, but at least we tried.

Had Kristen and Dave caught their rogue penguin, they would have proceeded to do something like this... (photo by P. Angiel)

Our final biological task was to count and band giant petrel chicks. Of the birds we work with, giant petrels are the most sensitive to disturbance. The chicks need to be old enough to fend for themselves since the parents will fly off immediately when we approach the colony. These are the largest birds we handle; the adults are about 25 lbs; the chicks are like big fuzzy 15 lb dough balls.

Despite their size, the giant petrels are primarily scavengers, and their defense mechanism is to project an oily vomit onto potential attackers. The best way to avoid this is to approach within 10 ft of a nest, and then sprint the last few feet to the nest, grabbing the chick quickly and holding the beak so it can breathe, but not regurgitate on the lucky person doing the banding. Giant petrels are known for their strong site fidelity, often returning to the same colony and the same nest each year. The bands help us to estimate this site fidelity, as well as measure over winter survival. This year’s chicks will fledge in about a month, and then live on the open ocean for the next 5 years before returning to the island to breed.

A giant (non-vomitting) petrel looks on (photo by P. Angiel)
A giant (non-vomitting) petrel looks on (photo: P. Angiel)

The bird work was done, but the chaos of packing continued. Sitting in the hut the night before we were scheduled to leave, surrounded by plastic bags with a laundry list of things to still accomplish, we found out via radio call that the ship was going to be delayed a full day. They needed better weather to offload researchers at another island field camp about 12 hours away. The gift of this extra day was a blessing, not only in needed time to finish closing camp, but also for me in being able to say goodbye to the island.

A tagged Gentoo penguin shows off its fashionable new satellite backpack (photo: K. Green)

Follow Polar Explorers to the Antarctic

SCINI does a test dive at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Institute (MBARI).  (photo courtesy of the SCINI project)
SCINI does a test dive at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Institute (MBARI), shining a light from the camera dome on the left. (photo courtesy of the SCINI project)

MLML benthic ecology researchers are off to Antarctica again this fall for another field season with their robot SCINI, which serves as a scientist’s eyes in dark, freezing waters under the Antarctic ice (click here to get the skinny on this slender robot).   Despite their distant location, this will be far from a remote operation – the team will be logged in and connected to the “outside world” (that means you!) through a number of different channels.

You can follow their “Daily Slog” blog updates at the SCINI project website. MLML researcher Stacy Kim will also be a scientific correspondent for the Exploratorium Ice Stories project starting next week.    A PolarTREC teacher will also be blogging her experiences for the K-12 crowd.  You  can  send the team questions or sign up to participate in webinars through PolarTREC.  Get ready for an icy adventure from the comfort of your own home!

A once-in-a-lifetime experience in Antarctic waters

Amanda Kahn
Amanda Kahn

by Amanda Kahn, Invertebrate Zoology and Molecular Ecology Lab

Land ho!  Two months ago, I left MLML and California on a flight to Chile to help out on a 40-day research cruise in Antarctica’s Weddell Sea.  During the months leading up to the cruise, I worked dual lives–struggling to keep up with work at school while also making arrangements for travel, going through the necessary medical tests and preliminary cruise preparation, and starting up on my job as a public outreach person on the ship (I wrote a blog, just like my posts here).

Being out at sea for 40 days was an incredible and unique experience.  Many of the things we take for granted on land are just different on a ship (stable ground, for example!).  I was worried about being seasick the entire time, but I got my sea legs after a few days and was able to function just fine in almost any weather.  Since everything on a ship is constantly moving, everything must be tied down or secured to prevent it from sliding around or falling.  Laptop computers were tied down to tables and sat on non-skid mats to protect them–actually, anything that we didn’t want to have slide off the tables sat on non-skid mats, including our dinner plates!  We had safety drills every week, which included fire drills and abandon ship drills.  Also, we only had whatever we brought on the ship with us from the beginning, which meant that for six weeks, we had to make fresh foods last!  Over the course of the cruise, our fresh foods progressed from a salad bar brimming with fresh fruits and veggies to a meager selection of hardy vegetables, like iceberg lettuce and carrots, and finally to preserved foods such as olives, pickles, and canned peaches and pineapple slices.

For the most part, I found life on the ship to be rather exciting, but certain aspects were difficult.  We had no internet connection, and the email system transferred emails by satellite three times a day.  That meant limited contact with people on shore.  It also meant no YouTube, Google, or any other online websites.  The science we did onboard more than  made up for the lack of online entertainment, however.  Trawls through the top 300 meters of water brought up animals like Antarctic krill, salps, jellies, swimming worms, and even swimming snail relatives called pteropods.

Antarctic krill, the main food source for baleen whales that migrate to the Southern Ocean, were collected in trawls.
Antarctic krill, the main food source for baleen whales that migrate to the Southern Ocean, were collected in trawls.

I’m now back in action at MLML, and ready to write again about what life is like here at the labs. It will be very different from life on the ship, but I think certain things are quite a bit nicer here on land (stable ground, for instance!).

Penguin Chick Roundup

A gentoo penguin chick looking mischievous
A Gentoo penguin chick looking mischievous (photo: Lara Asato)
Kristen Green
Kristen Green

by Kristen Green, Ichthyology Lab

February 4, 2008:  It’s February, and it’s starting to feel like the season is coming to a close. The Gentoo chicks have been on the deck most nights…..looking guilty as usual when I open the door at 3 AM. They used to scatter, face-planting off the deck in a rush. Now, the bolder chicks nonchalantly waddle away from me; cleanly executing the foot drop-off from the deck. Those chicks have spent substantial time on the deck and it shows. Ten minutes later, the pitter-patter of little penguin feet and tap-tap of beaks betrays the curious chicks again. We’ve built elaborate barricades to keep them off the deck using two-by-fours, ice chests, and old propane tanks, but the stealthiest chicks still find new loopholes. I think our barricades are just training them to jump higher. I came out the other day to find a chick sleeping on top of an ice chest we used to block off an access point.

A gentoo penguin poses by the research station
A Gentoo penguin poses by the research station (photo: Lara Asato)

The chicks on the deck are entertaining, but they are also a sign that the penguin work here is almost over. We held the ‘Chick Round up’ last week, a muddy affair where we herd dozens of squawking chicks at a time into a small seining net, like the kind you would drag through the surf to catch fish. We then place metal bands on their flippers. 250 Adelie and 250 Gentoo chicks are banded this way each season. The Adelie fledglings have already begun their migration to find southern pack ice, and won’t return to King George Island to breed until they are three year olds. Castle Rocks, the largest Adélie colony, was filled with thousands of birds the day I arrived. Suddenly, the colony is deserted, and only the distinctive smell of penguin guano lingers. The metal bands on the “known-age” chicks (called as such since we know the exact season they were hatched) are numbered and wrapped with a strip of red electrical tape, which will help to identify the incoming Adélie three-year olds in the 2011-2012 season. Meanwhile, the Gentoo fledgings will stay here, and follow their parents into the ocean and back for short foraging trips all winter.

In addition to the chick banding, this week is our last big push to wrap up all the penguin work. The Chinstrap penguins are the last penguin work we do, as they breed a few weeks later than the Adelie and Gentoo penguins. Last week we hiked all the gear to deploy satellite transmitters and take diet samples to Demay Point, four miles away, where the closest Chinstrap colonies are located. We had good weather, and were able to get the first stage of our work done at these Chinstrap colonies. However, we’ve been waiting all week for a good day to retrieve satellite transmitters and take the final diet samples from the Chinstrap colonies. The end of the penguin work isn’t the only sign that the season is drawing to a close. Most of December and January, it never really got dark at all, now the sun sets at 10:30 pm. The weather patterns are also changing; the frequency of low pressure systems have been increasing. The rapid falls in pressure are usually accompanied by snow storms from the southeast. Read more

Surveying Skuas and Jumping Glaciers

Kristen Green
Kristen Green

by Kristen Green, Ichthyology Lab

Being surrounded by hundreds of penguins can sometimes make you feel like you’re losing your mind, but luckily, we also work with other bird species. The first of these are skuas, predatory birds that have conveniently timed their arrival to the island just as the penguins start to lay their eggs. The skuas harass the penguin colonies relentlessly, and with greedy success. Today I saw a pair of skuas working the colony, one swooping on a nest, scattering a skittish penguin, while another one grabbed the egg. Skuas pair up, often with the same mate season after season, and patrol and defend their territories. Each of us is responsible for covering a set of territories throughout the season to record skua sightings and track the reproductive success of breeding pairs.

Brown skuas guard their fluffy chick (photo:  L. Asatao)
Brown skuas guard their fluffy chick (photo: Lara Asatao)

I like my skua rounds; our work is solo, and one of the few times you get to be alone here.  My route takes a few hours and follows a circuitous route over hills and moraines with incredible views of the island and the bay. This is an island that can completely reinvent itself from day to day, and sometimes even hour to hour and I have yet to get tired of seeing a different view each day. My route ends near the beach, at a huge rock formation aptly named the Sphinx. Near the Sphinx, the tiny Antarctic terns cry and swoop to defend their nests.

Piotr Angiel)
An Antarctic tern catches some air (photo: Piotr Angiel)

I like these birds because they are beautiful; when silhouetted against the sky, their white bodies look almost translucent except the flash of orange beak. Also, weighing in at just over 100 grams, this is a bird that cannot hurt me. The penguins (with good reason) rail at my shins, inflicting flipper-slapping bruises, and tear up my hands with rapid fire pecking. The skuas (I’ve heard) hurl themselves at intruders to defend their territory once they have laid eggs.

Read more

Lost in a Sea of Penguins

Kristen Green
Kristen Green

by Kristen Green, Ichthyology Lab

Seven species of penguins can be found on the Antarctic continent and sub-Antarctic islands. King George Island has been described as a ‘cosmopolitan’ place for penguins, as three of these seven species can be found here: Adelies, Gentoos, and Chinstraps. Each species has evolved to fill different niche to coexist successfully. Adelie, Gentoo, and Chinstrap lay their eggs a few weeks apart. This means that the chick hatching and fledging (when the chicks enter the water to forage on their own) are also separated by a few weeks for each species.

Lara Asato)
Mom, I'm hungry! A Gentoo peguin chick taps its parent's beak to summon a freshly delivered meal. (photo: Lara Asato)

This may be one adaptation to lessen the competition for shared food resources, i.e. Antarctic krill, during the critical time period when chicks are being nurtured. The Chinstrap penguins are the last to lay eggs, and the first Chinstrap penguin observation on the island was actually 6-foot-tall Dave, the field leader who created a fairly elaborate Chinstrap penguin costume for Halloween from our excellent supply of trash bags, rags, and cardboard!

Meanwhile, we are still tracking and banding Adelie and Gentoo penguins to monitor reproductive success. We take daily attendance at each site where we have banded birds. This kind of makes me feel like a schoolteacher, as I check off whether the female or male is present and incubating the eggs on a particular day……except for the day when a nest with banded birds simply disappeared. I walked into the colony, and checked off all the other birds at my site, only to realize I couldn’t find the banded bird that should be at my feet. I consulted my map, looked down…..consulted my map, looked down….but couldn’t find the bird I had recorded in this spot every other day this week. Surrounded by hundreds of identical, cackling birds, I had a sinking feeling I was losing my mind.

Where's that one penguin? Where's Waldo? Where's my mind??? (photo: Lara Asato)

I guiltily admitted this to the field leader. He laughed and said if a nest fails i.e. the eggs have been lost due to predation, weather etc., the penguins will abandon it. Regardless, working alone around penguins sure makes you second guess your sanity sometimes!

Get the skinny on SCINI, the under-ice robot

An image of the ROV SCINI as it dives under the ice
Kyle Reynolds
Kyle Reynolds

by Kyle Reynolds, Benthic Ecology Lab

Under the ice of Antarctica, there is a virtually untapped, pristine world just waiting to be explored. For the past several years, Dr. Stacy Kim has made it her goal to explore this world by diving under the ice to document the benthic communities and their changes through time. Her biggest limitation in this research endeavor (up until last year) has been the depth she is restricted to as a human diver. Since divers are limited to depths of about 100ft or less, there is a vast territory that remains inaccessible. Not to mention the hardships involved with drilling holes in the ice for divers, and keeping them from refreezing for any amount of time.

Bob Zook and Stacy Kim lower SCINI into a hole in the ice
Lowering SCINI under the ice for a dive mission

When Stacy’s husband Bob Zook, a self-proclaimed “Gizmologist”, set his mind to helping Stacy overcome the limitations of her research, SCINI was born. SCINI is the name of the diving robot Bob, Stacy, and a small team of hand-picked engineers designed themselves (from scratch!). The name stands for ‘Submersible Capable of under-Ice Navigation and Imaging’. (Click here to read more about SCINI and see daily logs from the team in Antarctica)

Now in their second year with SCINI, they are reaching new heights (or should I say, depths). Just this Monday they shattered their previous depth record and were able to get SCINI all the way to the seafloor 206 meters (680 ft) below, where they viewed communities of sponges and seastars no one has ever laid eyes on before! Needless to say, this new technology promises to be invaluable for a myriad of uses, and its significance has not gone unnoticed. Just yesterday, our very own Dr. Stacy Kim was interviewed by the Today Show (click to watch) to speak about the impacts of global warming in Antarctica and about the merits of SCINI!