Friday, February 19, 2010

Antarctica is our Paradise

It may not come as a surprise to you that sadly I am not actually in Antarctica anymore. Right now I am writing from my attic room in Providence, Rhode Island. As I look back, I see life at Palmer station as a little piece of a better world. You can have everything you want, and nothing that you don’t. There are no cars, no traffic, no cell phones, very few of the distractions of modern life. But you can be connected if you wish, by internet or landline. The food is the tastiest I have eaten anywhere. I thought of it as going to a restaurant all the time, but not just any restaurant – my favorite restaurant. Some highlights: moussaka, samosas, olive cheese bread, lamb stew, and not to forget the cinnamon rolls, baklava and flourless chocolate cake. The people are genuine because there is no reason to posture or put on a front in such a small community. One afternoon the boating coordinator announced that there would be a happy hour in the boathouse. I arrived, wine in hand, and joined about 10 people were sitting in chairs or on the rubber pontoons of a boat. When I asked what the occasion was, they looked at each other and someone said, “it’s Wednesday?” this story is not to illustrate that a lot of drinking goes on at Palmer, because it doesn’t. It’s just a really relaxed and welcoming atmosphere where no excuse is needed to have a social event. Hanging out at the bar isn’t a crazy scene at all, it’s just some guys playing ping-pong and enjoying each other’s company. People sit by the fire and read or write, or knit. It is a place where shy or quiet people who might not be accepted elsewhere are included and valued.

Another special aspect of Palmer station is the excitement inherent in its location. Everyone’s priority is to experience Antarctica. Given any opportunity the support staff are out on the water watching wildlife. They may drop what they’re doing, or get probably too close to a whale, but that’s the point – that’s why they’re here. But at the same time everyone works really hard to make the station run as smoothly as possibly; there are no bad attitudes or people avoiding work.

As Hugh said, “The real world will never be the same.” In the beginning I wondered why people live this life – 9 months thousands of miles from their family and friends, then back for 3 months without a real home, only to do it again. But now I see that Antarctica is a refuge from a lot of the ugliness of modern life. Someone drew a little sketch with the caption “Antarctica is our paradise,” and it truly is. Palmer Station is a little utopian community, a small piece of a better life. The natural world appears to mirror this almost like a frozen Garden of Eden, where penguins, seals, birds and whales abound and are fearless of humans. However this special ecosystem that is actually in a state of collapse due to rapid climate change, and that is what brought me there. I am so lucky to have been able to experience this place.

I want to thank everyone who has encouraged me in writing this blog - it has been a revelation and an unexpected source of joy for me. If you enjoyed reading this, please stay tuned for my travels in South Asia beginning in May!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Being a Duckling

When I arrived in Punta Arenas on my way to Antarctica, the scientists whom I met would ask me if I was a “duckling.” I learned that the correct answer was “yes,” because I worked for Dr Hugh Ducklow. It certainly seemed odd at first but over time I really came to appreciate what it means to work for Hugh.

First of all, Amanda and I were at Palmer Station while Hugh was on the research cruise, so we did not have direct supervision. Hugh and his research assistant trained us as well as they could and then trusted us to do a good job – quite some faith! But it gave us confidence to know that they trusted us. In our training, Hugh showed a remarkable ability to remember what it was like to not know how to do the techniques that he has been doing for over 20 years. He still knows the mistakes that a beginner is likely to make. And when following detailed procedures, it is easy to become too focused on specifics and forget what the main objective is, but Hugh always has a sense of the big picture. He wanted us to see being in Antarctica as the most important part of our experience by making clear which science tasks were time-sensitive and which tasks could wait if there were whales to watch or freshly baked cookies to eat. As we stood on the pier under an overcast sky just before he boarded the ship, leaving us at Palmer, he said “Remember: mistakes will be made, but the most important thing is for you to have a good time.” And he really meant it.

As the chief scientist of Long Term Ecological Research on the Antarctic Peninsula, Hugh made an effort to bring the group together socially. This was admirable, because there were 23 scientists from 5 different institutions, plus the ship’s crew and it would be easy for the group to become fragmented. Hugh made sure that we all got drinks together in Punta Arenas before we left, and he participated in the New Year’s celebration on the ship. Although I wasn’t on the research cruise, I heard that he made sure that everyone had the opportunity to set foot on the Antarctic continent when they made a stop there. Hugh is serious about Antarctic traditions, and halfway through our time he threatened not to take Amanda home when he heard that she hadn’t yet taken the polar plunge (luckily she did, on the morning that we left). And Hugh has his lips sealed about the procedures of the ceremony that took place on the cruise when they crossed the Antarctic Circle. I suspect that he may play the role of “King Neptune” himself!

But my favorite aspect of Hugh is his excitement about Antarctica. On the passage from Chile, I could feel his energy increasing with each mile that we traveled further south. He became more talkative and animated, reminding me of descriptions of explorers who seemed to only “be themselves” when inside a polar circle. Some of the graduate students appeared to be somewhat jaded even in their second field season, but I think that Hugh will always be looking forward to the next time he is in Antarctica.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Science, science and more science

Although I study organisms that are too small to see with the naked eye, you may be interested in the other research currently going on at Palmer station. The groups on station shift throughout the season, I can only give you a snapshot of who was at Palmer during the six weeks that I spent there.

The scientists break down roughly into the “buggers,” the “birders” and everyone else. The buggers are from Miami University in Ohio, and they study the largest land animal in Antarctica…a 4mm long wingless midge. It has remarkable adaptations to the harsh climate here, including the ability to survive being frozen, dehydration to 35% of its body weight, large swings in pH and salinity, and even…4 weeks without oxygen. My bet is on these guys as post-apocalyptic climate change survivors. The entomologists are trying to pinpoint the genes that give them these amazing abilities. The scientists are also trying to figure out how these flightless insects happen to even be here. One possibility is that they floated over, because as the buggers discovered by accident, they stay on top of the water surface very well. Or they could have hitched a ride on migratory birds. Or, they could just be holdouts from when Antarctica was not the icy place it is now, who have gradually adapted to their changing world. However they got here, they have the run of the continent.

Then there are the birders. They are the most hard-core of any scientists on station, working over 14 hours per day, 7 days per week for 5 months. They are in the field about 10 hours per day, constantly on the move. Personally, I really don’t think that the data gained from working 7 days per week versus 6 is worth the stress of not taking a break. But anyways, they study penguins, petrels and skua, documenting population levels, reproductive stress, and health based on the physical measurements of individual birds. They measure the contents of penguin stomachs by forcing warm water down their throats until the birds vomit, and the researchers bring back the stomach contents to count each krill. While I was at Palmer, they visited an island that no humans except for themselves are allowed to set foot on, and that even they only go to once per year. Quite undisturbed!

Then last, there is everyone else. That includes our bacterial research and phytoplankton research looking at response to light conditions. In addition there is a scientist who studies the “visual physiology of zooplankton.” What that means in practical terms is that he sticks electrodes into krill eyes! He is looking at what adaptations krill have made to living in such cold water, and also how they handle being in total light for part of the year and total darkness for the other part. He gave a talk about his research, and on the bulletin board we all wrote funny phrases including the word “krill” as shown in the photo I’ve included here (I contributed "Kriller, by Michael Jackson"). There is also a group that I wouldn’t really count as a science group. Four divers are making a visual catalogue of the marine life in the Palmer area, both vertebrate and invertebrate.

These are a few of the grants that the National Science Foundation funds each year through the US Antarctic Program, and between all these groups the lunchtime talk is pretty exciting (because of course, scientists can never stop talking about their research).

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Polar Bear of the South

I have been looking forward to writing this post but other exciting events keep getting in the way. The first time that I became aware of Hydrurga leptonyx was in reading Endurance, an account of Ernest Shackleton’s struggles on the pack ice of the Weddell Sea. One of his men was almost eaten by this “polar bear of the South.” In fact several years ago, a British diver was grabbed and drowned by a leopard seal in a tragic accident. The leopard seal is the only seal that eats other mammals, and it is ferocious. It hunts seals and penguins with teeth designed for slashing and flaying prey. Its jaws open an awesome 160 degrees for maximum grip. This in addition to its technique of flailing its prey in order to break their necks makes me think of a combined viper/crocodile-like creature. And in fact it does look quite reptilian. This is no downy, big-eyed seal.

So you can imagine my excitement when I saw my first leopard seal lounging on an ice floe right next to the station. Its body was over 10 feet long but sleek and sinuous. Its back was dark gray and its belly was a lighter gray with spots, hence the name leopard seal. Amanda and I were no more than 20 feet away on the shore, and it could definitely hear our hushed amazement. It stretched its flippers, which are connected to its body with large flaps of skin such that they resemble bat wings. Then it yawned wide, showing its impressive teeth and pink mouth that was even spotted inside. How cute! Except not.

When others described leopard seals to me before I saw one, their description centered around the observation “And their heads are huge!” When I saw one for myself, all I could think was “And its head is huge!” Even on such a long body, the massive head is out of proportion. And there is something really creepy about their faces. Maybe the jaws are set high on the head, maybe it is just the size of the grin, but you can see for yourself that these are like no other seals. And it is hard to even think of them as seals. They seem to be unique creatures, part polar bear, part snake, part crocodile, part curious dog.

Another part of the mystique of leopard seals is how little is known about them. There is very little information about their lifespan or breeding habits, and in fact one of the leading leopard seal researchers has only twice seen a pup. Leopard seals are known to hang around zodiacs, checking out the passengers, chewing on the ropes and sometimes puncturing an air chamber. So for all their more sinister aspects, they could be called endearing. One was certainly interested in us as we collected water samples one day. It surfaced several times near our boat and I could see its nostrils set high on its snout like a crocodile. I felt so lucky to be sharing the water with this animal that was first in awe of as a child and never dreamed that I would see with my own eyes.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Reaching out

I never expected that my first step onto a bona fide cruise ship would be in Antarctica. Actually it wasn’t really a step so much as a shimmy up a rope ladder. Before I came here, I didn’t realize that “outreach” is an important aspect of the United States Antarctic Program’s mission. I am for the busiest season, when two or more ships come to Palmer station each week. They range in size from a 45 foot sailboat housing a French family on their way around the world to the National Geographic Explorer to a 780 foot Holland America Line cruise ship. The sailboats and commercial yachts tie up in the harbor and come ashore for a tour, a visit to the station souvenir shop, and lunch or brownies and coffee. Any scientists who have time are encouraged to come to the galley and talk to the visitors about our work and life on station. This is actually a great public relations opportunity for the USAP, to show what they are doing with taxpayer dollars. And of course the visitors are excited to see real live Antarcticans. The question they all ask is “How did you get here?” often closely followed by “How can I get here?” For some, this is their first interaction with scientists. I was told that I didn’t look crazy enough to be a scientist (What, no googley eyes or Einstein hair?), to which I replied that I am still practicing.

However the cruise ships with more than 200 passengers, which are too large to enter the harbor don’t come to us. We come to them, on zodiacs that to them appear to have materialized from the icy hinterland. As the ship cruises around the nearby waters, we spend several hours giving science talks and question and answer sessions. It is a really fun opportunity to leave the station and explore the surrounding landscape. It is also a chance to get haircuts and enjoy the pools onboard! On our last Sunday at Palmer, the cruise ship Amsterdam visited and we took a ride down the Lemaire Channel. This narrow passage is one of the most popular tourist destinations on the continent, and for good reason. The entrance is marked by a black cliff thousands of feet high surrounded by gleaming ice. It seemed to me like an obsidian-dark version of El Capitan, rising from a watery valley floor. More mountains and glaciers stretching miles back from the shore continued to unfold as we made our way between the walls. According to Wikipedia, this area is called “Kodak alley,” and we were lucky enough to see it on the only brilliantly sunny day in over a week of fog and snow. We had to stop about halfway through because further on the channel became too narrow for the ship to turn around. In the spirit of Antarctic giddiness, the captain did a 540 degree turn, just for fun.

But seriously, the outreach at Palmer and onboard the ships was one of my favorite activities in Antarctica. I loved answering questions from “Why is the ice blue?” and “How is coal formed in Antarctica?” to “What food do you miss most?” (Answer: None, I eat better here than at home!) Explaining what I do here simply and succinctly, without using any scientific terms is a challenge and an exercise that I think every scientist should do frequently. It makes you really think about the significance of say, bacterial growth rates, without falling back on jargon. Other scientists are so devoted to their work and understand the joy of it so easily that I don’t have to justify myself as much to them. “Understanding biogeochemical pathways” is enough of an explanation. But the public is much more demanding because pinpointing chemical reactions is not a raison d’etre for them; they want to know the big picture. And in the end, both in the interests of integrated science and competition for limited grant money, the big picture is what every scientist needs to be able to explain best. I think that communicating science, either to the public or to policy makers may be a role that I am interested in pursuing further in my life. But first I need the science credentials to back it up, so bring on the biogeochemistry!

I have posted an exciting video on my Day of the Whales post, you may enjoy watching it. I've also added photos to Palmer Station, Palmer Science, Polar Plunge and Camping in Antarctica so check them out. And comment, comment, comment! If you like a particular post, please let me know! It will put a smile on my face and even if you can't see that smile, it's there - smiles aren't like trees in the forest.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Day of the Whales

Today was my last day at Palmer station before crossing the Drake Passage, and it was a great way to say goodbye to Antarctica. My first inkling of how special this day would be was when Amanda and I were wrapping up at our second water sampling station. The boating coordinator got on the radio and asked us about some visitors. I asked if he meant the sneaky leopard seal that was checking us out as we processed our water samples, but it was unlikely that he could see the seal from where he was, ¾ of a mile away. He meant something…bigger. We stopped and looked around for a couple of minutes but didn’t see our marine friends so we came back in for a long day of lab work. As we arrived on station, we saw several boats going out to look at a group of humpback whales who were hanging around the harbor. The station employees had today, Monday, off because they worked yesterday due to a visit by a cruise ship (hopefully more on that in a later post). However Amanda and I had a full day of time sensitive experiments to carry out, so it wasn’t possible for us to play with the whales. Around 4:30pm as I was just coming to the end of my lab work (except for the experiment I have to end at 10pm), the cook came looking for us. She said that the whales were still playing and asked us if we would like to come out with her and the station doctor. I want to thank Amanda for letting me post the photos that she took of the whales.

We piled into a zodiac and took off in search of humpies! We had been seeing their spouts all day from the galley windows but I wondered how we would find them in the whole expanse of the ocean. I needn’t have worried; there were at least five groups, about 20 individuals in total. We started out with a group of four who were bubble-net feeding. This is a technique in which the whales work in teams to hunt schools of krill. One whale will emit a sound that attracts the krill and the others swim in a tight circle trapping the krill in vortex and working them to the surface. We knew that the whales would be coming up soon when the surface of the water turned pale blue from all the bubbles. Then three or four huge beaky mouths would stick up above the surface, gulping hundreds of gallons of krill-filled water. The pleats of their throats would stretch, showing the white accordion bits. I could see the water slosh around and jiggle the surface of their pouches, which are more flexible than I would have imagined. Their jaws have barnacles in addition to natural bumps, and distinctive white and orange markings. The top-side of the beak is flat with nobs like the bosses of a shield. Sometimes I could see the pink roofs of their mouths. They would all rise up together and open their jaws, like a mound of mussels topping off a paella. Often I couldn’t really tell what I was looking at; it was jumble of gigantic blue, white and pink body parts. A fin would hang above the surface, white with dark scalloped nobs. The fins were incredibly long and huge, at least 10 feet long, 3-4 feet wide, and quite floppy. We were very close to them – at one point they were about 15 feet away and coming straight towards us, so we just sat tight and waited for them to pop out on the other side. When viewed straight on, their backs looked like the inverted hulls of small boats – wide and tapering to a ridge along the back. Sometimes the whales would arch backwards as they opened their mouths at the surface, swimming along on their backs with their blue and white striped bellies in full view. Then they would turn and show their dorsal fin before diving down and showing their flukes.

I have posted an album of photos by my friend Rex on picasa.
The flukes had incredible variation in shape and color from animal to animal. Some had a sharper angle in the middle, some tapered off at the ends more, some were completely white, some dark blue, some white, blue and orange. Some had scars or what seemed to be birth defects. It was really fun to see so many individuals, to follow one and learn to recognize its fluke or dorsal fin, and then to spot a new one and think, “Hello stranger.” I liked following a group, seeing the individuals separate and join new groups, or to see one who kept to itself the whole time. Amanda took some really great photographs of the whales we saw, which you can view on her picasa page. This is a video taken from one of other boats: Kyle's voice gets...very high when he's excited...

We heard them exhale puffs of mist every several seconds. One whale made a more nasal sound, like sucking snot or blowing your nose. The one really distasteful part of the experience was the whales’ bad breath. It smelled rotten, not like rancid meat or the sweet fermentation of fruit, but sour, like rotten vegetables. This would be the only air pollution that I am aware of that originates in Antarctica.

The last group we hung out with had a small, possibly juvenile member who would hang back behind the other three. Then this one decided to give us a show. About 40 feet away from us, the whale breached out of the water. It seemed to be in slow motion, the pointed head, stark white and black pleats and white flippers, streaming water. Then it breached again, higher and spinning halfway around in the air and landing with a big splash. Another adult jumped up and back showing its belly and flippers. I never thought I would ever see this sight in my whole life. It was invigorating, seeming to make my blood circulate faster; my fingers had been freezing even in my lined rubber gloves, but after the breach I didn’t notice the cold anymore. The whale disappeared under the water, leaving no trace and I found it hard to believe what had just happened. Think of it: a whole 30-foot, many-ton whale out of the water! Watching whales is kind of like being one of the three blind men who meet an elephant – you can see a fin lingering above the waves, a nose poking up, the pleats of the throat, and tails disappearing under the water, but you don’t get a sense of the whole body. The breach put all these disparate body parts together on one, strange-looking animal.

There hasn’t been another day like this all summer, and I like to think of it as Antarctica trying to keep me here, or entice me to come back!