Sunday, January 15, 2012

Reflections (January 15, 2011)

Overall, this season in the Antarctic Peninsula was quite successful.  With my colleagues, I was able to collect many samples and conduct penguin counts at numerous sites.  I spent most of the season in the central-western portion of the Peninsula and made it up to Deception Island and Half Moon Island in the South Shetlands.  Not as geographically diverse as last season, but an awesome trip nonetheless!  I was extremely fortunate to be traveling with such a wonderful staff (One Ocean Expeditions) and crew aboard the Akademik Ioffe this season.  I am very much looking forward to whatever next year brings, but for now I must bide my time back in the lab until next year, like any good field biologist.

I have put together a little video highlighting some of my favorite moments from this season.  Check it out!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Merry Christmas! (December 25, 2011)

This is my second Christmas morning spent in the Antarctic and I just love it!  Never really have to worry about whether it will be a white Christmas :o)  Last night was a big celebration as in most countries Christmas Eve is the time to celebrate with family and friends.  Most people dressed up and we had a wonderful Christmas dinner.  Wine flowed freely and it was hard to even hear each other at the table for conversations and merriment filled the air.

People often ask "Don't you miss Christmas?" My answer is that I have never "missed" a Christmas, I have one every year!  The truth is, that after being on the ship for near 20 days the people I work with are like my family and the guests my friends.  I had Christmas with 100 people this year!  The trip had been one for the record books in terms of wildlife and weather; everyone was so happy making for a most merry Christmas.

In Antarctica, Santa drives a zodiac, not a sleigh.
Paula and I exchanged presents this morning before heading out;  Christmas morning found us at Deception Island.  This was really a spectacular morning, it was the first time I had ever been to Deception Island when the sun was shining.  The sun was out and a fresh dusting of snow covered this volcanic island.  We anchored in Whalers Bay and hiked up to Neptune's Window to take in the full view.  By the time we hiked back the guests were stripping down to their bathing suits to do a Christmas Polar Plunge.  It was soooo cold this morning, the coldest morning yet at about 28 degrees with 20 knot winds.  It didn't want to take off my gloves, let alone my clothes to jump into the ocean, which was a balmy 33 degrees itself.  So I watched from shore and laughed and cheered as guests sprinted into the near frozen sea.  

After spending Christmas morning at Deception we sailed north to another island in the South Shetlands called Half Moon Island.  As we sailed all of the One Ocean staff as well as Paula and I did our secret Santa around the Christmas tree in the lobby.  It was really fun to watch everyone open their gifts...and then scramble to get dressed for our next excursion!  

Macaroni penguin
This was to be the final penguin count of the season for Paula and I.    We arrived at Half Moon to bright sun, clear skies, and winds nearing 30 knots (~34 mph).  The zodiac ride was bumpy and wet, but we made it ashore.  Half Moon Island is home to about 1,100 pairs of Chinstrap penguins...and one pair of Macaroni penguins.  The guests were thrilled to see chicks for the first time on their voyage.  Though Paula and I had spotted chicks at several sites, none were accessible to the guests.  The chicks at this site were only a few days old and guests were lucky to catch quick glances as the adults were sitting tight on their nests in the cold wind.  It was so windy up on the rocks that I often held onto a big rock so I wouldn't get blown over the edge.  The cold wind also made counting difficult as my eyes kept watering making it very hard to see.
As the winds started gusting to over 45 mph we knew it was time to leave.  We had completed our final count and it was time to sail north through the Drake Passage once again on our way back to Ushuaia.  It was a wonderful Christmas day that ended on a more somber note as we cleaned our gear for the final time and said good bye to Antarctica.

A long day on Cuverville Island (December 23, 2011)

This morning we attempted to make a landing at Neko Harbor, one of the most scenic spots in the Peninsula.  We loaded into the first zodiac off of the ship to make our way to shore, but were foiled by too much ice surrounding the landing site.  There was simply no way to make it to shore to do our count. 

The Gentoo penguin colony at Neko Harbor is on the
exposed rock in the center of the photo.

Zodiacs getting ready to take guests out for a morning cruise

So while guests piled into zodiacs to do a bit of cruising around the ice Paula and I took advantage of the empty ship deck to clean some eggshells.  It was bright and sunny so we sat outside and got caught up on our samples.  We finished just as the guests came back on board and the galley staff had prepared an Antarctic BBQ for lunch!  
View of Cuverville Island (on the right) from
Danco Island
After lunch we set sail for Cuverville Island in the Errera Channel.  Cuverville is home to the largest Gentoo penguin colony in the Antarctic Peninsula.  
Paula and I had big plans for Cuverville this day, we were going to do a complete site-wide count.  The ship had planned to anchor near Cuverville that night which meant Paula and I could stay out on Cuverville Island as late as we needed to complete our count.  We began our count around 4:00pm in one of three regions on this island by counting nesting Gentoo penguins and Blue-eyed shags using binoculars from the zodiac.  These birds nest in a fairly inaccessible location and it was easier and faster to count from the zodiac than climb through the colony.  We then made our way to the landing beach.  Paula took Region A and I took Region B and we each went our own way to start this epic count.

View of about 1/3 of the penguins nesting on Cuverville Island with the ship in the background.  All of
the red on the rocks and snow is from the penguin guano.  You can even see the little "penguin
highways" that the birds carve into the snow as they move from one colony to another.
Holy cow were there a lot of Gentoo penguins at this site!  Sometimes it was difficult to keep track of which small colonies I had already counted as every where I turned there were penguins!  Lucky for us, today was one of the warmest days we had in the Peninsula.  The sun was out and I was walking around in just a long-sleeve shirt and fleece vest until the sun began to set.  After several hours of counting my eyes did get pretty tired, and so did my clicker thumb!  We finished the count by 9:30pm, as the sun never sets here it was still plenty light out to do our work.  Our count came to about 6,336 Gentoo penguin nests at this site!  

We called the ship and had one of the staff members come and pick us up; lucky for us the One Ocean staff were wonderful enough to save us each a plate from dinner.  We ate dinner, completely exhausted and went right to bed.  For there were more penguins to count in the morning.

Though it was an incredibly long day, it was one of those days that reminds me how lucky I am to have the job that I have.  In the few moments when I stopped to catch my breath atop a colony I had the chance to see this place from vantage points few others experience.  I was the only person to see penguin chicks on the island today.  The sky was a color of violet-blue I had never seen before as I waited on the beach on this now chilly Antarctic evening.  I had long forgotten that my day started at 6:30am, with the sky still aglow from a sun nearing the horizon the days seem to last forever...and when in the Antarctic you never really want the day to end.  For the end of this journey was already too close.

A quiet count at a familiar place (December 22, 2011)

This morning we sailed to Damoy Point for the guests to visit their first penguin colony of their trip.  As Paula and I had counted the Gentoo penguins at Damoy on our previous trip (somewhere around 2,000 nesting pairs) we took a short zodiac ride around the corner to Jougla Point.  

Gentoo penguins on Jougla Point with
Port Lockroy in the background
The Gentoo penguin colony at Jougla Point is right next to the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust site called Port Lockroy.  Port Lockroy is by far one of the most frequently visited sites in the Antarctic Peninsula.  It is a designated historic site at which guests can meander through a restored British base to see how early Antarctic explorers weathered their seasons south.  This site is manned during the austral summer (click here for the Port Lockroy diaries) and also functions as a post office.

It was actually a nice treat to be zipped over to Jougla Point today, Paula and I were looking forward to a few hours alone.  Working on a ship is very exciting and extremely busy; spending a few hours in a slightly raucous penguin colony alone was certainly something we always looked forward to.  This was my fourth time at Jougla Point and I always like visiting sites that I am familiar with, it makes dividing up the work easier and the counting go faster as I already know where all of the penguins are.  

It was pretty cold and dreary out as I hiked towards the top of the island to begin my count.  On my way I came across a gold mine of eggshells--a little spot where skuas had been eating eggs and discarding the shells.  I was able to collect nearly half of the eggshells I needed at this one spot.  Skuas are always helpful in this regard.     

As I made my way up a steep embankment, bare hands plunged into the snow for balance, I realized (as my hands were freezing) that one of my gloves had fallen out of my pocket.  I was so mad, I had just bought those darn gloves (rather, my parents bought them for me for my birthday becaue I lost mine last year).  So I slid back down the hill and re-traced my no avail.  That glove was no where to be found.  How was that possible??!!  I was the only person on this side of the island, only my foot prints were in the snow so I could see exactly where I walked.  Yet the glove, which I had on when I started my hike, was no where to be found.  So, I plowed back up the hill to check up there again.  Now completely out of breath and sweating in all of my gear I slid back down the hill and re-traced my steps again.  This went on for about 15 minutes until I was so tired and had wasted so much time that I just gave up and went on to do my counts.  I was starting to lose my mind.
The only thing that salvaged my now horrible mood (because I couldn't believe I lost a single glove...again) was finding chicks in some of the nests.  I heard that characteristic "peep peep" as I walked by and started scanning all of the nests.  When the chicks are just hatched they fit completely under the parent brooding them making them very difficult to see.  But, if you hear the "peep peep" you know to look around because the parent stood up to re-adjust or to feed them.

After a quick two hour count, and another failed attempt to locate my glove (I swear a skua or kelp gull now has it in their nest), I met back up with Paula with enough time to take a few photos and sit down and relax amongst the well-dressed inhabitants in this quiet cove.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Melchior Islands and cruising the Neumayer Channel (December 21, 2011)

After two days at sea I was dying to set foot on land, but it turned out I was going to have to wait a bit longer to set foot on terra firma.  Instead I had to settle for setting foot in a zodiac to do a bit of cruising to count an isolated colony of blue-eyed shags.  The Melchior Islands are not often visited (as there are no nesting penguins) so this stop presented a great opportunity to collect data from an infrequently censused site in the Oceanites database.

Though often considered some-what of a "wildlife desert" the southern extent of the Melchior Islands turned out to be an excellent first stop on this Antarctic Peninsula adventure.  I piled into a zodiac with a group of university students to find a colony of blue-eyed shags.  Neither Paula nor I had ever been to this site, so finding these nesting birds required a lot of searching through binoculars from the moving zodiac.  And yes, this makes me horribly sea-sick.  Paula's zodiac located the colony first and my zodiac pulled in shortly after to complete our count.  With the real work under our belts it was time to really explore!

Blue-eyed shags with chicks
The Melchior Islands are home to a small, abandoned Argentinian base.  This site also turned out to be the hub of most of the sub-Antarctic and Antarctic species we had hoped to see on this trip.  We found all three species of brush-tailed penguins (Adelie, Gentoo, and Chinstrap), nesting Antarctic terns and kelp gulls, skuas, wilson storm petrels, crabeater seals, leopard seals, and Weddell seals.  Whew, what a morning!

Snoring crabeater seal.  I wish I had an audio recording, it was quite amusing!

A lone Adelie penguin among the scattered Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins hanging about the
Melchior station

As if our first day in the peninsula couldn't get any better, we came across a pod of killer whales as we cruised through the Neumayer Channel later this same day!  So far the wildlife sightings on this trip have been spectacular!

Young killer whale swimming with adults

Juvenile at the far left and an adult male at the far right

Embarking on Trip 2 (December 18-20, 2011)

Today (December 18) we left Ushuaia once again to sail south through the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula.  I love the excitement in the air as we set sail; with a new set of passengers the energy level is high and their delight in every aspect of exploring their home ship is refreshing.  The sun was setting as the lines were thrown and we breathed in the last scents of trees and earth we would experience for the next 10 days.

Sailing out of the port in Ushuaia

Ahhhhh....a smooth Drake Passage (December 19-20)!  Merry Christmas to us!  There really is nothing better than a smooth Drake crossing, in fact, this crossing is the calmest I have ever experienced.  Barely a ripple on the water leaving many guests to question the "fury" of the seas in this region.  To which I respond "Shhhhh!  Don't wake the sleeping giant.  Or you will get what you ask for!" 

Days at sea are full of activity for passengers on board.  The naturalists and staff are going over the sail plan, the rules and regulations about conduct in the Antarctic set forth by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), lessons on dressing properly and how to load into zodiacs as well as informative presentations on Antarctic history and biology.  The schedule is so full that there is barely a chance for a polar nap!

So what do I do on calm sea days?  Catch up on work (and sleep)!  Last trip my colleague Mike brought back over 100 eggshells from Deception Island and I still had many of them to clean.  Paula and I spent a good part of the day cleaning eggshells in the mud room and entering in any remaining data into the database.  It is good to get all of the tasks from the previous trip done before we start collecting data on the next trip.  It can be horrible to have it pile up.

Once the eggshells have been cleaned, they are
placed in labelled cups and allowed to dry
completely before we put them in labelled bags
to be shipped back to our lab in the U.S.

Cleaning guano off of eggshells is a high-tech business.
We have found that electric toothbrushes do the best job!

Just when I was starting to get overly antsy about wanting to get off of the ship and onto land we sailed over the Shackleton Fracture Zone, a more shallow portion of the the Southern Ocean between the Antarctic and Scotia tectonic plates.  This area is well known for elevated levels of productivity as the change in bathymetry allows for the penetration of light further into the water column.  All along the horizon we began to see blows from humpback whales. 
First it appeared to be about 5-8 whales, but the closer we got we could see 10, 20, 30 individuals in this one location.  Ultimately we came up with a count of about 46 humpback whales, more than any one on board had ever seen in one location at any time.  Whales were breeching in every direction, cheers came from all sides of the ship.  There were also chinstrap penguins and fur seals joining in the feeding frenzy.  It was an amazing sight to see and I do not know if I will ever witness anything like it again.  What a great way to end our Drake crossing!

Working in the Antarctic Peninsula

I am back in Ushuaia after a fantastic trip to the Peninsula.  I have a few hours in port before I need to be back on the ship for my next voyage and am sitting in a cafe taking advantage of internet access!  I wanted to take this opportunity to answer a few more questions from Mrs. Winder's class at Troy High School, in Troy, KS.  There questions focus on what exactly it is that I do in the Antarctic.

Zach asked: Are you by yourself when you are out collecting? Is it dangerous? No, I am not by myself while working in the Antarctic.  And no, it is not very dangerous.  The snow can be deep and the ice slick, but in general if you are careful it is a safe place to conduct research.  I am always with my Oceanites partner and we have radios and special "survival" kits just in case.

Taking a short break from counting penguins with my
Oceanites partner Paula.  
The major focus of Oceanites is the Antarctic Site Inventory; biological and physical data have been collected annually since 1994 for this project in the Antarctic Peninsula.  My job is to help conduct penguin population censuses, conduct presence/absence surveys of other fauna, photo-document new colonies and conduct lichen diversity surveys.  I will be working with a colleague from the University of Maryland while on board.  Paula is a PhD student at UMD who is studying lichen diversity in the Antarctic Peninsula.  

Handy penguin counter!
Each day Paula and I will visit a different set of penguin colonies to conduct our censuses.  We use a hand-held clicker counter to keep track of the penguins; we count nests at this time of year, so at least we don't have to follow moving targets!  To reduce our error rate in counting, we must count each group of nests 3 times and all counts must be within 5% of each other, or we have to do it again.  Later in the season the next Oceanites team on board will count chicks.  While counting we search for discarded eggshells and feathers laying around the colony that I will use for my mercury research.  We simply place each eggshell in a plastic bag in our backpacks and keep counting!  We do not collect whole eggs, if we find one that has rolled away and is full, we empty it out by cracking it on a rock.  The contents can be quite smelly! Which is why we don't bring it on the ship :o)  

We also conduct nest counts of blue-eyed shags and note the presence of any other bird species and seals at the site.  We photograph several lichens at each site as well for Paula's research.  We often have 2-3 hours to conduct our counts and need every minute as some sites have 1000's of penguin nests!

Michael asks: Do the penguins mind when you are around them picking up feathers and eggshells? Do they ever bite you? Ha! Good question!  In general, the penguins do not mind when we walk around them. 

Gentoo penguin with a newly hatched chick
They are very busy incubating their eggs and taking care of their chicks.  However, they will 'growl' or make alarm calls if you get too close, but very rarely do they get up off of their nests.  Non-breeders in the colonies are the ones to look out for, they have nothing to do but pick fights.  I have been 'charged' a time or two by these penguins.  Despite being less than 2 feet tall, they can bite very hard and hit even harder with their flippers.  Anyone who works around penguins has been bitten a time or two.  And yes, it hurts!

Counting Adelie penguin nests (ok, so this is a photo from
last good counting photos yet this year!)

We try our best not to disturb the penguins.  When counting we try to keep a few feet away, though sometimes we need to enter large colonies to get an accurate count.  We have special permits that allow us to do so.

Well, it is time to get back to the ship.  I am leaving in a few hours for the second trip of the season.  I am hopeful that we will get to some great sites and have good weather...and as always, here's hoping for a Drake Lake!