Sunday, December 18, 2011

Last stop--Deception Island (December 15, 2011)

We had a very important mission today--to pick up the rest of our Oceanites team on Deception Island.  Four Oceanites members have been traveling aboard a yacht around Deception Island for the past two weeks in an effort to count all of the Chinstrap penguin colonies on this island.  As there are well over 80,000 pairs of Chinstraps breeding on the outside of this island, they needed an extended period of time at this site.  It was great to reunite with Ron Naveen (the president of Oceanites), Mike (my lab mat at UNCW), and Thomas and Steve who are long time members of the Oceanites team.

Weddell seals lounging on a frozen lake in Telefon Bay, Deception Island
Deception Island is unlike any other site in the Antarctic Peninsula.  Deception Island is an active volcano, having last erupted in 1972.  Entering into the caldera of the volcano is always fantastic to watch.  It is quite a narrow entrance and very shallow, just deep enough and wide enough for a ship.   Our first stop was Telefon Bay; it was very windy and raining/snowing/sleeting during our hike.  The fog was low and thick.  Being on this island is what I imagine being on the moon must be like, it is like being on another planet.

Chinstrap penguins coming ashore on Deception Island


After spending a few hours hiking around Telefon Bay, we sailed a short distance into Whalers Bay.  Known as one of the safest harbors in the Antarctic Peninsula, Deception Island was first used by sealers in the early 19th century.  In 1906 a large whaling operation was started by a Norweigan-Chilean group in what is now know as Whalers Bay in Deception Island.  By 1914 Whalers Bay was home to 13 whaling factory ships.  The purpose of these stations was to process the whale carcasses and boil them down for whale oil in large metal tanks which still stand on the beach in Whalers Bay today.  Although abandoned in 1931 after a massive drop in whale oil prices, many of the structures and buildings used by whalers are still standing.  
The geothermal activity on this island often generates steam along the coast.
This photo shows parts of a whaling tank and guests walking along the beach in Whalers Bay.

A few of the remaining structures from the whaling station.

Deception Island was the last landing of this voyage.  This evening we will begin the long journey north through the Drake Passage back to Ushuaia, Argentina.  It was been a wonderful trip, on a great ship, with a fantastic staff and crew.  

Wilhelmina Bay (a.k.a. Whale-helmina Bay)

Every morning after breakfast the Expedition Leader on the ship gives the passengers their itinerary for the day. Some days it sounds so fantastic that I just want to ditch counting penguins and be a tourist! After three long days of counting penguins, my wishes finally came true…we were heading for Wilhelmina Bay for a morning of zodiac cruising. I happen to love zodiac cruising; sitting in the boat, weaving through icebergs and hunting for whales, what’s not to love? There are no nesting colonies of penguins in this region and since we were all caught up on data entry, I grabbed my camera and got in line to cruise.

Within half an hour of cruising through the ice we came across a leopard seal lounging on an iceberg. Leopard seals are one of the top predators in the Antarctic marine food web.  [insert photo] Leopard seals primarily feed on penguins, but their back molars are shaped like a sieve (when they come together) to filter krill out of the water as well. Krill can make up half of their diet. While photographing the leopard seal we heard the one sound that gets everyone’s heart racing “pooooft”—a whale spout! For the next hour we all enjoyed spending time with two very accommodating humpback whales. Humpbacks are quite curious and often approached the zodiacs to “check us out”. One of the kayakers got quite the surprise when one of the humpbacks surfaced right next to his kayak! It was really nice to have the morning to relax and take in the breathtaking vistas in Wilhelmina Bay.

Humpback whale in Wilhelmina Bay 

Leopard seal on ice in Wilhelmina Bay

The water was so calm in Wilhelmina Bay, it gave us a great chance to checkout
the ice below the surface!

Counting penguins (December 13, 2011)

Sailing north through the Gerlache Strait we have colonies around the Arctowski Peninsula in our plans for today.  Seeking cover from 30+ knot winds and blowing snow, the ship made its way into Orne Harbor to seek shelter and investigate the chances of making a landing.  Lucky for us, Orne Harbor provided just the right amount of protection from the wind to allow all passengers to disembark and make the steep climb up Spigot Peak.  The snow continued to blow and fall heavy at times as we climbed up to census a chinstrap penguin colony.  Chinstrap penguins are in particular know for their climbing abilities and propensity to nest on cliff peaks and steep hills.  While these penguins were nesting on bare rock only a few days ago, this morning we arrived to find the incubating penguins buried in the snow…and sometimes quite deep! Not seeming to mind the snow, the birds were diligent in their incubation duties and appeared quick cozy in their snow blankets.

Chinstrap penguin buried in snow on its nest

Chinstrap penguin colony at Spigot Peak

I feel like this is a good time to answer a question sent to me from Izak in Mrs. Winder’s Class at Troy High School.  Izak asked: What is the weather like and how do you dress for it?  We have been incredibly fortunate to have FANTASTIC weather this trip.  We have had clear skies for the majority of everyday with a few snow showers here and there.  The temperature has likely been right around freezing, but with the sun shining it feels much warmer.  Hiking to all of the penguin colonies also keeps me plenty warm!  While I am often quite comfortable in all of my gear (base layers on top and bottom, waterproof snow pants, silk sock liners and mid-weight wool socks, insulated rubber boots, a fleece pull-over, a light-weight down jacket (synthetic filler), and a Gore-tex jacket…plus a hat, gloves, and sunglasses), it can still be chilly here when it snows!  

An example of the lichen photos that we take as part of a biodiversity
study in the Antarctic Peninsula.
In the afternoon we moved just south through the Errera Channel for the passengers on the ship to visit Cuverville Island, home to one of the largest Gentoo penguin colonies in the peninsula (approximately 6,000 pairs nest on this small island).  As Paula had just visited Cuverville, we traveled by Zodiac across the channel to Ronje Island to count penguins at George’s Point.  This site has approximately 2,400 pairs of Gentoo penguins and around 200 pairs of Chinstrap penguins.  It took us about 2.5 hours to count all of the nests at this site as they are quite spread out.  We collected feathers and eggshells and photographed lichens for Paula’s research on the biogeography of the Antarctic Peninsula. 

Most penguins in this region of the Antarctic Peninsula are just now starting to lay their eggs (it varies from site to site with sites further south starting later).  While many Gentoo penguins have laid both of their eggs, birds at some sites just laid the first of their two eggs while others are what we affectionately call “partying” and should lay their eggs soon.  (Penguin partying can be defined as sitting in one’s nest without any eggs, making a nest, stealing pebbles from your neighbor’s nest, searching for a mate, aggressively defending your future nesting site from intruders, and taking long walks on the beach with your other single friends.) All of the Chinstrap penguins we counted were already incubating both of their eggs.  For the second day in a row we were able to census penguins and collect samples at two separate locations—over the past two days my Oceanites partner Paula and I have counted over 6,000 pairs of penguins! 
Gentoo penguins at Neko Harbor
A very happy camper, after a long day of penguin counting, watching the sun set from Danco Island.

Drake Passage (December 8-10, 2011)

I boarded the Akademik Ioffe in Ushuaia on December 8; the weather was beautiful, bright sun, light wind, and clear skies.  All promises of a smooth passage through the Drake.  We all stood on the deck as the ship passed through the Beagle Channel on our way out into the open ocean.  

We sailed into the Drake around mid-night that day, hoping not to wake a sleeping giant.  Lucky for us the seas maxed out at about 3 meters during our crossing so sea-sickness was minimal.  My Oceanites partner Paula and I spent most of the day sleeping in our cabin, as did most of the other passengers.  The first day in the Drake is often a day to rest up for the excitement that lies ahead.  The second day in the Drake was far calmer and I ventured out on the stern of the ship to do some birding.  The Drake Passage is home to some of my favorite birds—the albatross.  I borrowed a camera out of our gear bag, grabbed my binoculars, bundled up, and headed out to greet these awesome seabirds.  The wandering albatross has the largest wingspan on any bird in the world, over 12 feet!  (To understand how large this is, try this:  your own “wingspan” is the same as your height, so if 2 six-foot tall people stand together with arms wide, that will equal the wingspan of one wandering albatross!)  Albatross can spend years at sea, never touching land; they use wind currents to glide over the ocean, rarely flapping their long wings.  Seabirds such as albatross and petrels are among the few groups of birds that have an excellent sense of smell and can detect the chemical signature of food (plankton and zooplankton) from miles away in the open ocean.

On the evening of December 10 we finally crossed onto the continental shelf of Antarctica.  We were greeted by weather typical of the Peninsula: wind, choppy waves, and blowing, wet snow/sleet.  Tomorrow will be our first landing in the Antarctic Peninsula and I am hopeful that the weather will clear up just a bit.  My gear is organized, backpack is packed, and I am ready to get to work counting penguins!

Sooty albatross

Black-browed albatross

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ushuaia, Argentina

I arrived in Ushuaia, Argentina yesterday evening after a long day of travel.  All of my flights were on time and I arrived with all of my baggage--what more can a girl ask for?

Ushuaia is the capital of the Tierra del Fuego province in Argentina and is considered the southern-most city in the world, hence its moniker "World's End".  This small town is surrounded by the Martial mountain range to the north and the Beagle Channel to the south.  Tourism is a major industry in Ushuaia as it is a key access point to the Southern Ocean and those who choose to travel that direction by sea.

The main street is filled with many shops and places to eat; I am a sucker for souvenir shops of which there are no fewer than 10 on a street that is less than 2 miles long (all of which sell almost exactly the same knick-knacks).  I have already visited many of them for some window shopping (I pretty much bought just about every souvenir I could ever need last year...well, almost) and stopped into a favorite tourist bar, the Irish Pub, for a tasty Argentine brew.

Today was a day off for me, most likely the last until the end of December.  I took the opportunity to visit the Martial Glacier just 7km outside of town.  

Once you arrive at the glacier you have the option of hiking all the way or taking a chair lift up to the main trail heads.  Never having been on a real chair lift before I went for the latter option.  It was not very crowded and I was able to take my time climbing the steep hill to the "top".    The view was great, I could see all of Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel which I will travel in tomorrow on my way to the Southern Ocean.

Looking down from the mountain, the city of Ushuaia is
on the right and the Beagle Channel is heading off
to the left through the mountains.

The Martial Glacier is not the typical massive ice block carving its way through a mountain range.  It is a cirque glacier--a glacier that is formed in bowl-shaped depressions in the mountain.  In these bowls, snow accumulates, remaining through the summer and eventually becomes glacier ice.  Cirque glaciers are often wider than they are long.  Whatever the glacier, this was a beautiful place to spend the day!

In the center of this photo, near the top you can see 2 of the 3 cirque glaciers found in the Martial Range in this area.  To the right you can see the hiking trail I took.

I will be boarding the Ioffe tomorrow afternoon for the first of 2 trips I will make to the Antarctic Peninsula this month.  I am so excited to have this opportunity to travel back to the Antarctic!  I will answer more of the questions sent to me while I am traveling as questions about penguins will become increasingly relevant!  I will not have internet while on board, so please look for my next post(s) on December 18 when I come into port for the day!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Travel day!

Time to head south for the summer!  I will be leaving this afternoon to begin my long journey south; I will fly from Baltimore, MD, stop in Atlanta, Georgia, and then carry on to Buenos Aires, Argentina (I posted my flight path in an earlier entry).  The flight to Buenos Aires is a little over 10 hours long and is an over night flight.  Once arriving in Buenos Aires, where it is currently summer (75-80 degrees F), I will board another plane to Ushuaia, Argentina--the southern-most city in the world.  Though it is also summer in Ushuaia (and throughout the Southern Hemisphere) it will be cooler in Ushuaia than Buenos Aires as it is much further south (it is currently 48 degrees F in Ushuaia). 

So, including layovers I will be traveling for about 24 hours, arriving in Ushuaia tomorrow afternoon.

To answer Zach's question from Troy, Kansas: Are you in a different time zone? If so which one? Argentina is on ART (Argentina Time) which is 2 hours later than Eastern Standard Time (EST) in the United States.  Antarctica's standard time is Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) and does not operate under daylight savings time.  The time zone varies around Antarctica--many bases and stations tend to use the time zone from their home country (see map).  However, on ships one usually operates in the time zone from the port of departure which for me will be ART.

What is the weather going to be like in the Antarctic Peninsula?  Today, the max temperature in the Antarctic Peninsula is right around 35 degrees F.  In comparison, the current temperature at the South Pole is -26 degrees F, brrrrr!
If you would like to follow weather conditions in the region in which I will be traveling, click here and look for the weather at Palmer Station.  

Care for a dip?
Michael from Troy, Kansas asked: How cold is the water in the Antarctic Peninsula?  The average water temperature is about 33 degrees F.  Salt water freezes at a much lower temperature than fresh; ocean water needs to drop below 28 degrees F before it will start to freeze.  Many brave souls traveling in the Antarctic Peninsula do the "Polar Plunge" while at Deception Island...jumping into the freezing cold water in bathing suits!  For the sake of comparison, the ocean temperature off of the mid-Atlantic states of the U.S. is about 50 degrees F right now.

Want to know more about Antarctica?  Check out:

Why Study Mercury Contamination in Antarctica?

Global mercury deposition has steadily risen throughout the 20th century due to increased anthropogenic emissions that are transported and deposited around the world, including in remote polar ecosystems. Due to its remoteness the Antarctic has historically been considered “pristine” and unpolluted; however, the Antarctic region has recently become a place of interest for investigations into the global mercury cycle.  With no known point sources of mercury, the Antarctic may provide the opportunity to investigate natural, or “background” fluctuations as well as the impact of increasing anthropogenic inputs into the global mercury cycle.

Mercury is one of the most common and most toxic contaminants present in marine environments today.  While there are natural sources of mercury emissions, such as volcanic eruptions and wildfires, human activities have added significantly to global mercury emissions since the beginning of the industrial age.  Today, coal burning accounts for approximately 45% of all human-related mercury emissions.  Mercury is released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned and it is easily transported around the globe to even the most remote environments, such as the Antarctic. 

Mercury biomagnifies up the food chain;
species, such as krill, at low trophic positions
most often have lower mercury levels than
top predators.
Biomagnification of mercury in the Antarctic marine food web
Mercury from the atmosphere is deposited into the ocean where it bioaccumulates and biomagnifies through the food web.  Biomagnifcation is the process through which mercury concentrations increase with each step up in the food web—organisms that feed at the highest trophic positions are likely at the highest risk of mercury toxicity. 

At high levels mercury is a neurotoxin in both humans and birds (such as penguins); it can cause developmental abnormalities, impair feeding and breeding behavior, and even cause mortality.  However, reproduction is the most sensitive endpoint of mercury contamination and even very small quantities can lead to decreased egg production and hatching success in birds.  At this point, we do not know how much mercury is tolerated by penguins before they start to show signs of mercury toxicity.  My preliminary data suggests that the current level of mercury in brush-tailed penguins is likely too low to cause reproductive impairment or decreased survival.  However, as the brush-tailed penguins in the Antarctic Peninsula are currently experiencing significant impacts of global climate change, any additional stressor such as mercury (even at low levels) may ultimately impact the viability of their populations.

Michael in Mrs. Winder's class at Troy High School in Troy, Kansas has asked: How do you tell how much mercury is in the feathers and eggshells?  I use a piece of equipment called a Direct Mercury Analyzer, DMA-80.  I load a piece of eggshell membrane or feather into a small sample tray in the DMA-80.  Then the sample goes through a combustion furnace where any mercury trapped in the tissue turns into a gas.  The mercury gas then gets analyzed through a process called atomic absorbance spectrophotometry and the machine tells me how much mercury was in the sample.

Penguin feathers loaded into the

Friday, December 2, 2011

Antarctic Field Season 2011

Map of the Antarctic Peninsula region
(courtesy of M. Polito)
This year I will once again be traveling to the Antarctic Peninsula to conduct field work for my PhD research at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.  My research involves investigating spatial and temporal patterns of mercury availability in the Antarctic marine food web using penguins as biomonitors.  I collect eggshells and feathers discarded throughout the penguin colonies in the Antarctic to determine how much mercury the penguins have in their bodies.

In addition to collecting samples for my PhD research I also work as a member of the Oceanites Antarctic Site Inventory field crew.   My work for Oceanites involves conducting penguin population censuses at each stop along our journey and giving lectures about our research to passengers aboard the ship.  Speaking of ships, how do I get to Antarctica?

This year I will be traveling as a researcher aboard the Akademik Ioffe with One Ocean Expeditions.  To get to the Antarctic I will fly to Ushuaia, Argentina, literally the end of the world.  Ushuaia is the southern-most city in the world.  From Ushuaia I will board the Ioffe and set sail for the Antarctic Peninsula.  It takes approximately 1.5-2 days to travel from Ushuaia to the Antarctic Peninsula, sailing through the notorious Drake Passage which is often described as the roughest stretch of water in the world. 

I will be departing on this year's adventure on December 5, 2011 and board the Ioffe on December 8, 2011.  While on board I will not have internet access and will not be able to post blogs on a daily basis.  However, I would still love to interact with you all as much as I can and will post from Ushuaia on December 6-7, December 17-18, and December 29-30.  For classes following my blog I look forward to answering your questions prior to my departure and upon my return! 

Thank you so much for following me on my travels this year!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Welcome to my 2011 Antarctic blog!

I have chosen the name "In the Land of the Midnight Sun" for my blog this year as this simple phrase reflects one of my favorite times of the day when below the Antarctic Circle.  The Antarctic Circle (66 degrees 33' South latitude) is often referred to as the "Land of the Midnight Sun" during the austral summer as visitors to this remote region enter a world of near continuous daylight.  At sunset, the sun simply dips below the horizon before rising again within hours.  On mid-summer night, December 21, this area experiences 24 hours of continuous daylight.  Sunset in the Antarctic has a wonderfully calming effect, especially after a long day of field work; all is quiet and it is simply beautiful.