The Real Beginning of the Virtual End Part 2 of 2 - Sailing Away

Leaving Palmer is always bittersweet at best. You are leaving friends whom you have grown close too, in many cases over multiple seasons. Some of them you will see again at Palmer or elsewhere. Some perhaps never again.FInaleUAB4

I always look forward to going to Palmer. I'm sure that you can see why from our posts over the season. I always look forward to being home again too, but in the seasons like this one where I am leaving before the season is winding down for the rest of the group, it is a lot tougher. I suppose you could say it is a bit more bitter than sweet.

Other obligations call me north, though. Fortunately I leave knowing very well that Maggie, Kate, and Julie have our project very well in hand and know that it will continue to be successful.

It is only about once a month (or even less often) that the ship sails north for Chile, taking people away from Palmer. That makes it an even bigger event for both those leaving and staying. Sailing time is usually in the morning; today it was 11:00 which meant that we had to be aboard by 10:30. The ritual is that 15-30 minutes before boarding time, most of the people both leaving and staying gather in the galley for goodbyes. Lots of handshakes and hugs. Lots of words of encouragement and well wishes for the rest of the season at Palmer or the crossing to South America.  One final moment for UAB in A to be a 4 person team. 

FinaleLMGThe half an hour difference between boarding time and leaving is the time it takes to unbolt the ship's gangway and lift it up to one of the upper decks and then to undo the mooring lines holding the ship up against the pier. About 15 or 20 minutes before sailing, a team of about ten folks from station come out to help with the unmooring. The team is called the "line handlers" and the station manager traditionally goes onto the station public address system and announces "line handlers to the pier, line handlers to the pier, line handlers to the pier."

The mooring lines have loops on their ends that go around huge metal FinaleBowLinehandlerspins called bollards which are firmly anchored into the granite bedrock of Anvers Island. When the ship ties up, the line handlers have to pull the huge mooring ropes over and loop them around the bollards. When the ship leaves, upon radioed instructions from the Captain the line handlers "only" have to use a smaller rope to pull the loop up off each bollard and then make sure that the lines do not get caught in the rocks as they snake down to the shore. But even that takes a lot of muscle and requires multiple people per line. The ship's crew then has the task of hauling the lines back over to the ship.

FinaleJeffJaniceDarrenLineHandlersBollardSoon after the line handlers are called to the pier, most everyone else comes down to the pier area to wave and bid a last farewell to those on the ship. Sometimes there are snowballs thrown back and forth. There was plenty of snow available, but no one was in the mood for that today.FinaleLineHandlerBollard

Until the ship is completely untied, almost everyone has to stay off the pier proper. So folks congregate next to the boathouse. Maggie in her black fleece jacket - blended into the shadows of the boathouse deck waved and took photographs while I waved back. Kate and Julie joked around with friends off the boathouse work platform (I couldn't hear them of course, but could tell they were having fun). With the last of the lines finally off, the ship pulled quickly away while the assembled Palmer folk came out to the pier proper for the final farewell waves.

As I usually do, I stayed out on the deck of the ship until the station was no longer in sight. We passed by islands I know so well from a Zodiac boat during our dive ops, but from the height of the ship they always look different. When the Terralab, the building highest up the hill on station, was no longer visible, I headed in to my cabin to settle in.Finalecwaving

In our posts this season both I and others have used terms like wondrous and magnificent to describe what it is like living and working at Palmer Station. And I've told you how privileged I feel to be able to do so. Part of that privilege is being able to describe some of the magnificence with you through these posts. Maggie, Kate, Julie, Kevin, Jim, and I all hope that you have enjoyed them, learned a little from them, and in so doing shared in the wonder.

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The Real Beginning of the Virtual End Part 1 of 2 - Retrospective

But before these words address the title I have to say Finally – dive ops today! Yes you have read these moafinal1words from me in an earlier post. Once again, multiple days of high winds and storm angered waters have kept our dive team’s heads above seawater. We have not necessarily stayed dry. This latest bout of April winds was first accompanied by several swirling inches of ski-promising snow. My morning journey to the gym in GWR included shoveling clear a foot path on the walkway while contemplating prepping skis. The next morning Mother Nature’s evil twin pummeled the station with wind driven rain. While scurrying through the deluge I pondered if perhaps umbrellas should be placed by entrances rather than snow removal tools. The evil twin would not only scoff at that futile attempt to stay dry but would no doubt twist it into a pretzelbrella. Yesterday, returning from the gym to Bio in yet another driven downpour I scolded myself for not bringing shampoo so I could at least put the cold outdoor shower to good use.  (I edited the image below so the small blue sign hanging on the rail could be read through the raindropped window.)

Oh yes, Finally dive ops. In today’s version drysuited Kate and Chuck with tender Rhiannon Henning (IT Specialist from Kansas, Colorado, Oregon) and I set out on a cloudy but celebration-worthy calm morning. As we approached the selected dive site, off Laggard Island, we could see the bottom, at least 20 feet down. The dark skies would mean using dive lights to enhance the algal and critter colors at depth on this beautiful wall. Today would be Chuck’s last dive of the season as he heads north shortly so we were all pleased it would be a pretty one for him. In his start on packing up the other day he discovered that he had totally forgotten about a little dive antic he wanted to do. See image of him “putting on that old gray bonnet with a blue devil on it…”.   Chuck’s Duke fanatic/alum background had to be explained to Rhiannon.

Moafinal2And now to the real beginning of the virtual end. Yes Chuck is preparing to head home to Alabama leaving Kate, Julie and me to carry on our science projects. Avid readers will recall that Kevin Scriber bid Palmer Station adieu several weeks ago and in his last posts shared thoughts of leaving. Well Julie wrote that many hands make lighter work  implying that fewer hands make heavier work. As such now short two team members to do the lab work and the field work it was long ago decided that we would wrap up the virtual UAB in Antarctica on or about the day Chuck sails. His companion piece will be posted in a few days.

It seems like just yesterday all five of us enjoyed our several day (each sunny and calm!) dive trip to the scenic Lemaire Channel in search of a special long-stemmed version of Ascoseira. What a successfully grand way to launch a season of Antarctic diving! Boy were we duped by the weather though! Back on station, Julie with her medieval torture chamber investigated various aspects of this alga of unusual size. Meanwhile, Kate and PAM gently investigated light requirements of the long-stemmed alga. Kate and PAM would ‘enlighten’ numerous other species of algae throughout the season.

Anchored in Alabama, Jim weighed in about the pros and cons of Antarctic tourism. He also wrote of other ‘tourists’ that are not returning to their original departure ‘city’, settling further south and altering the delicate balance of life down here. Relocation of these feathered and flippered critters is likely being driven by climate change along the peninsula. Not only does climate change bring the very real and documented problem of warmer temperatures to the Peninsula (it should NOT RAIN in April in Antarctica!) the commensurate increased atmospheric carbon dioxide brings on the companion problem of ocean acidification .   The naturally thin shells of Antarctic molluscs (snails, clams, etc.) and the armor of spiny sea urchins and sea stars among others are now at risk of literally dissolving in the increasingly acidic seas.  An underlying theme to some of our group’s writings has been alliterating to movies so please on the issue of climate, click your ruby heels Dorothy and say repeatedly “I believe, I believe...” Let’s hope Antarctica will continue to hold unexpected surprises.

On the alliteration theme, Kate brought in galactic movies references to force her readers to see the true ways of Antarctic communities. She also harkened on the great Bob Dylan to stress the weather that has impaired our field operations many a day is indicative of changin’ climes and changin’ times. The Holy Divers bear the truth but Kate will continue her sleuthing ways in her upcoming, but not to be released episodes of CSI Antarctica.

Julie too got into alliteration with amphipod games?!?  She is kind of our James Herriot all things moafinal3great and small. Unintended dive collection critters found their way to Julie’s heart as by-catch. “You are cute and special whatever you are!”  She equally warmly welcomed visitors arriving under sail while quietly building a universe in the aquarium building. Totally cosmic!

Finally, I led you on a diving cowboy odyssey of sorts and an African amphipod safari. Closer to ‘home’ I introduced you to the current Palmer Station  while Chuck described our only sunny Sunday morning off-the clock time at Old Palmer. No fish bones about though it time to wrap this up, send the LMG and Chuck north and carry on at Palmer Station with UAB in A’s work on ocean acidification.

Do stay tuned for Chuck’s part 2 of The Real Beginning of the Virtual End. Meanwhile and thereafter, send comments, questions, hellos to Kate, Julie and me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

CSI Antarctica

Every Sunday morning on station Julie and I plus a few station folks gather around to make Thai porridge which we then eat while watching Bobs Burgers for Sunday Morning cartoons up in the Lounge. This morning we watched one of my favorite episodes, "An Indecent Thanksgiving Proposal". In this episode they play CSI EndophyteInspectionthanksgiving with the turkey carcass and come to the conclusion that the feast-centered holiday is a serial killer, chopping off the head every year. This notion got me thinking about how we play CSI Antarctica down here sometimes.

Now it's not the same of course, there's no crime scene and people are not the subject of our investigations. But we do use a variety of clues to answer our questions and we do this using sophisticated SCIENTIFIC TECHNIQUES, just like CSI. If only we could afford the equipment and technicians that those shows boast, jeepers we'd have some fast and plentiful data on our hands.

In Antarctic we mostly do reconnaissance and then we bring our suspects into the lab to freeze or preserve, and then follow through with our fancy techniques at UAB or in cooperating labs at other institutions.

Here's some of the sleuthing work that we do:

CASE #1: The case of the cryptic red algae
For a few years a friend and colleague of Chuck's has been asking about a specific red algae that didn't seem to belong in the genus Acanthococcus and is being reassigned to Cystoclonium (I'm interrogating an entirely different red algal supsect in image above). Phycologists always switch names around once they weed through the genetic evidence for a species, which were probably defined by their morphology and reproductive structures originally. SO we've been looking for this specific species in all of its various reproductive forms (red algae are trisexual so three forms- non-fertile, carposporophyte, and tetrasporophyte) for quite some time.

We searched deep and shallow, across many different dive sites and finally this year we found it in all its various reproductive states. Chuck and Maggie have preserved each form in silica gel and formalin and we're sending the preserved evidence back to the states to be identified in the colleague's lab. You can run but you can't hide – for long......
KateCSI1
CASE #2: The case of the identical coralline algae
Coralline algae are key players in a few of my experiments down here; the ocean acidification microcosms and the invertebrate settlement experiment. One issue has come up in these experiments though, and that is coralline algae are very hard to distinguish from each other. They are pink, hard and crustose and grow (very slowly) on rocks and bedrock in the subtidal. They basically look like hard bubble gum bits glued to where it lives (see my underwater pic left).

In previous years I classified five different morphologies from the area around Palmer Station but there are at least seven known different species in Antarctica. All coralline algae are identified through their reproductive structures which can only be seen in a clean cross-section using a scanning electron microscope. This is not a microscope that we have on station, and corallines have calcified cell walls so a "clean" cross-section really has to be done with something sharper than a razor blade. That science tool is also not on station. So, to identify these morphotypes I have taken genetic samples from suspects who will then go under the "special knife" of a colleague in Spain who is very good at identifying coralline algae. This will hopefully give us an accurate genetic and morphological ID for each suspect, and then each species down here. These guys won't be able to KateCSI2hide from us much longer either.

CASE #3: The case of differential gene expression
For the past two years Julie and I have been running microcosm experiments in the station Aquarium Building. Our main goal is to look at the physiological response of our various organisms to the predicted environmental conditions for 50-100 in the future. Physiological parameters like growth, photosynthesis, and behavior are measured in the lab using weights or surface area, my friend PAM, or by video-taping behavioral response.

A colleague of Jim McClintock's is also interested in the physiological response of these organisms, but on a finer scale: gene regulation across environmental conditions determined through differential production of RNA – a molecule encoding the amino acid sequences of proteins. Variation in production of specific proteins may capture a metabolic response of the organisms that we would not see in our other measurements. So we sample our suspects (like those from last year above: snails, limpets and corralines) and place them in a special scientific solution, then store in the -20C freezer until shipped home to UAB for further 'interrogation'.

We're certainly not the only people on station doing this kind of investigative who/what is responsible work. KateCSI3Another science group researches ice fish looking at protein synthesis in these fish. As explained in an earlier post, ice fish don't have the oxygen carrier hemoglobin so don not have red blood. They have clear blood because they have a different kind of oxygen carrier, which is less efficient, and as such requires production of different proteins. SO these researchers are taking their suspects, drawing the fishy blood and looking at the various proteins present to see if there is a metabolic benefit to being an icefish vs. a rockfish (the other very common Antarctic fish) given the difference in the molecular oxygen carrier.

Pretty cool stuff and the benefit is that the organisms we work with can't interfere with our investigation; they can't destroy any evidence before we get to the scene!