From Punta Arenas, Chile to Palmer Station, Antarctica

In Punta Arenas, Chile on Tuesday February 12th, Kevin LEAVING PAsmallthe members of UAB 2013 Antarctic field team awaited departure to our final destination: Palmer Station, Antarctica. The ship taking us was the 250 foot long, ASRV (Antarctic Survey and Resupply Vessel) Laurence M. Gould, designed to traverse the cold southern ocean and Antarctic ice. We walked around the ship’s deck taking pictures of our surroundings. The other members of the team reminisced about field seasons prior and their wonderful experiences. I looked around at their faces and was filled with an eager anticipation of things to come.

With all preparations for departure complete, the crew of the L.M. Gould cast off lines from the dock. I quickly grabbed my new camera from the berthing area and came back to the deck. I found Chuck, Maggie, Julie, and Kate all waiting to see the last lines cast from the ship. As the lines were collected and our last ties to land cut, the men and women working on the ship and at port waved and yelled goodbye. The ship drifted away from land. I had a realization that this is it; this was my last view of the Americas until my return from Antarctica.

The trip from Punta Arenas to Palmer Station is usually four to five days. The L.M. Gould moved further and further from South America. The size of the ocean and isolation of our destination became more and more obvious. The smell of the salt air filled my lungs. The sights and sounds of the open ocean started to fill consciousness, particularly the incessant movement of the ocean beneath the ship. Chuck and Maggie told me I was experiencing a particularly calm crossing so far. However, the more difficult leg of the voyage was yet to come, the Drake Passage. The Drake one of the more volatile and difficult transects of the world’s oceans. The Drake, as it’s referred to, drops off of to a depth of more than five thousand meters at points and is notoriously turbulent.

Chuck told me a story of someone being tossed from their bunk asleep, and awaking midair, before hitting the floor. I made sure to wedge myself in while sleeping to avoid this rude awakening. After a day in the Drake, I found myself surround by water as far as my eyes could see. The sea was no longer as calm as at the onset of our voyage. However, with the absence of land, the curvature of the horizon became one with the sky.

Sea birds floated on the water nearby. Whales breached the surface of the water. The sun started to set later and later into the evening. Eventually, the temperature began to drop. Snow fell and dusted the L.M. Gould as we continued our trek.

Everyday Chuck, Maggie, Julie, Kate, and I would walk around on the deck and stretch our legs, taking sight of the horizon ahead of us. I stood at the precipice of the ship watching the raw power of the ocean clashing with the ice breaker. This voyage illustrated how miniscule men and all we build are. In the deepest part of the Drake, the ship rocked and swayed to and fro, confirming the Drake’s reputation for brutality.

GLACIER 2smallEarly Saturday morning, we reached the South Shetland Islands. These islands are one of the more beautiful sites in the southern oceans. Throughout the day, the L.M. Gould by nature’s frozen monuments. Icy bodies littered the waterways, including gigantic icebergs the size of buildings or even city blocks. Large boulder and bowling ball sized bodies of ice amassed as well stretched hundreds of meters. It seems  like a great artist crafts millions of glass sculptures, shaping them with time, wind, and water from the sky and sea, painting them clear, translucent, white, and every shade of blue. They seem to dance and spin in the water,  or they stand stoically waiting for a witness to their splendor or the elements to whittle them away.

The crew of the L.M. Gould and the staff at Palmer waved and yelled salutations. They began to tether the ship to the dock. The station sat on a small strip of stone and rocks beneath an BOATING DOCKsmallexpansive glacier, which Dr. McClintock often spoke of vividly at UAB. You will be introduced to the station in another entry.  (There's too much new for me to explain.) But I want to say now that Dr. McClintock explained how the glacier was a shadow of its past. In seeing the glacier with my eyes, spanning the breadth of my vision, I could fathom something to cast a shadow so grand.

Once at Palmer, I began boating training to utilize the Zodiac. The Zodiac is an inflatable vessel used for transport from Palmer to and from surrounding areas. Training is essential due to the threat of hyperthermia from exposure and the water, as well as transport hazards such as ice. Besides the operation of the vessel, the boating training taught me to identify caches of supplies in case we were somehow stranded. These caches contain everything one would need to survive including shelter, food, water, and a heat source.

Chuck also is training me chuck and Ismallto safely pick up and drop off the divers, as well as manage the diver alert system. This system allows me to alert the divers to dangers such as leopard seals or the ephemeral weather here in Antarctica. I am becoming proficient at maneuvering the Zodiac, as well as assessing dangers to the vessel and the divers. The Antarctic is a beautiful place, but everyone’s job and priority is safety.

Check out these dives


Our dive season in Antarctica has officially begun! MaggieKateCheckout1-smaller

Today Julie, Chuck, Maggie and I all did a check out dive at the dock of Palmer Station to prepare for our upcoming trip to the Lemaire Channel. We do these every year before the diving season gets into full swing anyhow to make sure our gear and weight belts are all set. So before we even had all our personal gear unpacked, we were prepping for a swim from shore in a small building near the water called the dive locker .


In order to ‘comfortably’ dive in the cold water here we wear large rubber dry suits, shoulder-strapped weight harnesses with upwards of 30 lbs. of lead and large tanks of air. Underneath all of this we wear many layers of warm clothing that help insulate us from the cold water along with the air we put into our dry suit.

Diving in a dry suit is very different from diving in a wetsuit. Instead of using a buoyancy compensator to keep you at neutral buoyancy in the water column like you would in the tropics, you use your suit. So essentially you are swimming around in a big bag of air. This keeps us warmer but also makes us slower and more awkward under water when we’re trying to do our research much less get in the water from the shore or from a boat which is how most of our dives are conducted.

Meanwhile, Kevin was schooling up on how to handle a zodiac.  He was with the resident marine tech whose duty includes making sure everyone is trained in how to drive our small inflatable boats through the cold and sometimes icy waters around Palmer Station.  Captain Kevin was a quick study!


This year there’s a new floating dock where the boats tie up (“parking lot”) that proved to be a nice diving platform with a ladder. Chuck and Julie did the first dive from the dock while Maggie and I tended – helping the divers get their fins on and any other necessary adjustments. We swapped roles for the second dive. We all agreed the ramp down to the solid platform was much nicer  to deal with than working from the large flat rocks right at the water's edge.  Palmer dive resort??KateCheckout-smaller

The dock is a shallow, rocky bottom site where the stations zodiacs are usually parked, but it quickly slopes down to a silty bottom habitat at 60 feet and deeper. It is a great dive site for a few organisms that we research; the shallow rocky habitats are covered in the red algae Iridaea cordata, limpets and coralline algae while the rocky slopes have species of canopy forming algae like Desmarestia spp. and Himantothallus grandifolius as well as the red algae Plocamium cartilagineum. Deeper, there are lots of invertebrates like the brittle stars that Chuck and Julie collected for a colleague of ours. You will see lots of underwater pictures of these critters soon.

Ideally with the drysuits we use, our heads should be the only thing that gets wet and exposed to cold Antarctic waters. So when we plop into the water there’s a freezing sensation, a feeling akin to an ice cream headache. But after a few moments this passes and we go about our business. Today, while we were diving, I discovered that my dry suit had a large hole in the shoulder and my arm was very wet afterwards. You can see how these check-out dives show us where our gear might fail before we go out in the small boats and away from station.

Maggie and I collected algae for an experiment she is working on with P. cartilagineum, and I collected Desmarestia to get initial measurements for our climate change experiment this year. We also tend to find nuts and bolts that have KateWetArm-smallgone astray of the zodiacs as well as personal effects of station boaters like glasses and radios. I was glad the dive locker was a short walk away from the water because I got very wet inside my ‘drysuit’.   But I will patch it up and be once again a dry and happy diver!

Dejar que el buseo comenzar!


Climate Change on the Peninsula

palmer glacier jm REDUCEDI am anchoring from home base this field season, remaining at UAB while the field team digs in at Palmer Station. I will be busy assisting Chuck submit an NSF grant proposal that will keep our Antarctic program moving forward, assisting Julie submit a manuscript on the impacts of ocean acidification on marine invertebrates from work she did last year, and giving presentations and book signings for my recently released Lost Antarctica – Adventures in a Disappearing Land (www.lostantarctica.com). 

I have to admit I am jealous. I checked the Palmer Station web cam yesterday and there was the ship – the Laurence Gould – tied up at the dock. I could imagine Chuck, Maggie, Kate, Julie, and Kevin greetings old friends with hugs, the excitement of checking out the familiar lay of the land (except for Kevin – who is new to the landscape), a quick run into the laboratory to see if the supplies and equipment had arrived and laid out in boxes ready to be unpacked, and the smells of the ice and rock and elephant seals. I suspect that Chuck and Maggie glanced warmly at Amsler Island, and that Kate and Julie heard the distance roar of the Marr Glacier dropping ice into Arthur Harbor. 

As I sit here in my office in Campbell Hall I think of our field team ensconced in a tiny research station with 44 souls, perched on a tiny speck of an island off the central western Antarctic Peninsula. How dynamic their environment has become over the past forty years. It’s as if someone had hit the geological “fast forward” button and simultaneously cranked up the thermostat. The Marr Glacier behind the station is cracking up and falling apart, receding by unprecedented leaps and bounds. Ice sheets up and down the Peninsula are being shed, some as large as entire states, freeing up land-based glaciers to flow at unprecedented speed into the sea, contributing to sea level rise that coastal inhabitants displaced by Sandy have come to view with newfound respect. And the annual sea ice, whose seasonal ebb and flow has shaped the evolutionary ecology of Antarctic marine invertebrates, birds, and mammals, continues to recede, now only sixty percent of what it was just forty years ago.

0058 REDUCEDcropPerhaps the most iconic symbol of the rapid climate change engulfing the Antarctic Peninsula is the tuxedoed Adélie penguin. This morning, weather permitting, the members of our UAB team can see Torgersen Island, almost within swimming distance of the station. For seven hundred years Adélie penguins have colonized the island. In 1975 there were 15,000 breeding pairs of penguins on the island. Today there are only 2,000 left. They have been pummeled by climate change. With warmer, moister air, unseasonable snow storms are burying adults on their nests, drowning the eggs in the resultant melt-water. In addition, the annual sea ice that provides the Adélie penguins a platform to reach their rich offshore krill feeding-grounds has receded. Now the penguins carve into their precious energy budget to swim great distances to reach their food. jim mclintock 2008 2 REDUCEDcrop

This past December I delivered an extreme-weather video camera, solar panels, and supporting equipment to Palmer Station as part of a philanthropic cruise I lead each year for Abercrombie and Kent Travel. With support from those in the NSF Long Term Ecological Research Program and Lockheed Martin, the video camera is now operational. The first of its kind in the world, it sends minute by minute images of Adélie penguins on Torgersen Island.

I just checked the live image this morning and discovered the penguins have left for the season. The good news is that they will be back next October for five months of mating, laying eggs, and raising their chicks.And you can follow along!:
http://www.usap.gov/videoclipsandmaps/palWebCam.cfm