By Abby Tomita, undergraduate student
This February, during the winter term of my third year at Oregon State, I was presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. After spending the last year studying the zooplankton krill as part of Project OPAL, I was invited to spend the austral winter season doing research on Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) under supervision of experts Dr. Kim Bernard and PhD student Rachel Kaplan. Additionally, we were lucky enough to participate in two research cruises along the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP).
Unsurprisingly, it is no easy feat getting to the bottom of the world. After an incredibly thorough physical qualification process and two days of air travel from Portland, Oregon, we reached the lovely city of Punta Arenas, Chile. It was such a relief to arrive – but we were only halfway there. The next portion of our trip was the one that I was most anxious about, especially as someone who is prone to seasickness: crossing the Drake Passage. This stretch of the ocean, from the southernmost tip of South America to the Antarctic Peninsula, is notoriously treacherous as water in this area circulates the globe completely unobstructed by land masses. I soon learned the value of scopolamine patches and nausea bracelets, which helped me immensely through this five day journey. From Punta Arenas, we boarded the RV Laurence M. Gould, along with a seal research team from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. They were headed down south to look for crabeater seals to better understand not only their physiology, but also their role in the trophic ecology of the WAP.
The Passage was rough, but not as terrible as I expected. The hype around it made me think I’d be faced with something as menacing as the giant wave from The Perfect Storm, and while the rocking and rolling of the ship was far from pleasant, my nausea aids, as well as the amazing people and vast selection of movies on board made it manageable. Despite being extremely nervous for the Passage, I was also very excited to celebrate my twenty-first birthday during it. It was a memorable, although untraditional birthday experience that was made all the more special by my friends on the ship who took the time to celebrate the day as best as we could.
The morning that we reached the Bransfield Strait was something truly unforgettable. Up until that point, I knew our destination was Antarctica, but I couldn’t really wrap my head around it because it was such a distant place and concept to me. I remember walking out onto the starboard side of the second level deck and seeing huge mountains out in the distance. For some reason, I had never considered how massively tall the mountains of the peninsula are, and just the fact that there were mountains down here at all. I joined the others at the bow, where we stood for hours in awe at the first land we had seen in days. Though many of the other scientists and crew members on board had been to this icy continent before, this was my first time, and I was in a state of disbelief. We’d finally made it and it sunk into me that I was in Antarctica, and that I would be here for the next five and half months.
After a day of hiding from strong winds in the Neumayer Channel, we were able to dock at Palmer Station (the smallest of the three US research bases in Antarctica) for our first port call, and seeing Palmer for the first time was just as exciting as seeing the continent. It looked so small at first, especially with the glacier and mountains looming behind it. Once the ship was tied up, orientation began. The station manager came onto the ship to give us an overview of what we could expect on station and the general Palmer etiquette. Next, we were given a tour of the facilities, from the lab spaces and aquarium room, up through the galley/dining area, past the hot tub and sauna, and into the lounge and bar in the GWR (Garage, Warehouse, and Recreation) building. I was surprised at how cozy the station was on the inside. In pictures, the buildings’ exteriors looked similar to the outside of a metal shipping container, but the inside was welcoming and warm. Those of us staying on station then sat through several hours of a more detailed orientation that somehow wore us out despite sitting in comfy recliner sofas the whole time. After sleeping on the rocking ship for about a week, I had some of the best sleep of my life that first night at Palmer Station.
Our first research cruise started a few days after arriving at Palmer, and just like that, we were off to explore the Southern Ocean. This leg of the trip took us south, down to Marguerite Bay and the region of Alexander Island, for ten days. The views were just spectacular everywhere we went, and it was so humbling to step out onto the deck to see gigantic mountains all around the ship. By day, us “krillers”, as our team is known, camped out on the bridge of the ship with the seal team, where we looked for sea ice floes with lounging crabeater seals. By night we conducted CTD casts, filtered water for chlorophyll, and deployed nets to catch our favorite tiny crustacean critters, along with any other zooplankton in our track. Unfortunately for both our group and the seal team, many areas that we visited were not frequented by krill or crabeater seals, though the seal team did successfully study and tag one seal over the course of the first cruise.
One of the highlights of this leg of the cruise was our Crossing Ceremony, as we’d crossed the Antarctic Circle (approximately 66.5ºS) shortly after leaving Palmer station. Myself and six others were crossing for the first time, so to earn our “Red Noses”, we had to pay tribute to King Neptune and his court. It would not be a Crossing Ceremony without at least some light pranking, so when they brought us out individually to the main deck, I knew something was coming our way.
The ten days flew by, and when we arrived back on station, we had less than a week to prepare for our next excursion on the LMG, which would be fifteen days. The time back at Palmer went quickly as we organized our lab space and entered data from the first cruise. The ship came back once more and we were off, this time heading north along the Peninsula to the Gerlache Strait. The sights were as breathtaking as ever, and I was excited to be back with my friends from the ship.
Our first day of transit was through the Lemaire Channel, one of the most stunning areas that we passed through (check out the photo gallery at the end of this post!). We spent the majority of the day on the bow and the deck of the bridge taking in the beautiful towering mountains on either side of the narrow channel and watching for penguins and humpbacks, of which there were many. This voyage segued into an extremely productive night of science for us where we caught thousands of krill that we were able to keep live in tanks on the ship, in preparation for later use for our experiments on station. Our first productive night of science was auspicious for the rest of the cruise as we caught and processed thousands more krill, and the seal team had a much more fruitful experience finding crabeater seals (they found/worked on 8 seals and named them all after fruits!). The highlight of this second cruise for me was getting to accompany the seal team onto an ice floe in the Lemaire Channel to assist them in their work on the crabeater, a female juvenile who they named Mango!
Returning to Palmer for the final time on the LMG was just as exciting as arriving the first time, especially with the knowledge that we’d have one last night of celebration with our friends from the ship at the Cross Town Dinner – a night to celebrate the solstice with both the Palmer crew and LMG crew. Although the dinner and subsequent party were a blast, I felt a lingering sadness knowing that the majority of the people I spent almost two months with would be heading north, back to their respective homes while Kim, Rachel, and I stayed at Palmer for the next few months. The next day, after saying our goodbyes, the three of us stood on the Palmer pier with tears streaming down our faces, waving frantically at the ship to our friends on the deck. In spite of my sadness, I knew that the coming months would be a thrilling series of new experiences in one of the most magical and special places that I have ever had the pleasure of being in.