A Day in the Life on the Gould

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12:00 am

My alarm goes off at 11:30 but I of course hit the snooze button. The night was filled with the occasional jolt, the bone crunching sound of ice crumbling underneath the hull, the cricket chirping of the SONAR and the deafening bow thrusters that turn my small cabin into the insides of a Dyson vacuum. By now, this seems normal.

After jumping off the top bunk and changing I make my way down one set of stairs to the Galley for mid-rations or mid rats, the fourth meal of the day. With the ship on two 12 hour shifts we skip the traditional 3 meal a day approach. Tonight it’s chicken porridge, bacon, eggs, pasta, and turkey sandwiches; a good assortment for those of us just getting up and for the others getting ready for bed.

12:30 am

Time to work! My lab-mates have generously completed the 2 meter and 1 meter net tows and there are now buckets of zooplankton to sort. I grab my favorite forceps, a counter (a similar concept to the kind umpires use to keep count) and some upbeat tunes. We blast 80s pop and rock on a regular basis though the occasional interlude to the 90s and backstreet boys does occur. Spontaneous dance parties do occur.

Once the lab is all set we start identifying and counting. There are five different types of krill and numerous other critters to sort through. My favorite to find are the beautiful worms called tomopteris that swim in a graceful undulating slither. The shelled pteropods are cute too. They have dumbo ears that peek out of their whorl shaped shells that help them swim. We’ve even caught glittery fish with electric blue eyes and a jellyfish the size of a grapefruit. Mostly, it’s just krill and copepods, marine bugs with surprisingly long antennae.

4:00 am

It’s tea time. By 4 we’ve sorted and preserved our samples and the ship is en route to the next sampling station. The duration between mid rats and breakfast is a significant chunk of time without sustenance. Those of us on the night shift have created our very own snack break in the middle of the morning. We congregate in the galley. The snack changes daily. Yogurt and blueberries, saltines and peanut butter, toast and jam, hot chocolate, freshly baked cookies that appear on the counter if we are lucky. Rarely is tea consumed. The conversation is always loud and filled with laughter.

4:30 am

I usually hop up to the bridge to say hello to the mates and if I’m lucky see the sun rise. The majority of the ship contains port holes but the bridge has 180 degree windows. It is the best view on the ship. In the early hours we may even see an occasional emperor penguin, lost or curious this far North.

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5:00 am

We begin the next round of sampling by 5 in the morning. Besides zooplankton net tows we also take light measurements using apparatus like an LISST that looks at the types of particles that are in the water. By particles I mean the types of algae, sediments and detritus that is suspended in the water column. We also use a CTD (Conductivity Temperature Depth) apparatus that collects water at various depths. For a bit of fun we affectionately name each CTD. The names are always a tad colorful.

The scientists studying bacteria, trace metals, and phytoplankton use the water samples to determine what exists at various depths.

There is a saying that oceanography is just throwing really expensive gadgets over the side and hoping we bring them back up. Studying the ocean is difficult since humans are more suited for the oxygen and pressure levels above the sea surface than below. We do our best and are mostly successful, though I’ve heard the occasional horror story that ends in “whoops”.

7:00 am

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It’s time for the net tows. We bundle up in very stylish bright, yellow, waterproof slicks, steel toed boots, hefty float coats and hard hats. Using a winch tethering system we lift the nets (first one then once the first comes back onboard the other) over the back of the ship and dip them into the water. Our smaller net reaches depths of about 300 meters, or a little less than three football fields below the surface. It takes about a half hour for the nets to reach the bottom and then come back up. If we are lucky they have been spared the stench of a recent phytoplankton bloom which dyes the water in our nets a lovely green brown. We are not always so lucky and must first filter the algae before we begin our sorting.

7:30 am

Work is interrupted by breakfast (my lunch). Eggs, bacon, oatmeal are standard but it is a surprise whether there are pancakes, French toast, donuts, or bagels.

8:00 am

Work resumes. Dance parties resume.

11:30 am

Lunch! Or is it dinner. The rest of the ship awakens. We have a communal meal and recount stories from the night to those who were asleep. If we saw something cool like killer whales we are met with sentiments of jealousy.

12:00 pm

I am off shift. It is tradition to watch a movie at some point during the day. Recently I was introduced to The Gremlins. Apparently I led a deprived childhood though I wonder if I was better off for it. The kitchen scene itself is worthy of several sleepless nights.

Before bed I catch up with my new friends, send email, read or play an intense game of cribbage (the game of the boat). I usually make it back up to the bridge to grab some sunlight and watch the icebergs float by. When we are close to shore the mountains spring from the sea floor to the sky. The peaks average an altitude of 10,000 feet, a height I still fail to comprehend.

3:00 pm

Bed time. I take a quick shower. By now power stance is second nature. Otherwise you end up wrapped in the shower curtain not knowing the difference between up or down.

I have been in Antarctica for a full month. While it has been an amazing time I am beginning to believe endless horizons filled with ice and penguins are the norm. I would love to hear from people from above the equator. Ask me questions and I will answer. Hope all is well.

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All In A Days Work

In the wee hours of the morning, when the sun has dipped behind the horizon line for a few hours (it is never truly dark) the MOCNESS completes her first tow of the research cruise. It is with anticipation that I wait for the first net to raise out of the water. Twenty-four hours of waiting finally yields a reward.

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Photo credit Julian Race

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A sampling of our catch

The day didn’t start off in such high spirits. A series of delays, mishaps and unfortunate circumstances delayed our first real scientific catch. You quickly learn this is the rule in oceanography, not the exception.

El Nino seems to be causing a series of unpredictable and extreme weather across the globe. Here on the Western Antarctic Peninsula it has created ice, lots of ice. On some mornings the ocean surface almost completely covered. Such was the case on the morning before our first MOCNESS tow. The great thing about the Gould is that its hull is reinforced to slice through the ice floats, but in heavy ice that resistance adds a bit of extra time to our travel.

Preparing to launch the mighty MOCNESS soon revealed a series of issues with the device itself. Data collection from the MOCNESS relies on a series of electrical sensors to determine depth, temperature, the angle at which the net hangs, etc. On our first attempt the GPS was not communicating with our computers on board. Not a good start. The sensor that determined net angle, too was misbehaving. It consistently read that the MOCNESS was sitting perpendicular when in reality it was lying flat on the deck. A few set backs but nothing the Electronic Techs couldn’t handle. But of course, once we fixed those two issues the flow meter was busted.

The purpose of the MOCNESS is to run one tow in the morning and one tow at night so we can then compare the difference in types and amounts of zooplankton. Zooplankton travel to the surface at night to feed on phytoplankton. This daily migration called diel vertical migration is a safety precaution. Better to feed in the dark when your predators can’t see you.

By the time we fixed the MOCNESS we missed our window.

By domino effect I eventually spent 43 hours working on three of sleep. By the end of the second day it was almost a challenge. Can we finish our work while resisting the urge to nod off? In total, after the first failed tow, we accomplished six tows in over the next two days, including a successful second try at our first MOCNESS. Each time we haul a cod-end on board we opened the top to reveal hundreds of krill and other critters zipping around.

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A female pregnant krill (top) and a male krill

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Photo credit Julian Race

Stay tuned for more on what we caught!

All Hands On Deck

Picture a scientist in your mind and you probably envision white lab coats in a laboratory. On the Gould, we run with a tougher crowd. Preparation for our month at sea includes wrenches, hard hats, and steel toed boots. Let me explain.

As part of the zooplankton team on the Palmer Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) I must both build our plankton tow nets (there are three in total) and help put them in the water. The frames are huge…and heavy. They are lead weights meant for sinking.

A net consists of a box frame, the largest of which is 2 meters, or the height of a car, and a mesh net that extends several car lengths behind. At the end of the net we catch all the critters in a cylindrical container, the cod-end.

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Step one: assemble the frame. We take four lead beams and bolt them together to make a square frame.

Step two: attach the nets. A few basic sewing and knot skills are essential. We thread rope between holes in the frame and the net one side at a time and synch each end with bowline and half hitch knots. Once a novice, I can now proudly tie both knots on command.

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Step three: attach the Cod-end. Each net tapers to a small funnel at the end. The opening deposits into the Cod-ends. We secure the nets to the cod-ends with a metal bracket and handy dandy duct tape. Very Scientific. If there is one thing I have learned, it is that duct tape is the most essential tool on the ship.

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But the beast of our net collection is the MOCNESS, or Multiple Opening and Closing Net Environment Sampling System. It holds nine nets at once and as the MOCNESS is lowered over the side of the boat a new net is opened at a predetermined depth. As one net closes another opens and when we pair this with the depth we can see how the types and amounts of zooplankton that we catch change over time.

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The MOCNESS is a fussy little beast.  The opening and closing mechanism is electrically communicated from scientist to the device via a cable that runs tandem to the tethering wire.  Electrical systems and water never like to play nice, especially when they run on Windows XP. We often pray to the MOCNESS gods before releasing it over the back of the boat but they are fickle deities that like to toy with our tempers.

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Assemblage of our gear was a success! Now it’s time for the real scientific work. Wish me luck.

We made it!

After 9 days in transit, today I took my first step onto the Antarctic Peninsula. I just spent the last five days aboard the Gould as we trekked across the Drake Passage. It was nice to be on land.

Getting to Antarctica is a bit more difficult than simply booking a flight through hopping on a plane. I took three flights to get to the tip of Chile, to a city called Punta Arenas, where the Laurence M. Gould was stationed waiting for us to board. I traveled from Boston to Miami, Miami to Santiago the capital of Chile and finally to Punta Arenas. For the most part the trip was smooth sailing. On New Years we were greeted with a treat; our plane was so empty every person could claim three seats to themselves, a luxury on a 9 hour overnight flight from Miami to Santiago.

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Standing on top of a glacier by Palmer Station

In Punta Arenas we accomplished two main tasks. We received and tried on our issued cold weather gear  (a comical fashion show) and stowed all our lab gear and supplies from shipping containers lifted onto the ship via cranes.

Time seems to run at it’s own pace at the bottom of the earth. The sun rises by four and sets around 11 at night, a disorienting norm for someone reliant on the cues of the sun to tell time. I find myself so sure that it can’t possibly be past seven at night only to find out that it is in fact ten at night.

Traveling across the Drake Passage took five days. The waves were only about ten feet at their maximum but it was enough to send a placed object, like a water bottle, on a table flying off the edge and crashing onto the floor. That was a common occurrence until we learned from our many mistakes. Taking a shower was interesting. In fact, any task that requires some semblance of balance becomes a feat requiring significant attention.

As we made our way into Palmer seals and penguins adorned nearly every floating block of ice. Many begrudgingly left their sunning spots as we trudged by but others lazily glanced our way and that was all. It took only a half hour to dock at Palmer Station.

Now it’s time to explore the station! I will check in soon.

Want to follow the Gould? Check out the site below.

www.sailwx.info/shiptrack/shipposition.phtml?call=WCX7445

Want to send me questions? Email me at: 
danielle.hall.guest@lmg.usap.gov