Diving the Seaweed Forests of the Western Antarctic Peninsula

Latest update March 18, 2019 Started on November 17, 2017

We're using a combination of SCUBA diving, video surveys, and collections to describe and understand the significance of the seaweed communities of previously unexplored underwater rocky shores of the Western Antarctic Peninsula.

November 17, 2017
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People have been asking about where we're going on this expedition... Usually folks understandably wonder if we're going to McMurdo or Palmer stations.

We will stop at Palmer on the way to our field study sites, but the real research of our cruise will take place in the relatively under-explored shallow subtidal depths of the archipelago, between Palmer Station and Rothera Station to the south (see the attached summary image).

A mantra for our trip (probably every Antarctica trip?), first uttered to me by my postdoc Dr. Julie Schram, has become: "...if the ice allows".

If the ice allows, we hope to dive at approximately 20-40 sites south of Palmer. We'll be working from small boats deployed off of the Laurence M. Gould ice-breaker ship. The image below are the rough locations of our possible dive sites. These sites are on an ice cover "gradient". This is why we often refer to the mission as the 'gradients' project.

Everyone say it with me please! "...IF THE ICE ALLOWS..."

In The Field

The #AntarcticSeaweedGradients project is a collaboration between Co-Principal Investigators at 4 universities: University of Alabama Birmingham, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Texas A&M University, and the University of Oregon. Each PI is responsible for bringing a group of people that will contribute to the expedition.

Today after much preparation, we gathered the 4 people who are going under my University of Oregon team at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology (OIMB) for a practice dive. As you can see, we have color coded our suits and accessories for quick identification and ‘flair’ underwater... The group includes (from left to right in the picture): Dr. Alex Lowe (Postdoc at the Smithsonian – at large project collaborator – in UW Huskies purple), Dr. Julie Schram (Postdoc in my lab at OIMB – in hot pink), me (in UO green with UO yellow fins); and Ross Whippo (Ph.D. student in my lab at OIMB - in hot pink as well). Other divers on the project have different color suits as well!

The dive was good practice for team building and character enrichment, as the underwater visibility was horrible in the bay that day (~3 ft or 1 m). We’re all getting used to the new dry glove system and integrated hoods we are using on these suits. Thanks to Alex’s dad, Trent Lowe, for snapping this photo!


So, I'm sure it won't surprise anyone that diving in Antarctica takes some special preparation! We've all been diving dry suits for years in the cold - or "temperate" - waters of the Northeast Pacific Ocean (i.e., Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon). But our typical gear set up for the NE Pacific is a neoprene suit with a relatively thin undergarment, which keeps us warm and dry when the water is at a typical temp of ~55 deg F (~13 deg C). Most of us dive with a wet hood and wet gloves up here.

But diving in Antarctica is a whole new ballgame. We followed the advice of our colleagues who have done a lot of diving in Antarctica, and we upgraded our suits to shell suits with dry gloves and super thick undergarments (when we wear these we look like the Michelin man in a sleeping bag body suit). This will allow us to dive in the frigid temperatures we'll encounter in Antarctica of ~30 deg F (~-1 deg C).

One doesn't just buy new gear and assume it will work! We set up a series of test dives to practice with our new suits and also to practice using some of the new toys that we'll use underwater. For example we also had to test our 'air lift sampler' which is essentially an underwater vacuum cleaner for sucking up small invertebrates into a sample bag!

Julie and I had an otherwise unrelated research project up in Sitka Alaska in January. This gave us a chance to try our new Antarctic gear in colder conditions than Oregon could offer (first photo)... We had snow and some cold days in a Zodiak, working with Prof. Kristy Kroeker and her team (second photo); Kristy and her student Lauren Bell taught us some field calisthenics to build up core temperature in between cold dives (see twitter video below). This week of intensive diving in the sleet, snow, and rain helped Julie and I feel confidence that our new gear is ready for the Antarctic expedition... (third photo)

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I've always wondered how scientists get all of their stuff all the way down to Antarctica. It's hard enough just doing fieldwork in Alaska or British Columbia!

We'll bring a few rolling duffle bags on the plane with us to Chile (I'll do a post about that when we pack), but we have much more than we can fit on the plane.

So, we packed 4 boxes of stuff and sent these to Port Hueneme, California, on Jan 5th. Every item in the boxes are accounted for on a detailed packing list/manifest, including locations where things were manufactured. It was pretty fun packing this stuff actually. Julie and I put some special surprises in for our team. Someone told me that blogs are like a private journal, so it won't matter if I divulge one of those surprises, right? :)

Julie got each of our U Oregon team members a matching thermos! We'll pass them out once we get to Chile. I got us some other cool matching outerwear too. More on that later... I need to save some surprises.

The first picture shows the pile of stuff before being packed. The second picture shows the 'air lift sampler' which is basically an underwater vacuum cleaner. So cool! Scientific divers love our funky tools. This one was leant to us by Kristy Kroeker (thanks Kristy!). Perhaps the best part about the air lift sampler is that it collects the samples in pantyhose. So we also shipped a lot of pantyhose down as well. The third picture shows all the boxes (thanks for the help Eddie!), sealed up when we shipped them to California.

We got confirmation a few weeks later that our boxes made it to Port Hueneme and were subsequently transferred to a ship that is taking them to Punta Arenas, Chile, where we will meet them in a few weeks!

Logistics is cool, am I right?

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In The Field

I'm very excited to get in the water in Antarctica in April, but I'm also getting pumped about some of the opportunities for 'dry side' science we will be doing as well. The area around the Antarctic Peninsula is fairly inhospitable to divers, and even with the best possible planning there will be some days that we just can't get in the water. That may be due to surface conditions at a particular site, or unexpected visitation by the curious (and frankly, scary) leopard seals that patrol Antarctic waters. In any case, we only have a limited number of days to conduct underwater video surveys of any specific site, so if we aren't able to dive we will need a backup plan.

Enter the OpenROV Trident.

The Trident is a tiny--and affordable--remote controlled submarine that is able to record video and send it back to the surface. If we aren't able to get in the water for whatever reason, the Trident will be available to send down in our place gathering video of the seaweeds that we are interested in documenting. To that end, I have been charged with overseeing ROV operations while we are in Antarctica. I will be responsible for the deployment, recovery, maintenance, and care or the Trident, and will serve as the primary pilot when we need to send it below.

So what does that mean for field work preparation? Practice, practice, practice!

I spent the day driving the Trident around the marina outside our offices at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology, trying to get a handle on the controls and other quirks of the smallest member of our team. After several near-misses with dock pilings, I managed to get a hang of it and was able to send it out most of the length of its 30-meter practice tether (the field tether is 100 meters long). Unfortunately the water was a bit too murky to really see much on the video screen of the game console controller I use to see and direct its movements. I'm sure that it will be easier to pilot when I can actually see where it is I'm going!

At the end of the run I was able to navigate it safely back to the dock, and a curious seal even came by to check it out. I'm hoping to get in another practice session or two before we have to send it off in our pre-trip gear shipment in January. Until then maybe I should play more video games to develop muscle memory for the controller?

In any case, I'm looking forward to getting out again, maybe I'll even give the 100-meter tether a go!

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Members of the #AntarcticSeaweedGradients team traveled to the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) to meet in person and start to discuss the logistics of our upcoming diving expedition to the Western Antarctic Peninsula!

My postdoc (Dr. Julie Schram) did her PhD work at UAB with my current collaborators there (Dr.s Chuck Amsler, Jim McClintock, and Maggie Amsler), so Julie promptly took me up to the Vulcan Statue (see the picture - sadly the Vulcan is not giving the 'live long and prosper' gesture - it's referencing the Roman god of the fire and forge) which looks over the city. (first picture)

The next day we gathered up and talked through as many details as we could muster, including figuring out what items to ship down in advance, and looking through Texas A&M co-PI Dr. Andrew Klein's initial imagery of the area for early discussions about selecting our dive sites. (second picture)

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Expedition Background

Welcome to our research expedition to study seaweeds of the Antarctic Peninsula!

For me this story starts in May of 2017, when my collaborators and I submitted a research proposal to the US National Science Foundation (NSF) to study the seaweeds of the Antarctic Peninsula. Climate change is strongly affecting this region; for example, increased ice loss in recent years along the rocky shores of this wilderness means that brown seaweed forests are having new opportunities to grow in places that were once more consistently covered in ice.

Members of our research team have been working on the seaweed forests of the Western Antarctic Peninsula for decades, mostly out of Palmer Station. When they reached out to me to invite me onto their team as a co-Principal Investigator, you might not believe how quickly I signed on! Who says academics do things slowly? This was a chance to take my joy for cold water exploration to a new level!

In early 2018 we learned we’d been funded by the NSF to study how the seaweed communities change along a gradient of sea-ice cover intensity and associated variation in light availability. Our project has been granted one diving intensive mission to the region this spring. A little more detail about the funded project can be found on my website: https://www.aaron-galloway.com/research/.

Why would I do this? I’ve long been (perhaps unnaturally) obsessed and fascinated by what is going on under the surface of the cold and dark waters where I grew up in southeast Alaska. During graduate school I became a scientific diver and pursued research on kelp forests in the San Juan Islands of Washington and developed my expertise in using the fats of seaweeds as ‘biomarkers’ to trace the food web relationships of kelp forest invertebrates. This background set me up to contribute to this collaborative team in a unique way.

This blog will be a place where I will post stories and photos about our expedition to Antarctica this spring. I’ll post links about the preparation trips and then the actual deployment, from 9-April through 30-May 2019. On social media platforms we refer to the work as the #AntarcticSeaweedGradients project.

We have an amazing team of people involved, several of whom are on Twitter, including project co-PIs (Chuck Amsler, Maggie Amsler, Jim McClintock [@JiminAntarctica], Katrin Iken, Andrew Klein [who has a mission Facebook page: @IslandtoIce], and myself [@awegalloway]), postdocs (Julie Schram [@jbschram], Alex Lowe [@h2_Lo]), and graduate students (Sabrina Heiser [@SabrinaHeiser], Ross Whippo [@RossWhippo]). Check out our websites and twitter feeds for additional information!

The photo below is by Julie Schram, showing the ship we will be operating from, the Laurence M. Gould, at Palmer Station.


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