Diving the Seaweed Forests of the Western Antarctic Peninsula

Latest update May 17, 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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In The Field

The world is constantly in motion, rocking side to side. Your stomach drops as the ship crests the ocean swell. Your plate slides out under your fork. For the last 4 weeks this has been our everyday existence. Some days are better than others like when we are in calm water, some days are worse. You learn to read the boat’s motion – increased swell, we must be crossing open water between islands; a long list to port, we must be coming about; bow thrusters firing up, we must be positioning to pick up the zodiac. There is a satisfaction to adapting to this constant motion. But there is a cost.

Boat Brain.

I’m not sure if it is the energetic cost of adjusting to your body in motion. Maybe it’s mild seasickness. Maybe it’s the vistas and wildlife always waiting to steal your attention. Maybe it’s the “hurry up and wait” nature of doing science in an environment like this. Whatever the cause, everything moves slowly out here. Especially your brain. Everyday tasks are more difficult. Submitting grants and abstracts is nearly impossible! This is just one of many challenges of doing science here, and something we plan around and make time for to ensure we maintain safety and scientific protocols.


Seaweed zone!

Our research objective on this cruise is to study the algae (seaweeds) of the Antarctic Peninsula, and how their community composition and abundance changes across a wide geographical gradient. As I’ve posted earlier, we suspect that this gradient is linked to the intensity of sea ice. We started the cruise knowing that at the Northern end of our gradient (up near Palmer Station), there are a lot of areas with lush seaweed forests. Because we had an opportunity to get to the Southern-most part of our gradient early in the cruise - due to ice free conditions and good weather, we started our surveys in the largely seaweed devoid southern areas.

Today we made it to the Wauwermann Islands, and got to survey a site that had what, in my eyes, was a lot of algae! It was really exciting for me to finally be among the large brown seaweeds that have long motivated my SCUBA diving research passion. But according to my collaborators who have been diving for years in this area, this was still just the tip of the algae iceberg. We anticipate even more seaweed biomass in future dives up here over the next few days.

Some friends and family have asked if these seaweeds are kelps. The large brown algae in Antarctica are not actually kelps (within the order Laminariales). They are mostly in the order Desmarestiales, but there are also some Fucales, and Ascoseiriales. Some of these algae do have some functional similarity to the kelps I have worked on previously. They can be perennial (long lived), they create habitat complexity, host many small creatures, and they fix and hold carbon in large standing stocks.

One of the most mind-blowing things to me about the seaweeds of the Antarctic Peninsula so far is that they live in extremely deep water compared to the seaweeds in the subtidal depths of the NE Pacific Ocean (AK, BC, WA, OR), where I have done most of my other work. In these northern latitudes, there is a very distinct, well defined gradient of community composition according to depth, where large seaweeds are only really common in the 0-20 m depth range (up to ~65 foot depth). There is a great figure in a paper by Britton-Simmons et al. 2009 (which demonstrates this very clearly for the San Juan Islands in Washington: Aquatic Biology 5:233-243; doi: 10.3354/ab00154). When one dives deeper than 100 feet in the NE Pacific the only seaweeds are very small reds and encrusting red algae. There is essentially no significant seaweed biomass in water at 30 m depth.

In contrast, here on the Antarctic Peninsula, there is something of an inversion of this pattern, where the very shallow subtidal (0-6 m [~20 foot] depth) is largely barren from seaweeds (due to ice scour), and there is incredible seaweed biomass at even the deepest depths that we can survey with our SCUBA diving! Our dive surveys start at 40 m depth (131 feet). We regularly see algae even below this depth. This would be unheard of in the NE Pacific! Check out this screen shot of the algae from my dive today in the Wauwermann’s, taken at 39 m (128 feet). There are large Cystosphaera (with the circular bulbs on the left) and Himantothallus (the one that looks like a kelp) on the right, interspersed with loads of red algae.

This is such a special, lush place for algae, and this is magnified by the fact that the topside (above water) landscape is completely devoid of plants. This is why the Amsler’s (Maggie and Chuck) call this the ‘Forests of Antarctica’. The second picture shows a juvenile crab-eater seal that joined us on our transect as if to watch and appreciate our singular focus on the algae, even though it swam around trying to get us to fawn over it.

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Charismatic macrofauna – and where to find them

Seaweeds are awesome, there is no doubt about that. But there are plenty of other things around here that take your breath away: mostly whales, penguins and other birds, and seals. During our cruise, we have seen a lot of them – because if we are not diving or processing our samples, we can often be found on the bow or the bridge of the ship, camera ready to record that award-winning shot.

Our most recent dive site brought us to just outside the Lemaire Channel which is an iconic feature on the Western Antarctic Peninsula. It is a narrow passage with steep mountains flaking either side and more than once I wondered whether the ship actually fits through it. When we arrived at the site, it was already clear that we had entered whale central. Humpback whales were surfacing left and right and within 30 feet (10 m) and closer to the ship. When the scouting zodiac came back, we heard more exciting news: The dive site was right by a Gentoo penguin colony. It might sound like a cliché, but I frequently get the question: “And why do you study seaweeds, when you love penguins this much?” – Well, I don’t think I would get to SCUBA dive for my work if I studied penguins … And seaweeds are pretty darn cool, but that would be an entirely different blog post.

One of the other most common questions I get is whether I have dived with penguins on my trips to Antarctica and so far, I had to say “no”. So, the outlook of this maybe changing, made it hard to go to sleep that night … Anyway, I tried to keep my cool (I have been known to dress up in a penguin onesie and walk around the ship imitating penguin calls, and it is surprising how often I get responses from other people). The next day we headed out on the zodiac, business as usual. On the way to the site we were frequently surrounded by rafts of penguins (that is what a group of penguins is called in the water, on land it is a waddle of penguins). Never mind, the humpback whales that kept surfacing around us. And I cannot forget to mention the fur seals and crabeater seals we saw on the way to the site. I never knew how shallow those humpback whales go, for some reason I thought they would stay in deeper waters.

We quickly got into our gear and started the dive, trying to focus on the task of seaweed video transects and collections. The site was not overly diverse in terms of seaweeds, but it did have a lot of Plocamium cartilagineum – a beautiful branching red seaweed which is the study organism of my PhD project. As usual on these dives we kept our heads down, focusing on the work. It is often tricky to notice much else than the seaweeds in front of you as we often (safely) race against time. But than a faint sound got my attention (hearing underwater is often impaired through the thick neoprene hood). It took me a minute to realize that I was hearing the singing of humpback whales. I looked up and saw that the same realization had hit my buddy (Aaron Galloway) who had also stopped in his tracks and was looking around us. We hung in the water in awe for a minute before resuming our task with a big smile on our faces – this was a first for both of us. We also heard a pinging sound during our dive which is made by seals.

When we got to safety stop depth (6 m or 18 feet), we had still not seen a sign of penguins. As we handed up our dive gear, it happened. All of a sudden, we were surrounded by porpoising and diving penguins – a dream come true! Because we had handed off our dive cylinders and weight belts, we were now bobbing on the surface like corks. Holding tightly onto the zodiac, we still got to experience penguins in the water around us. I might have squealed of joy a couple of times. The other two dive teams were lucky enough to see the penguins on their dives (see a tweet by Ross with some of the video of their experience).

Soon the penguins moved on and we climbed into the boat. Overwhelmed by the experience, I did not think that it could get any better. We stopped on the way to the ship to collect some necessary water samples. Once the zodiac was in neutral, we filled the bottles with surface water. Not long after we started, a couple of humpback whales surfaced less than 10 feet (3 m) away – the breath they draw creating a sound and cloud of fine mist unique to this experience. I quickly turned the camera on and stuck it underwater, not knowing what I was going to capture – for a couple of seconds the profile of a whale descending into the depth. This day will truly stay with me for the rest of my life.

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Oh the places you’ll go!

The research is progressing! On April 29 we surveyed our southern-most dive site (see the first picture, by Alex Lowe), at S -68.69 degrees! Our dive site was to the left of the base of that large rock in the image. It was within a few km of a place in this area that was originally researched by Moe and DeLaca in the mid 1970s (1976; ‘Occurrence of macroscopic algae along the Antarctic Peninsula’; Antarctic Journal). It’s amazing to me what some of the pioneering Antarctic researchers accomplished back then, without dry suits and many of the modern conveniences we have while diving in such extreme conditions.

Like Moe and DeLaca, we found very few algae down here. There were a few reds and an occasional brown (Desmarestia menziesii). But these were sparse. Unlike Moe and DeLaca, we have the benefit of advanced satellite imagery and quantitative measurements of ice density in all of our locations over the span of many years; this is allowing us to test our hypothesis that the ‘gradient’ in algal community composition on the peninsula is linked to ice intensity at these sites. This is important because in recent years the ice density has declined in this region, which may open up opportunities for new algal communities. The observations we’ve made so far are in line with our expectations: in sites with very high annual average ice density, we are seeing very little attached algae.

Of the few Desmarestia plants at this site, most of these were very small, and were up in the depth of ~5-8 m, among groups of the ubiquitous limpet Nacella concinna (see the second picture). The final picture shows Sabrina operating the vacuum sampler to collect small mobile mesograzers (mostly amphipods) that cruise around in the cracks, in algae, and under rocks.

It really was a remarkable day. I never thought I’d have a chance to dive this far south, below the Antarctic circle. Each day of diving and collections generates several hours of processing the samples in the wet lab. There will be literally months of careful and slow lab work to do the fatty acids analyses on these samples back in Oregon! But for now we “collect, bag, and tag” and start moving towards our northern sites!

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First project research dives.

Today we did our first series of research dives on one of our project sites. When we launched the first dive team at the site the weather was very promising, with an epic sunrise (1st picture). Each dive team is deployed on a small vessel (in this case a Zodiac) with two divers (Chuck and Katrin for this dive) and two tenders (Gina and Andrew).

I was standing by with Sabrina to be on the second dive team out. The second picture shows the place between two small islands as we approached our dive site. By the time we got out of the water the weather had picked up, and it was windy and choppy at the surface with snow flurries. Our boat driver Chuck (marine tech on the Gould) commented that it was ‘a bit sporty’. Well put.

In the first 3 dives of the day at each site we focus on doing a depth stratified video survey (Sabrina was on video duty today) and algal collections (this was my job). We start at just under 40 m depth. My job is to set a measuring tape that runs 5 m parallel to the depth contour. Then we go up 5 m in depth and do it again, zig-zagging up the slope, collecting video and algae vouchers in a systematic way from depths of ~40 m to 5 m. The third picture (by Sabrina Heiser) shows me carrying my bags and measuring tape up from the 15 m depth segment to the 10 m strata, where I will soon set a new line for Sabrina to video.

Once we do the dives and collections, you might think that our work would be done! But it’s really just beginning. We were up until midnight that night processing the samples. I dedicate a future blog post entirely to the processing workflow, but in a nutshell, we divide into a few teams: a couple of people work on identifying and processing algae (pressings, genetic vouchers), a couple of people identify the invertebrates, and then a few people work on extracting tissues from all of these organisms for future stable isotope and fatty acids analysis (see the last picture of Alex processing an urchin).

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Planning the first research dive.

The night before our first project research dive, after the checkout dives, we gathered at the meeting table in the ship as a group and discussed the dive plan for our first site (1st picture: from left to right: Andrew Klein, Katrin Iken, Alex Lowe, Ross Whippo, Maggie Amsler, Sabrina Heiser, Julie Schram, and Chuck Amsler).

Each dive site is carefully selected from analysis of ~10-15 years of satellite imagery of the rocky islands along the peninsula to capture a gradient of ice cover by our geographer, Andrew.

Andrew has prepared a list of about 40 potential sites for us to visit throughout the Antarctic peninsula. The nearest crewed base to the dive site for tomorrow is over 150 km away from here. Very few people have ever had the chance to dive in this whole region, and the space is so huge that it is basically a certainty that each time we put a dive team in the water out here they will be the first human eyes to ever see this part of the earth.

Think about that for a minute! Even when diving remote places in the Pacific (I have done dives in the Russian far east, Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California), because humans have inhabited these lands for >15,000 years, and because in that time frame sea level has fluctuated well beyond diving depths, humans have certainly walked all of those lands. Antarctica is different. We are seeing places that have simply never been observed. It gives me chills of excitement just thinking about it!

After a healthy discussion of the satellite pictures of the potential sites in the area we are at, and based on the local and current ice and weather conditions, we make a plan to visit the preliminarily named ‘site 23’ the next day (the second picture). Once we dive it, it will become ‘Site 01’ for the project.

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Palmer Station and check out dives.

What a whirlwind past 24 hours. We got into Palmer yesterday (picture #1) and spent the whole day unloading the freshies and other scientists who will stay at Palmer for a while. Today was ‘our’ day to start actual diving operations.

Practice makes perfect, right? While we all have a lot of diving experience, diving in Antarctica is new for a few of us on the team. This was my first chance to practice in very cold water. The water temperature today was hovering around 0-0.5 deg C (33 deg F). On my first plunge, I got to hold a little mini-ice chunk. On my second dive today I was fending off a chunk of ice the size of a huge dining room table (picture #2, by K Iken) as I walked out onto the shore.

The experience was awesome! I didn’t take my underwater camera (so no underwater photos to share yet) because during the check-out dive one of my jobs was to focus on practicing with the video camera that we will use on our science surveys of the seaweed forests along the Peninsula. My hands were full.

All the gear worked out well. I was warm and SUPER happy to have my first successful Antarctic dive. I think the look on my face in the photo after the dive (picture #3, by K Iken) says it all!

We had to depart Palmer right after the checkout dives. We enjoyed one last cup of coffee in the Palmer galley (picture #4). It’s sad to leave new friends so soon at this awesome station, but exciting to start the research we came here to do. Now we charge as far south as we can through the night, and we dive first thing tomorrow am on the first of our #AntarcticSeaweedsGradients project research dives!

At dinner tonight Sabrina pointed out that it’s pretty cool that we started our official project work on Earth Day! This is fitting because we are on a mission to explore a part of the earth that is still poorly understood.

More on that soon!

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Aaron and team: why did you choose the Fall for this research, rather than say, Summer? Is there something to be gained by choosing this season?
I had the same question as Barnaby. Also, can't wait to see the photos and video from the dives!
Great question! It’s a mixture of logistics and biology: 1) this timing was the best option for the diving space and flexibility on the LMG cruise, and 2) water clarity should be better, as peak daylight and phytoplankton production is declining late in the season.

Today we were given an exciting opportunity, to help the leopard seal science crew set up their camp at Cape Shirreff on Livingston Island in the South Shetlands. It had to be a quick in-and-out operation to stay on schedule, so immediately after breakfast I geared up to join the landing crew. I started with so many layers of clothing that I felt like that kid in the movie 'A Christmas Story' who couldn't put his arms down because he was wearing so many coats, so I removed one of the several dozen polar fleeces I had on, and was just able to pull on my waterproof boots. We all gathered on the back deck and got a short briefing on the order of operations, then watched as they started loading the zodiacs (inflatable craft) off the back of the boat and into the water. We all had to stick our feet into a boot scrubber dosed with iodine to decontaminate them before we set foot on the island. Keeping the Antarctic free of as much contamination as possible is a priority on all our missions. Once the zodiac was along side our mothership, we had to haul butt down the ladder that hung over the side because the unpredictable waves made for an unstable platform. One flying leap later, and we were all safely aboard.

We were accessing the site from the north and had a magnificent view of Livingston Island as we approached. The camp is on the east side of a valley that opens to the bay, and it took the zodiac about ten minutes to get there from our station offshore. The island itself was gorgeous. To the far east a beautiful glacier glowed an intense shade of teal and was cut with dark soot lines that mark one of the many eruptions of nearby Deception Island. The sun was below low clouds on the horizon and the water looked like an old cracked oil painting. To the west, rock pinnacles rose up from the waves and an iceberg floated near the shore. Behind us large mountains stood completely sealed in white. I was so wrapped up in the sheer beauty of our surroundings that I barely noticed the icy spray that occasionally doused us from over the bow.

We pulled up to the island and two boat handlers dressed in dry suits jumped out, heaving us to shore. There was a light dusting of snow on everything, with rocks peeking out here and there, like powdered sugar on a cake. The beach was filled with thick dark cobble; the kind that makes a satisfying hollow 'clunk' when they clatter around under your feet. Higher up on the shore I could see everyone standing in groups, looking around and taking pictures. The zodiacs slipped away and returned to the ship for the first of many supply runs, leaving us to gape in silence at the huge cliffs that surrounded us on three sides. One of the seal crew asked for a volunteer to help up at the camp and I immediately raised my hand. I followed two of the seal scientists, Mike and Renato, up to the huts that were on a low rise a couple of hundred meters to the east.

There was a bit of thicker drifted snow and some ice to traverse, but we made it up fairly quickly. The camp was comprised of about three cabin-like buildings, the huts, painted green, and connected by a series of wooden decks and walkways. The doors and windows were all sealed over by large pieces of wood attached by bolts or hooks, and our job was to remove them, opening up the camp for the season. Nearby, another camp sat empty. This was the Chilean camp that was used at different times of the year. I could have thrown a stone from one camp to the other. The Chilean camp had a couple of small buildings, and a structure that looked like a beached red submarine out front. I never did find out what the 'submarine' was actually for. Getting to work opening the doors and windows, I soon had the feeling that I wasn't alone. I turned around and there on the rocks were a couple of juvenile fur seals eyeing me and scratching. I was about to wave 'hello', when suddenly, a penguin waddled into view. My first penguin sighting! I think it was a Gentoo, but of course I immediately stopped working and took dozens of photos, so I'll be able to sort out the species later. After all the doors and windows had been opened, Mike sent me back down to begin hauling gear from the beach to the camp. All the while the zodiacs had been going back and forth with goods. It was a necessarily slow process.

I got back to the beach, found the nearest sled, and loaded it with gear. There was enough snow on the ground to pull the sleds behind us without much trouble so I ended up making seven or eight trips. It was great exercise and a welcome change from the sloth that had enveloped me on the boat. Every once in a while during my journeys back and forth, I would hear a distant explosion like far off fireworks. It took me a while to realize that it was the glacier, cracking and creaking under its own immense weight. It was right after one of these explosions, preoccupied with thoughts of calving ice, that a juvenile fur seal with something to prove began groaning and lunging to my left, seemingly out of nowhere. He stopped for a moment, scratched his side and gave me the 'evil eye', then did it again. Nothing worse than a young male seal with something to prove. Fortunately, he wasn't close enough to reach me quickly, but I made sure to give him a wide berth and thought about how I might fend him off with an overturned plastic sled.

Finally, the majority of the landing party returned to the ship, but a few of us made one final trip up to the huts. Before we left, Mike gave us an 'official tour' of the camp. He showed the bunks, the lab, the food stores that had been left from last season (lots of canned goods that Renato called their 'Trader Joe's'), an outhouse with two 5-gallon buckets (use your imagination), and the shower that currently housed their propane grill. The also had a smoker that Mike said they use to make a lot of smoked turkey. They will need lots of energy and turkey jerky for the work they're doing: putting tracking tags on leopard seals. They'll be out here working for six weeks, and their best-case scenario is to tag sixteen seals! Doesn't sound like a lot, but I guess it's tough to find them. After the tour, we waved goodbye to the crew and hiked back to the beach, jumped on the zodiac, and headed back to the ship. The sun had come out from behind the clouds and glacier now shone blue with bright patches of white. I thought I heard a 'pop', as we passed, as if it was wishing us good luck on our journey. I watched it all the way back to the mothership.

Photos: (upper left) glaciers lining the bay, (upper right) with my sled in front of the huts [photo: Mike Goebel], (bottom left) the pantry AKA: 'Trader Joe's', (bottom right) the crew loading in supplies from the zodiac.

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"Helllllooooo Rosssssss!" Said Arthur in hopes you could hear him all the way from Washington! Keep warm!

One of my favorite things about doing research in Antarctica is that you are not alone. So far, we have been focusing primarily on our experiences but there are several other research and science support groups on board. The other groups on our cruise include researchers who are studying mixotrophs, krill, and leopard seals.

The 5 person team studying leopard seals is being deployed at a field camp at Cape Shirreff today; so we are highlighting the drop off process (see picture below). They will be working on tagging leopard seals so they can track these charismatic predators through the year. Last year they were able to tag around 10 seals and this year they are hoping to double that number.

Since this group will be working at a remote field site, they need all of their supplies for the next ~6 wks at Cape Shirreff on Livingstone Island, just off the coast of the northern end of the western Antarctic Peninsula (picture of the cape below) Since the area around the put-in site has a lot of submerged rocks, the Gould can’t get too close and so everything will need to be shuttled by zodiac.

The process of getting these intrepid researchers to their new home for the next several weeks will involve almost everyone on the ship. They will need help loading all of their gear into zodiacs which will then be shuttled into the island and then unloaded and trekked up to their camp. Right now, several members of our team have volunteered to help with gear on the ship and on shore so stay tuned for more info!

I (Julie) and others are helping ferry materials within the Gould, Aaron is in a dry suit and on the landing party, and Ross and Alex are helping ferry supplies up the beach from the landing point to the field camp. Check out the pictures of the landing crew below.

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Plan your dive and dive your plan. One of the most important aspects of scientific diving is creating a careful plan and sticking to that plan during dives. This ensures the safety of the divers and consistency of the data we collect. Hours of planning and years of collective experience have gone into getting our team to this point. Now we have to put all of those plans into action.

During our crossing, we had time to get the whole team together to walk through the boating, diving, science and scheduling procedures. This will undoubtedly be just one of many planning meetings, but our first ‘all-hands’ overview of our expedition was an exciting meeting. The photo shows our team staked out in the Galley looking at a map of the Peninsula with our proposed dive sites. We picked many more sites than we can dive during the cruise to give us options in case weather or ice conditions prevent us from diving at a site. Chuck, the chief scientist, walked us through the boats we will be using. Dive teams will alternate at each site, diving from a zodiac, and an aluminum landing craft. Both boats have to be launched from the Lawrence M. Gould each day. Then we will load them up with divers and gear, and a marine technician (MT) will drive us to the site.

Everyone has to work together to efficiently get the divers in and out of the water safely. Throughout the dive, the MT stays in contact with the Gould and watches the bubbles to keep track of the divers. Once we are out of the water we will head back to the Gould, trade out for the next dive team and (after a hot snack) start sorting our samples. Stay tuned to learn about each of these steps.


The Drake Passage. Historically the roughest ocean to cross in the world. In the times when freight was transported on sailing ships, the Drake was especially notorious for bad weather and big seas. We have been in the Drake for a couple of days now. So far, we have been pretty lucky, it has been a comparably smooth ride. The key word there is comparably. The rolling of the Laurence M. Gould as she rides the waves across the Drake can be (sea) sickening.

For many, this is their first exposure to open big seas on the open ocean. I know it was where I experienced my first open ocean crossing and I was nervous that I would get really sea sick. I have been lucky on that front so far. I don’t know why but I feel really guilty when I see others getting sea sick. I think it might have to do with the fact that I don’t mind the seas. Instead of getting annoyed when my food keeps trying to slide over to my neighbor, I look at it as a challenge or game. I know it sounds pretty silly, but I like it and helps me stay alert to my surroundings. Instead of feeling like a ping pong ball bouncing off of the walls of the corridors as I try to navigate from my bunk room to the lounge for my turn on XBT watch (more on that later) I like to try to see how straight of a like I can walk. Trust me, when the ship gets rolling, this can be a challenge.

In the long run, we get to work with an amazing crew that have done this crossing thousands of times, they will keep everyone on board safe and secure. And that leaves us free to keep busy or entertain ourselves with limited WIFI connections. There is usually a movie on in the lounge (we watched Princess Bride earlier!) or you can read, catch up on computer work, walk around the deck, take in the sights (lots of ocean and some birds), work on crossword puzzles that have been posted for everyone to work on together, or even take a nap. So, while on the surface you might think there isn’t much to do when you can’t surf the web, if you are creative, you can come up with lots of fun and safe ways to enjoy crossing the Drake Passage.

Here are a couple of Haiku that the team members have come up with to describe this Drake crossing:

Most dire passage; The waves’ texture lulls senses;  Boat brain*. Time for nap.  by Alex Lowe *More about this later

Sun shining brightly; Cape Petrels float above waves; Adventure beckons. by Julie Schram

Anticipating; Face plunge in frigid water; Near last step: the Drake. by Aaron Galloway

Penguins are the best; Seaweeds are pretty cool too; Polar combines two. by Sabrina Heiser

Ceaseless waves abound; The ship rolls like an onion; I hear someone retch. by Ross Whippo

The ship rocks slowly; The Drake is nearly a lake; Time passes quickly. by Chuck Amsler

Pulsating vibrance; Gentle, lively, furious; Sun and Crux see all. by Maggie Amsler

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From the Drake Passage.

We are now ~1/2 through transiting the Drake Passage. This will take about 3 days total. The weather is pretty good for this time of year, considering what it could be. The wind speed today was averaging about 20-25 kts, and the swell was coming from the ~west at about 3-4 meters. It’s enough to make the boat roll a bit but not so bad. The first sunset out here was awesome (1st picture).

Over the last couple of days I’ve been working on establishing a little routine of working out in the gym from 6:30-7:30, and sitting up on the bridge for an hour or so after breakfast. The first mate on watch is great to talk with. We'll have a future post about personnel on the ship and details about the bridge, etc.

Today we transitioned from relatively warmer temperature surface seawater (it was ~5 deg C in the morning) to colder water (about ~2 deg C in the late evening). The second picture shows a temperature depth profile from a probe that is deployed while we are moving at full speed. I happened to be on the probe deployment on the drop that captured the first major decline in temperature. This change in water temperature signifies that we are entering Antarctic waters. Soon we’ll be diving in even colder water.

Alex and I called one of my key PhD advisors / mentors / collaborators, Dr. David Duggins, today from the ship phone for a brief conversation (3rd picture). It was pretty special to get to check in with a mentor who helped inspire my excitement for seaweeds in 2009. David has done a lot of diving, from Alaska to Antarctica. His final wisdom to share was to make sure to close the pee zipper on our drysuits before each dive. Sage advice indeed.

A final highlight of the day was that we sailed through my first snow flurry of the trip (4th picture). We are headed south as the fall is setting in.

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Were the temperature probes XBTs?
Yes indeed these were XBTs! (Expendable Bathythermograph)... more info about these can be found here: https://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/facts/xbt.html

Load “freshies” and depart.

We had a ~2 day delay in getting out of port, triggered by a problem with the main crane on board the LMG. This setback caused a series of cascading other issues to develop. Fortunately, none of these other issues was a show stopper. The crew was able to move stuff around the deck with a portable rental crane and the smaller “knuckle crane” on the back deck that is still working. The main task for today besides leaving was to load ‘freshies’. This is a group effort where all hands gather to pass boxes of fresh foods/vegetables down from the truck to the hold (1st picture).

Each time we got a box we’d pass down some info to the next person in the line about whether the box was heavy or light, etc. I was at the front of the line, so naturally I tried to have a little fun with this, and say stuff like “heavy, refreshing, and awkward” (box of watermelons, which were rolling and shifting in the box), or “light and bright”(lettuce). You could hear different versions of the descriptors develop as each person passed the box down the line. It’s not every day you can say ‘I passed over 1500 eggs down a line today’.

Before we left I sent a text out through my GPS to friends and family (also to twitter) and I started logging a track on the GPS (2nd picture inset). This will allow folks with the link to see where we are on one-hour intervals (2nd picture). It’s remarkable that I can send texts and even tweets with that device from basically anywhere in the world. Not to mention the internet aboard the ship which I am using to post this blog. I am grateful that we can have this connectivity in order to share our discoveries in real time with folks back home.

Discoveries such as these two super-stoked individuals on our #AntarcticSeaweedGradients team: Julie Schram and Alex Lowe (3rd picture). Can you feel the excitement we feel about casting away for Antarctica?

One of the final steps before we left port today was moving the Zodiacs with the knuckle crane and securing them on deck (4th picture) for the crossing. In about 10 days, we’ll be using one of these as a dive boat. I watch all activities related to our dive ops very closely!

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Introducing the ship...

The next exciting milestone was getting to go down on the docks and visit the ship for the first time. We will be living in and working from the ARSV Laurence M Gould, called “LMG” or “the Gould” for the next ~7 weeks (1st picture).

I really enjoy ships. I grew up taking the Alaska Marine Ferries around SE Alaska, and stepping aboard the LMG brings some nostalgia. There are complicated design schematics everywhere (2nd picture), and so many cool nooks and crannies on board to discover. There are some places I won’t get to, but the culture of the ship is such that it’s totally OK to explore most areas as long as you are alert and following signage.

The LMG is pretty awesome; the crew is legit. I like pretending that we’ve boarded the USS Enterprise (Star Trek TNG fan here) of our time. OK, so it’s not quite the fastest ship in the world’s fleet, but trust me there are some parallels. I’ve been searching pretty hard, but so far I haven’t found the holodeck on the LMG. The closest thing so far is the exercise room (3rd picture).

Not surprisingly, there are at least a couple other Star Trek fans aboard... for example I’m happy to learn that my PhD student Ross Whippo even has a felt finger puppet of Geordi La Forge, the TNG Chief Engineer. Check out his twitter feed (@RossWhippo) and his hashtag #PolarLaForge to see photographic proof of Geordi supervising engineering tasks aboard the LMG!

I am sharing room 105 with one of my Co-PI’s on the NSF project, Prof. Andrew Klein, from Texas A&M University. It’s a little tight, but it’s functional. I’m on the top bunk and I’m happy to report that I can look out the porthole and see where the water meets the horizon while lying in my bunk (4th picture).

In future posts we’ll cover the mess hall and the lounge, and provide more details on life and work aboard the ship. For now I have to go help ‘load freshies’ (fresh foods/veg) onto the ship.

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Travel, orientation, logistics...

We’ve transited to Chile! We had a ~50 hour journey from Coos Bay to Punta Arenas. The last couple of days have been a tiring yet satisfying swirl of cramped necks, new foods, and ever building anticipation.

Punta Arenas (PA) is a launch-off point for the US Antarctic Program (USAP) operations on the Antarctic Peninsula. We were met at the airport by USAP personnel, and all logistics of getting through customs, through the airports, to the hotels, and eventually down to the ship were handled for us (1st picture). This is a very different experience from traveling for fun on your own! The folks involved in the USAP are such a well-oiled machine of logistical operations!

On our first full day in PA, we went to a statue where it is customary to rub the toe for good luck in the crossing of the Drake, which will be in a couple of days (2nd picture). I put some serious effort into that foot rub.

Next up was the warehouse, where we get issued the cold weather outdoor gear. The USAP doesn’t just let you show up with your own stuff, which may or may not work as well as it needs to. It’s important to try everything on (3rd picture: Alex, Ross, and Sabrina). It was pretty fun.

Scientists who will be on the cruise with us are pouring into the warehouse and the ever-growing piles of gear are truly something to behold (4th picture).

In my next post I’ll introduce you to the ship! FYI – there will be several Star Trek references, so prepare yourself.

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Yesterday our group teamed up with Paul Cziko and Lisa Munger for a couple of training dives up at Clear Lake, Oregon (the first picture: Ross, Lisa, Aaron, Julie, Paul). Clear lake is up in the Cascades at ~3000 ft elevation. It stays really cold and usually has great visibility underwater - divers call this 'sweet vis'. We had ~50 ft vis in much of the lake.

The water temp in Clear Lake is ~4 deg C (~39 deg F), which is still pretty "warm" (sarcastic air-quotes voice) compared to the temp we expect to encounter in a couple of weeks when we get to the Antarctic Peninsula, where we expect ~-1 deg C (~30 deg F). Since this will be my first time diving in Antarctica, all the experience I can find locally is welcome! In addition to the nice drysuit and super warm undergarment, we are diving dry-hoods and face masks as well (see the second picture of Ross in the Algae). This takes a little getting used to.

Paul and Lisa are University of Oregon researchers who were in Antarctica diving at McMurdo last year. Paul established the McMurdo Oceanic Observatory (check out their website and twitter for more info: https://twitter.com/MOOAntarctica)..) The UO currently has 5 Antarctica divers! Nifty.

I had never done a SCUBA dive in a lake before - a few things surprised me: there were these really strange coldwater seeps at the bottom of the lake (see the third picture - the dip in topography, me in the foreground and Ross down by the seep), and there was a lot of different algae and aquatic plant life (fourth picture - algae growing on a downed tree). We also saw some diving ducks that were swimming down from the surface, eating little critters in the algae on the bottom, and then swimming back up to the surface. So, there were a lot of ducks in that lake at the same time. I ended up eating duck for dinner in Eugene later as well, so we had duck(s) at least 3 ways.

By coincidence, the first dive of the day was my 800th career dive, and Ross's 700th career dive! It was a special way to hit a milestone!

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I'm Alex Lowe, a postdoctoral researcher with the Smithsonian MarineGEO project and a research diver. I first met a number of our team members (Julie, Maggie, Chuck and Jim) at Palmer Station in 2006, when I was working with the Long-term Ecological Research Project there. I started diving with Aaron and Ross in 2010 at the Friday Harbor Labs (FHL) in Washington state. In the first picture, I'm showing off the gear required for polar diving while Ross and I were on a trip to Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, Canada with the Vancouver Aquarium (Spoiler: Lots of insulation and lots of weight). The black and white picture is from a scientific diving course Aaron and I taught at FHL - we guided students through many research projects related to underwater vegetation. Returning to the Antarctic Peninsula (this time to dive!) is a dream come true and the culmination of many great collaborations.

In our work together, we have explored food webs in the seaweed forests in the San Juan Islands and the Palmer Station area. We follow the sources and fate of biomass produced by seaweeds as it moves through the ecosystem. As seaweeds photosynthesize and grow, they take up carbon dioxide from the water. When they die or get consumed, much of that carbon is released back into the water through respiration - the uptake and release of CO2 causes changes in the pH of the water, as we have seen from global ocean acidification, but that is also happening at smaller scales. The importance of carbon to food webs and seawater pH makes for a natural connection between these two different fields of research - a connection I am exploring in my current research at the Smithsonian.

I am excited to survey the biological community along the peninsula and learn about the food webs supported by Antarctic seaweeds. For scientists, comparing similar habitats in different environments is a valuable step in understanding how those habitats function now and in the future. This work is a great opportunity to collect additional data about the fluctuations of pH, dissolved oxygen, light and temperature while we are there. I will do this using the data loggers in the last picture. We can relate these glimpses of pH and oxygen to the physical and biological changes along the peninsula.

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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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