Discovering Antarctica's Invisible Forest

Latest update January 22, 2019 Started on November 2, 2018

Hiding within the icy waters of Antartica are a group of creatures so diverse, yet so small, you need a microscope to truly appreciate their wonder. This "Invisible Forest" -full of plant-like phytoplankton - provide food to all other animals living within fjords along the Antarctic Peninsula. This is one of the fastest warming regions in the world, and researchers have partnered with tourists in a citizen science effort to understand how this diverse community is responding to freshwater input from melting glaciers.

November 2, 2018
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In The Field

Today we had an epic encounter with more than 20 humpback whales in Wilhelmina Bay! We took a science sample too and found what look like krill fecal pellets (?) Lots of Corethron seen in the area too (type of diatom). Whenever we see whales, it provides an excellent opportunity to educate about the marine world, these massive mammals, and the food they rely on.

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Many passengers who aren't able to get in the Science boat, can still learn about the FjordPhyto project through the "Science Workshops" we put on in the Panorama Lounge. We typically take an hour out of the afternoon, for instance if weather is bad, a landing site is canceled, or we are in transit to some far-off destination. During these talks we demonstrate all the equipment used in the 'Science Zodiac' to collect oceanographic measurements and phytoplankton and we even share stories and videos from our time on Antarctic research vessels. Many of the tools used in this project have been adapted for easy use and engagement of non-scientists. The crowd seems to really enjoy a sneak peek into the life of research ships and the sheer size of research operations and equipment onboard.

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Rescue mission today.

Originally we were going to head south to visit the Russian Station Vernadsky. Upon looking at reports, we decided there was too much ice to navigate and altered our plans. However, a couple hours later we received a distress call from a small yacht named Icebird. They had engine failure and were getting squeezed into the ice at Vernadsky.

Off we went! South for the rescue mission. The Ocean Nova is one of the few ice-strengthened hulls in the fleet and Captain Barrios was down for the challenge.

We managed to hook a tow line the small yacht and clear a path for them. Seven hours later, we ended the tow north and waved farewell. Not sure what happend to them next. Hopefully they got the repairs they needed!

Many people asked if this was a normal operation. Nope!

I love Antarctica because its extreme nature inspires humanity to cooperate and work together.

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Came across Orca - Type B - today. These animals are no longer associated with the terminology of Killer Whale because each type feeds on different things. Type B tend to feed on ice seals and have a yellowish hue which is from a coating of diatoms (Cocconeis) on their skin. Cocconeis is a pennate diatom that was first documented in 1920. Recently, NOAA Scientists had tagged 15 Orca at one point and followed an individual 5,000 miles to the warmer waters of Brazil. Upon returning to Antarctica the whale’s yellow hue had disappeared leading to the idea that perhaps Orca head to the warmer tropics for a spa skin treatment.


Land in sight! Dark rocks jutting out of the sea mark the end of our Drake passage crossing. First stop: the Shetland Islands.

Good thing it was over because half-way through the two day journey someone really wanted to get off and make a landing. Looking at a map, we explained there was no way to do that. We were one day in, and one day to go. Committed. To the force of the Southern Ocean.

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Half-way through the Drake, things picked up to a Beaufort scale 6-8 (look it up! Over 40 knot winds, ship moving at 5 kts).

Gave my first lecture on phytoplankton and yes, immediately puked after. Resume skill?!

As much as I get seasick and would like to get off this roller coaster, a part of me enjoys experiencing the power of the Southern Ocean. Fastest moving body of water in the world!

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We are underway! Departed at 1am this morning. We have 620 miles to cross, moving at 9.9 knots. So far the weather is looking good!

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Today we sailed to Ushuaia, Argentina to pick up our excited passengers.

We then headed back to Puerto Williams to refuel the ship. Got in around 9:30pm and walked around the small town one last time. It took us about 3-4 hours to fill, and we set off from port ~1am!

To the Drake!

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Because Antarctica is so remote its really good to have emergency skills in case of worst case scenarios. Before embarking the ship we spent a day building that tool set. Activities included: How to flip an over turned Zodiac, how to react if you get stuck underneath, how to climb out of the water, how to tie knots, how to safely lead hikes and how to be situationally aware for people who might not be comfortable traversing challenging terrain.

Incredibly valuable training for Polar Guides who operate in such extreme environments. The water temperatures in Antarctica can range -1.9C to 2C, quite chilly leaving minimal time to react. If we feel comfortable knowing how to respond in those situations, we can hopefully feel comfortable helping others and getting ourselves out of a bad situation!

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We left Punta Arenas early in the morning to board our small flight to Puerto Williams to meet the ship. A quick hop, skip and jump less than an hour. Puerto Williams is a very small naval town but growing rapidly, with nearly 3000 people now. This stop gives us a chance to stretch our legs, refuel the ship, and do some outdoor emergency trainings.

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Ship life in Antarctica doesn't involve long distance running, so I made sure to sneak in a couple miles before we board the Ocean Nova tomorrow. Once I’m onboard, I’ll be taking advantage of the gym complete with weight set, spin bikes and elliptical!

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Antarctica is one of the most spectacular places on Earth, in my opinion.

To get to the peninsula, I must cross the infamous Drake Passage, a 620 mile (1000 km) journey from the tip of South America. It’s around a two-day sail from the port towns of Punta Arenas (Chile), or Ushuaia (Argentina), to the South Shetland Islands.

These islands make up the first stop nearest the peninsula. Some tour operators offer flights across the Drake for those who don’t want to brave the stormy waters and experience ‘the Drake Shake’. Despite being an Oceanographer, I get very seasick. Yet, that hasn’t deterred me from embracing some of the roughest open ocean and exploring all it has to offer.

I will be on the peninsula for two trips during the months of January and February – the southern hemisphere’s summer - crossing the Drake three times. During this time, it will never truly get dark. Instead there will be a prolonged period of magical twilight, sunset blending into sunrise, that lasts for several hours and makes for excellent photography opportunities. But I’m not here just for the photos.

I will first be onboard Antarctica 21’s Ocean Nova as Scientist and Lecturer conducting the FjordPhyto Citizen Science project I designed with my advisor, Dr. Maria Vernet, and polar guide experts Bob Gilmore and Annette Bombosch of the Polar Collective.

The second trip, I will be onboard the Akademik Ioffe with Cheesemans’ Safaris. I will be coordinating citizen science projects as well as running FjordPhyto. This trip will have a scientific focus on marine mammals, in partnership with the American Cetacean Society.

During these next couple of days, I will be spending time in Punta Arenas meeting the Antarctica 21 team and prepping for embarkation for the first expedition on the Ocean Nova.

Its a great group of diverse backgrounds and talents. I can't wait to set sail!

I wrote a little bit more about Antarctica and the history if you'd like to check out the post on our FjordPhyto website:


The day has finally arrived to head south for the Antarctic season. Now, I can let myself feel the excitement about the adventure to come! Thank goodness everything fit well in my bags: 1 for personal clothing, 1 for carry-on, and 1 for SCIENCE! In total I was porting nearly 100 lbs. Between the camera, laptop, books, and science gear, it adds up quickly. If anyone has tips on how to pack light as a polar scientist, I'm all ears! Luckily, the two tour companies I'm sailing with provide all the really heavy Extreme Cold Weather gear like boots, waiters, and overcoats.

Im originally from Seattle, Washington and was up there for the holidays visiting friends and family. Because my lovely mother watches my dog while I'm on long journeys, it made sense to fly out of Seattle instead of driving all the way back down to San Diego (where I attend school at Scripps Institution of Oceanography).

I left the rainy Emerald City at 9am and spent 17 hours in flight - Seattle to LA to Santiago (Chile) to Punta Arenas (Chile) - arriving at 3pm January 10th. Flights were without incident and I mostly slept or worked on the lectures I plan to present to passengers while exploring the peninsula. Customs never likes the looks of this big black industrial box. It always gets opened and they always worry about whats inside. I'm considering switching over to a normal looking wheely bag to avoid this hassle in the future. "Its JUST for science education," I say. They give me a look, then let me go on my way.

Expedition Background

It has been a busy year in the Vernet Lab at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego. Graduate student Allison Cusick and Dr. Maria Vernet have put together kits of science gear to hand out to tour operators visiting the Antarctic Peninsula. During the months of November - March, passengers visiting the region participate in the FjordPhyto citizen science project to collect phytoplankton samples that will allow researchers to better understand how these microscopic organisms are responding to melted glacial water in these rapidly changing polar regions.

Learn more about the project and check out our posted blogs at


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