Discovering Antarctica's Invisible Forest

Latest update January 17, 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

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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