Latitude: 16° 24.73' N Longitude: 110° 25.05' W
Life at sea is full of surprises! As we move further south, I have been lucky enough to see sea turtles, flying fish, and even a few sea birds during our transit. The vastness of the Pacific gives me valuable perspective on the expansive habitat of Earth’s many marine organisms. The blue sky and rolling wake of the boat stretch for miles above deep stretches of Pacific open ocean. Few scientists have the opportunity to visit Antarctic waters, and even fewer have the fortune to accompany the vessel from the states all the way to Antarctica. However, our fortune breeds some boredom and now blazing heat as we have just crossed the equator yesterday!
To escape the heat and stay productive the Kocot lab has been training to use the macro-photography station that we procured for this trip. As our organisms of interest are often measured in micrometers or millimeters rather than centimeters or meters, obtaining high quality images can be difficult. Thus, we utilize high powered microscopes and specialized camera equipment. However, without specimens to test our skills as amateur macro-photographers we have gotten creative. A leftover piece of baby corn from the galley, or a dead beetle from the bow gives us ample subject matter to tinker with our setup.
Now, thanks to ET (electronics technician) Alex Brett, we won’t have to start careers in vegetable photography! Alex cleans the filters of the boat’s oceanographic equipment every other day. These pre-filters trap planktonic animals that would otherwise interfere with the precise oceanographic measurements such as turbidity and are normally disposed of. To us in the Kocot lab they are the perfect subjects for practicing our photography skills! These small animals are just a slice of the diversity that passes under the NBP every day. I have no doubt the Antarctic animals will be even more charismatic!
University of Alabama
Latitude: 16° 24.73' N Longitude: 110° 25.05' W
A little about me: I am a first year PhD student at Central Michigan University working in the Mahon lab. My research focuses broadly on phylogenetics of Antarctic Pycnogonids (aka Sea Spiders). When I decided to study biology, I never thought I would be lucky enough to participate in a research cruise to Antarctica! It still seems unreal to me that I am on the way there and I will admit to pinching myself to make sure I am not dreaming all of this.
Although we have been living on the Nathaniel B. Palmer since September 23rd, 2020, our crew has officially been out at sea for a little over a week now. This week has been full of adjusting to life at sea. Some of these adjustments include gaining our sea legs and getting used to the continuous motion of the boat moving with swells of the water, adjusting to the temperature changes as we continue to head south towards the Equator, and adjusting to life with a set amount of daily data (and soon to be almost no data). Most of us are used to having unlimited WiFi to connect our devices to and then going about our workday. This is the first time in many of our academic careers where we have had to worry about the amount of data that we are using. Many of us are learning how to ration out our data throughout the day so we still work efficiently during the day and be able to communicate to family and friends back home.
One of my favorite parts of being out at sea is the lack of light pollution in the sky. The stargazing on the bow at night is incredible (as long as it’s a clear night). It’s hard to put into words how beautiful the night sky is, but it is definitely something I know I will never forget. I can (and have) sat outside for hours looking at the sky and watching the stars without getting bored. Along with stargazing at night, I had my first experience with bioluminescent organisms! When we look at the waves coming off the bow of the boat at night, we are often able to see little blue flashes of bioluminescence in the water, which is pretty neat to see in person!
I also want to mention how cool the Nathaniel B. Palmer is to live on. The boat is 308ft long, with four decks, a Bridge and Ice Tower. There are five different lab spaces on the main deck, so there’s enough space for all the science work. The vessel also has a decently sized Galley and kitchen space (with many snacks and ice cream!), a gym, sauna, a conference room, a lounge on the 02 and 04 decks and multiple laundry rooms! We have two person cabins that each have their own bathroom and shower. We get three meals a day prepared for us, and the food has been really good so far. When it comes to field research vessels, the NBP one is an ideal one to spend a semester at sea aboard!
Central Michigan University
Latitude: 19° 17.60' N Longitude: 111° 45.92' W
The reality that I’m living on a boat and undergoing a literal voyage across three quarters of the globe to do research sampling in Antarctica during a pandemic has hit me numerous times a day for the last 3-ish weeks. Never in my wildest dreams had I expected to be invited on a research cruise to Antarctica. In fact, when I was approached over e-mail about it a few months ago, my response may have been, “WHAT.”
You see, prior to this cruise, I had never even slept on a boat!
I had no expectations for what life aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer would be, especially for the stretches of time during quarantine and transit. Talking with the PIs, my science crew teammates, and the ASC (Antarctic Support Contract) crew has prepared me for things like what it will be like when the ship is breaking ice, how sampling will be conducted, and what it might be like going through the Drake passage.
Fascinating to me are all the various habits we’ve all had to pick up. For instance, keeping doors closed/properly latched, storing all personal items in cabinets, thinking about how spilled liquids must be contained, and locking the watertight doors (that lead outside) behind you. Other aspects of life aboard the vessel are equally interesting. Going out on the bow to observe flying fish or see the Milky Way is a great way to break up or end the day. Being many miles offshore with only the ship lights, we are able to see the Milky Way, constellations, and stars that make up the night sky, usually hidden due to city light pollution.
As for sampling once we make it to Antarctica, my specialty is on phylum Bryozoa (AKA moss animals), a group of mostly marine filter-feeding, colonial animals. Most of my fieldwork experience is in habitats close to shore, such as floating docks and tide pools. I’ve identified bryozoan species for a few projects in a few various parts of the world and I’m so excited to add Antarctica to that list!
Collections Manager, Non-molluscan Invertebrates
North Carolina Museum of Natural History
Latitude: 30° 52.98' N Longitude: 117° 15.25' W
So far… We have prepared, packed, self-isolated (14 days), quarantined (19 days), passed not 1, not 2, but 3 (yes, 3!) COVID tests, secured our equipment, and now (finally!) we have departed Port Hueneme (PTH) on the Nathaniel B. Palmer (NBP). From California, we are headed south to Punta Arenas, Chile (PA) where we will resupply and refuel for our trip to Antarctica. We have been quarantined in PTH for just over two weeks where we have been able to get acquainted with our new home for the next few months while it is not moving. While in quarantine, we have kept our masks on and socially distanced whenever possible. We are currently in a full steam to PA for about 4 weeks. It was nice at PTH because we had been able to contact family, friends, loved ones, and see our beloved critters that we had to leave behind (both furry and otherwise) with relatively normal means. While we were at PTH, we saw some of the famous California fog that creeps over the coast in the afternoon and sometimes lingers on nearby vessels (see eerie photo). Some of us have also been having an arts and crafts time each day to relax and sometimes familiarize ourselves with the creatures we’ll see in Antarctica (crinoid drawing).
It is a little odd, but the six months before our departure (I typically refer to them as the COVID times) helped prepare us for the over two months we will spend aboard the NBP. If you think about it, we spent several months barely going anywhere and being isolated from people we would normally see daily. Fast forward to the present, we have been fortunate enough to participate in this incredible opportunity to board a ship with strangers (for some of us) and embark on this journey to a continent few get to visit. In PTH, we were able to unpack and stow equipment for travel which resulted in a lot of questions to the people who have been on the ship and to Antarctica before because most of us have not. The stowing of equipment forced some of us to take a short knot-tying course with the help of those more experienced. After we collect samples in Antarctica, we will ship them back to the states in fancy coolers that we bring to far below freezing temperatures with the use liquid nitrogen (Kyle and Jess with their scientific cauldron). We have also been breaking up the workdays in quarantine playing card games and watching movies in the lounge.
A little more about me: I just finished my PhD at Texas A&M University at Galveston, where I focused on the ecology of the bearded fireworm. I exposed the worms to low oxygen conditions to look at how they responded. If you’re curious about that, please let me know because it is one of my favorite topics. Currently, I am working on previously collected data from an Antarctic brittle star as a postdoctoral researcher in Dr. Ken Halanych’s Lab at Auburn University. I am also working on identifying animals from photo transects collected in the Southern Ocean during previous cruises. In the past, I have focused on annelids (worms) in the Gulf of Mexico and southeast Atlantic Ocean, so I am VERY excited to learn about all these new animals in this new (and very cold) ecosystem (check out the seafloor photo with echinoderms).
Last night, we had our first sunset at sea on our southbound steam, and it was definitely one to remember.
Dr. Candace J. Grimes
When I decided to be a marine biologist at the age of 10, I knew it would involve playing with organisms that live in mud, but I did not anticipate Antarctica! Commonly known as comma shrimp, cumacean crustaceans are found throughout the world’s marine benthos, but not many people study them. Studying cumaceans has allowed me to travel to many places in the world, from above the Arctic circle in Norway to New Zealand, normally with plenty of time to prepare. In contrast, the process of joining this cruise was a whirlwind, with 3 days to prepare before starting the in-home quarantine process. Luckily, finding a microbe-sitter for my sourdough starter didn’t take long. Getting to San Francisco and starting the quarantine process was actually a relief, despite the covid testing. However, now I will be doing two things I have long wanted, but never expected: crossing the equator on a ship, and going to the Antarctic. I am looking forward to getting to know the other scientists on board, learning more about many other groups of invertebrates, and of course collecting many wonderful colorful cumaceans!
Dr. Sarah Gerken
University of Alaska Anchorage
I have been fortunate in my career to have participated in or to lead over 20 scientific research cruises. This one is different… and it is because of COVID-19.
The planning and organization leading up to a cruise is an intense process. Being at sea there is no possibility to just pop into the store, be it marine hardware or grocery, to get what you need. So, the packing and planning for a typical cruise is very deliberate and organized. When we were asked to deploy in September instead of November, the entire packing process was accelerated and squeezed into a just a few months. But the process got completed, 20 participants cleared the medical requirements to deploy so that we have a full scientific complement, and here we are sitting on the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer in Port Hueneme California.
The timeframe for embarking was pushed up significantly because we are sailing to Antarctica from California, not the usual Punta Arenas Chile. Not surprisingly, most countries are not keen on foreign nationals (aka potential COVID risks) flying into the country. This added over a month of steaming and two port stops before heading to the Antarctic. Oh, and there is also the 14 days of quarantining on the ship before ever leaving port in the first place. Currently, we are waiting on the results from the second of three rounds of COVID testing which took place after transiting on the ship from San Francisco to Port Hueneme. (We were happy that all were negative for the first COVID test in San Francisco). When we docked yesterday at an otherwise empty pier in Port Hueneme, the doctor had rolled up on the dock in a small pickup truck and had hand-carriable tool cases filled with swabs for a nasal COVID test, vials and personal protective equipment. One by one we filed down the gangplank, off the boat, and got our brains tickled. We all cried, some of us more than others.
While we wait on the results of testing round 2, we started unpacking all the equipment that we so tediously organized and packed back at our home institutions. This is our last chance to make sure that we have everything we need. Again, this time it is different. If we have forgotten something, we cannot just run off the ship while in port because we cannot risk being exposed to COVID-19. The US Antarctic program has an amazing support staff that can help us get items, but even if get things to the boat, they have to be quarantined for a few days to make sure no active virus can make it onto the boat. While sequestered, we are still taking all the needed precautions known to reduce the risk of transmission: wearing face masks, social distancing and washing hands. Only once we are out at sea, after more than two weeks of quarantining and three negative COVID tests, will be able to relax some of these measures.
Nevertheless, the science crew is excited, despite the bouts of anticipation and relief. The Kocot lab eagerly set up their microscopes in a lab where they will spend many hours sorting material, even though we are still many weeks away from sampling. Most of the researchers have brought analyses, papers or other work-related projects from home. During our time quarantining at Port Hueneme, which will last until October 8th, we will continue to prep the ship for science, but we will also finish up projects that we brought from home. One other point of excitement it the opportunity to sit and talk science with colleagues and banter ideas back and forth. After 6 months of COVID isolation, when most of our collegial interactions have been restricted to Zoom or WebEx, the in-person discussions will be welcome. Of course, there will be breaks for an occasional card game or some Dungeons & Dragons, or reading that book one has been putting off.
Dr. Ken Halanych
The packing has begun… am I overpacking? What am I forgetting? Will I really need that? Is there space for another bag of coffee? Do I have enough movies/games/books to keep me occupied in my down time?
One would think that after a number of years working on Antarctic research projects, I would be better prepared to pack for a trip. However, this trip is a little different. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot travel directly to Punta Arenas, Chile to board the research vessel. This time we have to fly to San Francisco, CA to board the ship and take it all the way south to Antarctica! This means spending nearly three months on the ship, non-stop!
Packing is challenging because we will go through so many different climates on our way to get to Antarctica… temperate, tropics, and then moving into the more polar regions. With a limited amount of baggage space, clothing choices are much more important this time for sure.
Additionally, I have to make sure that I have enough work to stay busy and productive during the trip until we get to our Antarctic field sites, along with making sure I have enough things (movies, books, music, games) to keep myself sane during the extensive amount of down time!
In terms of a timeline, we leave home on September 20, 2020 and we will board the ship sometime around September 24, 2020 in San Francisco, CA. From there we will travel to Port Hueneme, CA on September 25 and will stay there in quarantine until October 8, 2020. After this, we will head south for Punta Arenas, Chile where we are due to arrive on November 2, 2020. In Punta Arenas, we will be refueled and take on supplies and equipment. In order to maintain quarantine, no personnel from our teams will leave the ship while in port. After a few days, we will begin our trip across the Drake Passage to Antarctica to start our field work, with an estimated return date to Chile of December 15, 2020.
Dr. Andrew Mahon
Professor of Biology, Central Michigan University
When I started at Central Michigan University (back in 2011), I would have never imagined conducting microbial research on Antarctic benthic sediments. Joining a research expedition to Antarctica would have been unimaginable. It’s fun looking back to see that a friendly science conversation with Andy Mahon (who started at CMU at the same time) initiated this all off. Our original intention was not to find a collaborative research project, but to talk about science. While I was hearing words, like pycnogonid, for the first time, our conversation also mentioned sampling sediments for meiofauna. A few more conversations later, Andy and his collaborators (including Ken Halanych) offered to collect some sediment samples for my lab, which then generated new collaborative research ideas, new projects/manuscripts, and even successful (and a few unsuccessful) grant funding. Our current work will utilize metagenomics and metatranscriptomics, coupled with microcosm experiments, enzyme assays, and geochemical data to describe how microbes degrade complex organic matter in Antarctic sediments. The upcoming expedition will expand our samples collection from the Ross and Amundsen Sea to the Weddell Sea. I am excited for the upcoming opportunity to continue to explore microbial metabolism in sediments in Antarctica, and of course talking science during our expedition.
Don't forget to follow @Icy_Inverts_AU, @CMU_Antarctica, @kmkocot, @Geomicro_DRL and #IcyInverts on Twitter!
Dr. Deric Learman
Central Michigan University
From 20 September, 2020 to 18 December, 2020, our team of researchers will be sailing on the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer to sample marine invertebrates living in waters off Antarctica. Our team will consist of researchers from Auburn University, The University of Alabama, Central Michigan University, and other institutions. This research will help improve understanding of the biodiversity and evolutionary history of marine invertebrates living in Antarctic waters.
This will be my fourth Antarctic research cruise but it never gets old. I. AM. SO. EXCITED. Below are some of my favorite photos from cruise on the same ship that I joined in 2013.
Please check back here often for regular updates once our cruise begins and be sure to follow @Icy_Inverts_AU, @CMU_Antarctica, @Geomicro_DRL, @kmkocot, and #IcyInverts on Twitter!
University of Alabama