Holy Morale Trip, Batman!

We have a new contender for Best Day Ever!!

Yesterday, Amy, our office admin, came into the salad room and asked where Sarah was. I told her she was probably out cleaning her sandwich line because it was just after lunch, so Amy turned and headed out to talk with her. Not five minutes later, Amy came back into the salad room and asked if I wanted to go snowmobiling all day the next day with some scientists. I asked, “Oh my god yes, but…can I do that?” She laughed and said she had just checked to make sure Sarah was in good shape and could spare me and said that Todd had already signed off on it so instead of coming in to work at 0800 the next day, I’d need to report to the Crary Aquarium at 0730 in full ECW to assist Dr. Stacy Kim’s research group.

Her group, B-174, is working on a project called SCINI-Penguin, which focuses on the food web interactions of Adélie penguins, minke whales, and type C orca whales, all of which share crystal krill and silverfish as prey. Every year, we have an icebreaker come through to pave the way for cruise ships and the cargo vessel that hauls all our garbage off the continent (as well as depositing supplies necessary to get through the Antarctic winter). In the wake of the icebreaker come thousands of penguins and dozens of whales to feed on their prey that is exposed by the opening of the ice. B-174 is using a video and acoustic-capable remotely operated vehicle (or ROV) with environmental sensors to quantify the abundance and distribution of the phytoplankton, sea ice organisms, and targeted prey both before and after the ice breaker arrives to understand the effect of predation on the Ross Sea ecosystem. I would be helping them deploy their ROV, known as SCINI (Submersible Capable of under Ice Navigation and Imaging) as well as the tow package known as FATTI (Fluorometer and Acoustic Transducer Towable Instrument), under the sea ice in two different locations as part of their pre-icebreaker studies.

Needless to say, I was higher than a kite for the rest of the day, even though I know it means I probably won’t get to do Happy Camper since you really only get one special “trip” like this per season (we call them boondoggles). That night, I met an ANG friend out at Southern for his leaving drinks, which maybe turned out not to be the best idea since we wound up shutting down the bar, which in turn made getting up, dressed, and to the lab on time somewhat challenging.

Nevertheless, I made it by 0730 on the nose, was introduced to the research group, issued a helmet, and immediately began helping load equipment into the back of a truck to be carried down to the snowmobiles at the transition, which is the point where the land meets the frozen ocean. I rode down in the bed of the truck with Laughlin, with whom I’d be sharing a snowmobile. Most recently, Laughlin was living in San Jose, California, so we chatted about the Bay Area a bit. He’s primarily responsible for the electronic and software aspects of SCINI, as well as piloting.

Also going with us were Stacy, Marty, Clint, Ben, and Dan. Stacy is the Principal Investigator (PI) and leads the project. She’s a benthic ecologist (sea floor ecologist) who is actually focusing on pelagic (water column) ecology for this project. SCINI was developed in her lab and she has been overseeing all the diving, analysis, and general logistics. She’s based at Moss Landing Marine Labs in Northern California. Marty joins the SCINI team as an engineer and chemist, Clint is one of Stacy’s first year Master’s students, Ben is a biologist and Dan is their Sea Ice Safety Guide, resident Kiwi, and is essential to the team’s safety because through December and January, the sea ice is rapidly warming and breaking up on its own. In fact, the morning we were heading out, we had just received a station-wide email announcing that any travel on the sea ice required special permission from station management due to deteriorating conditions. And to make it even more exciting, it was cold, windy, and snowing rather heavily for this time of year…SO AWESOME.

The ride out to the first dive site was long but I absolutely loved it. Laughlin was able to really open up the throttle a couple times and I was glad he couldn’t see my goofy ear-to-ear grin. I’d never been on a snowmobile before but most of my friends know I love anything fast enough to do something stupid with, so this was right up my alley. Visibility wasn’t great given the wind and snow but, even still, I felt like I couldn’t open my eyes wide enough to take it all in. I was also surprisingly warm in my bunny boots, long underwear, ECW-issued windproof coveralls, thermal running top, giant hooded sweater, hat, three sets of gloves, and of course Big Red. I had also packed a bag with a book, music, reusable hand warmers, extra snacks (I’d gotten tipped off that this crew loves the trail mix and plain M&Ms), and my Leatherman.

Immediately on arrival at the first site, we jumped into action – a collapsible ice-fishing tent was expanded, with a folding table set up inside for all the computers and electronics. Three holes were drilled – one for an ice core sample, one for the navigation beacon, and one through which SCINI and FATTI would be deployed (and yes, as you can see, nerds have a sense of humour when naming their creations!). While the drilling was happening and samples of the ice and the water were being taken, we had an exciting moment, when Stacy was trying to clear the dive hole of ice using a ladle and she scooped up three little krill! Ben measured them and then put them into sample jars to be analyzed back in the lab. Meanwhile, I helped set up the nav beacon and untangled and laid out the tether that would be attached to FATTI (so we can haul them both back up through the hole, of course!).

The giant t of the nav pole rests on the surface of the ice with the rest submerged, sending signals to SCINI.

The giant T of the nav pole rests on the surface of the ice with the rest submerged, sending signals to SCINI.

It's a very long tether.

It’s a very long tether.

Then Ben and I did 100 snow measurements – one every stride or so from the dive hole, 50 in two opposite directions. Basically, we stuck a ruler in the snow until it hit ice and recorded how much snow there was. Once the engineers had checked all the systems and were ready for the dive, I helped them very very gently lower both SCINI and FATTI through the dive hole. It was actually quite impressive how efficient the team was at getting everything set up and done – you could tell they were quite practiced.

Scini and FATTI

Then it was downtime while Stacy and Laughlin performed transects of the ice to profile the ecology of that area. I got to duck in the tent from time to time and watch the cholorphyll levels fluctuate, watch the video feed coming back from SCINI and warm up a bit – now that we weren’t moving around, it was starting to get VERY cold.

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Also while the transect was being performed, I had my most exciting encounter to date – a lone Adélie penguin got curious and decided to check us out a little bit! We’re not supposed to approach them or get too close so I just stood very very still and let him (her?) come to me. It was a complete dream come true.

"Hey guys, whatcha doing?!"

“Hey! Hey guys! Whatcha doing?!”

He/she decides to investigate further...

Coming to investigate further…

Checking me out in my Big Red

Checking me out in my Big Red

Getting closer

Getting closer

Checking each other out.

Checking each other out.

I smile for the camera...

I look at the camera…

...and so does the penguin!

…and so does the penguin!

Once the transect was complete, we started breaking everything down and packing everything up, taking a quick break to beat up on Clint to get our blood moving – apparently I wasn’t the only one feeling the cold!

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Now that everyone’s blood was flowing again, we drove to a second location, not very far away, to do it all over again. In fact, Clint and Dan had gone ahead earlier to take snow measurements and drill the holes so we could get started more quickly. Unfortunately, they’d driven to the wrong site! So when we all pulled up behind them, Laughlin pointed this out and we took off again, going just a little bit further on down the “road”. Again, it was all hands on deck for set up but it was accomplished remarkably quickly (at least in my opinion). After all the moving around to get things set up, I was quite toasty warm again so when I was given the option to go home early or stay and help break down after the second transect, I opted for the latter – I was hoping to see more penguins!

With Dan and Ben in the tent doing the driving and monitoring, and Marty and Laughlin headed home early with any equipment we no longer needed (the drills and samples), Stacy, Clint and I stretched out in some folding chairs on the solid ocean for the closest thing you’ll get to “beach time” down here.

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And lo and behold if seven little Adélies didn’t come out to play! It was truly awesome…one of those moments in life where you catch yourself holding your breath because you think if you exhale the moment will end. They are every bit as awesome as you’d expect and, of course, very bold since we’re not recognized as a natural predator.

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Then it was packing up time again and we were headed home. We hit a little snag on the way home when one of the boxes that Stacy was towing came loose and spilled its contents all over the “road” but fortunately it didn’t contain anything too delicate and Ben and I were bringing up the rear so we stopped and had everything mostly re-gathered and packed by the time Stacy realized what had happened and turned around. We re-secured the box and made it back to Town with no further incidents.

I was EXHAUSTED. It is absolutely true what they say about how you burn so much more energy working in cold weather climates because your body is working extra hard to keep you warm and functioning. I have no idea how the people who work outside every day do it because all I wanted to do was climb into a scalding hot shower, which I did, and then fall into bed, which I didn’t. Instead I put on my yoga pants and Aran sweater (read: most comforting clothes on earth) and went and got food. A LOT of food because even though we’d had sandwiches packed for us while we were in the field, I was STARVING. Thank goodness it was nacho night in the galley. I had dinner with another team of scientists – these ones have a project at the Long Duration Balloon Facility (known colloquially as LDB) but that, as Kipling would say, is another story – and went off to find my friends to show them the pictures of the penguins.

Seriously, MOST AMAZING DAY EVER. The End.

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2 responses to “Holy Morale Trip, Batman!

  1. Two questions. 1) The electronics (esp the laptop) didn’t have any battery trouble operating out in the cold? 2) Where the hell did all those penguins come from?

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