I had a very busy week getting the experiments started, with positive first results giving hope for a really productive visit. Up early today to test the result of acute temperature changes on heart function only to find that a water pump had failed during the night and the fish were dead – the last few of this particular species, and a waste of 4 days worth of surgery and readings trying to establish baseline activity. You can never rely on facilities in remote areas, which is why there are usually backups; in this case the backup was being repaired…..!

To top it all, IT problems meant I’ve been out of email contact with the world for a few days and the latest attempt at a fix didn’t work. Now it’s raining (global warming deniers take note?) – never a good thing in Antarctica as you can’t walk anywhere without slipping. All in all a pretty rotten day, and it’s not even breakfast time yet! Time to recall nice memories and move on to plan B (or should that be C, or D?).

Cape Petrel 'take off'
Antarctic (Southern) Fulmar ‘take off’ 

Time also to prepare for another fishing trip to replenish stocks, but not before we clean out those tanks!

Cleaning the tanks.
Cleaning the tanks.

 

As a reminder about how far we are away from anywhere, there is a friendly signpost in the middle of the station! In the background is Arthur Harbour, the building on the left is the aquarium where I spend most of my time, and the one the right is really important – it’s the pump house where we get seawater, not only for the fish tanks but (when processed!) to make coffee and flush the loos. Yes, the sky really is that colour, only David Attenborough gets to choose when he visits Antarctica for nice photos!

A friendly signpost in the middle of the station
A friendly signpost in the middle of nowhere

 

Towards the back of the station is the GWR building – standing for garage, workshop (on the ground floor) and recreation (first floor gym, lounge and bar). The open walkways allow access to all areas, as they prevent drift accumulation and easy clearing after heavy snowfalls.

The GWR (Garage, Workshop and Recreation) Building
The GWR building, Palmer Station

 

I’ve got my fish happily housed in their new accommodation now, plenty of running seawater and brash ice to hand in case the temperature rises above 0oC. Air temperature is surprisingly warm around here, so that is a danger, but the wind chill factor still runs between -10 and -20oC so some warm clothing is desirable for us endotherms!

New accomodation for the Icefish
New accomodation for the Icefish

 

Finally, we see the object of our quest, the amazing organ that is the icefish heart. The lack of respiratory pigments to help carry oxygen around the body means they need to compensate by pumping huge quantities of blood (we’ll be finding out just how much) through large blood vessels (we’ll be measuring how actively they can control organ perfusion). To orient you, the ventricle is on the right with a white bulbus arteriosus at the end, while on the left the large yellow bag is the atrium. Fish have two heart chambers, rather than the mammalian four, but their function is similar. However, the atria in mammals are tiny relative to the ventricles; here they are HUGE!! If there are no respiratory pigments, why is the heart not colourless? Answer in a later blog….

A glimpse of an icefish heart
A rare view of an Icefish heart

 

We said farewell to shipmates aboard the LMG, who are heading back up the Peninsula to retrieve autonomous recording devices (‘gliders’) that have been roaming the seas on a preset pattern to test water composition. They will then go over the robot’s tracks doing CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth) casts to check the validity of results. We were all invited to decorate styrofoam cups that will be sent down to 3000m (and suitably crushed!) as mementos.

Assembling the labs requires patience, everything takes much longer than anyone imagines this far from home with none of the familiar surroundings, tools or advice to hand. You learn to adapt what is available: we needed individual ‘homes’ for fish to recover in after surgery to implant tiny wires under the skin so we can record their heart rate, and used surplus drain pipes cut in half; very cosy!

Some of the birds are familiar to us here, but we said goodbye to wandering albatross and petrels that flocked to the ship while we were fishing; hopefully we shall meet again on the return journey! The local seal population is making an appearance, so I’ll post some pics of them soon.

A glimpse of a Cape petrel
A Cape petrel following the boat

 

If you are interested in the sort of boat that is used for research and supply, a picture below gives some information about the LMG. To catch a view of the weather down here (not as pleasant as back home, by all accounts!) you can pick up the webcam and other info for Palmer Station at the United States Antarctic Program portal: http://www.usap.gov/

LMG Boat used for the expedition
Laurence M Gould background

 

LMG Boat
LMG used for the expedition

We didn’t mange to see much of the outer islands as we were shrouded in mist, but a glimpse of the first iceberg is always exciting and draws the cameras, even if conditions are not good for photographs.

There is now a small collection of icefish in the tanks, and we have to keep a close eye on water temperature and quality – the delicate beasts succumb rapidly if they get above 0oC and tank ammonia levels rise.

Glimpse of the first iceberg
Glimpse of the first iceberg

 

A small collection of Icefish
A small collection of Icefish

 

Finally get a glimpse of the Antarctic Peninsula, and a beautiful sunrise as a bonus; stunning beauty that photos can never do justice, although the clatter of shutters from the top deck attest to the fact that we all try!

A beautiful sunrise and glimpse of the Antarctic Peninsula
A beautiful sunrise and glimpse of the Antarctic Peninsula

 

At last we arrive at Palmer Station, rousing the crew from their Sunday brunch to help tie the boat up. Warm greetings await those of us for whom this will be home for a few months…and of course a day of safety briefings!

Warm greetings from Palmer Station
Warm greetings from Palmer Station

At last we get our turn! We use relatively short tows with quite small nets, as we want to minimise the stress response and damage to the fish as the get churned up in the cod-end. We also fish over sandy bottoms where there are not too many rocks to catch the (very expensive) nets – can’t afford to lose these!

It’s quite a tricky operation to shoot and retrieve heavy nets, and the metal otter boards used to keep the moth open while fishing, when they swing madly out of sync with the boats rolling. We had a few attempts before the captain cancelled the rest of the planned trawls, as waves reached 2-3m with winds of >30knots.

Quite rightly, as it’s pretty dangerous out there, but frustrating for us as we have to steam to base to keep to schedule rather than hang around for the weather to improve – meaning we’re starting off experiments with far fewer fish than desirable.

The experiments begin
The experiments begin
Our latest catch
Our latest catch

Life on board has settled into a bit of a routine, for many a case of ‘hurry up and wait’ for the next thing to do. With 3 hearty meals a day provided it’s important to keep active, and most boats have a small gym to help. Any workout can be a challenge with the boat rocking to and fro: the rowing machine needs a particular timing to avoid working against the pitch, though with some practice it is possible to balance just fine! However, stabilising yourself while standing is also a good isometric workout – chunky thighs await those sailing these seas for any length of time.

My floating home
My floating home
Safety on board
Safety on board

We’re now starting to see some of the science done in transit (after another round of safety talks, of course!). The R/V costs about $30,000 a day to run, so the NSF want to make the most of crossing. Projects include a multi-year survey of seabird population, involving observations from the bridge from sunrise to sunset each day, checking species distribution and abundance. There is an oceanographic transect to see how the sea is mixed by the various circumpolar currents, using vertical images of temperature and salinity to map different masses of seawater. Plankton trawls, using fine mesh nets, are taken during day and night to observe vertical migration patterns (the krill, and fishes like myctophids undertake huge distances relative to their size to avoid predators in the day and feed at night). When all that is done we then head towards Palmer Station, with a detour to do some fishing for us (with bigger nets this time!) so we have some animals to work with when we arrive. More news about that next time!

Oceanographic transect
Oceanographic transect
Plankton trawls
Plankton trawls

We’re in the middle of the Drake Passage, and temperature has dropped markedly today (wind chill of -11oC). We have a following wind that is keeping us ahead of schedule, but the associated swells have increased so the tail end of the boat regularly gets swamped. Forecast is for this ‘mild’ phase to get worse overnight. Interesting times ahead!

We’re in the middle of the Drake Passage
We’re in the middle of the Drake Passage
Sea swells
Sea swells

A cancelled flight led to delays that meant it took 3 days travel to get to Chile from Leeds. Unfortunately, this meant I missed the Easter celebrations that I was looking forward to, but I did have the treat of a sunrise over the Andes on Easter morning going into Santiago.

Sunrise over the Andes on Easter morning
Sunrise over the Andes on Easter morning

I arrived at the hotel in Punta Arenas (port of departure) at 2am but had to be up by 9am to be kitted out with ECW (extreme cold weather gear) at the docks.

Arrived!
Arrived!

We had to be on the ship for the first of many safety meetings at 2pm, then had a night off! We sailed down the Straits of Magellan on the 7th at 3pm, with a gentle swell but impressive winds whipping white horses up.

On board - leaving Punta Arenas
On board – leaving Punta Arenas
The first of many safety meetings - 'abandon ship' briefing
The first of many safety meetings – ‘abandon ship’ briefing

The sea so far has been remarkably smooth though we are crossing into the dreaded Drake’s Passage, round Cape Horn, so expect that to change before long. The names of great explorers are everywhere: there was a Shackelton’s bar at hotel, where he stayed while trying to raise a rescue party for his crew left on Elephant Island, but you many not be so familiar with Laurence McKinley Gould, after whom this ship is named.

We have already had lots of visitors: minke whales, porpoises, white chin petrels, giant petrels and Antarctic fulmars.

Giant Petrel
Giant Petrel

 

Antarctic petrel
Antarctic petrel

Life on the boat is noisy – a constant hum of ventilation and the generator, with a thump-thump of engines resonating through steel decks and walls. There is a regular roll every 8-10 secs when underway (averaging 10 knots), which doesn’t quite rock you to sleep but does make you drowsy. I’ll fill you in about life on board next time. Meanwhile, it feels great to be on the waves again, and I am getting pretty excited about what lies ahead!

The start of ~ 48h journey to Punta Arenas (port of departure) didn’t go well: fog-bound in Leeds airport! Having spent 4 h in queues before the flight was cancelled, followed by a 6 h coach ride to Heathrow, then another 2 h queuing for flight reassignment for tomorrow but missing the only onward connection to PA…. so, in a days travel I managed a grand 200 miles; only another 9000 to go!

One thing going to remote areas teaches is to take travel problems as they come: on my first trip South I flew into the Falklands only to be told there was to be a fortnight delay as the ship had been diverted to other duties (I managed to duck that one by hitching a lift on another vessel), and flying from New Zealand often involved ‘boomerang’ flights (the Hercules aircraft only have enough fuel for a one-way trip so if the local weather deteriorates enroute the pilot swings round to head home to try again the following day). I’m not sure some of my fellow passengers understood how pointless it is to rant at the attendants, though.

To round it all off I lost a filling while chomping on a mint. Ah well, tomorrow is another day!