The FjordEco project is more than an interdisciplinary oceanographic survey. The field plan also incorporates glaciology and meteorology into a comprehensive biological and physical oceanographic program. Key components of this complementary science are the installation of weather stations and glacier cameras (later detailed by Martin Truffer) on the shores surrounding Andvord Bay. We have also used these opportunities to expand the biological sampling to include sea ice algae and benthic food sources. Shore excursions are special treats because they allow us to step onto the Antarctic continent, unlike Palmer Station that is located on Anvers Island. Not only is Neko Harbor a site of our first weather station and samples of opportunity it is also a popular destination for the cruise ships as it is home to a nesting population of Gentoo penguins.
Installation of the weather station as well as sample collecting required several trips to Neko Harbor. To avoid introducing invasive organisms, we are required to scrub and wash our boots prior to boarding the Zodiac as a preventative measure. A dedicated team for the weather station unloaded roughly a thousand pounds of gear to shore. The majority of this was battery packs for the weather station that we hope will provide temperature, wind speed and direction, snow depth and barometric pressure using a satellite link over the next 2 years. Additional science crews went to collect algae and penguin feces for stable isotope analysis. Conditions are always changing here and some groups had light snow one day followed by freezing winds and ice, while my group had sun and scattered clouds.
The three scientific teams had very different goals to accomplish. The weather station team cleared snow and ice to affix the platform, lugged equipment up the hill, assembled the station and ensured the gear was sampling properly and transmitting the data to a lab in Wisconsin. The biological team combed the shoreline for macroalgae, kelp and intertidal invertebrates that might be a source of food for the benthic communities, and also collected the green and red hued penguin feces. The final team of marine technicians from the Gould watched for a change in weather and the ice. Regardless of your assigned duty, it was all too easy to become enthralled with the comings and goings of the Gentoo penguins that inhabited the rocky outcrops that would soon become a nursery.
The characteristic waddle of the penguin made for slow but steady travel over the snow, but if that became too tiresome they would flop down on their bellies and propel themselves with a push of the feet. Throaty calls reverberated off the glaciers as penguins announced important news intelligible only to the other rookery inhabitants. Sometimes they were seen marching with military precision while others wandered aimless and alone. As charming as the land movements were, it was the transition between land and sea that was most entertaining. Penguins coming ashore would surface amid the small chunks of ice that lined the shore’s edge, and for a half meter and 3 seconds, perform the oddest of stumbling movements to make the transition to land. From land to sea, however, all it took was a brief step and a short hop and the Gentoo glided away underwater sleeker than any human could ever hope to be.
All too soon our alert marine techs warned us about a change in the wind and with haste we made for the Zodiac so that our day trip did not become an overnight campout. Ice was quickly moving in our direction down the fjord and all other projects had to be curtailed so that we could make our way through the narrowing passage into open water. We took up positions ready to fend off chunks of ice that threatened to impede our progress and our pilot deftly moved us through the ice floes into the bay and back towards our floating home. There may be more opportunities to go ashore as the science continues but the welcome opportunity to stretch our legs came at a perfect time. Appropriately, our wonderful excursion climaxed as we were halfway to the ship. A single humpback whale blew twice and dove beneath the waves with a flip of its fluke casually entering the indigo depths; easily penetrating the productive ecosystem of Andvord Bay that for us is still a mystery to solve.
Written by Clifton Nunnally.