Ever since I was offered the opportunity to go on the FjordEco cruise to the West Antarctic Peninsula, I have had endless thoughts about it rush through my mind. From what I remember from last summer when Maria Vernet, leading the phytoplankton ecology team, asked me if I would like to go to Antarctica on a research cruise with her, I blurted out “yes, of course!” right away. I had never been on a research cruise before and I was so excited to have this opportunity to finish off my undergraduate career, making it much better-rounded.
I didn’t know what to expect; I had never thought about Antarctica as a place that I would end up visiting. As I began to tell my family and friends about this opportunity, neither they nor I could believe what I was saying. It didn’t hit me until I was packing and on my way to Punta Arenas, Chile (where the R.V.I.B. Nathaniel B. Palmer sails from) that this was actually happening.
Being part of team phyto and the FjordEco project has met and surpassed every expectation I had thought up since last summer. Every single person I have met here is absolutely passionate about what they do, and always happy to teach and explain their methods and thought processes to anyone curious enough to ask. With the amount of work that any scientific research initiative entails, you sort of have to be passionate and in love with your work.
For TeamPhyto, I have been assigned numerous tasks, most of which I have had little previous experience with. I am responsible for sampling daily CTDs (an instrument on a frame with 24 Niskin bottles that measures conductivity, temperature, depth, among other parameters and collects water at certain depths), filtering the water samples collected through various filters that catch microalgae, and processing these filters in order to analyze the pigments (e.g. chlorophyll) found in them. Pigments can be used as a proxy for the abundance and health of an algal bloom. Understanding algal blooms is important because they are primary producers and support higher trophic levels in the food chain. In the Antarctic fjords, members of higher trophic levels include krill and whales. Diverse and abundant species in a certain area, like those seen in the fjords of the west Antarctic Peninsula, signal high productivity, and this observation on a previous cruise is in part how the FjordEco project was born.
Now that the cruise is coming close to an end, I realize that I have learned an insane amount in just five short weeks. All the procedures that seemed intimidating when they were first assigned to me have now become a routine. I got a first-hand glimpse at how an oceanographic research cruise plays out, and was lucky enough to have enjoyed the captivatingly beautiful scenery of Andvord Bay. I feel like the luckiest undergraduate in the world.
Written by Diana Gutierrez Franco.
Aquatic Biology undergraduate student, University of California Santa Barbara