My first cruise experience with FjordEco TeamPhyto

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

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Marine technician Mackenzie Haberman deploys a CTD to collect water samples at different depths in the water column. Photo by Maria Stenzel.

Team Phyto

Team Phyto. Photo by Matt Pullen.


Iron in the waters of the WAP

Iron is one of the nutrients in seawater necessary for phytoplankton growth. Unlike other nutrients, iron is present at extremely low concentrations. This makes things difficult for both life in the ocean and the scientists trying to study it. Life in the ocean has developed strategies for acquiring iron just as trace metal oceanographers have for sampling it. Ironically, the difficulty for scientists is compounded by the fact that we sail on an iron-clad research vessel. This increases the likelihood of contaminating the samples. Trace-metal chemists have circumvented this issue by constructing a specially-designed clean room aboard the vessel, affectionately called the bubble, and collecting samples with metal-free bottles. With clean samples, we hope to better understand the iron cycling in a West Antarctic Peninsula fjord and how the abundant life in this region is sustained.

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Photo by Maria Stenzel.

Iron is the fourth most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, but is only present in trace concentrations (parts per billion) in the ocean. The reason why there is scarce iron in seawater is due to its low solubility in oxygenated water. Iron readily forms minerals when combined with oxygen and these minerals sink to the ocean floor where they are unavailable for life at the surface. This paradigm limits primary production in vast regions of the global ocean. Without organisms at the base of the food chain, larger fauna cannot be supported. This is not the case here in Andvord Bay, where plentiful krill and whales aggregate during the productive season.

In Andvord Bay, there are multiple sources of iron that are typical of a polar coastal environment. These include seafloor sediments, glacial meltwater and sediment plumes originating at the interface between the ice and bedrock, and iron advected by incoming water masses. In an effort to understand how life is sustained by these sources, we need to understand their reactivity and how long they remain available for biological use. This includes both their chemical reactivity and processing by bacterial activity. Here in Antarctica, we collect seawater, snow and ice to measure a suite of complimentary variables, including iron concentrations and form, and surveys of bacterial abundance and metabolism.

In addition to measuring seawater samples directly, we also set up a series of experiments to simulate different environmental conditions. Over the course of these experiments, we monitor phytoplankton and bacterial growth to capture a key step in the biogeochemical cycle of iron, remineralization. Remineralized iron can contribute to the pool of nutrients sustaining life in this harsh environment.

In order to do all of this, we rely on a lot of plastic. A fabricated plastic bubble ensures a clean work space, free from metal contaminants. All of our bottles and sampling equipment were carefully acid-cleaned far in advance of this cruise. We will send our samples back to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where we make all our measurements using specialized instrumentation (voltammetry, chemiluminescence, mass spectrometry, epifluorescence microscopy, and next generation sequencing) in our clean analytical labs. Once we have our data, we can start putting together a picture of iron cycling in Andvord Bay. Even though it is a lot of work, we’re motivated by the unique environment and majestic coastline of this Antarctic fjord and our passion for understanding and preserving this climate sensitive seascape.

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Photo by Maria Stenzel.

Written by Lauren Manck and Kiefer Forsch.



Fish of the Antarctic Peninsula

Our first trawl recovered a surprisingly large variety and high number of fishes. This was unlike the trawls conducted in the previous FjordEco expedition and unlike the second trawl of this cruise. Multiple families of fishes were recovered: eelpouts (Zoarcidae), dragonfishes (Bathydraconidae), rockcods (Notothenidae), and icefishes (Channichthyidae).

Eelpouts resemble sock-puppets, which is how they merited their name “eel” “pout”. They are bottom dwellers that often curl their eel-like bodies into sinuous ‘S’ shapes on the seafloor. Their heads are covered in large sensory pores, and they can seem a bit like lizards when they use their round large pectorals to ‘walk’ along the seafloor pushing themselves forward slowly. They are generally not very active fishes, in fact, some individuals were seen in two photos in a row on the time-lapse camera meaning they had remained motionless for at least six hours. Nevertheless, when they are motivated, they can swim slightly off the bottom like eels. The individuals we caught in the trawl were in the genus Ophthalmolycus, identified by a bluish abdomen, visible teeth, and the relatively long length of their reduced pelvic fins. Eelpouts are common fishes inhabiting the Antarctic seafloor, and we recovered many individuals of possibly two different genera.

A fascinating group of Antarctic fishes are the white blooded icefishes (family Channichthyidae). These fishes are the only fish in the world that have no hemoglobin in their blood. This makes their hearts white and their gills nearly translucent. Hemoglobin is the protein that vertebrates use to carry oxygen in their bloodstream from their lungs to their tissues. It is still a bit of a mystery how these fishes can survive and maintain high levels of activity (like that needed to chase down and eat mobile prey like krill and fishes) without an oxygen carrier. The low temperatures of Antarctic water allow for a higher concentration of dissolved gases including oxygen in the water. Sea surface temperature (or SST) has been around -1 degrees C (this is possible because the freezing point of seawater is actually lower than that of fresh water, around -1.9 C). This high concentration of dissolved oxygen along with the icefishes’ thin, highly vascularized skin may allow these fish to get enough oxygen, even without hemoglobin. The amazing physiology of these fishes is still a topic of ongoing research. In the trawl we recovered 5 different species of icefishes.

We also recovered at least two species of rockcods. These fishes are red-blooded, but also have an interesting adaptation that is shared among most polar species: anti-freeze proteins. These proteins prevent ice growth in the blood stream at freezing temperatures. This group of fishes is an extremely diverse group of predators, many of which are very similar and difficult to differentiate.

This trawl was a rare chance to see a large diversity of Antarctic fishes, and with the expert photography of Maria Stenzel, we can share some of this diversity with beautiful, detailed photographs.

Written by Astrid Leitner.


Pagothenia hansoni. Photo by Maria Stenzel.

Pagothenia hansoni (rockcod) retrieved from a depth of 480 to 500 meters in the middle basin of Andvord Bay, western Antarctic Peninsula. Antarctic rockcods (family Notothenidae) are the largest and most diverse group of Antarctic fishes. Their taxonomy is not well studied and many of the species are very similar making identifications tricky from photographs alone. This species is a large benthic predator. Only one of these individuals was recovered in the trawl. Species tentatively identified by University of Hawaii graduate student Astrid Leitner. Date: April 12, 2016. Photo by Maria Stenzel.


Ophthalmolycus sp. (eelpout). Photo by Maria Stenzel.

Ophthalmolycus sp (eelpout) retrieved from a depth of 480 to 500 meters in the middle basin of Andvord Bay, western Antarctic Peninsula. This genera of eelpouts (family Zoarcidae) has a dark blue abdomen and very thin almost translucent skin. They reside on the seafloor and are often seen with their eel-like bodies curled up in sinuous ‘S’ shapes. They are often seen moving slowly across the seafloor almost walking along using their large pectoral fins. These animals were quite common in the trawl. Species tentatively identified by University of Hawaii graduate student Astrid Leitner. Date: April 12, 2016. Photo by Maria Stenzel.

Chaenocephalus aceratus (ice fish) retrieved from a depth of 480  to 500 meters in the middle basin A of Andvord Bay, western Antarctic Peninsula. This fish among other species was collected using a Blake trawl which is towed behind the ship. It is a net in a frame which is towed along the sea floor for about half an hour. The goal is to collect megafuana (large inverterbrates and fish) living along the sea floor. This Fjord Eco project is undertaken by Dr. Craig Smith and students from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The sampling is part of a sea floor study in a Fjord Eco Project funded by the National Science Foundation. Species tentatively identified by graduate student Astrid Leitner. Date: April 12, 2016. Photo by Maria Stenzel

Chaenocephalus aceratus (ice fish). Photo by Maria Stenzel

Chaenocephalus aceratus (ice fish) retrieved from a depth of 480 to 500 meters in the middle basin of Andvord Bay, western Antarctic Peninsula. Icefish are unique among vertebrates because they have translucent blood. In fact their hearts are white! This occurs because these fish do not use hemoglobin to transport oxygen in their blood. How they manage to maintain high levels of activities, for example actively hunting fish and krill, is a topic of ongoing research. These fishes also have antifreeze proteins in their blood which prevents their blood from freezing at the normal freezing point of seawater. Species tentatively identified by University of Hawaii graduate student Astrid Leitner. Date: April 12, 2016. Photo by Maria Stenzel.

Fjord Megafauna!

The deep, mud-covered floor of Andvord Bay harbors an amazing and diversity of “megafauna” – large invertebrates and fish visible in our photographs of the seafloor. These animals live far below the ocean’s surface at depths >500 m and rely a rain of food from phytoplankton (small algae) blooming in the overlying water column. We count the abundance of these animals using our seafloor photographic surveys, but to actually sample these animals to identify them to species, as well as study their diets and reproduction patterns, we use the Blake trawl. This is a net suspended in a steel frame that is pulled across the seafloor, collecting megafauna from a swathe 1.5 m wide. The entire trawl operation takes about 2.5 hours because we lower the trawl on large cable, running out three times as much wire as the water depth. A total of 1600 m, or about one mile, of cable is spooled out. The trawls touches the bottom for about half an hour and then is winched back onto the vessel containing a bolus of mud and megafauna. Once the trawl reaches the ship’s deck, we open the net over a big plywood bin, and then quickly wash the mud on large sieving tables to collect the animals while they are still alive. Representatives of the dozens of species collected are quickly sorted by out Benthic Team into buckets of cold water labeled with the animal group names (fish, anemomes, sea cucumbers, polychaete worms, crustaceans, mollusks, etc.). This is a cold task because it must be conducted on the ships’ back deck to allow the mud to wash over the stern, but in the process exposing our team to the elements – high winds, blowing snow and frigid temperatures, with wind chill falling to below – 30 C (-15 F). It is also a very exciting process because we can see close-up the bizarre and beautiful life forms that have evolved in the extreme, isolated conditions of coastal Antarctica. On the first trawl we collected large numbers of two species of shrimp, giant polychaete scale worms with inch-long bristles and luminescent scales, bulbous sea cucumbers, many species of anemones and sponges, and at least five species of fish. Perhaps the most intriguing are icefish, which have no hemoglobin, so their blood and gills are icy clear. They are able to survive without hemoglobin because cold Antarctic waters contain such high concentrations of oxygen that these fish do not need hemoglobin to transport oxygen to their tissues – oxygen simply dissolved in their blood provides an adequate supply. The size of individual Antarctic invertebrates is also remarkable – most of the polychaete worms collected in the fjord basins are much larger than their relatives collected on the open continental shelf of Antarctica, or at lower latitudes.

After sorting animals collected by the trawl, we photograph them all to allow later size measurements, and preserve and freeze a subset of the animals for identification by specialists, and to allow studies of reproductive responses to the summer bloom and the structure of the fjord food web. These samples are providing materials for the PhD research of UH graduate student Amanda Ziegler, and the senior thesis of Kelcey Chung from the UH GES program. Those animals not retained for our studies are returned to the fjord is a good condition as possible.

Written by Craig Smith.


A Day Ashore in Antarctica

Our team of FjordEco scientists got the chance to leave the ship today and actually set foot on solid ground again. We needed to service a weather station and time-lapse glacier camera atop Useful Island, a small island at the mouth of the fjord. This location provides an excellent vantage point from which to observe the movement of icebergs around the fjord. This glacier camera was set to a 15-minute interval and so provided a detailed look at the icebergs in the fjord. Once the data were downloaded (over 10,000 images!), FjordEco scientists turned the images into a movie which showed interesting patterns of iceberg groundings, movements, and melting.

While one team was at the top of Useful Island servicing the weather station and camera, another team of ecologists was motoring around the island in a zodiac hunting for subtidal macroalgae samples for stable isotope analyses. Equipped in dry suits with attached rubber boots, the ecologists waded through the water sampling a variety of green and red fleshy algae. In addition, they took some samples of green ice which contained ice algae. When this ice melts into the seawater, algae are then deposited in the ocean and could be a source of food to the fauna living on the seafloor. Stable isotope analyses will allow scientists to understand how energy flows through the fjord ecosystem from the primary producers in the surface water to the top predators inhabiting the benthos, or seafloor.

The weather was thankfully calm and allowed for easy sample collection as well as a chance to observe some of the beautiful Antarctic fauna living on the island. Our team got the chance to see penguins, fur seals, a variety of impressive seabirds, and even a leopard seal during this day trip. It was a humbling experience being at sea level and for the first time getting an appreciation for the sheer size of the icebergs and the intricacies of their shapes. As the sun began to set, the sea ice began to sneak in silently but surprisingly fast. Our teams returned to the zodiacs and motored back to the ship. Even though the sun was setting, shipboard science never ceases. As soon as the teams boarded the ship and the zodiacs were recovered, we began to steam to our next sampling site for a full night of coring.

Written by Astrid Leitner.


A Day in the Life of a FjordEco Scientist

It’s been a crazy busy last two days; I’ve slept about 2-3 hrs each night. We’re getting into our stride for operations and everyone is working their tails off. The folks from the benthic group are dredging up mud from the sea floor through a variety of devices like the Mega-core, Box corer and Kasten corer. The phytoplankton folks are conducting measurements on phytoplankton concentrations, seawater chemistry, sunlight availability, particle concentrations and phytoplankton growth experiments with radionuclide labeled carbon isotopes. Our group has been conducting CTDs, recovering moorings, measuring turbulence in the water column and for the first time today, we attempted visits to the timelapse cameras to download the last 4 months of photos, (1 every hour to look at the glacier as it discharges icebergs.)

On one of the trips to service a timelapse camera deep within Andvord Bay, the ice conditions and weather made it too dangerous to make a beach landing so the trip was aborted. After we made it back to the ship, an amazing front was slowly making its way into the fjord but the winds were still calm so the photographer on board (Maria Stenzel) decided it would be a dramatic overflight around the ship with her drone. The footage is absolutely breathtaking; icebergs, brash ice, a mixture of blue skies, and approaching black clouds all with the backdrop of 1,000′ cliffs, icefalls and tidewater glaciers ( The rugged nature of this place is unbelievable, it kind of blows you away no matter what direction you look… Since the front has moved in, it’s been snowing like crazy, I would guess that at least 6 inches have fallen in the last 6 hours.

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Physical Oceanographer Peter Winsor and a team from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks try to reach an ice choked shoreline of Andvord Bay, but are forced to return to the ship for fear of being trapped in the ice. The team has left a long term time lapse camera overlooking a glacier which feeds into Andvord Bay at Inner Basin B (check). The camera was installed in December, 2015. Photo by Maria Stenzel

Late in the day today, we thought that we would recover one of our inner fjord moorings. The ice was too thick at the mooring location for a safe recovery so we resorted to Plan B: a trip to service a different time-lapse camera. We were given a last minute green light from the bridge to do this operation and scrambled to put our gear together and splash zodiacs over the side. We left the Nathaniel B. Palmer at 6:02 pm with good late afternoon light. We used the zodiac to push a lot of brash ice out of the way on the trip to the beach and like a SEAL team we hit the ground running. We had to scamper up a rocky talus slope that was covered in fresh snow. At the top of the scree, there was a cliff with a path below it that led about 100 yards to the camera tripod setup. It was an invigorating traverse that led to a beautiful perch with clear views to one of the tidewater glaciers that we estimate is discharging ice into the fjord at a rate of 5 m/day. Once at the camera Doug pulled out its SD card and a tablet to back up nearly 4,000 photos. We wiped all the snow off of the camera, inserted a new SD card and scrambled back down to our zodiac waiting for us at the beach landing. Our big red ship was staged just a mile off and now as darkness was descending and the snow was falling, we followed the ship’s yellow spotlights back. Unbelievably, we were back on the boat in 40 minutes, right at dark. Hooray for another amazing day of science on the Western Antarctic Peninsula!

Tonight the benthic folks will drag nets on the seafloor and repeat their coring. We are set to get up early and tow the ACROBAT from the outer to inner fjord, it will be our first ACROBAT tow so far on this trip.

Written by Hank Statsewich.

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Physical Oceanographer Peter Winsor and a team from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks try to reach an ice choked shoreline of Andvord Bay, but are forced to return to the ship for fear of being trapped in the ice. The team has left a long term time lapse camera overlooking a glacier which feeds into Andvord Bay at Inner Basin B (check). The camera was installed in December, 2015. Photo by Maria Stenzel

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Physical Oceanographer Peter Winsor and a team from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks try to reach an ice choked shoreline of Andvord Bay, but are forced to return to the ship for fear of being trapped in the ice. The team has left a long term time lapse camera overlooking a glacier which feeds into Andvord Bay at Inner Basin B (check). The camera was installed in December, 2015. Photo by Maria Stenzel

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Physical Oceanographer Peter Winsor and a team from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks try to reach an ice choked shoreline of Andvord Bay, but are forced to return to the ship for fear of being trapped in the ice. The team has left a long term time lapse camera overlooking a glacier which feeds into Andvord Bay at Inner Basin B (check). The camera was installed in December, 2015. Photo by Maria Stenzel



Mud and Moorings

It has been a very busy start to our second FjordEco cruise with lots of coring and mooring operations at Station B (our outer shelf station) and in Andvord Bay. The sediment trap mooring at Station B was recovered smoothly and presented 20 bottles of preserved material that has been sinking to the seafloor over the last 5 months. From this mooring we will be able to determine the flux of carbon (i.e. the amount of food) sinking to the animals on the seafloor. This is important as these animals get little additional food during the winter when sea ice is thick and phytoplankton do not have sunlight to grow. It will be interesting to see how this flux compares to that in the fjord from the second sediment trap.


Photo by A. Ziegler.

On our way to Andvord Bay we retrieved two physical oceanography moorings that were deployed in the Gerlache Strait back in November. The deeper mooring extended from 200m below the surface to the bottom at roughly 330m while the shallow mooring captured the upper water column from 20m to approximately 150m. This mooring was designed to detach from its flotation if hit by large icebergs. When the mooring surfaced we found the float was missing and the pressure sensor data revealed that the mooring had been hit several times by ice and dragged before breaking loose. Luckily the design allowed for the return of the instruments which continued to collect data at deeper depths without floatation. The physical oceanography team has downloaded all of the instrument data and is now processing and interpreting it all. These two moorings will give a long-term picture of the water properties (temperature, salinity, oxygen) and water movement over the outermost sill of the fjord. This is an important location for determining water exchange in and out of the fjord.


Photo by D. Brinkerhoff.


Photo by D. Brinkerhoff.

The FjordEco team then moved into the inner basin of Andvord Bay to investigate ice conditions for our other operations. The ice was clear enough for the benthic team to begin coring. We conducted successful boxcore, megacore and Kasten core deployments. During these operations, the air temperature rose 6°C which brought continuous heavy rain and winds of over 70 knots. Even the experienced crew have rarely seen such conditions in this area. After core sampling, we moved to the middle basin of the fjord to retrieve the time-lapse camera mooring.

The time-lapse camera captured a still image of the seafloor every 6 hours from deployment on December 5, 2015 to recovery on April 6, 2016. The benthic team now has 488 images to compare and analyze. Stay tuned for more about the exciting footage captured by the camera as well as the first trawl of the cruise and deployment of the sea glider!

Written by Amanda Ziegler.