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Week 03
Dispatch 11  |  Dispatch 12  |  Dispatch 13  |  Dispatch 14  |  Dispatch 15
Dispatch 11

Carved by wind and waves, icebergs float in Marguerite Bay. The Western Antarctic Peninsula is in the background.

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Photograph by Mark Christmas



May 7, 2001

Latitude: 68° 05’ 732” S
Longitude: 68° 37’ 667” W

Temperature: -0.5° C (31° F)

Wind Chill: -17.5° C (1° F)

Seas: 4 to 6 feet

Iceberg! We saw our first icebergs today. We’re in Marguerite Bay. Everyone was in the mess hall having lunch when the word spread—“iceberg, port side.”

Within moments, the mess hall was cleared and I thought for sure that we’d be listing to port. I’ve seen pictures of icebergs. I’ve seen videos of icebergs. Actually seeing an iceberg was very exciting. It appeared out of a foggy mist.

BIOMAPER II is out of the water, undergoing repairs. The BIOMAPER team, led by Chief Scientist Peter Wiebe, has been working tirelessly to get the “fish” back in the water. People have been working around the clock troubleshooting and hopefully, by this time tomorrow, they will have the “fish” in the water.

The water has been calm in the bay and thus the conditions are great for whale and bird observations. Catherine Berchok has heard numerous humpbacks, and the bird observation team has been busy too. A sampling of the species sighted: Antarctic petrel (Thalassoica antarctica), Cape petrel (Daption capense), southern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialoides), blue petrel (Halobaena caerulea), southern giant petrel (Macronectes giganteus), snow petrel (Pagrodoma nivea), and kelp gull (Larus dominicanus).

Ari Friedlaender has sighted 20 humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae, which means “the big armed whale from New England”). He has also sighted six minkes (Balaenoptera acutorostrata).

Here are a few questions e-mailed to us here aboard the Palmer.

Q: On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the muddy Mississippi and 10 being the Windex-clear aquamarine blue in the Bahamas, what color is the ocean water around Antarctica and what is the clarity? Also, what is the average depth where the research is being conducted?

A: The waters around Antarctica are clear and blue. BIOMAPER II, at a depth of 18 meters, was clearly visible from the surface. At this time of year, the waters off the Western Antarctic Peninsula are, using your scale, about a 9. When there are more organisms present in the waters, this would not be the case.

The water clarity is seasonal. The average depth studied would be around 400 meters. Most of the research is being conducted on the continental shelf. There have been some deep-water stations at a depth of 3,000 meters.

Q: Do diatoms grow attached to the underside of the Antarctic ice? If so, can we call them benthic diatoms or are they part of the phytoplanktonic community? What kind of diatoms are they, pennales or centrales? Wishes of good luck and good weather conditions!

A: The diatoms are actually entrained in the ice, meaning that they live in water-filled channels within the ice. Both pennate and centric diatoms can be entrained. They are members of the phytoplanktonic community. Thanks for the good wishes! And thanks to Wendy Kozlowski for her help with this answer.

Remember, if you have a question, drop us a line!

—Mark Christmas, nationalgeographic.com field producer


Have a question for Mark or the SeaLab team about the expedition or life at sea in Antarctica? In every dispatch, Mark will answer selected questions from readers.


[Note: nationalgeographic.com does not research or copyedit dispatches.]

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Dispatch 12



May 9, 2001

Latitude: 68° 05’ 732” S
Longitude: 68° 37’ 667” W

Temperature: -0.3° C (31° F)

Wind Chill: -17.5° C (1° F)

Seas: 8 to 10 feet

Yesterday was a drastic change from the calm of Marguerite Bay. We ran into a low-pressure system and had gale-force winds and heavy seas. Winds gusted to 63 knots and seas ran up to 20 feet. We’re approaching Station 41 and for the past three stations, because of the weather, we’ve deployed expendable CTDs, which are connected by wire to a computer and tossed over the side of the ship. They don’t collect water samples like the CTD probe does, but they can be used in rough weather.

Great news. BIOMAPER II is back in the water! After working tirelessly over a period of 72 hours, the team has the “fish” back in the water. It was put in the water early yesterday morning before we hit rough weather.

Here are a few questions sent to us via e-mail:

Q: Are there any specific animals that live only in Antarctica? —Judi

A: Adélie and emperor penguins; crabeater, Weddell, and Ross seals; and blue and snow petrels live only in Antarctica. Thanks to Ari Friedlaender and Chris Ribbic for their help on this one.

Q: When the krill live under the ice, do they still move with the Deep Scattering Layer? —Veritas

A: No. The theory is that the larval and small krill do not migrate. They stay near the surface with the ice. The larger krill are thought to migrate within the water column. That diurnal migration is something that the research team here hopes to shed some light on.

Q: What type of clothing do the scientists wear to keep from freezing? Do you do all of your research within the ship? —Anna

A: There are two things to remember to keep from freezing: Stay warm and stay dry. Layers of clothing under a waterproof and windproof outer layer work wonders.

Most of the research is conducted remotely from within the ship but a lot of time is also spent putting equipment into and out of the water. For these deployments, the science staff works closely with the marine technicians (MTs) and the ship’s crew, from the bridge to the winch operator.

The team working on the bird survey has a specially constructed observation box. It offers protection from the wind but not the cold.

Q: How does the ship get through the ice? —Julian

A: The Palmer has a specially constructed bow which allows it to ride over the ice. The weight of the ship then causes the ice to break.

Q: Is seasickness a concern for the scientists on board? I know it is a large ship, but you must encounter some rough seas that keep you rockin’ —S. Lajoie

A: We have indeed encountered some rough seas, but seasickness has not been too big of a concern for the scientists. Some have spent a day or two in the comfort of their cabin, especially during the gale we weathered, but there has not been a widespread problem.

Before the ship left port, there was a sign posted that read “Seasickness is unpleasant; please take proper precautions.” Most of us heeded the warning!

Q: I read that the thermal wave that encircles Antarctica has broken down into many hot/cold areas. Are there any forecasts onto how this will affect the lifecycle of the krill, considering the importance they will have on future food production for the planet and for other species? —Paul

A: Scientist Eileen Hofmann answers: This is an interesting question and one that is the topic of current research studies. The Antarctic Circumpolar Wave produces regions of warmer and cooler conditions as it moves around the Antarctic. This in turn produces high and lows in the sea ice that is produced each winter in the Antarctic.

Thus, you can picture a bulge in the sea ice extent that moves around the Antarctic with some periodicity. It takes about four to six years for a given area of the Antarctic to go from a maximum to a minimum in sea ice extent. It just so happens that Antarctic krill are believed to live for four to five years. As a result, their life span is the same length as the time it takes to go from high to low conditions or vice versa.

Antarctic krill do better during times of high sea ice extent, presumably due to better food resources in the winter through feeding on food associated with sea ice. As a result, the summer following high sea ice is characterized by good spawning and eventually good recruitment to the Antarctic krill population.

The issue of concern now is that the time span between high and low sea ice may be increasing. If this happens then it is possible that Antarctic krill will not experience good conditions during a life time and this could lead to reduced recruitment to the population. This is one of the hypotheses that is being tested as part of the Southern Ocean GLOBEC program.

Thanks for all your e-mails—keep them coming!

—Mark Christmas, nationalgeographic.com field producer


Have a question for Mark or the SeaLab team about the expedition or life at sea in Antarctica? In every dispatch, Mark will answer selected questions from readers.


[Note: nationalgeographic.com does not research or copyedit dispatches.]

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Dispatch 13

David Green looks on as Sue Beardsley hauls in a bucket full of surface water for analysis.

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Photograph by Mark Christmas



May 10, 2001

Latitude: 67° 34’ 669” S
Longitude: 73° 28’ 203” W

Temperature: -1° C (30° F)

Wind Chill: -20° C (-4° F)

Seas: 6 to 8 feet

0500 hours. Sometimes in the early morning hours, I like to go back to the aft control room. It has a view over the aft working deck and the starboard side of the ship. I’ll sit and watch the snow petrels fly in and out of the ship’s lights. The whitecaps in the distance are lit too, visible for just a moment as they froth at the top of the waves, disappear, and then reappear. The power of the seas is awe-inspiring.

My thoughts turn to my wife and twin sons back home. I communicate with them through e-mails mainly. I’ve been told that springtime in the Washington, D.C., area has made an appearance this year. Often, we move from winter directly into summer. I think too of the new addition to my family whom I haven’t yet met, a springer spaniel puppy named Riley. Then I come back down to my piece of countertop in the aft dry lab.

It’s been an eventful day for BIOMAPER II. At about 1400 hours, the cable towing BIOMAPER jumped a sheave on the slack tensioner, which is designed to keep constant tension on the tow cable. In rough seas and with winds between 35 and 45 knots, the team got the cable realigned.

Later, at 2330 hours, a section of frayed armor on the tow cable was discovered. The winds had died somewhat, there had been gusts up to 60 knots earlier in the day, but the seas had rollers of almost 30 feet. After a quick assessment by the team, it was decided to keep BIOMAPER in the water and hope for calmer seas in Marguerite Bay tomorrow. The cable was secured and everyone is hoping for better weather.

An XTCD was deployed and surface water was collected for analysis by the primary production and nutrient groups. A very high-tech bucket and rope are used to collect the surface samples when a CTD is not launched. An anachronism on a vessel packed with electronics, it works every time.

Here is a question sent in via e-mail:

Q: Greetings from the Pacific Northwest! I read that the XBT is connected to the ship by an extremely thin wire. However, I am really curious to know what an XBT looks like, and why the wire is cut after deployment. I've worked with a CTD before, but never an XBT. Could you include a picture too? —Hilary

A: The X in the XBT stands for expendable. It is an expendable bathy thermograph. The information on temperature and depth is relayed through the wire to a computer onboard the ship. After the information has been recorded, the wire is cut. The XBT is slightly smaller than the XCTD. I’ve included a picture of the XCTD and the wire in the photo gallery that accompanies this dispatch.

Remember, if you have a question, drop us a line!

—Mark Christmas, nationalgeographic.com field producer


Have a question for Mark or the SeaLab team about the expedition or life at sea in Antarctica? In every dispatch, Mark will answer selected questions from readers.


[Note: nationalgeographic.com does not research or copyedit dispatches.]

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Dispatch 14

Chief Scientist Peter Wiebe pulls cable on the aft deck of the Palmer.

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Photograph by Mark Christmas



May 11, 2001

Latitude: 68° 51’ 764” S
Longitude: 69° 52’ 828” W

Temperature: -0.9° C (30° F)

Wind Chill: -13.5° C (8° F)

Seas: 2 to 4 feet

There is an undercurrent of excitement running through the watch. Ice! Finally, we are in ice. It undulates with the swell, seeming as though it’s alive and breathing. And from what we’re learning on this cruise, that’s not far from the truth.

We’re back in Marguerite Bay. Visibility is poor but the seas are calm. BIOMAPER was pulled for repairs. Working around the clock, the hope is to have it back in the water tomorrow.

Catherine Berchok has recorded some humpback and fin whale sounds.

Listen to a humpback whale.   (Download free RealPlayer)

Here is a question that was sent in via e-mail:

Q: Wow! You guys are on an awesome mission! I wish I were there. But, I am curious, how does an icebreaker differ from a normal ship? —Indi

A: Michael Watson, captain of the Nathaniel B. Palmer, answers:

An icebreaker has a few very basic distinctions that make it different from a regular ship. The most obvious on the outside is the shape of the bow—it’s roughly wedge-shaped with a low included angle at the stem. Basically that just means that it can ride up and forward onto the ice efficiently enough to allow the weight of the ship to break the ice underneath it, and then the wedge shape pushes those pieces to the side.

In heavy ice, you just repeat that procedure often enough and at the end of the day you’ll hopefully find that you’ve gone several miles forward. Of course that’s all the obvious part. The catch is that because frozen sea ice has roughly the strength and resistance of a block of concrete, the structure of the ship has to be built strongly enough to take that sort of punishment on a continuous basis.

Normal shipbuilding steel has a tendency to get brittle and crack in low temperatures, so we use a special grade of steel that can handle the temperatures along with a 40 mm thickness—roughly twice the thickness of a typical merchant ship. Supporting this steel is the framework of the ship’s hull, keel, and deck beams—again this is slightly different from a standard merchant ship in that our hull frames are spaced much closer together, on average of about 18 inches where the highest stress is at and then opening up further aft where we’re less likely to be taking the full force of icebreaking. Even here though the frames are closer together than on an equivalent merchant ship in order to handle the typical conditions in ice-covered waters.

Working in ice can be a very dynamic environment with the ship sliding off of a broken ice floe and into a floe alongside, so you need to have a fair amount of confidence that you’re not going to end up with a chunk of ice slicing open the side of the ship!

At the stern, our propellers are shaped to get as much of our horsepower into the water as possible. They’re built for pushing rather than speed, with blades and hub built of stainless steel to provide the strength to resist impacts from broken ice passing under the hull. Each propeller has four blades that are individually bolted to the hub, and while we can’t replace these at sea we do carry two complete spare sets of blades in our hold—8 blades altogether. Our rudders are distinct in that each rudder has two separate hydraulic systems to operate it and the rudders themselves can be operated individually. This would allow us to still have some steering capability in the event of damage to one of the rudders while we’re in the ice.

Regarding our main engines, because of the power required to run a 6,000-ton ship up onto a floe that might be 2 or 3 meters above the water, we’ve got more installed power than an equivalent-sized merchant ship—about 13,000 hp.

At this point, I should clarify that there are differences between icebreakers also. The Palmer is really an ice-capable research vessel rather than a fully open-classed icebreaker—the main differences being that an open class icebreaker like the U.S. Coast Guard Polar-class or the Russian nuclear-powered vessels have considerably more power, 60,000 to 75,000 hp, and their hulls would be built of the thicker steel I described above throughout the length of the ship.

Those vessels also tend to have a round cross-section versus the square one of the Palmer—basically we’ve traded the ability to go into heavier ice conditions in order to have the much larger lab and living spaces required for scientific voyages. Having less horsepower means we have to think ahead more when we’re operating in the ice because we can’t always rely on brute strength to get us out of a difficult situation.

We all take a lot of pride in the fact that the Palmer is the only ship in the world to work year-round in Antarctic sea ice and we’ve been doing it successfully for just under 10 years now.

Best regards,
Capt. Michael Watson

Thanks to Captain Watson for answering this one!

Remember, if you have a question, drop us a line!

—Mark Christmas, nationalgeographic.com field producer


Have a question for Mark or the SeaLab team about the expedition or life at sea in Antarctica? In every dispatch, Mark will answer selected questions from readers.


[Note: nationalgeographic.com does not research or copyedit dispatches.]

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Dispatch 15

An iceberg viewed from a Zodiac just before dark.

Photo Gallery >>

Photograph by Mark Christmas



May 12, 2001

Latitude: 68° 38’ 863” S
Longitude: 71° 23’ 130” W

Temperature: -0.9° C (30° F)

Wind Chill: -13.5° C (8° F)

Seas: Calm

Video: Weather—The Storm That Wasn’t

(Download free RealPlayer)

We spent a good part of the day surrounded by grease ice and icebergs. What a sight. The horizon was filled with icebergs. Ari Friedlaender set out in the Zodiac hoping to get a biopsy on a whale. No such luck.

We’re heading back out to sea. BIOMAPER II is back in the water. The tow cable has been repaired. Spirits are high.

Here is a question sent in to us via e-mail:

Q: I know that the science station in the center of Antarctica studies ozone and related global weather and climate changes. How does the research affect a guy like me in Canby, Oregon? —Mark

A: Scientist Eileen Hofmann answers this one:

This is a very good question and one that all scientists are faced with answering. Although your question is phrased in terms of the Antarctic program we are now undertaking it applies to all areas of science.

As you noted in your question, there are some important environmental issues, such as the ozone hole, facing our planet, and the Antarctic is one place to study these. It is through understanding the reasons why features like the ozone hole develop that we are able to develop strategies to mitigate their effects on the environment.

For example, the environmental summit that took place in Kyoto, Japan, about six years ago resulted in the development of protocols to reduce the input of CFCs (chloroflurocarbons) into the atmosphere. The research done on the ozone hole in the Antarctic was an important part of setting these protocols. This will affect your life in Canby, Oregon, in that you can no longer obtain products that include CFCs (for example Freon for air conditioners) or other gases that are now known to be harmful to the atmosphere.

Our research is focused on understanding the biological and environmental factors that regulate the marine ecosystem in the Antarctic. It may be surprising to you to find out that this is still largely unknown. In order to determine if environmental change is affecting the marine plants and animals in the Antarctic, we first have to know what is there.

How does this affect you? Well, there are several possible ways. One is simply understanding and knowing about our planet. This is not a tangible result but one that is important. Second, through understanding we are better able to manage our natural resources. One way to look at the Antarctic is as a wonderful resource, much like the beautiful forests in Oregon, for which we have ownership and responsibility to protect. Third, we pass on to future generations our knowledge of the Antarctic so that it can continue to be something special about our planet.

Perhaps a tangible reason for studying the Antarctic is that Antarctic krill and many Antarctic fish are now commercially harvested. At this time, we do not know what the effect of fishing these species may be on the marine ecosystem, especially the effect on the predators like penguins, seals, and whales, that depend on these same species for food. So, continued study and monitoring of the Antarctic marine ecosystem is needed to better understand the effects of removing species.

There are many examples of the bad effects of overfishing certain species. The salmon fishery off of Oregon is one such example. The observations that we are making as part of Southern Ocean GLOBEC will be provided to the international committee (Committee for Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources) that has regulatory authority for the Antarctic fisheries.

Eileen Hofmann

Thanks to Eileen Hofmann for answering this one!

Remember, if you have a question, drop us a line!

—Mark Christmas, nationalgeographic.com field producer


Have a question for Mark or the SeaLab team about the expedition or life at sea in Antarctica? In every dispatch, Mark will answer selected questions from readers.


[Note: nationalgeographic.com does not research or copyedit dispatches.]

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