On New Year’s Eve, I began the long flight from Fairbanks, Alaska (65° North latitude) to Punta Arenas (53° South latitude). Two days into January, I boarded the research vessel and began the transit down to Palmer Station with the 24th annual Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) oceanographic cruise of the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) region. During the cruise, research groups specializing in areas such as trace metals, whales, sea birds, phytoplankton, and microbes, spend about a month driving transects in the WAP region, collecting samples at points along these transects. Every year, the same points, called “stations” are sampled, building a data set that allows for analysis across decades. The cruise is an exciting, fast-paced part of the summer season, and during the few days I was with the ship, I had a blast getting to know the scientists aboard.
Every year, before science can begin, first the ship must cross the the traditionally-rough Drake Passage. The Drake was kind to us (a relatively flat state people exaggerate with the name “Drake Lake”), and we filled the days of transit with movies, walks on deck, visits to the bridge, and a high-stakes night of bingo. I was one of the lucky winners, and my box of prizes included a “Wayne’s World” trucker’s hat, a bag of pickles, and a used toothbrush.
Heading south felt very different than last year, when I came down in October 2014. Last season was full of the adrenaline bursts of first experiences: the first tumultuous day in the Drake, the first penguins, the first view of Palmer. So far, this season has been characterized by contentment. While I may not be buzzing with excitement as often, I’m constantly reminded of how happy I am to be here.
One day in January did have me buzzing with excitement. As a group I was part of headed out “rec boating” (boating for fun), the whale researchers announced over the radio that they had spotted a pod of orcas. We jetted off to the location they’d mentioned and idled, everyone scouting the water. Though no orcas were in sight, we spotted two humpbacks, and as we watched them, distracted, five orcas in a perfect line rose out of the ocean about 500 feet in front of us. They were the first I’d ever seen, and it was thrilling.
Though this summer has had an unusual number of orca sightings, whales as a whole have been much scarcer in the Palmer area this year. On the cruise, too, researchers have been finding fewer whales than expected. However, the ability to track humpbacks with satellite tags sheds some light on where the whales are congregating.
In part, the dearth of whales along the cruise track can be attributed to the incredible amount of sea ice. The ice cover the ship has encountered is far greater than anything in the last 15 years of LTER cruises, and every science group has felt its effects, whether in terms of ship operations or interesting data. The Palmer area, too, has had an anomalous ice year, with a late sea ice retreat, and a large amount of “fast” ice in the harbor. Throughout January, over twenty icebergs were constantly visible from station, moving, shifting, and breaking to create brash ice.
There’s a lot more to write about, and I will soon. Until then, I hope everyone is having a great start to 2016!
2 thoughts on “Hello again from 65° South!”
i’m so glad you’re back to the blog! thanks for the update :):):):)
So good to hear of your adventures south, again. I look forward to the day that I have the opportunity to go back to Antarctica. Sometime I hope that we can share our experiences. Antarctica has had a profound effect on me and I’m always looking for an opportunity to read about it or talk about it with those that are interested.
Enjoy your voyage. susan
On Fri, Feb 5, 2016 at 1:05 PM, 65northto65south wrote:
> rachellinneakaplan posted: “On New Year’s Eve, I began the long flight > from Fairbanks, Alaska (65° North latitude) to Punta Arenas (53° South > latitude). Two days into January, I boarded the research vessel and began > the transit down to Palmer Station with the 24th annual Long Term E” >