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  • Writer's pictureAlexis bahl

Steaming to the Southern Ocean: Part 1

Updated: Nov 16, 2022

This blog is intended to capture the experience of the Macrozooplankton and Micronekton team led by Evgeny Pakhomov, comprising Lora Pakhomov, Florian Lüskow, and myself on board the Alfred Wegener Institute’s Polarstern research vessel. From October 1st – November 17th for the PS 133-1 Island Impact cruise to the South Atlantic sector of the Southern Ocean, we will record daily insights of the activities on board, with a personal perspective of what it’s like conducting science at sea. All thoughts are ours and are not to be taken for media use. This work is funded by Alexis Bahl's 2022 Explorer Grant with the National Geographic Society.

 

Day 2: Stuck at port

October 2, 2022


Yesterday all 48 scientists and I departed our quarantine hotel with pure excitement to board Polarstern (pictured below). We lugged our suitcases up the metal staircase and got sorted in our new homes (aka, our cabins) with our new bunk mate(s). We received a safety briefing and a tour, followed by an introduction to our daily weather report. After 3 satisfying meals, we waited for the crane to move the shipping containers from the back to the front of the ship before departure could take place.



So, here we are, on day 2 after a smooth night of sleeping. Something I should not get used to. Hopefully all will fall into place today and we will depart for our first scheduled transect. With all that said, Sonja, the weather reporter, gave troubling news that a storm is making its way west, and while the heart of it will miss us, a tail end of it will be right in our path of travel. We therefore are to expect 4-5 m waves upon leaving port. Nothing like getting my sea legs under me straight away.


As for everyone on the ship, it really is a lovely bunch. Almost everyone is based out of Europe or lived in Germany for some time, thus almost everyone speaks fluent German. Deutsch is their muttersprache (mother tongue). 419 days of Duolingo could not even prepare me for these conversations. Science is planned for all disciplines and it’s very exciting to hear about everyone’s projects. I hope to learn a lot from everyone and will most definitely be asking many questions over these next weeks.


Despite being one of few English native speakers, I am one of many who have never been on board the Polarstern before. While many have gone on expeditions before, many have not experienced the Southern Ocean aboard Polarstern.


As the sun rises and my belly full of a hearty breakfast, I am hopeful for a bright, cheerful day 2.

 

Day 3: Seasick

October 3, 2022


I’m writing to you on the morning of the 4th because my head was in the toilet most of the day yesterday. Like a handful of other scientists on board, my stomach did not agree with our newfound movement of the ship.

After taking off from port, we were met with 4–5-meter waves. To describe it plainly, it feels like laying in a massive hammock that is rocking side to side because of the wind. Coming and going, coming and going. It is a constant reminder that we are now truly at the mercy of the ocean.


Amidst the sea sickness yesterday, all scientists unpacked their equipment from the containers and began organizing their labs. There is a lab for each group. The zooplankton group is located right next to the “wet lab” where we will be bringing in our samples and sorting the species into bins. These bins will then be brought into our lab, conveniently located right next door, where we will “process” the samples (aka, count, measure, and identify the life cycle and developmental stage of each individual).


Last night we crossed the EEZ (exclusive economic zone) and are steaming southwest towards our first station at 47°S 10.5°W. It will be roughly 5 days before we reach it. Leaving us with plenty of time to organize our working schedules, put together the nets, and test them. This will be the commotion for almost all teams over the coming days. In-between this time, we acclimate our stomachs, eat lots of tasty German food (thanks to the wonderful chefs on board), and play board games with our new friends.


 

Day 4: Equipment assembling and testing

October 4, 2022


The sea is getting rough, but every team is still hard at work assembling their equipment, and if given the chance, to do a test deployment. The CTD (conductivity, temperature, and depth) team was up first and ran a successful test deployment (see day 8 for more information on CTD). Below they are pictured pulling the CTD in from the water.


As for our team, we managed to assemble the RMT-8 (Rectangular Midwater Trawl) net while the sun was high in the sky. After lunch, Florian and Evgeny tried to assemble our second net, the IKMT (Isaacs-Kidd Midwater Trawl), but the waves were too rough, and all teams were told to no longer work on the deck until the storm passes. Pictured below is Evgeny, Lora, and Florian assembling the RMT-8 net.


Many people are seasick but are feeling better with a patch behind the ear. It works wonders. I learned that it *somehow* sends a signal to your brain that your body is in a moving environment. Before I couldn’t keep down a meal, but now I can enjoy food again without having to run to the toilet.


So, now we wait…

 

Day 5: Covid clear

October 5, 2022


It’s been a quiet day on board. Besides eating, drinking coffee, and sleeping, there is not much we can do as the deck is still closed due to the stormy weather. However, some good news, everyone on board is covid negative! After receiving our second test, we were told the good news over the intercom and therefore no longer have to wear masks.


It will be roughly 3 days before we reach our first station. Pictured here is Lora Pakhomov looking out at the ocean as we assembled our RMT-8 net yesterday.


The RMT-8 net is particularly important for collecting mesozooplankton and micronekton, and accounting for abundance, biomass, and community composition. Equipped with a 4.5 mm mesh size, RMT-8 will be deployed to 600 m during the day and night in an effort to determine the population structure and vertical distribution of migratory organisms.








 

Day 6 and 7: Travelling by storm

October 6 and 7, 2022


Low pressure storm cells cannot be avoided on our voyage to the South Atlantic sector of the Southern Ocean. It is normal to experience stormy weather in this part of the world (‘roaring forties’). The Antarctic Circumpolar Current is the strongest oceanic current in the world, and we are going straight against it, in our pursuit for our first sampling station. The working deck opened yesterday afternoon and all scientists were delighted to get some fresh air. A safety drill took place, where we all practice for an emergency that calls for getting into the lifeboats.


By afternoon, my team and I assembled the IKMT net, which will be deployed to 200 m depth. Compared to RMT-8, assembling this net was quick and straight forward. The plan is to deploy the IKMT at the deep and process stations to collect macrozooplankton, such as salps, krill, amphipods, and more. Pictured below is our team in mid-construction of the net.



 

Day 8: Smooth sailing Saturday

October 8, 2022


Last night during our regular 7:30 pm meeting, Sonya delivered good news about Saturday’s smooth weather. And now here I am writing on a clear day at sea. The waves have calmed, and as Florian likes to say, there are no white horses in sight (aka, no massive waves). This has allowed an opportune time to test the CTD equipment.


For my readers, perhaps you are not familiar with a CTD, and for that I am happy to introduce you. Short for conductivity, temperature, and depth, the CTD is deployed to 1000 m depth where water samples are collected to measure the parameters mentioned, as well inorganic nutrients (nitrate, nitrite, ammonium, silicate, and phosphate). This is made possible by the rosette bottle system (basically giant water bottles) attached to the CTD which fill when triggered closed at depth. This information is especially important for retaining vertical profiles of the water properties in the region.


Following tonight’s meeting, the bar on board opened, and two scientists took on the role as bartender, which is custom on Polarstern. The bar is commonly referred to as Zillertal, which I learned was adopted from the European custom to drink after a day’s worth of skiing in the mountains/Alps. Somehow, we are connected to land, even this far out at sea. This was a lovely way to end our first week together at sea.


To be continued...



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