News - May 2002
NSF PR 02-36
Dispatch 3, from the Second Data-gathering Cruise
of SO GLOBEC
April 23, 2002 / Marguerite Bay: The first days
of data collection on the Nathaniel B. Palmer
were marked by overcast skies and low visibility.
But just when it seemed endless clouds would swallow
the Palmer, the sun burst through and revealed the
ice-covered lands of Antarctica.
Voyagers enjoyed several brilliant days that lifted
their spirits. The sun shone brightly and the sea
was tranquil as the Palmer made its way along
the coast of Adelaide Island and, later, as it steamed
deep into Marguerite Bay. Scientists observed crabeater
seals in the distance as swooping birds chased the
boat and an occasional white snow petrel landed on
the bow for a rest.
Yesterday evening, a large crowd gathered on the bridge
to admire the sunset. Light pink ribbons of sky framed
the snow-covered mountains of Adelaide Island, that,
sculpted and imposing, resembled a giant white castle
rising up out of the blue sea.
"It's breathtaking," said Amy Kukulya of Woods Hole
Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass. "You
look up and forget how cold you are."
This morning at sunrise, the Palmer rendezvoused with
its sister ship, the Laurence M. Gould, to
transfer supplies. Pink streaks again painted first
the sky and then the icy mountaintops as the sun peaked
up slowly over the horizon.
Scientific work has taken on a comfortable rhythm,
as has life aboard the ship. Scientists work on alternating
12-hour shifts, most from noon to midnight or midnight
to noon. E-mail comes via satellite at 9 a.m. and
6 p.m.; ship's engineer Bryan Zipperer makes nightly
rounds with his bottomless bucket of Chilean chocolates;
the sun rises about 8:30 a.m. and sets around 4:30
"The trip's mellow compared to last year. Everything's
going pretty smoothly," said Alice Doyle, the marine
projects coordinator from Raytheon Polar Services
Co., NSF's logistical coordinator.
Wrangling the BIOMAPER
But research in Antarctica is never completely routine;
like Antarctic weather, it can be fickle and bumpy.
At station 12, the zooplankton and krill research team
dodged a close call with their key instrument, the
Bio-Optical Multi-frequency Acoustical and Physical
Environmental Recorder (BIOMAPER-II), when an electrical
fire broke out in its garage--a converted blue shipping
container on the back deck. Luckily, the fire burnt
itself out and BIOMAPER-II was unharmed except for
a layer of soot easily washed off by the ocean.
BIOMAPER-II, which is towed behind the Palmer
and finds krill and other zooplankton in the water,
has had its share of calamities in the harsh Antarctic
environment--particularly in winter ice.
"We crashed it a couple of times last year," said Jennifer
White, a marine technician from Raytheon. "The whole
tail was completely torn away. The fiberglass nose
was crunched. The VPR [Video Plankton Recorder] thing
on the front was so twisted, we couldn't even bend
it; we had to chop it up and weld it back together
to make it work."
BIOMAPER-II is a fifteen-by-three-foot white box, reminiscent
of a chest freezer, adorned with an airplane tail,
a black nose, and mounted black cameras that resemble
coiled antennae. Wearing a round, yellow Woods Hole
sticker right where an eye might be, it looks almost
like a living creature. At 1700 pounds, it weighs
as much as a baby whale.
"It's kind of funny: they don't call it 'The BIOMAPER'
they just call it 'BIOMAPER,' like it's a being, like
it's this little entity," White said. Its operators
refer to it affectionately as "the fish," and other
scientists jokingly ask when they can watch it be
Seeing Through Underwater Eyes
The Woods Hole team has good reason for acting like
proud and protective parents. BIOMAPER is unique to
Woods Hole, created in the mid-1990s by Peter Wiebe
and Tim Stanton. Wiebe and Stanton took a standard
piece of oceanographic equipment--one that images
microscopic sea animals with high-frequency sound
waves--and added capabilities no other instrument
has. On this Antarctic expedition, Wiebe is using
the second-generation BIOMAPER-II.
BIOMAPER-II has three subsystems: the acoustics, the
VPR, and the CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth).
Carried together, these instruments measure the distribution
of zooplankton relative to the physical structure
of the ocean along each transect in the research grid.
BIOMAPER-II sends sound waves up and down the water
column from five "up-looking" and five "down-looking"
acoustic transducers. Particles and organisms in the
water scatter the sound waves and bounce them back
to receivers on BIOMAPER-II. The pattern of scattering
depends on the density, size, and type of particles
and their distance from BIOMAPER-II. The signals are
relayed to a computer through fiber-optic cables in
the towline that ties BIOMAPER-II to the ship.
What researchers see on their computer screens are
smatterings of color that, to the untrained eye, look
like an Impressionist painting of the world beneath
the ocean surface. Specially trained acousticians,
however, can read the code hidden in the colored pixels.
For example, patches of krill might give splotches
of color from red to orange, and even to black, when
the patch is extremely dense.
"It's a fish finder on your boat," explained Andrew
Girard of Woods Hole. "But with the frequencies we're
using, we're looking at microscopic stuff in the water."
Girard, along with Pete Martin of Woods Hole, is one
of two "personal surgeons" that accompanied BIOMAPER-II
on the cruise. They jump whenever BIOMAPER-II breaks,
Interpreting the acoustical signals is tricky business.
Researchers can't always be sure of what the acoustic
transducers are seeing.
"The acoustics can tell you that there's a patch of
something there, but it's a patch of something,"
That's where BIOMAPER-II beats standard oceanographic
tools that depend solely on acoustics. BIOMAPER-II
carries two high-resolution cameras--jointly called
the VPR, or "video plankton recorder"--that provide
visual confirmation of the acoustical data. As BIOMAPER-II
moves through the water, the VPR records all the microscopic
animals passing through a small volume on the front
of BIOMAPER-II, giving scientists a visual sample
of what's down there.
"If Peter [Wiebe] sees a big red splotch on his acoustics,
and says that's a patch of krill, we fly BIOMAPER
down through," Girard said. "If krill start popping
up on the VPR, we know that the patch was identified
Like the acoustics data, the visual data is fed to
the BIOMAPER-II control van (another converted shipping
container) via fiber-optic cables. Equipped with several
video monitors, the white van resembles a building
security office. But instead of monitoring people,
these scientists are keeping tabs on microscopic creatures
in the ocean: copepods, diatoms, and radiolarians,
to name a few.
The VPR, like security cameras at a bank, is constantly
recording video, making reams of tapes. "You go from
getting oodles of plankton samples to oodles of tapes,"
said Phil Alatalo of Woods Hole pointing to a giant
box of tapes. Fortunately, much of the identification
and counting of plankton can be done by computer,
saving researchers from having to watch hours and
hours and hours of plankton flying by on the screen.
"It's not perfect," said Alatalo, adding that the team
often still counts manually or semi-automatically.
"The human eye is always better," he said.
Challenges that keep them coming back
Besides VPR, another way to ground-truth BIOMAPER-II's
acoustical data is to directly sample the water with
nets--which scientists such as Carin Ashjian of Woods
Hole are doing periodically from the Palmer.
Additionally, scientists are developing mathematical
models to help them better interpret the acoustical
The zooplankton and krill group have been surprised
by the results they are seeing so far.
"It's been very different," said Ashjian. "We haven't
seen the krill like we saw last year." The fall cruise
last year saw a lot of young krill in a specific layer
of colder water called winter water, and they also
saw lots of krill on the continental shelf, Ashjian
The unpredictability of the science and of the day-to-day
living may be exactly what draws scientists, technicians,
and crew alike to the Antarctic.
"I keep coming down just because it's something different
every time," said marine technician Jennifer White.
"You wake up every day and look out your porthole,
and who knows where you're going to be and what you're
going to do."
The unpredictability offers challenge, excitement,
and even a little fear factor, said marine technician
Steve Tarrent, adding that he was always fascinated
and awed by Shackleton's adventures.
"You leave port, and you've got a certain amount of
material things, a certain amount of talent, and a
certain amount of ingenuity and energy," Tarrent said.
"Any problems that develop, you're going to have to
deal with them with what you've got right here," he
said. "There's a sort of grace to that."
Indeed, the story of how BIOMAPER-II held together
last winter with its make-do plywood tail and its
taped-up VPR, is a graceful tale of ingenuity and
Of course, this didn't stop the zooplankton team from
bringing two VPR's for BIOMAPER-II this time, just