News - May 2002
NSF PR 02-36
Dispatch 4, George VI Sound
May 1, 2002 / George VI Sound -- With several
days spent in sea ice this week, rumbling, crunching
and banging became the new music of the icebreaking
Nathaniel B. Palmer.
In the northern end of George VI sound -- the corridor
that separates Alexander Island from the Western Antarctic
Peninsula -- the Palmer powered through thick,
year-old pack ice, covered with pristine new snow.
The horizon disappeared as the clouds, ice, and snowy
mountains of Alexander Island blurred together into
With the boat steadied and the ocean masked, the voyagers
might have believed they were on land.
But the creviced landscape sometimes rippled as a large
swell rolled beneath. And the Palmer often
tilted sideways for a long pause as she climbed the
ice to crush it with her weight. "It's like the tilt
you get when you're on a snowboard," ship's mate Rachelle
Pagtalunan explained it.
The days are getting shorter, and the night was black
as the Palmer made her second rendezvous with the
Laurence M. Gould last night. The lonely lights
of the two approaching ships illuminated a strip of
colliding ice floes; ship's mate John Higdon remarked
this was what it must look like to be on top of a
giant marshmallow that's starting to crack from heat.
The ships got close enough to trade snowballs, supplies,
and, briefly, passengers.
Seabirds as a biological barometer
Leaving Marguerite Bay early this morning, the Palmer
steamed through a vast wasteland of new lumpy, slushy
"shuga" ice that was dotted with broken ice floes
and cakes -- the snow-covered leftovers of last year's
"You can see lines in the snow where penguins slid
on their bellies and big depressions where seals have
been," noted seabird researcher Erik Chapman of the
University of Wisconsin. Just as he said this, an
ice floe carrying two crabeater seals floated by the
port bow. Rolling playfully, the seals seemed undisturbed
by the giant Palmer.
While the ice tested other scientists' gear and patience,
bird surveyors Chapman and Matthew Becker welcomed
it. Adelié penguins, one of their focus animals, are
chiefly found near ice. Ice brings food up to the
surface, "nurses" baby prey that will grow into hardy
penguin meals, and gives the penguins a surface to
haul out on, Chapman said.
Chapman and Becker are mapping the distribution of
flying birds and penguins along transects of the Palmer's
survey grid. Because birds congregate where food is,
they point scientists to biological hotspots. This
is especially useful in the winter, when sea life
is sparse and hidden.
"Sea birds have an extremely well-developed ability
to perceive the ocean in ways we can't," Chapman said.
"If your goal is to understand the biology of a large
area of ocean, you have to use clues like that."
The presence of certain species also flags events down
the water column. Cape petrels and southern fulmars
feed on tiny copepods right on the surface; Antarctic
petrels plunge into the water and catch fish below
the surface; Penguins dive much deeper, scrounging
for krill or fish.
During daylight, Chapman and Becker identify and tally
all the birds in a precise visual sector -- 300 meters
(984 feet) out and 90 degrees wide -- as the ship
is moving along its transect.
One of the difficulties of counting birds is that the
ship picks up followers, birds that are attracted
to the boat and circle it for miles. Keeping track
of these tagalongs to avoid double counting can be
"But it's not as if we started in the Drake Passage
and we've just brought along all the birds from Chile,
and we've got several thousand of them," Becker said.
Unlike in places that allow dumping -- where giant
swarms of birds feast on jettisoned trash and fish
guts -- the birds eventually drop off, he said.
The view from the "bird box"
Chapman and Becker observe from the "bird box," a specially
designed wooden box securely tied to the wraparound
ledge outside the bridge. Big enough to accommodate
two or three people, it's open on top for overhead
viewing, but blocks the wind below one's shoulders.
Apparently, the bird box is often a topic of conversation
and good-natured ribbing among SO GLOBEC scientists.
"It's taken on a life of its own," Chapman said. Because
of its slightly awkward appearance on the pristine
bridge, the Palmer crew was reluctant to tie
it on last year. Since then, it's actually become
a popular spot to take in the views and the sounds
of the ocean, but it's still regarded with a dash
Chapman and Becker enjoy the lighthearted banter at
the end of the day, but when it comes to their science,
they're all business. They believe that their work
is an essential complement to traditional oceanographic
approaches. "The real strength and power of our work
is that it ties everything else together," Chapman
"It's taken some time for whale and sea-bird and seal
biologists to gain acceptance in the oceanographic
research world, however," Chapman said.
"I think in some places, the impression is: the science
is going on down there, and we're just bird watching,"
But, Chapman said, their approach is gaining momentum
as oceanographers recognize the clear-cut relationships
between sea birds and physical and oceanographic variables.
"It's amazing, even just in the course of these [SO
GLOBEC] cruises, how far people have come in their
thinking and their ability to see the big picture."
Certainly, Chapman and Becker have the best vantage
point for seeing the big picture. They also have a
chance to develop genuine awe for their subject matter.
"It's just continually amazing to see how these birds
have adapted to such a harsh environment yet diversified
as well," Becker said. "It's not like they're all
cookie-cutter birds." The birds range from the wandering
albatross, which has wings spans of up to 9-feet to
the tiny Wilson storm petrel, which is the size of
a swallow and patters on the water.
"They're incredibly beautiful as well, as unscientific
as that sounds," Becker said.
Studying - and living - life atop the food chain
In contrast to the Palmer, predator work dominates
on the Laurence M. Gould. Brett Pickering and
Chris Denker of the Polar Oceans Research Group just
returned from an 11-day camping trip on Avian Island,
a tiny island south of Adelaide Island, where they
were tagging Adelié penguins and collecting diet samples.
They'll follow the tagged penguins remotely for several
months to learn where they travel and how deep they
Pickering and Denker camped in Scott tents and made
use of a Chilean refuge, a dilapidated wooden hut,
to cook and get out of the wind. Twelve hours from
the Gould and at risk of being trapped in ice,
Pickering and Denker brought two back-up tents, a
man-hauling sled, a Zodiac inflatable boat, generators,
and plenty of safety equipment.
"It wasn't a normal camping trip," Pickering said.
"We probably had close to 1000 pounds worth of stuff."
They also had to bring computers, as the satellite
tags have to be programmed at the last minute to conserve
battery life. To keep the computers from freezing,
they stored them in a cooler with hot water bottles
and heat packs.
There were more than 1000 fur seals, as well as some
elephant and weddell seals, covering the tiny island
when they first landed. "The first few days the seals
didn't know what to think of us. They were a little
testy," Pickering said.
Pickering and Denker successfully tagged 14 penguins
and coaxed several penguins into giving them diet
samples. " That means we pump their stomachs full
of salt water and turn them upside down, gently,"
Adeliés mainly eat krill and fish, which Pickering
and Denker sorted and counted in the biology lab back
on the Gould. "We stink up the lab; everyone
hates us in our lab," Pickering joked.
The first birds they caught were full of krill, nearly
300 grams (10.5 ounces), Pickering said. "It's like
a plateful, it really is. More than I'd want to eat
Pickering, along with the other voyagers on the Gould,
did eat krill when the Gould's cooks offered
krill cakes (like crab cakes) one night. "They weren't
bad," said seal scientist Jen Burns of the University
of Alaska, Anchorage. "The krill frittata last year
was pretty bad, however."
Back on the Palmer, not missing the krill feast
at all, Chapman and Becker were enjoying another peaceful
day in the bird box. "On a good ice day, this is the
best place in the house," Becker said.
See also: Sidebar
- Listening for Echoes from Krill