Question Grab-bag

Hi! We’ve been receiving a lot of great questions via the website and social media pages, so today I thought I’d pull a few from the grab-bag. It’s very fun for us to share our journey and our science with you, so ask away!

If you melt the ice from an old iceberg and drink it, what does it taste like?

It should taste like fresh water because that’s what icebergs consist of, just like snow in your backyard. Icebergs are created over time by many layers of snowfall, which become compacted, and this ice mass gradually moves along the continent to the sea as glaciers. When some of this compacted ice calves (breaks) off the glacier, it becomes an iceberg and floats out to sea, where it will eventually melt.

Adélie penguins perch on a blue iceberg

Photo © Marlo Garnsworthy

Very old icebergs can look blue in color because, over time, they have become so compressed that all the air bubbles have been pushed out from between the ice crystals. You may have seen pictures of icebergs with other colors. Icebergs with black, brown, and/or reddish streaks usually look that way because the glacier has picked up rocks and dirt during its journey across the land. Some icebergs look green or greenish-brown because they have phytoplankton (such as diatoms) growing on their undersides and have tipped over in turbulent waters—we have seen a lot of sea ice that looks that way.

In fact, the idea to drag icebergs to water-stricken areas of the world as a source of fresh drinking water has been suggested though never implemented.

Do the animals like the penguins you come across seem curious of you or timid?

The seabirds all seem curious. The albatrosses and petrels hang out (I'm convinced) just to play on the breeze around the ship. Some seabirds do follow ships in the hopes of a free meal, too. I've had numerous occasions, especially sitting up on the bridge, where petrels will glide alongside and stare in at us for a while, seeming as interested in us as we are in them! Yesterday, I saw my first giant petrel, who sat beside the ship for quite a while, staring up at it with clear curiosity.

Snow petrel studying us.

Photo credit: Christina Riesellman

The humpbacks seem curious at times or unconcerned, but the orcas have all pretty much ignored us. The reactions of the Weddell seals were varied: one would defecate in fear and quickly get away like a big slug, while the one right next to it might loll back and stare while it had a good scratch. I guess some have seen a ship before and others have not, or perhaps they just have individual personalities. The Ross seals seemed calm, and the few I saw lazed about staring.

A Weddell seal watches our ship pass

Photo © Marlo Garnsworthy

The few solitary emperor penguins we’ve seen have each been quite dignified and just stared solemnly at us or gazed in the other direction, as if pondering something else entirely.

Adélie penguins react to a skua

Photo © Marlo Garnsworthy

The Adélie penguins tended to freak out as soon as they saw/heard/felt us coming—after all, the ship is noisy, especially when it’s breaking through the sea ice where the Adélie penguins like to rest. They're very small and are usually in pairs or larger groups, and they never seem to know which way to run when they see us coming. They waddle back and forth squawking to each other and then fall over their own feet and swim along the ice on their bellies. But I also saw some that seemed more concerned by skuas (which landed by the Adélies as we passed); they pretty much ignored us as they huddled together, looking at the skuas, then waddle-ran from them. (Have I mentioned how incredibly cute Adélie penguins are?)

What type of samples are you collecting?

We're collecting diatoms (which are a kind of phytoplankton) from water:

  • live diatoms, which we're growing and filtering out of seawater for later analysis,

  • particles that are sinking through the water column as part of marine snow (the various particles that sink through the water column and are either eaten by organisms or make their way to the seafloor), including dead diatoms

  • and fossil diatoms and sediment in general from the deep-sea floor—in the form of sediment cores

  • We also take water samples.

  • As far as particles and sediments go, our primary goal is to isolate diatoms, but we’re actually interested in the entire sample: diatoms, lithogenic (stuff from land), carbonates (another biomineral that fossils are made of), and organics.

Diatoms, which are found in each of these sample types, are really cool and super important: they’re part of the base of the food chain, they take up masses of carbon dioxide, and along with other marine phytoplankton, produce much of the oxygen we breathe. In fact, the success of diatoms has a huge effect on global climate, so we’re interested in understanding more about that process and how it has changed over time. Our areas of interest on this cruise are to do with nitrogen and silicon isotopes; nitrogen and silica are both essential nutrients for diatoms.

How deep is the ocean where you are?

It varies, of course, because the seafloor has valleys and mountains, canyons and plains, just as land does. This very moment, the depth sounder says the seafloor is 4,010 meters below us, which is roughly two and a half miles. But I have noticed readings under 3000 meters and well over 6000 meters as we have travelled along. In fact, as I write this, we are just about to go over an undersea cliff—the seafloor will suddenly rise 1000 meters closer to the ship.

I know you exercise every day. Is that a challenge on the ship?

In theory, no. We have a gym, and many of us use it. We’re all busy, so it’s mostly a matter of finding time if you desire a workout. Also, it can be hard to use the gym when the boat is really tossing about, which it often is. I’m sure we’re actively engaging our core muscles most of the time as we attempt to stay upright while the boat is moving or rolling. Personally, I walk about the ship a lot, and there are many stairs, especially if you want to climb five decks up to the bridge, which is a fun place to visit and hang out.

How do you all get along with each other? Is it easy to withdraw?

It’s just one big floating family, and we’ve all been having a lot of fun and making friends—not just among the science team, but with those who work on the ship in other roles such as the IT folks, the marine technicians, the chef, and the crew. All but two of us aboard (me being one of them) have been to sea before, and I believe every single one of us has experienced living in small group environment for extended periods, which requires good social skills and an appreciation of others’ space and boundaries. (Personally, I’ve made some wonderful buddies so far whom I’ll be quite sad to say goodbye to.)

The aft control room

Photo © Marlo Garnsworthy

If you need to get away, there’s your cabin, or you can go out on deck. The aft control room (when it’s not being used during an operation) is also a lovely quiet space to hang out with lots of windows, plus there are the conference room and two lounges if you want to watch TV or play video games. My favorite thing to do when I need space (or just because it’s really enjoyable) is to put my headphones on, make a cup of tea, and hang out on the bow, enjoying the view, the wildlife, and the rising and falling of the waves.

What does it sound like when the ship plows through ice?

Amazing. It’s not just an auditory experience but a fully physical one. How it sounds depends a bit on where you are. In the galley, which is in the bow, it’s so loud you can barely hear others talking—HUGE metallic bangs and scrapings that shake the place and fill the air. If you’re higher in the ship, you can still hear banging and crunching. The entire ships shudders and rumbles and jerks. I have taken some video and will post when I can.

Are you ever bored? Is there even "down time"?

No way on boredom. There’s always someone to talk to, a new view to see or wildlife to identify, something interesting to look at under the microscope, a game to play, etc. We also work very hard and often at odd hours, so there’s plenty to keep us busy. We do have downtime, but it can be a bit unpredictable in terms of timing. It really depends what’s on the schedule on any given day, and our schedules can change quickly if rough weather affects an operation or if an operation doesn’t go as well as planned.

For example, since we’ve had some frustrating experiences with getting the sediment we’re attempting to retrieve from the seafloor, we’ve had to stay longer at some sampling stations than expected. Team members might find themselves needing to stay up late or get up in the wee small hours to work because of schedule change.

When we’ve had more extended downtime, we’ve organized some fun events: foosball and cornhole tournaments, a scavenger hunt, science talks, card games, something of a talent show, movie nights, and so forth.

What does the night sky look like? I've never been in the Southern Hemisphere—describe it to me!

For much of the journey, we haven’t had night as such because the sun never sets during the Antarctic summer, which it is now. Funnily enough, it seems to get even brighter between midnight and 2 AM—perhaps it’s something to do with the angle of the sun. Whatever it is, being in full sunlight at 1 AM is a fun and unique experience.

However, as we’ve moved north (and beyond the Antarctic Circle), we’ve gradually been having longer nights (though they’re still relatively short). Alas, they’ve been quite cloudy. On one of those, I got up a bit after midnight to observe a deep-sea core coming up, and it was fully dark and snowing. Also, when we are stopped and undergoing a nighttime operation, the ship is brightly lit, so it might be hard to appreciate the night sky.

On the aft deck during a nighttime operation. It’s snowing, but the deck is wet from waves washing onto it.

Photo © Marlo Garnsworthy

One thing to note: in the Southern Hemisphere, the man in the moon appears to be upside-down. Another thing we’ll be looking out for on a starlit night is the famous Southern Cross, a constellation of five stars only visible in the Southern Hemisphere. It would also be wonderful to see the Aurora Australis—the Southern Lights.

What is your daily schedule like?

Variable. It really depends on where we are in our science schedule, which can change quickly due to weather and the sea state—an operation might become impossible in heavier seas due to danger to people and equipment. If an operation is unsuccessful and needs to be repeated, that can change the schedule, too. It’s not unusual for the science team to have to work through the night. On a perfect day, we would try to achieve the following at any given sampling site:

  • Arrive onsite

  • Survey (to find the optimum site to sample)

  • CTD and water sampling (followed by filtering of diatoms, nitrate, silica and chlorophyll analysis)

  • McLane Pumps (particle filtering/collection)

  • Megacorer or other coring (followed by processing of the sample)

  • Transit to the next site

What do you miss most?

Apart from family and friends, personally, I’m not missing a single thing, even though we’ve been out here for a while. However, what people might not appreciate is just how cut off from civilization we are. If you miss a favorite food or you need something you didn’t bring, you can’t run out to the store to get it. There’s no mail delivery, no TV, not much in the way of news, and while our IT team work hard and long hours to ensure we always have reliable Internet, they are at the mercy of satellites, weather, and the limitations of our bandwidth.

These things that might seem like lacks or limitations are one of the things I’m enjoying the most. It’s very freeing to have few possessions with you, to not be attached to media all the time, to not have to go to the store. I would go so far as to say it makes you examine your life back home and think about living differently.

But that’s me, so I decided to go around the ship and ask everyone else what they miss. Here are people’s responses, in no particular order:

  • Pets

  • Driving

  • Green plants

  • Online shopping

  • Twitter

  • My bathrobe

  • Eating breakfast in my underwear

  • NBA

  • Walking barefoot (we have to wear close-toed shoes at all times outside our cabins)

  • Being outside more

  • Good olives

  • Not having to ration my chocolate supply

  • Cooking and choosing my mealtimes and what I eat

  • Running

  • Strong Internet

  • Phone calls that don’t cut out and in which you can hear every word

  • Going to the pub for beer/burgers

Is it very confining being crowded on a ship with thousands of other people?

There are 21 crew, 10 technicians (IT, marine, electrical, lab, medical), and (on our cruise) only 14 scientists, and it’s a big ship. It doesn’t feel confining or crowded at all.

Our vessel, the RV/IB N.B. Palmer docked at McMurdo Station. Discovery Hut—Scott of the Antarctic’s expedition base—is just visible to the left on Discovery Point.

Photo © Marlo Garnsworthy

I'd be interested to know where are the other people from and what they do.

Our science team all currently live in the USA except for Christina Riesellman, who lives in New Zealand and works at The University of Otgao. But, originally, we are from the USA, Canada, France, Mexico, and Colombia, and I’m an Aussie. You can find out more about them here. You’ll be meeting the very fine folks who keep this ship functioning and support our science in coming days.

Thanks to everyone who has sent us questions. Keep them coming. We love answering them and look forward to hearing from you!


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