New Digs

Exciting news! The last few days, the team has been diving at a new (third) site in McMurdo Sound: Cinder Cones. This site is particularly special because it’s the one the proposal for our work here was most driven by. For years there was no seep here, but over the last 10 years, different sections of methane seepage suddenly “turned on”. It’s the first time scientists have known when a methane seep actually started and it gives us a really unique opportunity to watch the microbial community and ecosystem evolve over time. Cinder Cones is the only seep site the Thurber Lab has existing samples from in Antarctica and for that reason it was one of the most important for us to get back to and collect samples to watch the community change.

With the thinner than usual sea ice year we’ve been experiencing down here, it has taken quite some time to make it out, but we finally got there! I’ve been focusing all my dives on sampling, so I don’t have any pictures to share yet, but the team will post some very soon. We’re excited to tell you more about how things have changed since Andrew last saw this site in 2016. For now, here are pictures of the journey.

Although I love the other two sites we’ve gotten to dive at, the Jetty and Dayton’s Wall, one of the most exciting aspects of our dives at Cinder Cones is the hour long commute along the sea ice. Every day Rowan and I can’t help but say “can you believe this is our freaking job??” It’s an incredibly beautiful place that we get to call home right now, and we are very lucky to be able to get off station as often as we do.

Every day now Rob, Andrew, Rowan, and I take two PistenBullys full of dive and sampling gear out and around Hut Point (avoiding some of the big cracks that stretch out from the point every year) and head northward. It’s a bumpy ride, especially for our lovely dive tenders who sit in the back cab, but I think we all agree it’s worth it for the views (and the science obviously!). To our right is the Hut Peninsula we live on, Mount Erebus looms in front of us, and the Transantarctic Mountains stretch out to our left as far as the eye can see. We drive until we’re on the sea ice side of Castle Rock (check out my post about our first hike) and there, near another crack, is Cinder Cones.

The apple we dive out of at Cinder Cones. Castle Rock is just up and left of the open apple door. Erebus looms in the background to the left.

Here we’ve been diving out of an apple (which we dragged out and set up ourselves with the PistenBully). It’s not quite as toasty or spacious as the dive huts the big machines drove out to our other two dive sites, but we’re starting to get the hang of it now.

The extra time in the cold and drives out to the dive site make for long days, so the site of our little McMurdo home off in the distance is always a welcome one. On that note, after another missed lunch out at Cinder Cones, it’s about time for a warm dinner! Thanks for reading and can’t wait to show & tell you more about this exciting site.

Creatures of Dayton’s Wall Shallows

Dayton’s Wall is one of our two main dive sites at the moment – named after Paul Dayton, the pioneering polar diver and ecologist who first characterized many of the sites divers visit in McMurdo Sound today. Here our blinking descent line drops down to a whopping 102 ft, from which we venture even deeper onto Dayton’s Wall itself to collect imagery of the all the critters it is home to. Our time at these depths is limited, and our dive computer soon lets us know it’s time to ascend a little. It’s always hard to leave behind the dense sea life of the wall (just let me take one last picture!), but there are still plenty of cool animals to admire in the “shallows” (anywhere else I would not consider 70 ft shallow).

This sea star and sea spider hanging out on a sponge for example, surrounded by other sponges, anemones, and soft coral. Many of the animals here are suspension feeders (they eat what’s floating in the water) and usually hang out with their tentacles extended. If they sense a threat though, they’re quick to close up into a more protective pose like the anemone below. Also notice how the pink coral below (in the background) has its tentacles out, unlike the ones near the sponge above.

Backboneless animals here are nice because they stay still and are easy to take pictures of. Slightly more challenging (only slightly) are the fish. It’s kind of impressive how slow moving and fearless the fish are here though. The other day I was sampling in one spot for a while and one got so curious it basically ran into my face. Below is a bernacchii with golden galaxy eyes followed by an Antarctic dragonfish with glittering emerald eyes.

After some fun macro photography in the “shallows” it’s time to head to head further up and enjoy the glowing blue world of the real shallows. I know we’ve talked a lot about anchor ice (the cool ice crystals that form on the bottom) but it really never gets old.

Eventually our hands start going numb and we all turn to each other and give the look that says “Yeah. I’m cold. Please let’s leave?” We spend the rest of our safety stop admiring the blue ceiling and trying to wiggle warmth into our fingers before clipping our cameras back on to the down line and heading up the hole one by one, excited to talk about all the cool things we got to see.

Getting to Know the Seafloor

We’ve been starting to show you images of what the icy surface of the Ross Sea looks like from below, but some of the most fascinating things we’ve seen are actually on the seafloor. Not everyone is aware of the fact that there’s actually a rich community of organisms living in these waters, and rightfully so! It’s pretty impressive that their existence is possible in a world that lacks any light and food from algae for many months of the year.

The top of “Dayton’s Wall”, the animal-covered feature for which this dive site is named. Our descent line in the background.

The last two days I have taken a break from sample collection tasks and have instead been taking down a camera. Although there’s much more living on the seafloor than I could possibly take pictures of, I’d like to introduce you to a few of the animals we sea regularly.

Believe it or not, we’re not just collecting mud and water for microbes, we’re also collecting three animals. Odontaster sea stars, Sterechinus sea urchins, and Parborlasia nemertean worms (they look and smell like intestines). Part of what we’re interested in researching here is whether animals like these eat the microbes we study as a food source. Some of the ways we figure that out are by sequencing the genes in their guts to see what microbes are inside and by analyzing their body tissues for signatures of those unique microbes. You really are what you eat!

Odontaster sea star.
Sterechinus sea urchin.
Parborlasia worm.

Most of the organisms living on the seafloor and in the water are invertebrates – animals without a backbone like the worms, anemones, and nudibranchs below. Most of them get food by filtering through the sediments and water for anything edible and expelling the rest. Whenever we dissect a sea star or urchin there’s a brown gut running through much of their bodies, filled with mud being processed for anything that might be of value.

Feather duster worm.
Nudibranchs – can you find the one on the right? It’s cryptic, meaning it blends in to the hydroid it’s living on.
A ctenophore (aka comb jelly). The rainbow rows are the fluttering iridescent ctenes (combs) they use to get around.
A sea star in anchor ice.

While picking out red sea stars to sample is easy, sometimes at first glance it’s hard to tell which spineless animal you’re looking at, even at a broad level. This bryozoan (a colonial invertebrate), for example, looks similar to some sponges, which are an entirely different group of animals. Rowan is sampling these for a potential project of hers – stayed tuned for more in a future post.

Other things are really apparent, like this neon spiky yellow sponge, although even these are hard to tell apart to species level with multiple species looking alike.

And yes, although invertebrates may be my personal favorite for all their complex and fascinating anatomy, so drastically different from our own, there are also fish. And down here, they too have fascinating adaptations. Many fish here, such as the Trematomus bernacchii below, have anti-freeze proteins in their blood allowing them to live in the almost -2 degree Celsius water that characterizes their environment.

And then there’s us! Totally out of place, using 100+ pounds of gear and other technology to cheat our way into an environment for which our bodies are comically ill-adapted. Taking pictures in a place where we shouldn’t be able to breathe, adjust our buoyancy, or see well. I’m grateful to be here in this alien world, bringing photos back for you all to enjoy!

Diving Under the Ice – Best Birthday Present Ever

Today I am thinking of how grateful I am to be here. In this magical place. Under the freaking ice.

Of the officially recorded USAP divers (both McMurdo & Palmer Stations), 99 of the 400 – 500 (the number is somewhere in this range) have been women. On Wednesday, Rowan and I got to be 100 and 101.

The next day, for my birthday, I got to do my first science dives collecting samples (the first two were warm ups, or…maybe cool downs? idk.). It was the best birthday present ever. On the ride out to the dive site (below), Rob and I talked about what a magical coincidence it is that we were born during this time. Diving first started in Antarctica in the 60s – people wore wet suits and let’s be clear that is way hardcore and must have been MISerable. So if we omit those years and think about how long in human history diving has been and will be possible, from the 80s until….an unknown, but potentially soon time in the next 100 years when there is no longer seasonal sea ice to dive through, that’s a shockingly small blip in time. A shockingly small window in which one would’ve had to be born to be able to do what I got to do on my birthday. In an effort to help others imagine this magical experience, here’s a description of that our first few days of diving have looked like. There is plenty more footage to come!

Rob driving the PistenBully out onto the ice.

First, after prepping our diving and science gear and getting all kitted up at the dive locker, we load up and drive out to the dive site in a tracked PistenBully vehicle (see Rowan’s last post if you’re curious). It’s a bumpy ride, but much better once you cross the transition from land to sea ice. These vehicles were made originally for grooming slopes, but on McMurdo serve the unique purpose of getting divers from town to their dive holes out on the sea ice.

Andrew loading gear into the hut. This particular bag contained cameras – yay imagery!

And we have the luxury of that dive hole being in a warm hut! Once we pull up to the hut, we unload all our gear into what has become a very steamy hut since opening the door to the cold world outside.

The plastic tube contraption hanging from the ceiling above our hole has a fan on top and does the very important job of blowing warm air into the dive hole and keeping it open. It’s no easy job getting the hole drilled and if left alone it would freeze back over very quickly. After removing the fan, we clip our dive gear onto loops at intervals along the descent line (which Andrew is holding above) and carefully drop it into the water. This is super helpful and allows us to get through the hole without clumsily clinging to a bunch of stuff or clipping it to our already bulky gear.

Once the gear is in, we all get the rest of our kit on alongside the dive hole. This process involves much whining and old man grunting and is only possible with the help of our lovely dive tenders – folks from the McMurdo community who take a break from their jobs to help us load up and prep for our dives.

And then, one by one, we all jump in, twisting around and aiming our tanks toward the middle of the hole. I’ll describe my first time through the magical portal into the under ice world. After chaotically (at least I felt chaotic) descending through a 2 meter (but seemingly eternal) tunnel filled with pieces of ice, you blink your eyes into a dark and cold expanse. Soon the down line, which has blinking lights along it so you can find your way back into the hole, becomes clear. It takes a while to gain spatial awareness and take it all in. I was so busy thinking about my kit and getting acquainted with my new dive watch that I didn’t even notice the blue crystal-covered wall in the distance. That wall is the edge of the jetty upon which McMurdo’s water intake system sits.

Our first dive, we dropped down to the bottom of our down line, which ends at about 72 ft under water. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I stared at the blue wall beyond, the glowing streaks of blue tidal cracks, and the bulbous crystal balls of ice shards along the underside of the ice. After exploring the sea floor and taking in for the first time all the fish, sea stars, urchins, and nemerteans (they’re worms that look like intestines) I had only ever seen in pictures, we moved toward the wall beyond. I tried to flip over and look at the ice ceiling above, forgetting at first that turning to the left would dump the air out of my arm. Right side up turns only! After getting that down I swam sideways, admiring the glowing links between the under ice world and the one I’d left above.

Me looking at the crystal shards of anchor ice along the McMurdo jetty. PC: Andrew.

The anchor ice along the jetty was fascinating. The closer I looked the more creatures I noticed hiding in its crevices. Every time my fin or hand brushed the ice, fragments would float up like icy confetti. I didn’t even notice the cold. Our safety stop flew by, that’s 3-5 minutes at 15 ft to prevent nitrogen in our blood stream from forming bubbles and problems.

Rowan swimming under one of the tidal cracks above us. PC: Andrew.

After spending our time admiring the shallows, we made our way back to the dive hole. Looking at the blinking lights in the distance I imagined it was close, but I was quickly reminded that Antarctic visibility (usually many hundreds of feet during this time) can be deceiving. After finally making it to the dive hole, one by one we each ascended back into the over world.

Under water you’re weightless – you forgot how much gear you’re wearing and the fact that it weighs more than 100 lbs. Once through the hole, your old friend gravity quickly welcomes back. You cling to the ladder for dear life, awkwardly attempting to unclip your gear so a tender can pry it free from your shoulders. Once you’ve hauled yourself up and gotten off your weight belt, you feel like a new human. A still very uncomfortable new human. It’s not until you manage to tear off your mask, and three layers of hoods that you feel like a real human again.

Me celebrating my first dive.
The team post first dive!

After processing urgent samples along the side of the dive hole, its time to load back into the PistenBully and drive back to town.

You never look at the sea ice quite the same after your first dive. It’s a magical thing to know what lays beneath. It’s a sharp contrast to the sunny, white, glittering world we live in above.

Rowan in the back of the steamy PistenBully.

In honor of our first dive, Rob gifted Rowan and I each patches. As a collector of patches and stickers, I can easily say this is the one I will cherish the most. Not only will it always remind me of my rare privilege of diving under the Antarctic ice, of all the experiences in my life that brought me here to this magical moment, but it’ll also remind me of the extremely cool person who gave it to me. Rob has been diving here for the last 44 years and there’s no teacher I would rather have had under water with my on my first dive. My first dive, I was nervous – about the gear, about the conditions, about messing something silly up – but with Rob and the rest of my team there I knew I’d be okay no matter what and that’s a feeling I’m very grateful for. Every time since I’ve gotten more and more confident, and now after 5 dives I’m feeling just fine about each time I plunge through our magical ice tunnel, thanks to my awesome team.

First Day Off: Castle Rock

I must admit, before yesterday, no matter how many times I looked at a map, I remained pretty confused about exactly which direction I was facing or where I was in relation to…well anything other than McMurdo. Not only is the position of McMurdo a bit confusing – it faces water, but that water is McMurdo Sound and not ocean to the North – we landed in the pitch black on an aircraft with basically no windows. Luckily for me, it all makes sense after getting to look at my new home from higher ground. For most folks on station, Sunday is the universal day off and we took this opportunity to hike up onto the icy plateau of the Hut Point Peninsula. That’s the peninsula of Ross Island, the tip of which is home to McMurdo and Scott bases (see map further down).

We set off right after brunch (another awesome Sunday occurrence in McMurdo), wearing our Sunday best (aka every layer we own). Plus extras, so called “ECW plus plus.” As we get acquainted with our own best layering systems, we always play it safe. It would stink to be hours from station and wishing you’d brought that fleece.

We made our way up to the trailhead (McMurdo is on a hill), and over the next hill to the plateau. This was arguably the hardest part of the hike and we definitely paused to ditch a layer or two before even leaving sight of station. It was fun to pass by Ivan the Terra Bus, which carried us from the airstrip just one long week ago.

Still slogging uphill from station, with Transantarctic Mountains in the background.

Just when your fingers or face start to get a bit uncomfortably cold, and you’re really wishing there were some place out of the wind to readjust your system, a cute little red shelter (aptly called an Apple or a Tomato) comes into view. It’s tall enough that the average person can stand up in it, and provides a barrier from the wind with some basic emergency gear inside, but is unheated and wouldn’t be the most fun place spend a night if weather conditions rapidly turned. It’s always important to check the weather before leaving station!

Inside the warming hut we readjusted layers, drank water, and got chilly. Turns out you get cold again when you stop moving – more of a cooling hut actually.

After warming back up, we continued upward, finally making it onto the plateau, with Castle Rock jutting out in the distance. After spending all week in town, it was a welcome change to get to stand in the glacial expanse of the peninsula, with no manmade structures other than our trail flags in sight.

Three flags mark a junction between two safe trails.

These flags play the important role of telling us where it is safe to walk. Glacial regions like this can have hidden crevasses, cracks which can be 10s or 100s of feet deep and covered with snow, invisible to the oblivious hiker. Thankfully, McMurdo has a Search & Rescue team, usually made up of experienced mountaineers, paramedics, and/or guides with SAR experience, that navigate and flag these routes for the community.

This particular turn-off led us up a rocky ridge (no crevasses to worry about here, phew), which led us to an absolutely stunning panoramic view of the peninsula and the volcanoes which make up most of the remaining island. It’s from here that I finally managed to grasp where I was.

Here I’m facing roughly NW, the Transantarctic Mountain range stretching northward into the distance, and the small dark Dellbridge Islands near the center of the image.

Above, looking roughly NE and straight down the peninsula, one can see castle rock and beyond that Mt. Erebus to the left and Mt. Terror to the right. These two shield volcanoes are names after the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, the two vessels aboard which British Royal Navy officer James Clark Ross and his team discovered the Ross Sea, explored its uncharted Antarctic coastlines, and came across Ross Island in 1841. Mt. Erebus is the southernmost active volcano in the world, and some of the teams passing through McMurdo Station conduct research from field camps located on the volcano itself.

In front of Erebus and Terror, one can make out the edges of Ross Island and the slopes of the Hut Peninsula, descending into seasonal sea ice (relatively thin sea ice, <1 m – several m thick) on the left and permanent ice shelf (floating glacier, 100s m thick) on the right.

Here I am looking roughly to the SE, the Ross Ice shelf extending for hundreds of miles into the distance (it’s about the size of France). I can’t imagine what it must have been like for early explorers to make it even to Ross Island by way of the Southern Ocean, nor can I imagine standing here and looking to the South, knowing the nearly 1000 miles (1600 km) of travel by foot (carrying heavy sledges) that it would take to get there.

In this image, one can also make out the Willy Air Field where our C17 landed last week. I feel incredibly fortunate to be alive in an age where we get to make it here that way instead.

After an enlightening and windy detour, we headed further toward castle rock, sun illuminating its angular, snow-covered, glittering walls in the distance. Later in the hear one can actually ascend the rock itself, via a roped path, but that’s closed off for now.

Castle Rock, with Mt. Erebus in the background and a teeny tiny apple/tomato to its right for scale.

Let me tell you. All this ECW gear keeps you relatively warm when you get your layering down just right, but it is not lightweight. Rowan and I did take a quick moment to collapse on the way back. And I did try to make a snow angel, but the ice packed snow did not oblige.

The ice snow was really pretty to look at though! So many glitter, much ripples.

Left: A metal sculpture of a skier. Right: Three wind turbines, installed by the joint efforts of USAP and Antarctica NZ, which produce enough energy (under ideal conditions) to power 100 average American households and save an estimated 240,000 gallons of diesel fuel per year.

As we descended back into McMurdo I was ready for the warmth of the buildings, the quirky character of the town, and the comforting rows of storage containers filled with all the things one needs to be comfortable and do science in what could otherwise be a very unfriendly place.

I have no idea.

After a half-day adventure and a big dinner to refuel, we got to end our evening with a beautiful nacreous cloud sunset, as seen from behind our dorm. The most obvious nacreous clouds in this image are those in the top right, but much of this sunset had the dancing rainbow colors that I’ve only ever seen here. It’s hard to believe it won’t be long before the sun comes up to stay.

Coolest Plane Ride Ever

We finally made it!!!! WOOOOOOO!!!

Just yesterday morning, as Rowan and I were walking to pick up breakfast in downtown Christchurch, she turned to me and said “Today is the day! I can feel it!” I didn’t want to dampen her mood, because enthusiastic optimism about our flight had been hard to come by these days, but I had looked at the weather earlier and felt pretty confident we’d probably be delayed another day. An hour later, I was sitting on a bench in downtown Christchurch, repeatedly refreshing my email, well braced for the likely news that our 9:30 “weather call” would result in another let down. As I was starting to ponder what take-out I’d try for lunch, I got a message from Andrew.

“Our flight is a go.”

I was shocked. Really??? The leisurely distractions I’d planned for the day evaporated and suddenly there was so much to do. I needed to get back to the hotel and pack back up! I speed walked back, grabbing snacks on the way. Once you’re in the US Antarctic Program (USAP) Clothing Distribution Center (CDC), where all flights check-in, you’re not allowed back out to get food (COVID protocol). I double checked everything I needed was in my carry-on and boomerang bag (all you get back if the flight is attempted, but needs to turn around). My carry on had enough entertainment to last me a few 2-hr flight delays in the CDC, and my boomerang was packed with enough clothing for another few days in Christchurch if we didn’t end up landing. I was fully expecting one or both of these things would happen.

Once we got to the CDC, the “hurry up and wait” phase began. Rapidly change into your gear, weigh your bags (only 85-125 lbs per person on the ice flight), check in for the flight, and then sit on your bum waiting for an indeterminate amount of time. Only…we didn’t wait. Once we checked in we were told we had 15 minutes until another quick training video before boarding.

I rushed to send a few texts out to my family and boyfriend, warning them it could be a few days before they hear from me again. Before I knew it the farewell video with happy penguins and humans waddling around in Big Red was over and it was time to board. We filed through metal detectors and for a moment it felt like a regular flight, but that’s where most of the similarities ended.

We were all herded from the TSA look-alike, onto a shuttle, Big Reds and orange ECW bags overflowing everywhere. We drove along the edges of the Christchurch Airport until we rolled up to the C17 we’d seen on the tarmac in the distance upon first landing almost 2 weeks ago. My heart skipped a beat. “I cannot believe I’m actually about to board that.” We filed out of the bus, being guided along by US Air Force personnel and attempting to rapid fire pictures while clumsily walking in our military-issue Bunny Boots.

The plane was cavernous. Industrial and bare, with its guts exposed for all to see. It was so cool. “Welcomeee!” boomed a female voice from over the plane’s loud speaker. We made our way to seats along the edges of the plan and watched in awe as the largest, strangest machine I’ve ever seen loaded pallet after pallet smoothly into the floor tracks of the plane. A crew member came by with ear plugs, “You’re gonna want ’em – it gets real loud.”

The pallet across from us was labeled “freshies.” Cartons of milk peeked out from the bottom corner. It held some of the first fresh produce and perishable goods the station would see after six long months without any flights in or out.

After some efficient and informative, but comical safety briefings by the Air Force flight crew, the back of the C17 folded closed, we buckled up, put in earplugs to drown out the roaring engines, and suddenly the plane began to hurdle forward. It was unlike any take-off I’ve experienced before. There’s no sound-proofing, so you feel the vibrations right to your core, and there are no windows, but your body tells you’re being flung upward into the air.

I lied. There are two teeny windows – one in each emergency exit door. After what felt like an eternity, we finally reached cruising altitude and were allowed to move about the plane. Rowan and I frequently peered through the windows – at first we saw nothing but ocean, but around 3 hours into our 5 hour flight we began to see something fascinating. Huge sheets of pack-ice loomed below us in the pink light of the fading day. Our first signs of the icy continent we were speeding toward. About an hour out from McMurdo we began to see the most never-ending expanse of mountains I’ve ever laid eyes on. As far as the eye could see – white peaks jutted out of the earth. To my surprise, my phones GPS showed me that we were over the mountain range along the Northwestern Ross Sea.

In between window watching, we found various ways to entertain ourselves. At first we were ambitious, writing blog posts and doing some offline computer work. But that rapidly transitioned into crosswords, stretching, and chatting with (aka screaming over the noise at) our new station mates. Also staring off into the distance and looking around at the plane in wonder.

To my surprise they even sold merch on the C17! Everything was marked with the “Operation DEEP FREEZE” logo. Operation Deep Freeze was the code name for the series of US scientific missions to the South Pole and later elsewhere on the continent, supported by the US military. It’s now just the general term for Antarctic military support operations.

About half an hour away from McMurdo, I turned to the officer next to me and asked “what do you think the chances are we’re actually going to land?” “They’re good, the weather looks good right now.” Announcements started directing us back to our seats and to suit up in our Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear in preparation for cabin cooling and descent. We waited in anticipation and before we knew it, there was a shuddering thud and the feeling of braking along a seemingly never-ending runway (the officer next to me informed me it was over 10,000 feet long).

The C17 rear door slowly opened, and the Antarctic air rushed in. My first breathes of Antarctic air condensed instantly in front of me. Through the door, I could see our lights illuminating massive forklifts and a passenger bus “Ivan the Terra Bus” off in the dark icy distance. Even further beyond you could spot the shining lights of the McMurdo (USAP, new home!) and Scott (Antarctica NZ) bases.

My steps on Antarctica, captured by Andrew

After a quick welcome, the doors to our bus swung shut, lights were turned off, and we began our 1 hour trip toward Scott and Mcmurdo. The C17 shrank into the distance and darkness began to envelop us, but the bus still glowed with lively chatter and tired excitement as we jostled toward station. We had finally made it. I let go of the world beyond the ice and smiled to myself thinking about all the friends and memories I would make before seeing that C17 again.

Ivan the Terra Bus – our ride to McMurdo Base.

Lights, camera … no action!

Welp! Our flight to Antarctica has been delayed enough days that we’ve begun to call our hotel room home. The Indian restaurant and Filipino bakery next door know us by name, we’re running out of non-polar clothing to wear, and Rowan and I have no new stories to tell each other. But in between days marked by PCR tests we’ve also gotten to take advantage of the extra time to prep before lights, camera, action!

Rowan in PDX with our bags (which all made it through 4 layovers – woooo!). People in the check-in line hated us.

Remember all those bags we packed? Four of them were mostly full of gear for our SEVEN cameras (that’s not even counting our two drones). That includes their underwater housings, batteries, chargers, lights, maintenance equipment and more doodads than you can imagine. Taking all the footage we’ll show you in future blog posts takes a lotttt of gear. Although we’ve all had a chance to practice using them during our prep dives for Antarctica back in the Pacific Northwest (prep pics*), there’s always more to learn. Yesterday we had the first warm sunny spring day since our arrival in Christchurch, NZ and jumped on the opportunity to take the cameras for a spin.

Fish and plumose anemone from drysuit and camera equipment training dives in the Hood Canal (Washington).
An example image I took where the colors do not reflect reality. Although a purple sky would be cool.

Although I’ve always loved taking pictures, before beginning to prep for this trip my expertise level ended at “iPhoto Expert”. F-stop who? Over the last year or so, it’s been so much fun to start thinking about all the different components of an image you can control on a camera. Things like: Do you want the background behind your subject to be blurry – how blurry? How bright do want your photo to be – what about if you’re using a separate light for flash? Is your picture really representing the colors in front of you?

All those questions get even trickier under water, especially when what’s in front of you doesn’t even look like what’s in front of you. When you’re scuba diving, it’s important to “white balance” your photos. That is, to tell your camera what’s actually white so that it can adjust for the colors (mostly red) that have been absorbed by the water above you. Without that, no pretty pink sea stars.

An example of fixing a bad white balance in Adobe Lightroom (or Photoshop). Yay green grass!

Once we got back to our hotel, I got to work in another world that was pretty foreign to me until recently – Adobe Lightroom. I had messed with Photoshop on my Mom’s computer as a kid, taking pictures of Mr. Potatohead and trying to make him skinny or voluptuous. Unfortunately, as talented as I may have felt back then, it’s safe to say my skills were lacking. After a few YouTube videos I’m a pro! Just kidding, but it has opened the door to a whole new realm of photo-editing.

After a day of taking 200 mostly “meh” photos, parsing out my 20 favorites, and fumbling around in Adobe – I present to you the following images. Yes, I really like flowers.

It’s wild to imagine that the next time I take a picture on this camera it’ll be from below the flowerless Antarctic ice, using a hand encased within 3 layers of gloves snapped onto a drysuit. A drysuit that will seal me into me into what (I hope) will be a water-tight, albeit somewhat chilly, oasis from which to observe the alien seascape around me. Despite all our training dives, it’s still hard for me to imagine what that will feel like, but I can’t wait to report back and show you what we find!

Stay tuned for future blogs, and remember, if my pictures look 25% as good as Andrew and Rowan’s it’s all my camera’s fault and has nothing to do with the operator.

Until next time!

Lila