A shortcut to …microbes!

By this point, we have done many dives at the McMurdo Jetty dive site. It is close and provides a lot of great sampling opportunities. I have done whole research projects here. It is frequently known as the “Great Provider” for research, and it always seems to amaze. To day was no different.

We poked around a little deeper looking for microbial mats with no luck. Above you can see Rowan, Lila, and Rob heading back to the Jetty after our look around deeper with no luck.

Rob had remembered that there may be a mat around the far side so led the way.

CRIMINY! Look at it! A deep bubbly mat right next to where we have been looking for the whole trip down here. And look at all of those amazing critters around it. Bryozoans, hydroids, giant tunicates (sea squirts), and even some fish! Clearly this will fill out last week in Antarctica with some exciting science.

A late night jaunt

One of the challenges of it being light all the time now, is that colors are best at sunset. We got to enjoy a lot of amazing sunsets during winfly but that was a bit ago and now the sun never sets, it just goes behind a mountain for a quick snooze. Now that we are at all of our dive sites, we wanted some more imagery to help communicate the seasonality and different locations, so off we went late in the evening to capture some good light.

Justin, Rowan and I headed out after dinner to see if we could time clear skies with good light and we were not dissapointed.

Rowan has decided that her drysuit undergarments are the most comfortable thing ever and so now wears them whenever the cold is going to be there. So she can do things like sit on a frozen ocean taking photos and not care about the cold. You can also tell that she has gotten used to the cold of Antarctica, no hat, no gloves. It was super warm too… like -20C.

We went out to Turtle Rocks and were treated with a warm pastel glow on Mount Erebus. The light to the right of the image above was an amazing green/blue and the light hitting the many aspects of the glaciers coming down the mountain on the left made our trip worthwhile.

On the way back, the light got better and better. This shot was at midnight, the lowest the sun will get for months. I have been blown away by the panorama shots that Rowan has been getting so this was my attempt to capture images as amazing as what she captures on a daily basis.

As we head home, and the sun starts rising again we were met with one of the weird marages that appears here combined with a spectacular sunlight spectrum. Note that the land is stretched and the sky is on fire. Amazing evening on a frozen ocean to catch the light that both ends and begins the day – which co-occur here.

Fillin’ Tanks and Takin’ Names

A post by Justin Smith

Diving in Antarctica is demanding.  Really, diving anywhere can be pretty demanding.  Throw in a few layers of complexity in the form of incredibly cold weather and a ceiling of ice above your head and you’ve got quite a situation on your hands.  So what is required, in the most practical sense, to dive in Antarctica?  Support vehicles, dive huts, robust equipment, drysuits, layers of insulation, air, lights, a hole to dive in and possibly most importantly a good attitude and a cool head.  It’s amazing to watch the dive team execute the seamless dance of moving all the equipment into place, getting the work done underwater, pack up the whole show then clean and prep only to do it again tomorrow. 

At the core of this effort is Rob Robbins, the USAP Dive Services Supervisor who has been on site here at McMurdo helping us in countless ways.  The average dive duration under the ice here is 45 minutes (though I’ve seen some as long as an hour).  The entire process from walking in the door at the dive locker to returning, cleaning gear and leaving the dive locker is about a 3 hour process at even the closest location. 

Behind the scenes, Rob is inspecting gear, checking weather, doing repairs, filling tanks and keeping up probably the most tidy shop on the island.  Aside from the physical aspects required to support diving here, Rob is patiently willing to discuss any and all aspects of the sometimes overwhelming mental preparation required to dive under the ice.  Our team simply couldn’t perform the work down here without Rob’s tireless efforts.

Too Much Life

Today we dove at Turtle Rocks, which is a wonderful dive site. But it has a big problem – there is just too much life on the seafloor. Everywhere you look there are sponges, sea slugs, and tons of feather duster worms. Even the sponges are covered with other things (like you can see the yellow sponge covered with tons of different life).

The whole places is covered by life. Tons of our favorite red seastars and then all the stuff they eat from moss animals (bryozoans) to lots of microscopic algae that capture what little sunlight makes it through the ice.

All of those little white structures are the feeding structures of segmented worms (feather dusters/ sabellid polychaetes) that capture food from the water. If you look close at the lower left of the image you just see TONS of them.

Thankfully some of them stand out enough to contrast with the other colors on the seafloor.

But then when you look up, even more life. Each one of those little patches are ice algae that are growing on the bottom of the sea ice. It looks to me like a petri dish from a microbiology lab.

And that is one of the wonderful contrasts of Antarctica. Ice, more ice, and a bit of ice on the surface. Maybe a penguin or seal. Maybe a wee titch of black rock. But underwater is a myriad of colors and life soo crowded that it muddies the photos with diversity. Not a bad problem to have, but it can make some of the photos harder to stand out.

Spot the Hitchhiker

Having made it to our new site, (named Turtle Rocks) we popped in to get a good look at what was around. It was a bit of a brisk dive as we spent the day making a hole and then the heater wouldn’t start so we were diving in a hut but it was not warm.

One aspect of diving is buoyancy where we have to balance our breathing and the air in our suit to float. You have seen lots of videos of Rowan and Lila having superb buoyancy where it seems like they just hover in air, but that is some mad skill and not easy. A good example of this is Rowan (in the video above) hovering soooo close to the bottom that she doesn’t even see that a wee sea star grabs on for a short ride. I’m sure that sea star had many a good tale about the land monster that grabbed them later on.

Looking up and up

We spend a lot of time looking up and watching the sea ice change throughout the season. It is still growing but as we look in the cracks things are changing. More and more there are schools of thousands of little (juvinile) fish hanging out in there. They are like little specs in the image above but if you look closely there are an amazing amount of them.

The diversity and plethora of life under the ice is amazing, if one is only able to look at it.

Dr. Rowan looking at the amazing ice cracks from beneath.

A snowy day

This was not today.

Some days are glorious and sunny down here. It may be a solid -10 (either F or C) but it can be really lovely. Today was not that day. We drove back in driving snow with limited visibility. There were still tons of levels of safety (GPS, Field survival bags, two vehicles, and a Sat Phone not to mention a station that knew exactly where we were coming and going that has a Search and Rescue Team on standby at all times) keeping us safe but it was… as we like to say “blowey” because it was blowing >40 knots. I would show you what today looked like but just picture a white screen or piece of blank paper. It looked like that.

So instead here is a video with our 360 Cam showing how surreal diving in Antarctica is. You can see me swim by a Sea Angel at one point (a Pteropod – a voracious, as well as beutiful predator of plankton).

Sometimes we all just need a minute to look outside

The view of the Royal Society Range is as dynamic as anything. It is really hard not to spend the day just staring out the window. But with wind and snow and soo many colors, there is always a minute here or there to see what is going on outside. Sometimes it looks like this:

The view on a random morning heading into the lab to start the day. Click for larger version.

Not all places are as warm…

Here is the crack that allows us access to the seafloor without having to use our giant drill (which can’t make it out here because of cracks like this)

Cinder cones is a great place to be back to. Its been 5 years since I was last here and this is the focal place for our research. The sea ice has remained a challange in different ways but we were able to get a route here but unfortunately not a nice large heated hut. Instead, we have the Dive Tomato that is imaged in Lila’s post. Unlike our huts, these are only heated when we get here and today, the heater misbehaved so it was brisk.

Not as warm as some places, but still great to be out of the wind (which was blowing pretty good that day)

This also means that we don’t get a nice circular hole and instead we are diving through a nice wide crack. Plus we have to chop up the ice each day before we go in, improving the crack into a nice dive site.

If you look closely you can see Dr. Rowan through the ice chunks heading off to science.

But the cold is worth it for the view on the way down. Here is Lila getting her sampling gear off of the downline before we head off to sample our new site.

Underwater Imagery… lots other than point and click

Hi Fish!

We are super fortunate to be able to use really nice underwater image equipment, cameras that are able to capture images that were simply not possible a few years ago. However, one of the aspects of underwater photography is that if anything leaks, the cameras are toast. Soggy toast (i.e. dead). This means we are vigilantly in trying to keep the housings watertight through cleaning o-rings before and after dives. Here is a short timelapse of me changing one of the cameras from wide angle (with a big dome port) to be ready for a dive where I am going to shoot Macro images. This is really around 30 minutes of work each day.


(Not sure why the video won’t embed but there is the video link above).

Hi Baby Fish!

In the video above, I am swapping the camera from Video setup for macro images. Macro is shown above with the wee fish. We use a 100mm lens for that and then strobes and a macro light to be able to get a good image of that. Here is the Macro setup in all of its (super awkward above water but strangely not in the water) setup:

..Macro setup. Lots of lights… some are probably extraneous like the ones at the corners but they make it easier to focus. The strobes on the very ends are just camera flashes to provide a burst of light rather than a constant shine.

When shooting video we have to use constant lights to light the scene. Red disappears in as little as 2m or 6ft so to get well-colored images we have to be within 1m or 3 ft of our subject (cause the light has to go both ways from our lights to the subject and back). So we use stupid powerful lights to illuminate the scene how it looks to us underwater. We also put a really big dome port on the front to allow our lenses a good angle of coverage. I don’t have the camera in the housing at this point (so you can see right through it).

The final setup is when we use strobes with the dome port. The image at the very top was shot that way. It freezes the action and also lights the scene. The strobes (aka flashes) provide WAY more light than even the most powerful video lights. We connect to the strobes with small fiber optic cables that tell the strobes when to fire when a little red light is emitted from an adaptor in the top of the housing. Here is that setup:

Here is the strobe and wide-angle setup. It is also a bit of a beast above water but strangely smooth underwater. In addition, the larger the camera the housing the less it shakes when shooting video. The size smoothes everything out.
Ya… and then sometimes you shoot a landscape scene with the macro setup. No solid rules in photography right?