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?

I see the light

Dr. Rowan taking images of the night sky. A little milky way and already you can see that it is just not getting entirely dark with the faint light on the horizon.

When I say I love light, it means I love the colors and many dynamics of light that make the landscape stand out as one of the most beautiful places on the planet. We have tried to take advantage of the many faces of light as the sun set gets later and later in the day since in a few weeks there will be no more dark.

Stars and aurora on one of the last nights of real (or at least mostly) darkness before the bright light of summer.

The light makes colors here that contrasts with the white and black volcanic ground. Soon we will be taking photos of the various shades of white, but for now, it is a calidascope.

You can see why they call it the Royal Society Range. (ya there is probably a history to that too, but I think it should be simply due the majestic views that this mountain range provides).

We pay for the color by getting out in the (a bit colder) weather to take the images.

Dr. Rowan capturing the amazing light.

But in the end, the time on the ice in the cold (especially when drinking hot chocolate) is well worth it for the experience, and sometimes the images.

I love ice.

Dayton’s wall

Dayton’s wall is named after Scientist Dr. Paul Dayton, one of many pioneering researchers who did the foundational work on the ecology of this region.

One of my favorite dive sites, anywhere in the world, Dayton’s wall is a site dominated by sponges and diversity of life. In this video, you can join us on our dives and see all of the life that carpets the seafloor. You can see in this video why we spend so much time talking about ice….

Sometimes when filming, I miss the action being transfixed by the invertebrates on the seafloor.

The above is a bit more from Dayton’s wall. The funny part is that I shot this video of the sponges and soft corals on the seafloor. I didn’t notice the seal until after the dive when I was editing what I had shot (i.e. filmed) underwater. You can tell that seal really likes Dive Supervisor and all around great guy Rob Robbins.

More on Anchor Ice

Anchor ice, as Rowan explained in her post, is really pretty and the ocean freezing in front of us. It is also a great disturbance that leads to the seafloor ecosystem being pretty different than many places. The depth of sea ice formation is anywhere from around 10m (30ft) to in pretty cold years, 20m (60ft). This year it is down to around 54 ft. The reason why this impacts the community is that as the ice forms, it grows on anything that it can and especially sponges.

Here you can see the sea ice forming on this sponge (Homaxinella balfourensis). This fast growing sponge will grow and cover the seafloor until it is removed by predators or anchor ice.

The sponge community here is very dynamic with sponges that live hundereds to maybe thousands of years. And others… particularly one Homaxinella balfourensis that grow quickly but are also grazed upon and removed. Above is an images of a field of Homax (as I call them) but covered in anchor ice that is slowly acting like a baloon to pull them up to the surface ice.

Here is a Homax colony that is not long for this world. It has been floated up to the surface by anchor ice, pulling a soft coral and some mud with it. All will be frozen into the ice and be no more.

In the deeper areas, the long lived sponges dwell. We have studied these in the past and know that they grow to the size of a baseball in ~10 years or so but they reach huge sizes and have age estimates in the centuries not decades.

This vibrant community of sponges and other invertebrates (like Lila talked about in her post) grow deeper than the anchor ice can get meaning they can live for a very long time without ice removing them. Unless an iceburg comes along. Then they are frozen toast.
As a parting shot – Here is Rowan peering at all the different bits of life that have been pulled off the seafloor and frozen into the ice above.