Welcome Back!

We have been studying how shallow water corals are part of the ocean ecosystem to better understand out future and the way biology can amplify change, and not always for the better.

After a bit of a break from our blog, we are back and embarking upon a new project in Antarctica. For the past few years we have been working all over the Pacific Ocean to better understand how it works, from the coral reefs of Mo’orea, French Polynesia to the deep sea off of Oregon and New Zealand. Throughout this we have continued to be amazed by the diversity and amazing life that supports humanity through a multitude of ways.

Sometimes we stay local to improve our research skills – for example here is a dive from Clear Lake, OR. We dove here since the water is cool (around 40 F or 4 C) so we can use the gear we use in Antarctica without sweating too much.

This year, and for the next 4 years, a team of 3 scientists a cinematographer, educator and visual artist (although not all at once) will join an expedition back to Antarctica to better understand the role of this vast continent in the gasses that shape our current and future climate. We will be actively blogging and sharing the experiences from August until November for the next few years.

During our training we spent many dives in Oregon looking at the pretty wildlife. This lingcod was a great subject to practice our camera work on (since it didn’t move much at all when we approached it – my favorite kind of fish.)
The First Deploying Team is Lila Ardor Bellucci, Dr. Rowan McLachlan, and Dr. Andrew Thurber.

The first step of the journey is a multi leg trip to New Zealand. Travel on COVID test willing this starts on August 15th – just a few days away.

A post trip update

Well the trip went great. Tons of wonderful samples however due to being at the ends of the earth we couldn’t get the bandwidth to keep up our blog.  I’ll keep putting some highlights here even though we have returned to the land of the warm, although we are now in winter after our nice stay in Antarctic summer.


Soft Coral and light

Ahhh trainings…

The View from McMurdo.  It never gets old.

The View from McMurdo. It never gets old.

WE MADE IT!  Needless to say it is a relief to be back to Antarctica after four years away.  It is somewhat like returning home again but really only in regards to it being a research home.  Upon arriving we get swept right into trainings upon trainings.  These are some of the more fluid items that change periodically and this year had some big changes.  Here is just a smattering of the trainings that both Sarah and I have to complete before we can head out into the field:

Science Inbrief – this one is pretty straight forward.  Hello, Welcome, Do good and don’t break rules.  Here are the names of people whom will be helping you but you will meet.  I’m always happy to see certain people in this meeting as I know that parts of my research will succeed.  Tony runs the mechanical shop (MEC) and provides our cool tracked vehicles and drills. Michael is in charge of shipping and one of the greatest (annoyances) challenges of science is dealing with shipping samples.  Both of these people have been here for decades and if they were not I would be worried.  They are here – sigh of relief.. and on to the next training.

CORE training (Classroom Vehicle training, Fire Safety, Waste Briefing, Medical Briefing) – Don’t get in a crash and drive slow.  Don’t burn the station down.  Throw stuff in the right trash. Don’t get sick and if you do come see the doctor.  Check!

Practical Vehicle training –  Here is the truck/ piston bully (tracked vehicle) and here is how you start it and don’t break it/ catch it on fire. Check!

During training we get taught how to ride in the helicopters and ride these snowmobiles. Neither of which are we likely to do this season. .

During training we get taught how to ride in the helicopters and ride these snowmobiles. Neither of which are we likely to do this season. .

Snowmobile training (standard) – This is a snowmobile. I usually avoid this training simply because I do not love snowmobiles down here.  They are a bit chilly and more than that we don’t dive out of them so largely this training is not something we will use. Not Check!

Crary Lab Safety Orientation – Don’t die of chemical burns and don’t mess up the environment. Check!

Meeting with Crary Lab IT to gain access to wireless network – We will let you check your email and update your blog now… Check and whoo hoo.

Environmental Field Brief  – Antarctica is delicate don’t mess it up! Check (well not really… that’s Tuesday but I look forward to getting it checked)

FST Training Classes – This is how you don’t get hurt by Antarctica as she is an unforgiving beast.  For me this was a day course and for Sarah a day course plus an additional day getting instructed how to be safe on the sea ice (I’ve taken the sea ice course three times before so just got the PPT refresher).

MacOps Pre-Field Communications Briefing – This is how you use a radio and who to call.  Check!

Science Sample movement from the field to McMurdo – Pretty self explanatory in the name…

MOCA (McMurdo Operations Cargo Application) – This is the database that will let you ship samples off continent and back where they need to be.

Lab Waste Briefing – How to dispose of lab waste. In Antarctica this is more specifically, how do you put lab waste into a waste stream so it can be shipped off continent.  There is ZERO waste disposal in Antarctica (with the exception of effluent from the sewage treatment plant – but not the solids from it.  Those get shipped off as well).

MEC Allocation – Here are your drills, chainsaws, and anything else you may need.

BFC Allocation – The BFC is where we get field supplies that are not motors.  This is everything from survival bags (fingers crossed we never use them) to toilet paper.

Communications Equipment Allocation – Here are your radios! Check.

Dive Operations – This is the introduction to diving in Antarctica and how the dive locker runs.  Not listed but part of this is also a check out dive.

Implementer – I guess I haven’t done this one yet since I have no idea what it means… getting there.

All in all the trainings take around 6 business days. The good news is that there is only one non-business day in Antarctica and that is Sunday.

I will also say that the internet connection this year is not what it used to be so we will be updating the blog as we get intermittent windows of good internet but those currently seem to be rare.  This blog, for example, was supposed to post weeks ago but we haven’t been able to get it on line.

Since then this happened:

Cinder Cones Shallows

Cinder Cones Shallows


A long travel day(s)

We have embarked on our expedition and taken the short jaunt from Corvallis, Oregon USA to Christchurch, New Zealand.  There are a few routes to get here but we went by way of Sydney, Australia so from departure on the first flight until landing in New Zealand was ~28 hours. While that is a long time, our flights were easy and comfortable and we even caught some sleep.  The time change is 20 hours between NZ and the west coast of the US so we are a bit confused by the day night cycle but its great to be on our way.


Christchurch is always a great place to be.  The botanical garden is among the nicest places to go for a walk with the local birds singing and plants you see few other places.  Plus, having left fall in the northern hemisphere and found spring in the southern hemisphere all the plants are happy and blooming.

Plants are blooming.

Plants are blooming.

After a day of getting fitted with our ECW gear (extreme condition weather gear) we were turned loose on the city to see the sites.  However a scientist is rarely “done” and so part of that was sitting in our hotel rooms catching up on the myriad of work that doesn’t end just because you are not on the same continent that your job is.

Today, (Tuesday NZ time and Monday US time) we checked all of our gear in for the flight and just made the weight cut off. We are allowed (each) 85 lbs of checked luggage so needless to say, I had 85 lbs exactly and Sarah had 84 lbs.  Thankfully they don’t weight our carry on since we both are essentially carrying bricks worth of scientific gear.

Us packing "lightly"

Us packing “lightly”

The next part of the day is waiting to take off.  Now if you are used to being on a commercial airline this is a different beast entirely.  We wait for the planes to show up and to get the OK from weather and in many cases this is not a quick processes.  Currently we have been waiting at the terminal for four hours and have been bumped off the fast planes (C-17, C-5, or an Airbus) onto the slow plane (LC-130).  The LC-130 is super cool since it has skis on it but it means instead of a 5 hour flight we are looking at 8 hours.  This also bumps us into a forecast wind event and so might mean we don’t leave at all.  We are just in limbo for the near future and at the moment… Ok – never mind. We just got told we are not flying today.  Now we wait to find out where we are staying tonight and then we repeat tomorrow.  Hopefully with an early flight to the ice but we won’t know that we made it until we land on the ice runway.


Heading South Again and for the First Time

After a 4 year break the Cold Dark Benthos Team is headed south again.  On October 21st we depart for New Zealand en route to McMurdo to start a new project which we hope will inform us all about methane cycling in the Antarctic.  Over the past few months we have been gearing up and training up for the expedition.  Our team will again be a small one including myself and Sarah, a graduate student in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences here at Oregon State University.  Rory (our previous partner in science) has moved on having completed his PhD.

So a quick catch up – it has been a summer of challenging diving. The visibility on the Oregon and Washington coasts have been at an all time low and so for getting in our requisite training dives we have had to endure not really seeing much of each other.

Sarah diving in the Hood Canal, WA getting used to diving dry.

Sarah diving in the Hood Canal, WA getting used to diving dry.

This was in the better visibility that we had.  We also experienced a Mysid storm (equivalent of a Sharknado but much smaller) diving off Port Orford:

And then finally we got to do some good dives in the Newport aquarium, including getting the chance to ‘put it all together’ meaning that Sarah dove in drygloves, drysuit, three hoods, and Antarctic level of insulation. She was careful not to move too much since she was overheating even though the water was a (balmy) 50 degrees F.  All in all a success and we are now just waiting on tickets and departures… a little over three weeks to go.

Sarah all set for some slightly colder water down south.

Sarah all set for some slightly colder water down south.


Mountains in the Clouds

Well I would like to say I did extraordinary and exciting things today. In reality, i mostly wrapped loose ends associated with research in far flung places on the globe. Customs paperwork, lots of packing and cleaning, and a bit more of all of that is on the menu for tomorrow as well. This is what I have to show for it. Four boxes of research gear and (not shown) 8 sample containers and a freezer full of items ready to travel with me home. At the end of the day i was rewarded with a wonderful view of the discovery mountain ranges being lit by extraordinary light.

The light reflects of the glacier that is carving through the mountains giving a floating look to the peaks that have survived its ever present erosional forcing.

One of the great things is that as the sun starts to make more of a descent from the sky, the angles change. The sun is going to set in only 13 days for the first time since September. The weather has already begun its slow creep into cold as night approaches. But in the mean time it provides character to the sea (foreground), cliffs (black in front), and mountains.

How long do ice holes stick around?

A student in Julia McFarland’s class at Egan Junior High asked “how often do you have to redrill the holes in the ice.”

The answer is… well it depends. Two factors really impact this 1) how often you tend to it and 2) the time of year. Early in the season (around august through November) the ice is still thickening and it is cold out. In conditions like this it can take as little as a week until it is very difficult to re-open the hole to below. A chain saw will still work but at some point the ice has grown on the sides that one can’t fit down the hole ever if there is open water at the top. If we go out and chip it open every couple to four days, even at that time of year, then the hole will stay good for about a month. However, a hut makes a big difference and we dove out of the same hole that we drilled at the end of August until December with very little work (although we were in and out of it all the time.) So anywhere from a few days to 4 months.

This time we needed a hole to stay open that couldn’t be tended – the solution? A BIG hole. This hole has been open for over a month and not covered up. You can see that we (and I use the Royal we – meaning mostly Terril and Martin) have been chipping only half of it as it was so big. However this is also possible because of the time of the year


This is the bottom of the ice right now, and what you can see is many ruts and lines of erosion as the water is slowly melting it away from below. This creates a place for fish to live and algae to grow but also means that we don’t have to worry too much about the ice actually sealing up the hole again. On windy days it gets a frozen crust, but nothing that a bit of hard work can’t crack back open.

Warm weather diving.

In the last post I pointed out that it was pretty warm out. I spoke to soon.

The weather stayed sunny but the wind has picked up and this late in the season there is nothing in the way of shelter as we get ready to get in the water. It may be a balmy -2C (28 F) in the water but with windchill at -20 C, it is still a bit cold to have exposed hands when getting suited up. When finally putting on my dry gloves they don’t really fit mostly because both they and I are frozen. However once in the water comfort takes over again and back to science we go.

The worm tubes are dense at all the sites. One of the challenges of coring is not getting one of the clams in it. You can see their siphons sitting just below the sediment surface here (they look like a pair of holes).

The timing of this project worked out perfectly. The visibility is rapidly improving and is already up to around 100ft. Here is a close up of the worm tubes which are still in full form. Note the brownish hue on the sediment. That is likely the benthic diatoms that are still blooming away.

In addition to worms there are tonnes of different kinds of cnidarians (anemones and hydroids). They eat the passing plankton using their tentacles.

These are some of the most abundant types of infauna, they are sand anemones called Edwarsia. I had always thought that this was how they always lived but I discovered that they actually burrow around sideways just below the sediment surface in most of the cores. While the are not as numerically as abundant as the spionid polychaetes, they may provide more biomass.

This is why it is a bit difficult to get out our site. This is one of three large cracks that we have to walk over and take all of our gear over. For reference that is about a meter (3ft) across. You can also see the ice algae covering it.

If you look closely in the crack in the bottom right hand corner you can see a Pleuragramma icefish that make caves in the ice to hide from predators, mostly seals.

Terril was my dive buddy again. Here he is lite from above by the bright sunny summer day that is awaiting him. You can also see the tether that connects us.

Hot sunny weather.

It is strange to be staring out at a frozen ocean, wearing a t-shirt and sweating. That was sort of my day.

Terril and Martin have kept this hole open and ready.

After a whirl wind lab setup yesterday, today’s goal was samples. The first task was to get out to our dive hole and re-open it. Thankfully the divers down here have been looking after me (Terril and Martin). Just before the ice “closed” (i.e. no more vehicles or people are allowed on the sea ice as it was too thin/ warm/ both) they drilled a gigantic hole. A normal hole is ~3ft across and there is plenty of room for a diver. This one is a clover leaf of those same holes so it is essentially ~7ft across. It would make a lovely hot tub if it wasn’t still -2 C in the water. They also have been chipping it and keeping an eye on it – every bit of it I am thankful for. I was concerned I would come down here with a hole that once existed and a chainsaw to make it exist again. Chainsawing ice looks great when people make center pieces out of it. When you are chainsawing down, into a frozen ocean, it looks more like a fountain. Its quite pretty. However you are in the center of the fountain getting a bath in freezing water, and its rarely warm out to begin with. So again. I am thankful for the work that they put in to make my life easier.

We only chipped half the hole out, as that was still plenty. The other good news is that the plankton bloom has passed and so the visibility is already improving. When I was here before the visibility went from ~ 1000ft down to a measly 400 ft and then I left. After I left, the visibility dropped to ~7ft and now it is back up to around 60ft. This makes life much easier as I can easily see my sites from the bottom of the hole. We are still diving ‘tethered’ in that we are connected to the surface with a line to make it easier to find again since we can’t actually see the hole from where we are working. We dive with two people on the same tether (or floating rope, it could also be called) where one person manages the tether while the other works.

The sites that I marked out in early September are still there and I was back coring the mud by about 2 o’clock this afternoon. I am not sure but I think it may be near a record to only be on station for two days and already be collecting samples.

In the antarctic this is called ‘man hauling’ whether it is performed by a woman or man. It is sweaty work.

Ahh back to the weather. As we have to walk out to our dive site, wearing gear meant for cold water, we get warm. Really warm. As the ice is not good enough to support a vehicle and to spread the weight of our tanks and weight belts we haul them out on sledges behind us. The sleds with tanks et al, weigh somewhere around 230 pounds for two so that would be a lot of extra strain on the ice if we were to just wear it. So hauling 230 pounds in a sled across ice, wearing a drysuit, is well. Not dry. This also means that we have no hut to dive out of, but because it is so warm this is not an issue at all.

Terril and myself heading down to get some mud. The yellow rope is our tether.

On the Dive I collected 12 great cores (well 10 great cores and two that are good enough) and that means the science season is officially open for me. A great feeling after flying some 8 thousand miles from home and taking the better part of a week in some stage of travel.

Here again!

In true Antarctic fashion – I made it here but not quite as planned.

After what seemed like way too easy travel days, both my luggage and myself connected easily to all of my connections without extra long lay overs and I and my equipment arrived in Christchurch no worse for the wear.

Christchurch was a beautiful city. I have many fond memories of my early travels to the ice and the time there and one of the best parts of it is the botanical garden – in full bloom now as it is the height of summer. The rose garden was amazing but I am often most struck by the green leafs of plants I have not seen before, such as this one.

However ~two years ago it was hit by a town-altering earthquake and has still not recovered. Much of the town is either under construction and the city center is entirely blocked to all people as the buildings are unsafe to be around. This was an old town with much in the way of old architecture, and that is what has been mostly lost.

After a day getting settled I showed up at the Clothing Distribution Center to depart on Saturday. After checking my bags and watching safety videos about the antarctic, we got put on a hour mechanical delay (i.e. something wasn’t working on the plane). This turned into a 24 hour delay which unfortunately put us into a weather delay. McMurdo received something along the lines of 12 inches of snow in 24 hours.

Here is what the ski’s look like on the bottom of the LC-130. They are huge but allow the plane to land just about anywhere.

However bright and early today, I re-watched those same safety videos and boarded one of the LC -130s. These are prop planes that can take off using skis or wheels and can land just about anywhere. The less good part of them is that they are quite a bit slower and instead of a rapid 4-5 hour flight south, in these it takes closer to 8 hours. Originally we were supposed to take a C-17 (one of the faster planes) but they require a better runway and while this was all set – a storm came in and blew volcanic dust all over the runway. The dark material on the surface of the snow made it melt and so the nice smooth runway became a crater field… hence the LC-130.

We landed with no problems and I found myself in a nice warm overcast day in the antarctic. The weather is a warm -2C, which is warmer than it was in Oregon when I left home a little less than a week ago.

I was thankfully able to skip many of the normal briefings and got right to setting up the lab.