Earning the Dive

After a nearly 2 hour drive, we finally reached Turtle Rock. What had only ever been a speck of black on the horizon, visible from our Cinder Cones dive site, was now a large mound of volcanic rubble, surrounded by happy, floppy seals. After admiring the beautiful day and trying not to jinx our incredible weather luck, our first order of business was to find a good place for our dive hole. 

We quickly realized this set-up was going to take a lot longer than any of our previous sites. The ice here was thicker than at Cinder Cones and without the option of heavy machinery (aka a super duper big drill), getting through it was going to be all on us. Using GPS coordinates for past holes and features above ground, we ballparked a potential spot for the dive hole. Before getting to work, we drilled a small hole through almost a meter of ice to drop down a lead line and confirm we were at about the right water depth. The line read about 60 ft, which told us we were close to the base of Turtle Rock’s slope. This would allow us to both collect imagery of pretty creatures in the deeper canyons and also access seepy sites of scientific interest in the shallows. 

And then came the spicy bit. It may be cold in Antarctica, but nothing warms you up like spending a few hours chainsawing, drilling, and hand-sawing a hole through almost a meter of ice. If someone had told me I would wear nothing but a fleece, thin puffy, and overalls in 2 degree F weather (30 below freezing), I would’ve laughed in their face. I usually tell people I’m chilly in 70 degree F weather. I was sweating.

Cutting a new hole takes a whole lot of tools and a whole lot of motivation – oh and a lot of team problem solving. We started off by outlining a square and went to work with the chainsaw. Usually one would chainsaw small blocks out of the whole top layer of the ice, but this chainsaw was guzzling gas and we knew we wouldn’t be able to count on it for long with our limited supply. Instead we decided to chainsaw a mote – but could only get through about half the ice thickness. So, we drilled holes in the corners of our mote and got to hand sawing. This included the use of a two-person gas-powered Jiffy drill – the jiffiest thing about it is how fast it makes you want to hand it off to the next person.

Personally, I distracted myself from the backbreaking work by looking at our seal friends. Weddell seals are a common sight at Turtle Rock, which is also one of the sites that the seal research teams visit. Off in the distance we even saw a mother with what must have been a newborn.

Okay back to that block of ice – after over an hour of sawing a drilling, we finally had it bobbing in the water. Knowing there was no way we could lift it out ourselves, we set up a v-thread. That is, we drilled two holes in the block in the shape of a “v”, dropped a rope down one end, and used the drill to catch it and pull it out the other. This was then attached to a nylon lift sling, which we hooked up to our Pisten Bully.

Photo credit Andrew Thurber.

Getting this massive block out still took some ingenuity. We first tried sawing a ramp into the ice and dragging the block out with the PistenBully, but it kept getting stuck. With two Pisten Bullies at our disposal, we hatched an improved plan. We would sling our lift strap through one of the Pisten Bully’s roof rack bars and have the other drive away, using the bar as a re-direct to lift the block straight upward. Yes…that actually worked. Ta da! We had a hole.

And after some quick dive apple dragging we had a shelter too! Heat would’ve been nice, but unfortunately our propane tank wasn’t feeling up to the challenge of vaporizing at 2 degrees. We could relate, but set our sights on a cold dive anyway. We’d come too far to turn back without going through that tunnel.

As we were nearing station after a chilly, but productive dive and a long haul home, we received a radio call “Penguins, about a mile ahead of you.” “Are they talking to us…?!?!?!” We didn’t want to get our hopes up, but sure enough, as we closed in on station we began to make out two figures on the horizon, waddling towards us on a mission. We stopped the appropriate distance from them and got out of our vehicles. We weren’t allowed to approach them, but we were allowed to patiently wait and will them towards us with all possible mental manifestation of penguin hugs. No patience was needed, these curious penguins B-lined for us immediately. For a more in depth description of how insanely cool this was – check out Rowan’s earlier post. I’ll just say, this was one of our longest, but most fulfilling days yet. I still can’t believe I’m here.

Feathery Friends

For the past week or two, we have been SCUBA diving at two new sites called Cinder Cones and Turtle Rock. Access to both sites involves a 1-to-1.5-hour drive in the Pistin Bully on the sea ice towards Erebus Bay.

Video credit: Rowan McLachlan

This drive is arguably the most beautiful commute on the planet.

Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan

This journey, whilst beautiful, is not always the most comfortable! The sea ice is covered in cracks, rafted ice, and pressure ridges, all of which are quite bumpy to cross. Unfortunately, only the driver’s seat has any suspension… luckily, we all take turns driving!

Last Friday, on our journey home after a day of diving under the ice, we received an unexpected call on the radio from Central Comms at McMurdo Station:

“Pistin Bully 318. This is Central Comms on Channel 3. Over.”

“Central Comms. This is Pistin Bully 318. Go ahead.”

“Pistin Bully 318. We wanted to let you know that there are penguins on the sea ice about a mile ahead of you on the road”

“Thank you central comms!”

This is the first penguin sighting this year at McMurdo and everyone was very excited – including those working at Central Comms!

As we continued our drive, I asked Rob, who I was driving with that day whether he thought they would be Adelie or Emperor penguins – and he reckoned Emperors that had wandered over from Cape Crozier.

Cape Crozier is the most easterly point of Ross Island, as shown in the map below (FYI McMurdo Towan where we are currently located next to Hut Point on the peninsula at the bottom left of the map). Cape Crozier is home to one of the two southernmost emperor penguin colonies in the world (>1900 breeding pairs as of 2018), one of the largest Adelie penguin colonies in the world (~270,000 breeding pairs as of 2012), and one of the largest south polar skua colonies in the world (~1,000 breeding pairs) [according to Wikipedia!].

Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/43/Ross_Island_Map_topo-en.svg/1200px-Ross_Island_Map_topo-en.svg.png

As we approached, I quickly grabbed my camera and set it up with my 200 mm zoom lens. I was very excited to get to see wild penguins! As we drew closer to town, we were scanning the horizon frantically. It turned out that they were impossible to miss! Up ahead, at the side of the flagged sea ice route were two little black-and-white mounds.

As part of the Antarctic treaty, all wildlife in Antarctica is protected and it is against the law to engage in harmful interference in Antarctica of native mammals, native birds, native plants or native invertebrates. So we kept our distance and parked the Pistin Bully about 100 m away. In my frantic attempt to take photos, I jumped out of the vehicle without grabbing my Big Red jacket or gloves – both of which were really necessary today as the wind had picked up. However, at that time, I couldn’t feel the cold – I was too excited! I ran away from the Pistin Bully and away from the others to get a shot of the penguins with McMurdo Town in the background:

Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan

However, as soon as I knelt on the ground, the penguins looked in my direction, and started to walk directly toward me!

Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan
Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan

They continued to beeline my way!

Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan

The way they walked was adorable. The slow and steady waddle! The closer and closer they got, the more zoomed-in my photos were becoming. Suddenly wishing I had opted for a different camera lens! Eventually, it reached the point where I could barely fit their heads in the frame! I had no idea they were going to be this curious!

Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan

When they were about 6 ft away from me, they halted their march and surveyed me thoroughly. Watchful eyes, wing flaps, and head bobs. They were unbelievably beautiful. The yellow colors on their neck and the pink on their beaks were gorgeous. Their feathers were so intricate and shiny. Not to mention, they were adorably fat and super cute!

I was on cloud nine. Finally, I just put the camera down and enjoyed the moment.

Photo credit: Andrew Thurber

Here I was, at the bottom of the world having this incredible interaction with some of the locals. As one of the scientists who are working on the sea ice, we were incredibly fortunate to have this experience – the majority of McMurdo Citizens are not able to get this close to wildlife – and so I realize what a privilege this was. However, some folks were able to watch us from the station with their binoculars!

Eventually, I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore and my face was getting very cold from the wind. So I headed back to the Pistin Bully, backing away slowly so as not to startle them. However, they were not phased. In fact not long after I left, they started their little waddle and came right on up to the Pistin Bully to have a look.

We spent about 30 minutes watching the penguins. They were very serene and a pleasure to observe.

Video credit: Rowan McLachlan

This was definitely one of the highlights of my trip. Thank you to my new feathery friends.

Video credit: Andrew Thurber

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.

Soothing Silhouettes

On today’s dive at the Jetty, I played around with silhouette photography. The ice hole and the sea ice cracks offer such bright light in contrast to the dark surrounding depths. Such a dynamic light environment down there! Photo credits: Rowan McLachlan

“The Camera” – Featuring Andrew Thurber
Andrew Thurber below a sea ice crack
Lila Ardor Bellucci below the sea ice hole
Panorama of the Jetty dive site, McMurdo Antarctica
Brinicles and anchor ice at the Jetty

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.

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.