Entering a land of intrigue

This past week, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to slip through the cold and dark portal into what can only be described as an alien realm. Sitting above the dive hole made my eyes widen and my heart pound. I had seen pictures, sure. But was I really up to the task of diving under sea ice? After a brief wave to Michael on the surface, I took the plunge.

The first time going through a dive hole is a strange experience. From above, you would think it would be cramped or claustrophobic sinking through 8 feet of ice. Once in the hole, however, it was an entirely different perspective. The visibility is so incredible in Antarctica that once your face is in the water, you can easily see the incredible wealth of life on the seafloor. Curiosity got the better of me, and I opened my drysuit valve to descend.

After a brief moment of pure white, I descended through the hole and the under-ice world opened up to me. Fine shards of brash ice hung from the ceiling, breaking and dancing with my air bubbles. The snowpack above made for incredibly dark yet beautiful conditions, lit only by the ambient blue of a crack in the ice above.

Brash ice is fine shards of ice crystals on the underside of sea ice

My tentative thoughts were immediately washed away by questions. The floor was covered in life!!! I knew this conceptually, but to see it with my own eyes was incredible. I looked down and thought all the five W’s: Who’s down there? What adaptations are needed to live in such a unique environment? When in Earth’s history did life become so special in Antarctic waters? Where does the anchor ice stop on the sea floor? Why does life thrive in such cold water?

I couldn’t believe my eyes!!! The sea floor was abundant in life!!

Unfortunately, humans are not amphibious, and my time was limited by the air in my scuba tank. I came to the surface and was helped out of the dive hole by Andrew. From that moment and every dive since, I have a stronger and stronger desire to jump back in the hole and witness the incredible life of Antarctica.

Andrew swimming up the dive hole and leaving the under-ice realm

A Special Moment

By Michael Rodriguez

By now, Jacob is a seasoned Antarctic diver. But just a week ago, he completed his first Antarctic dive. He was accompanied by Steve Rupp, a dive supervisor here at McMurdo. Steve is wearing the black and white dive suit. Steve is a highly experienced and skilled diver, having done about 1500 dives in Antarctica alone. And he is a heck of a nice person too.

The dive took place from a heated hut, the yellow structure, positioned over a dive hole.

A day that went differently than planned.

One of our main research sites is called Cinder Cones. It is an area where methane is actively being released from the seafloor and we really want to know who eats it so it stays out of the atmosphere. Its microbes… but which ones!? But step one? Getting a dive site there.

This starts with heading out on the ice, using all of our trainings (both new and old) to make sure we stay safe. Today we were accompanied by Mitch, the person in charge of Sea Ice Safety, as well as a Cadre of people to get to the site and knock out a dive. This is a challenge in itself, but step one is getting to the site.

The sea ice is thick this year (2m/6ft or so at least) but there are still cracks and we need to make sure that they are both thick enough and wide enough for our vehicles (designed to cross cracks) to cross. Our Piston Bully (the red vehicle shown at the top) can cross cold ice that is >30cm thick and areas less thick than that as long as the gap is <91 cm. We are trained (and have an expert along to help) to make sure we are always on ice that is much better than this limit. The challenge is actually recognizing a crack sometimes and also, sometimes cracks can be larger than that. Above is a photo of the crack that turned a 5 hour day into an 8+ hour day. It is too wide and thin to cross, but also completely covered by snow. To measure thickness we have to dig it out and then drill down to see how thick it is. And we (and by we I mean mostly Michael and Jacob) something on the order of 25+ times.

We eventually found a crossing point that was nice and thick and narrow but it took us an additional 15 miles out of our way. And Piston Bully’s look cool and are great, but fast they are not. I expected to get to our dive site around 11am or so but we got there at 3:30 pm instead.

Most of this was spent digging and drilling. But the day was fine and the weather balmy (for Antarctica).

As an added advantage, I got to go to a part of the bay that I had never been before and as always, the views were just constantly beautiful and ever changing. Ice and rock, in constant battle and contrast.

In the end, we decided to postpone the dive until tomorrow. But we have a hut, a hole, and a safe route. Who could ask for anything more? Huge thanks to Mitch, Eric (the driller) and two people from the Carpenter Shop who spent the day with us to support our science.

Getting back underwater

It is wonderful to be back in Antarctica after a year away. New colleagues, faces, and a reintroduction to the amazing ice above water. After a slough of trainings we also began to dive again under the ice. The first trip under was the three of us that have dove here before. We still do the same briefing and checkout dive as everyone else, but are used to the immediate shock of the cold… followed by the shock of the amazing animals underwater.

Every year is amazingly different in a place where many of the animals live decades if not centuries. This year I was incredibly surprised to see soo much of this sponge (the upright bush looking thing) are one of our most frequented sites “The Jetty”, named after it being right next to the jetty where the water intake pipes for the station sit (those pipes bring in salt water for us to desalinate and drink, as well as pumping nice and cold, fresh seawater into the aquarium room). This sponge is one that grows quickly and then poof is all gone, but the bushes were dense this year!

The other difference is that there is a bunch of snow on the ice, making it very dark underneath. Last year it was pretty dark, this year it is DARK. A really interesting fact is that the ice thickness doesn’t really impact the amount of light, but it is all how much snow is on the top. I have dove with 18ft/6m of ice over my head and it is bright as an overcast day, and under 3 ft of ice with a bit of snow on it and it is the darkest night.

But the diversity that lives here remains to astound me with each foray under the frozen ocean surface. It is good to be back underwater and in the most amazing, if not warmest, place on the planet.

Get ready, get set….

As the plane touched ground on the ice and we slid to a stop, we donned our extreme cold weather (ECW) gear with electric excitement. We had landed in Antarctica. The loading port of the plane cracked, and an icy blast of air hit us. It was time to get moving.

Walking off the plane for the first time. The angle of the sun and the flatness of the ice makes shadows long and apparent here (Photo: Andrew Thurber)

We headed off the plane and down the runway in what I can only describe as a state of awe. Ice stretched endlessly, obscured only by untouched mountains and the transport vehicles we were walking to. We hustled onto “Ivan the Terra Bus,” the all-terrain vehicle for transporting first-arrivers and the engines roared to life. We were off to McMurdo.

Andrew and I on “Ivan the Terrabus” heading into McMurdo. Andrew was an expert, naming and describing the features of Antarctica as we drove (Photo: Andrew Thurber)

We arrived at McMurdo and were raring to go. It is an incredible privilege to do science here, and we can’t waste a minute of the time we have down here.

Standing in front of the sea ice is humbling. In this picture, the sun is about as low as it will ever get during our time here (Photo: Isaiah Reeves)

We worked to unpack all of our personal and science supplies that we brought. Clothes were put into dorms, and we headed over to the Crary lab building, the epicenter of Science here in McMurdo.

Boxes of supplies to be unpacked line the halls of the Crary lab building

We unpacked boxes full of science supplies into the lab. Syringes and petri dishes were placed above the bench, sea star cages and sediment corers were brought down to the aquarium room.

Supplies are unpacked in one of our lab spaces. This room has water piped in straight from under the sea ice in McMurdo Sound

Instruments vital to our research such as the cavity ringdown spectrometer, which is used to study methane in the seafloor, was assembled.

Andrew has been working tirelessly to assemble the Picarro instrument

This past week, we have been taking trainings that educate us on the intricacies of conducting research in Antarctica. This includes field safety, sea ice profiling, Pistenbully training and more! All of the trainers have been incredibly knowledgeable and are crucial to a safe field season here.

Michael is profiling the sea ice by probing, drilling, and measuring the thickness at a weak point

I am gearing up to do my first checkout dive tomorrow, to ensure that I can safely work under the sea ice. I am beyond excited to share my experience with you. Until then, we will be working on good science to share with the world.

Sea Ice

By Michael Rodriguez

Today Jacob and I learned all about sea ice and how to traverse it safely. Even though the ice is very thick overall, it is full of many different kinds of hazards.

Here are some of the types and features of sea ice we learned about:

  • pack ice
  • fast ice
  • floes
  • frazil ice
  • ice bergs
  • old ice
  • polynya
  • pressure ridge

The main hazards for traversing the ice for us are cracks and pressure ridges. Cracks form as different forces are exerted on the ice such as newly formed ice pressing into existing ice, currents, and rising and falling tides. After cracks form they can be shoved back together to form pressure ridges. They can also grow wider in repeated steps. When that happens the ice at the center of the crack can be very thin Today we learned how to evaluate whether these features can be safely crossed with the specialized vehicles called Pisten Bullys that are used to travel on the ice.

Here are some photos of our day.

Eleven scientists whose work requires them to travel on the ice did the training. We rode out onto the ice and vehicles called Hagelands.

These happy scientists in the Hageland are excited for their training.

Our instructor Mitch

The first step after finding a crack is to use a probe to determine the edges of the crack. Then a shovel is used to remove snow from a cross section of it. Then a hole is drilled in various places of the crack and the depth of the ice is measured through each hole. For this crack, the ice beyond the crack was well over a meter (3′) thick but the center of the crack was only 14 cm (6″) thick. However, the width of the thinnest ice was very narrow so this one was safe to drive across.

Shoveling snow out of a cross section of the crack.

Drilling a hole to measure the thickness of the ice.

Jacob and I celebrating the completion of all our training. Now we can get to work. Jacob’s first ever Antarctic dive is tomorrow! Check back to see how that goes!

Training Day

By Michael Rodriguez

One must receive many trainings here at McMurdo in order to conduct research. Tomorrow, we will be spending six ours on the sea ice learning how to be safe out there. Check back tomorrow to find out how that went. 

For today, we did Global Positioning System(GPS) training field safety training; Pisten Bully training; and recreation training. 

I neglected to take a photo of the GPS training today, but while we were route finding with our GPS devices, I had to pause and take a photo of the stunningly beautiful Royal Society Mountain Range. It is very difficult to judge distances here. They are about 25 miles away. 

Those who will be traveling away from McMurdo must take the field safety course. In a few weeks we will be traveling by helicopter to a remote site. For such trips, research teams are provided with survival kits.  Perhaps the biggest danger is that powerful storms can suddenly appear and last for days. This makes rescue impossible and can force you to hunker in your tent for days waiting for the storm to end. Some of the items include sleeping bags and pads, camp food, and a first aid kit.

The kits also include sturdy tents that we practiced pitching, and very long stakes and ice screws that can be hammered into the ice. 

We also practiced lighting and repairing  the stoves. 

Our instructor Katy demonstrating how to operate the camp stove. She has extensive backcountry experience.

Next up was learning how to drive a Pisten Bully. What, you may be wondering, is a Pisten Bully? It is a very rugged tracked vehicle that is designed for hauling and pulling heavy loads on snow. Our team will be using them to haul ourselves and dive gear across the sea ice to our dive sites. They are loud, rumbling, cantankerous machines that travel up to about 8 mph.

Our last training ended at 7:45 pm, after which Jacob and I rewarded ourselves with a trip the dining hall to have a cookie. You can get them there any time of day or night!

Anticipation

(By Michael Rodriguez)

Long story short, we have been stranded in Christchurch, NZ for a week, unable to fly to Antarctica. First it was due to a broken airplane, then a multiple-day storm in Antarctica. After several false starts that included moving out of our hotel rooms with all our gear and personal belongings, we were finally on our way. Shuttles picked us up early in the morning  and took us to the airport. 

Waiting for our pre-dawn shuttle outside the hotel.

We retrieved our extreme cold weather clothing (ECW) that had been stored for us, received a briefing, went through security, and shlepped all our stuff onto the shuttle bus that took us to our massive C-17 transport plane. 

Being delivered to our plane on the shuttle bus

Woohoo, we were finally going to Antarctica! With our ECW gear tucked under our seats, ready to be worn upon our arrival, we sat excitedly waiting for the doors to be closed. After waiting in our seats with nothing much happening for 15…30…45 minutes, and then an hour, it was announced that the flight was canceled, not because of weather conditions in Antarctica, but because of a windstorm that had moved into Christchurch! Back to the shuttle bus and to a new hotel where we would disappointedly spend another night waiting. 

We made the most of our time, visiting the excellent International Antarctica Centre. We saw all kinds of remarkable exhibits, including Fiordland penguins (native to New Zealand) and a simulated Antarctica winter storm.

Jacob is unfazed by the simulated Antarctica storm at the International Antarctica Centre.

The next day, we made our way back to the airport and back onto the plane for another try. And I am happy to report that as I write this we are flying over Antarctica on our way to McMurdo.

Boarding the plane for a second attempt.

Taking off in this massive plane with four very powerful engines was exhilarating. After taxiing to the runway, the pilots brought the engines up to speed while holding the plane back with the brakes. When the brakes were released, the plane took off down the runway like a rocket, causing us to lose our balance in our seats. The engines created a deafening roar and the cabin shuddered as we made our way into the air.

During the flight, we were invited to visit the cockpit to get a pilot’s eye view. I was pleased to see that one of the pilots flying this big plane was a woman. 

Visiting the cockpit (Photo by Jacob Wynne)

There are only four small round window in the cabin and we all take turns looking out. It was thrilling to get a view of Antarctica as we flew over. 

Seeing the unadulterated beauty of Antarctica as we flew over is an experience I will never forget (photo by Rowan McLachlan)

At this point, we will be landing in 40 minutes. They are cooling the cabin down so we can don our ECW without roasting. So excited to be so close after this trip has been three years in the making. 

Bundled into our ECW, we begin to exit the plane.

We have arrived! (photo by Andrew Thurber)

Christchurch: A city steeped in Antarctic culture 

After departing from Oregon and flying a quarter of the earth’s circumference (7300 miles), we find ourselves in the beautiful city of Christchurch, New Zealand (NZ). As far as we have come, we still have one more 2,400 mile flight to get to the McMurdo Research Station in Antarctica. 

Making our way through customs with lots and lots of gear after a 13 hour all-night flight.

Christchurch is one of five gateway cities for scientists and workers traveling to research bases in Antarctica. This is a point of pride and celebration for this community. We were fortunate to be here during the annual Laying of the Wreaths ceremony at the statue of Robert Falcon Scott, an early explorer who died in Antarctica. This tradition, started in the 1930’s and maintained by the NZ Antarctic Society, pays tribute to those “Antarcticans who currently serve and those who have gone before.” We felt honored to be present during this ceremony and receive the well-wishes and blessings of the people of Christchurch. 

Statue of Robert Falcon Scott, created by his wife after his death

The funder of most US Antarctic Research, the National Science Foundation, maintains a base here to support Antarctic scientists. They provide us with our extreme cold weather gear.

Extreme cold weather gear includes big red, insulated pants, bunny boots, goggles, hats, gloves, and other items. 

We toured the Canterbury Museum, which holds the largest collection of Antarctic relics in the southern hemisphere. We found it incredibly interesting to compare gear used by early explorers to our own. 

Extreme cold weather gear used by early explorers: reindeer hide boots, a woolen balaclava and wooden goggles.

We discovered not only exhibits about Antarctic history, but also this exhibit in the local library, celebrating the contributions of female scientists currently doing research there. The exhibit included scientists working in biology, oceanography, policy and social science, highlighting the diversity of scientific fields and people working in the Antarctic. 

As we wait for weather conditions in McMurdo to improve, we are enjoying the unique character of this “gateway to the Antarctic.” Having the opportunity to learn about the history of Antarctic exploration and spend time in a place where Antarctic researchers and workers are abundant, we realize how lucky we are to be part of such a unique experience. We are excited to talk to you more soon from the ice!

One of several murals depicting Antarctica

Michael Rodriguez and Jacob Wynne

The Last Descent

Today, I entered the portal into the glowing sea ice underworld for one last time. It was fitting that my last time doing so was at the Jetty – the site where it all started. It was difficult knowing that this was likely not only the last time for this season, but perhaps the last time in my life. The opportunity to see the beautiful things we’ve shared with you on this blog is something I will never forget. I hope that through the imagery and blogs we’ve captured during our time here, we’ve been able to convey to you what a magical place this is and how important these habitats are – for their role in the larger Antarctic ecosystem, for what they enable us to learn, and for their inherent fascinating beauty.

On this last dive, I chose to dedicate my time toward capturing better versions of some of the earlier images I think best describe this beautiful place. At the Jetty in particular, one of the most characteristic, but difficult-to-capture features of a dive has been light and the lack thereof. The contrast between dark shadows and glowing ceilings. The brilliance of each animal that we are able to give a moment in the spotlight. Each time I plunged into the world below the Jetty, it was into darkness. It takes a bit, as you blink your eyes and adjust your gear, to orient yourself to your surroundings. And each time it was the glow of the cracks surrounding the Jetty that helped me to figure out where I was. Here, I did my best to capture that glow and the beauty below it, illuminated with the help of our comparatively small lights. I hope that through our pictures, you’re able to feel like you were almost here too.