Four men in a small rubber boat. Drifting away and fishing. Tied to a small iceberg. Somewhere in a channel with ice-cold water, between 5 and 150 meter deep. To the north, rugged, steep mountains, interspersed with glaciers that look as if they may topple any second. To the south, a very shallow and flat archipelago with two penguin rookeries. Our operating base, the Australis, is anchored there.
We haven’t caught a single fish all day. Suddenly, a pack of crabeater seals surfaces directly next to us. They play around in the turquoise water of the iceberg and loudly recharge their lungs with fresh air. “Where are all the fish?” we ask. The seals snort and shoot perhaps one or two curious glances at us, but otherwise we’re being thoroughly ignored. We value their company nevertheless.
A few hours later – the sun has already dropped behind the horizon – our final effort at this locality pays off: the small net we set out in the morning brings us ten fish. At last. A happy moment, because these are valuable samples that will allow us to conduct detailed studies on the diet and genetic make-up of this species. Such information is ultimately important to understand and protect the unique Antarctic fishes.
When it comes to spending four weeks with 11 persons on a small vessel such as the “Australis”, details, compromises and organisation are key to enjoy the voyage to Antarctica. Finding your own space in tiny cabins, sharing one shower or dealing with your cabin mate snoring are all details that become part of a daily routine that we all (have to) embrace.
Working on such an unusual platform requires good organisation to satisfy every project and person that is part of the expedition. Sharing “laboratory” space, zodiacs, sorting trays, etc., … can be tricky when many operations happen at the same time and good coordination and communication among the team is important to avoid any conflict. Our daily routine therefore always ends with a debriefing to discuss science as well as planning or personal feelings.
The most important assets to live on the “Australis” can be summarised into three major points that, as we all agree, make the success of our expedition.
First is Katie, who’s in charge of everyone’s happiness inside the boat. She is the one we will have to blame if we put on too much weight during these four weeks. She is the British sister of the boat, always asking if everything is fine and offering goodies for comfort. She also proved herself a brilliant biodiversity catcher on Antarctic shores.
Then comes Ryan, mostly dedicated to outdoor activities, he is always in for a zodiac lift, assisting the divers, going fishing and making sure we are all safe when conducting our science. Never short on a funny comment or joke, this New Zealander and Katie are like cats and dogs in the galley.
Last but not least is Ben, captain of the “Australis”. His huge experience of the surrounding environment ensures the success of location picking while satisfying every project on board. Entirely dedicated to the Belgica121 expedition he always finds a way to help us achieving our goals.
These aspects are certainly only the tip of the iceberg – the three of them work day and night to run the “Australis” without us noticing and all this work in the shade is probably the most important part of the success of the Belgica121 expedition.
I’m writing this post next to the kitchen, while Katy is preparing a lemon drizzle cake. Wonderful smell! So this post marks the middle of our expedition: day 12 out of 24 working days. So far the results have been extremely promising, by far surpassing my expectations. At this point, we have completed all the planned stations and are now going ahead with “bonus – only” work to satisfy our curiosity, and fill more knowledge gaps. It definitely is a strong asset to be able to make decisions on the spot, taking our most recent experience into account to choose the most interesting sites we will visit next. We now have a list of candidate stations in contrasting conditions to work on.
Here are a few figures, at this stage, I would like to share with our followers:
Crew: 3 members + 9 scientists: aged 25 to 45 (I’m the oldest :)) 12 sampling days 112 gear deployments 975 samples 131 distinct scientific names sampled 21 scuba dives 1711 litres of fuel used 805.59 nautical miles covered 24 home-baked cakes, all eaten 161 beer cans 1200 Gb of video recordings 250 specimens macro-photographed
All is not perfect of course. My biggest frustration relates to constant electronic failures from our ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) systems. Even if I embarked two different models (one of them as a backup), both had failures that forced us to significantly lower the ambition level for our habitat mapping project. We still managed to fix one of the ROVs, which we can still use to scout underwater/seafloor conditions before we deploy our divers and sampling gear, and also for taking nice video footage for our documentary.
This is my first experience as an expedition leader, and I’m really enjoying this moment. Its still a bit early, but I think we will be making a strong impact, especially in the direction of limiting our environmental footprint as scientists. The B121 team impresses me everyday, all the members are dedicated to the work, creative and collaborating together in an excellent spirit. Each night when we debrief, I have the impression the day has lasted for a whole week, as so much work and exciting discoveries were made. Each station we visit tells a different story and unveils some of the unknowns we are after. We are gathering a lot of samples and new information, and it will take a long time to process everything, but I’m really happy with what we have achieved together so far.
Brrrrr! Water temperatures of 1°C welcomed us at every jump. From the protected shallow bottoms of Melchior Islands, to the brash ice fields in Neko Harbour and the clear rich waters of this old scour dip where we just anchored in Useful Island, Thomas, Charlene and me (Francesca) have been diving through very different conditions, always adjusting our diving profiles and safety measures, and often adjusting the sampling methods. Video transects, hand picking of animals for trophic ecology, biodiversity and genomics, sediment cores collection for soft sediment biodiversity and biogeochemistry…lots is going on below the bubbles on the surface! We dove every working day since we arrived here, the presence of a wandering leopard seal only delayed one dive in Neko Harbour but until now we only had the company of playful penguins during our tasks. We to date completed 14 successful dives, and collected about 100 #ID samples! Woop-woop! Nothing can stop us…just the icebergs! B121 diving team rocks folks! More details soon on our diving work…bubbles back to you all -Francesca
Among the projects investigated during the B121 expedition, one is the study of intertidal (seashore) fauna, namely the animals that live between the low-tide and high-tide sea levels. The general view is that the Antarctic intertidal conditions (scouring by ice, high UV radiation…) are too extreme to allow animal life. However, recent studies have shown that animal communities can exist (and even sometimes persist) in some regions.
That’s what our “Beach Boys” (Camille Moreau & Quentin Jossart) are keen to verify with “Good vibrations”. First observations indicate that Neko Harbour shows a low diversity while Melchior Islands shows a higher diversity. Next days will allow the team to investigate other locations… some of them in a “Fun, fun, fun” context as penguins or seals are never too far.
Today was an exciting experience from dawn to dusk! We started early in the morning with the visit of Metchnikoff Point, a site on Brabant Island where a small memorial plaque has been set up nearly forty years ago to remind us about the crew and the incredible voyage of the original Belgica expedition that took place here 121 years ago. On that point the team lead by Adrien de Gerlache camped for about a week in 1898. After a steep hike on this rugged side of Brabant Island, avoiding the proximity of dozens of seals and several penguin colonies we found the memorial. No particular maintenance was required and we carefully put back in place the little statue of A. De Gerlache sheltered behind the plaque. On our way back we discovered the remains of a camp – not from 121 years ago, but much more recent. It seems to be a former, temporary scientist work camp, perhaps from the 1980s. Unfortunately, when abandoned, lots of plastic and other contaminating waste was left behind. Scandalized by such a vision in this environment we could not remain inactive and decided to clean up the place as much as possible. We returned to the Australis to equip ourselves with gloves and garbage bags and returned to the camp to pick up at least most of the pollutants that we could find (sometimes half buried in the ground). The remaining parts (wood pieces and glass bottles) had to be left on site due to lack of means to deal with it, time and space. Overall we brought back about 7 garbage bags of rubbish on board to be disposed of properly upon our return to civilization. Disappointed that we could not do more to clean the place totally we had at least the great satisfaction to have done an important task to try and do what we could to put it back in its pristine state.
Leaving the island we encountered a pair of humpback whales, a mother and her calf feeding on a swarm of krill close to the ship. The sight was amazing and reminded us what a privilege we had to be in this part of this world and to witness this.
Our next objective was to cross the Gerlache strait to reach our future research sampling stations: Useful Island, Dutiers Point and Neko Harbour. By the end of the afternoon we managed to prospect all these three locations and make plans for the next few days.
Stay tuned for the next message from the Gerlache strait!
Today was another incredible sampling day here at Melchior Island. One of the highlights of today was that we deployed the Rauschert dredge not only in shallow water (20m), but also tried it for the first time in a deeper area (75m). The Rauschert dredge is a small sledge-like device that gets pulled for 5 min from the moving ship over the ocean floor to collect benthic fauna, whereupon it gets hauled up to the surface, and the collected organism get sorted. This is used to assess the biodiversity present on the ocean benthos, inaccessible to divers. The risk thereby is, that the dredge might get stuck on a large stone, leading to either damage or even loss of the device. However, we worked together well (as you can see in the picture), everything went smoothly and we were rewarded with a rich sample of organisms.
Tomorrow we will change to a different location… more updates then!
Finally some news from the B121 team from the Antarctic Peninsula. The last few days have been extremely busy but let’s begin with with the first achievement of the mission: getting here!
The Drake Passage: We left Ushuaia on the 23rd and made our way down the Beagle Channel, turning South, passing Cape Horn and then heading south through the Drake Passage. Unfortunately headwinds delayed us for a few hours around Cape Horn, which had the effect of getting us caught in 45 knot south-westerly winds in the middle of the Drake: most of us were out, laying in our bunks trying to cope with strong sea sickness, but our captain got us safely through and we can say we survived it with pride!
On the 4th day from port we finally saw land ahead, and what a beautiful land: Antartica’s Peninsula!! What a sight… We arrived on a beautiful sunny breezeless day. For some of our team like Charlene and Franz it was the first time in Antartica, but also the more habitual others were moved by its wonders: the dark land, the white and blue shades of its glaciers, the extraordinary fauna and the charm of it all. What a privilege to be here!
We made our first sample station in Melchior Island´s – Omega Inlet, a small island group between Anvers and Brabant Island. Here we started testing the platform, all the gears, and how the work needs to get organized on board in this limited but well designed space. The past few days were extremely and unexpectedly good in weather (no wind and pure sunshine), probably a gift from the lonely continent for our endurance. The first day of testing has proved to be incredibly productive, we collected an enormous amount of samples, had three successful dives, deployed dredges, bottom grabs and caught 13 fish in the first day. Getting water samples for eDNA (developing process to detect biodiversity) sampling has shown to be working well, we have found suitable sites for conducting intertidal transects and much more. Despite troubles with our ROV (remote submarine) we got stunning footage from the under water life which we will share with you in due time. In the coming days we will explain our activities in more detail and explain the different scientific angles we are taking!
Small breakdown: So far we have collected 214 samples (including 1800 organisms), tested 14 different sampling methods, collected almost 400 GB of footage for our documentary and much more (data maps, fauna sightings, etc).
Expeditions to very remote places like Antarctica always come with the possibility that something really unforeseen happens, as we know way too well. So, a little insecurity will inevitably remain. Nevertheless, we have now retrieved our material that was kindly stored by our Argentinian colleagues at CADIC and loaded everything onto the ship. We also purchased some extra bits here and there and tested some of our equipment. We hope to leave tomorrow night. Fingers crossed for a merciful Drake passage.