“Playing with Mud at 64° S – so much fun!” – Francesca Pasotti

When people ask me what I do for work, I reply “I am a marine biologist”.The excitement then brings about the second question “oh wow! What do you study?” and often this initial excitement is soon killed off by my second answer : “sediment and worms” 😉 but not always though, I still manage to convince people of how awesome my job is!  Yes, I am one of those scientists to whom sand can speak and who find delight exploring a hidden world which cannot be fathom by the eye, but it needs a microscope and lots of patience to be witnessed and discovered. I work with soft sediments and a size class of organisms that live in them known as MEIOFAUNA…animals – yes, animals : they are multicellular, have organs and “limbs” a bit like us but are super tiny and they pass through a mesh sieve of 1 mm!!. Since the beginning of our cruise B121 I have explored during my dives the shallow bottoms of each location we have been visiting seeking for sand and mud. I have set out to collect sediment either by means of cores (plexiglas tubes which use vacuum to bring back on land a perfectly intact piece of the sea bottom!) or simply by scooping the surface of the sea bottom where sediment patches could be found.  What do I wish to find out by looking at these communities? I want to see what is their overall biodiversity in between the different sites we study since there are many different animals that live in the sediments in that size range, and their presence or absence from one location can tell us a lot about the health of the sea bottoms, for instance about how well is the recycling potential of the sediments doing in relation to the glacier retreat activity. It sounds very scientific right? But at the end of the day, I am just a girl having fun underwater and playing with mud on the surface! Look at this picture of me and Ryan (first mate on board) setting up my outdoor laboratory in the back of the Australis where I was dedicated  a little space to where to make it dirty for a little while!​

Food web studies

Among the many research projects conducted during the B121 cruise, trophic ecology has taken an important place for divers and fish specialists all along the campaign. But what is it about ? Beyond the formal and bit severe words, trophic ecology can be simply and instinctively recapped by the famous idiom “you are what you eat” ! Every single piece of snack each of us ingests or drop of liquid we are happy to sip not only contributes to maintaining our whole body in good shape but also, and insidiously leaves its indelible mark in our organs. This holds true for all living beings and for isotopes as well ! Analyzing the composition of organisms in Carbon, Nitrogen and Sulfur stable isotopes can tell us a lot about the long story of what they usually eat and where they have been living. Eventually, analyzing the isopotic composition of organisms living in close vicinity to each other in a same place can help unreveal biological interactions between them in the food chain that is, who’s eating whom and what. That’s why specimens of some common and key species of the visited sites were sampled at the sea bottom, from seaweeds to sponges, worms, starfish, sea urchins and fish, to caracterize main food web elements and compare them between sites. The complexity of food webs is also a condition of ecosystem resilience facing climate change, the more redundant and complex biotic interactions are in a food web and the more likely the ecosystem is to resist to change. Let’s wait a bit and see what isotopes will tell … !


Through the eye of the needle

On March 20th, we were working in Foyn Harbour, our latest station, and completing the sampling. Everything is fine, and now the team’s work has reached an optimum in terms of fluidity and efficiency. But the time has come to leave. With Ben, we are keeping a close eye on the weather forecast, and the time is right to head back to the mighty Drake. First, we were planning to leave on the next day, but then we felt it would be best to set sails earlier, late afternoon or in the evening  at the latest. This was a bit earlier than anticipated, but very strong westerlies are forecasted in a few days, as well as headwinds towards the end of the crossing, next to Cape Horn. No time to waste anymore. After a last dive in Enterprise Islands (right next to Foyn Harbour), on a shipwreck, we pack all our gear and get ready for the crossing. Done in a little more than an hour. We prepare the ship, and by the time we are ready to go, snow starts falling heavily, significantly reducing the visibility. We still need to cross the Gerlache Strait, and pass by the Melchior Islands to make our way to the open ocean. Not that easy with no visibility, icebergs and reefs all around us. The radar is our eyes, and we sail very slowly… At 0:30, we hit something, and the familiar noise of the hull against ice sounds really loud. Close encounter with a big iceberg. The hull of the Australis was spared this time, but not the anchor, properly bent. 

But we manage to reach the Drake Passage at the end of the night and start the crossing. A long crossing again.

The Drake Passage gives me this strange impression of being in a time capsule. Everybody gets ready and braces for the crossing. Our bodies go in standby for 3 days. I’ve spent most of the time in bed, probably seasick. Any normal life task is very demanding and you struggle to get your ideas together. The final part of the crossing, once we’ve reached Cape Horn is tricky as well: the ocean is still rough, and we get the false impression that the crossing is over, when there is still a full night of navigation, this time closer to land, closer to rocks. 

At that point, and this is why I called this blog “Through the eye of the needle”, we checked the weather again and realised that 2 hours behind us, the storm was closing the path with very strong winds, the kind you don’t want to find yourself in. Lesson is, and probably for the rest of the expedition: always listen to your instinct. When it tells you its time to leave, leave!

The Beagle channel brings serenity after the crossing, and we reached it at the end of the crossing, enjoying a very peaceful ending to the expedition, reaching our final destination, Ushuaia.

Final relief for all.

Now that we are back to the connected world, we will feed this blog and our website, so keep up with us.

The B121 expedition in a few figures:

22 sampling days

226 gear deployments

1739 samples

38 scuba dives

1727 nm

4280 l of fuel

Mission accomplished.


Macro-photography or “how to see the samples differently”

Alongside the numerous samplings done every day during the expedition, a timeframe is also dedicated to macro-photography. There, a different world can be revealed from what we cannot see with our poor human eyes…

“Wow, this little guy was a flatworm and not a leech“ or “Hey, look at this structure on the right, it is key for the identification “ are just two examples of B121 exclamations associated to someone looking at a macro-picture. 

That’s the key advantage of macro-photography: it gives you precious information to identify the organisms onboard (or after the expedition). Last but not least, this is also a good resource for future scientific publications and outreach activities.

That’s why Quentin (Jossart) is spending few hours every day to capture the most common or interesting species collected throughout the day. Photographing them alive is an asset because some structures or colors can deteriorate after preservation. A lot of patience is thus sometimes needed as some animals are constantly moving… “Please mate, stay here a seecccooonnddd” is the most polite exclamation that has been heard from the dedicated photo-area onboard.

…and thanks for all the fish?

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.

Living in 23 meters by Franz

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

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.

So far, so good! By Bruno

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

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.

Stay tuned!


The diving Team @work

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

Get around” the Intertidal…

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.

Sampling the intertidal

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.

Travel to the past

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!