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Under the Antarctic Southern Ocean

6 Posts tagged with the antarctica tag
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You may think that not much can survive in the challenging conditions of the Antarctic, but here I would like to share with you some pictures from my recent diving experiences on the West Antarctic Peninsula and introduce you to some of the creatures that live there so join me in a virtual dive in Antarctic chilly waters...

 

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Above: Just like in the UK anenomes and sea-squirts often battle for space ©A.Cordingley

 

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Above is my personal favourite, and the subject of my Antarctic studies: Bryozoans.
Here the underside of a rock is covered with the bryozoans Beania erecta (the peachy, lumpy stuff)
and Fenestrulina rugula (white encrusting patches) interspersed with hydroids

 

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Above: BAS Diver David Smyth admires a wall of soft corals, sponges and sea-squirts ©A.Cordingley

 

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Above: The well disguised, slow-moving and friendly small fish, Harpagifer antarcticus, is common on the sea-bed

 

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Above: An antarctic jellyfish ©A.Cordingley

 

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Above: Despite the chilly temperatures the colours underwater can rival tropical reefs
as can be seen in this collection of starfish, filter-feeding sea cucumbers and red seaweed

 

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Above: Sometimes the main limiting factor is space as corals, sponges, sea cucumbers and sea-squirts compete ©A.Cordingley

 

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Above: Odontaster, the most common starfish around Ryder Bay ©A.Cordingley

 

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Above: Sterechinus neumayeri, the common sea urchin in Ryder Bay uses pieces of sea-weed
and shell to try and disguise itself from predators ©A.Cordingley

 

Many of these pictures are taken by Ashley Cordingley, marine biologist at the British Antarctic Survey and talented underwater photographer.

 

Jen's research is being undertaken as a collaboration between:
Heriot Watt University, Natural History Museum, UMBS, Millport, and the British Antarctic Survey.

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Jen is funded by the NERC Collaborative Gearing Scheme and Heriot Watt Alumni Fund and sponsored by Catlin Group Limited, Apeks Marine and O'Three.

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Coping with the cold

 

The sea around Antarctica remains cold year round with temperatures reaching lows of nearly -2 and rarely reaching above 0 degC. Because of this we have to take extra precautions when diving to make sure that we stay warm.

 

The first precaution if that we wear drysuits - neoprene suits which are sealed at the neck and wrist so that your body stays dry. This means that we can wear lots of thermals underneath to ensure we don't get too chilled underwater and we can also add more air to our suit underwater for insulation.

 

We also use full facemasks which mean that our faces stay a lot warmer too. This is all very effective and so far, even on hour long dives, it has only really been my hands and feet that really feel the cold

 

Of course all of this extra clothing and air in our suits means that we have to wear a lot of weight in order to sink. My muscles are certainly getting a work-out here in Antarctica!

 

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Me underwater

(Click images to see them full size)

Dive boats

 

We have a few boats here in Antarctica but the ones we most commonly use are Erebus and Terra Nova (named after two famous ships from the era of early Antarctic discovery - Terra Nova was Scott's ship for his last expedition). They are all looked after by our dedicated boatman, Tim and we have a number of people on board who can skipper them.

 

My first big surprise with the boats is that they are lifted in and out of the water by crane before and after each dive! This is to prevent ice damage and allow for easier maintenance but also makes loading and unloading the dive equipment much easier.

 

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A British Antarctic Survey Boat being lowered into the water from the wharf

 

When out on the water the main challenge for our skippers is navigating through the ice and icebergs. A piece of ice which can look deceptively small from the surface can deliver a hefty wallop to a boat travelling at speed.

 

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Erebus and Terra Nova off Rothera Point

 

Apex predators

 

Another difference between diving in the UK and Antarctica is the presence of large predators which can pose a risk to divers. The two which we have to be careful of are Orcas (killer whales) and Leopard seals and if any are seen around Rothera then we aren't able to dive for a while.

 

Before every dive we spend half an hour on "sealwatch" making sure that it is safe to get in the water. In addition we also have full communications at all times with the surface and our diving buddy. This is really useful for discussing science underwater but also means that we can immediately be alerted if a potentially dangerous animal is in the vicinity.

 

Ice and icebergs

 

Ice and icebergs can also pose a challenge to divers, even in the Antarctic summer. Large icebergs can move quite fast if the wind is blowing and will often gouge the seabed as they pass - a diver wouldn't want to get in the path of that! They can also become unstable when they start melting and large pieces may break off or they might even tip over altogether.

 

Because of this we take extra care to stay distant from icebergs both above and below the water. Ice is a bit more tricky to avoid so we always have to make sure we look up when we are returning to an icy surface so we don't bang our heads!

 

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A diver ascending in ice
© Ash Cordingley

 

Despite the challenges Antarctica is a fantastic and fun place to dive and is full of life - I'm looking forward to sharing some pictures of the weird and wonderful creatures we find here in my next blog post.

 

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Scientific diver, Kathy Dunlop and a ctenophore

© Ash Cordingley

 

 

Jen's research is being undertaken as a collaboration between:
Heriot Watt University, Natural History Museum, UMBS, Millport, and the British Antarctic Survey.

UTAO-logos-funding.jpg

 

 

Jen is funded by the NERC Collaborative Gearing Scheme and Heriot Watt Alumni Fund and sponsored by Catlin Group Limited, Apeks Marine and O'Three.

UTAO-logos-sponsorship.jpg

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Antarctica is a changeable place. The weather can rapidly shift from clear blue skies and sunshine to snow blizzards and fog. It is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security by smooth snow fields but lurking just below the surface may be crevasses (cracks in the ice) hundreds of feet deep.

In recognition of these risks some of the first training that a visitor to Antarctica receives is how to look after ourselves in these conditions.

Snow vehicles

For travelling around base and in the local area we use a combination of gators (when there is little snow - predominantly on base) and skidoos. One of our first lessons is how to check the health of the vehicles and drive them.

 

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A Skidoo and sledge - fully laden for a nights camping.

 

Camp-skills

Whenever we venture off base there is always the possibility that the weather may close in and we may be stranded for hours or days - in order to be prepared for this our next lessons are in campcraft. We are taught about the use of the stove and lamps, how to put up the tent in potentially stormy conditions, using the radio systems and using the field medical kits. As part of the training, we are fitted out with all the gear we might need including the all important p-bag (a cosy, layered sleeping bag system including base mats, sheepskin rugs and cosy sleeping bags) and large amounts of manfood (dehydrated high-energy meals) before it is time for us to head up the glacier for a night under canvas.

 

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Our tent - these have changed little in design in the last hundred years and are dug into the snow to secure them.


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View from our tent in the morning

Snow-skills

The risk of crevasses is very real here in Antarctica - in the current warm weather many of the previously solid snow bridges that covered the crevasses are softening and exposing these deep cracks in the ice. In order to prepare ourselves for this we spend a day with our friendly GA (general assistant), Scott, learning rope-skills. We spend a morning on base learning how to abseil, climb back out from a crevasse and many, many knots. When walking on snow we are always roped together for safety.

 

Then we head off base and get used to the exhausting work of trekking through deep snow. We are taught how to construct a strong snow anchor to secure our roped buddy should he fall into a crevasse, and how to stop ourselves sliding down snowslopes using an ice-axe. This is an afternoon filled with fun as we slide down the snow in order to practice stopping ourselves.


These lessons have been great fun but the serious message behind them has also hit home - never underestimate Antarctica.


 

Jen's research is being undertaken as a collaboration between:
Heriot Watt University, Natural History Museum, UMBS, Millport, and the British Antarctic Survey.

UTAO-logos-funding.jpg

 

 

Jen is funded by the NERC Collaborative Gearing Scheme and Heriot Watt Alumni Fund and sponsored by Catlin Group Limited, Apeks Marine and O'Three.

UTAO-logos-sponsorship.jpg

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The long journey South

Posted by Jennifer Loxton Jan 17, 2012

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Antarctica is a long way away from the UK. In fact flying down there covers a distance of approx. 16,000 km/10,000miles! (London, UK to Rothera, Antarctica via Chile). For a journey this lengthy tracking the passing of time in hours or miles can seem daunting. I choose to instead track my journey progress by meals:


Day 1 - lunch: London, UK

The journey begins. After checking in I start my hunt for the rest of the British Antarctic Survey group travelling South. I decided the best way to identify Polar travellers was to look for a group, predominantly male, with a greater than average tendancy towards fleeces and beards. After terrifying a few innocent skiing stag parties with my rictus grinning I thankfully found our group (just the one beard!) and after introducing ourselves we head to the plane.

 

Day 1 - dinner: Madrid, Spain

A short lay-over in Spain. Long enough to get a little lost in the rainbow coloured airport, find everyone again and enjoy a relaxed dinner. Our next flight was ready to depart shortly before midnight.

 

Day 2 - breakfast: midair Argentina/Chile

After a great sleep I get woken to breakfast over the mountains.

 

Day 2 - lunch: Santiago Chile

We battle our way through the ever confusing Chilean immigration and customs at bustling Santiago airport before checking back in for the next leg of our flight. Once we are through the red-tape it is time for us to settle down to some nice Chilean delicacies for lunch. From here the planes get progressively smaller.

 

Day 2 - dinner: Punta Arenas, Chile

Dinner time finds us in Punta Arenas - a bustling frontier town with a long history as a gateway to the Antarctic. More about Punta in a seperate post

 

Day 3 - breakfast + lunch: Punta Arenas, Chile

Unfortunately the weather in Antarctica slightly delays our next leg so we get an unexpected breakfast and lunch in Punta Arenas while we wait for more favourable conditions. Thankfully a "weather window" pops up for us late in the afternoon and we head to the airport to board our smallest plane yet, the twin propeller, dash-7.

 

Day 3 - dinner: mid-air over Antarctica

Travel on the dash-7 is a little different to commercial airlines. It is a small, friendly plane with only twenty passengers. The pilots fly with their cabin door open and once the seatbelt sign is off we are all encouraged to pop up for a visit to the cockpit. Dinner is a picnic with supermarket bought delicacies from Chile although I find it hard to eat with the excitement of finally arriving in Antarctica.

 

Day 3(just) - midnight snack: Rothera, Antarctica

Suddenly the cloud starts to clear and peeking through the gaps are spectacular mountains, glaciers, and sea-ice all lit by the glow of the midnight sun. Our ever thoughtful pilots take us for a flyby so that we see Rothera and the surrounding areas from all angles before we draw in to land.

 

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I have arrived ar Rothera, Antarctica - my home for the next couple of months.

 

 

Jen's research is being undertaken as a collaboration between:
Heriot Watt University, Natural History Museum, UMBS, Millport, and the British Antarctic Survey.

UTAO-logos-funding.jpg

 

 

Jen is funded by the NERC Collaborative Gearing Scheme and Heriot Watt Alumni Fund and sponsored by Catlin Group Limited, Apeks Marine and O'Three.

UTAO-logos-sponsorship.jpg

 

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Just how do you go about packing for a scientific diving trip to the Antarctic? Well, for me, it all started nearly 6 months ago with a visit to the British Antarctic Survey clothing store in Cambridge and a very warm dress-up session.

 

Get your kit-bag

Antarctica is the coldest and windiest continent on Earth. In these conditions, it is important to be properly dressed! I was led through this first challenge by the kindly guys at the British Antarctic Survey Clothing Store. On a very warm July day they selected everything i might need and even managed to keep a straight face while I tried it all on. My kit-bag is filled with all kinds of outdoor clothing for every eventuality - everything from socks to sunglasses and the all important layers.

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Jen trying on Antarctic outdoor gear in the BAS clothing store

 

Box up your cargo

This is all of my scientific gear which could be sent out on the boat to Antarctica.The Natural History Museum and Heriot-Watt university equipped me with everything I could need to complete my scientific work including packaging for up to 4000 bryozoan specimens!

 

My cargo sets sail

Both my kitbag and cargo have already started their adventure - they were loaded onto the RRS James Clark Ross in July and carefully packed away for the following months at sea. The "icebreaker" was set to experience the whole range of temperatures during its journey South - travelling through the heat of the tropics as well as the icy temperatures of an Antarctic Spring. To stop my scientific liquids from freezing solid or exploding in the heat many of my packages were, perhaps counter-intuitively, safely stored in the onboard "fridge". They have arrived safely and are waiting for me in Rothera, Antarctica.

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RRS James Clark Ross

Gather all the rest of your stuff together

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The fun bit! Time to get all the new gadgets I need for my project, and of course thoroughly test them out. I have been well provided for by my generous sponsors and have fantastic dive equipment,scientific and camera gear which I have been trying out in recent months. I think I have pretty much figured out how it all works...

 

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Shiny new dive equipment from my sponsor, Apeks

Pack everything else..

 

Jen's research is being undertaken as a collaboration between:
Heriot Watt University, Natural History Museum, UMBS, Millport, and the British Antarctic Survey.

UTAO-logos-funding.jpg

 

 

Jen is funded by the NERC Collaborative Gearing Scheme and Heriot Watt Alumni Fund and sponsored by Catlin Group Limited, Apeks Marine and O'Three.

UTAO-logos-sponsorship.jpg

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200px-Location_Southern_Ocean.jpgLocated at one extreme of the planet, the Antarctic Southern Ocean can be an unforgiving place: for most of the dark winter the surface of the sea is covered in thick pack ice and year round, the water temperature can get down to nearly -2°C and rarely rises above 0°C.

 

The surface and the water aren’t the only hostile place as every year up to 60% of the sea bed is scraped and scoured by passing icebergs.

 

Surviving extremes

 

With such harsh conditions, have you ever wondered how marine creatures have evolved to survive at the bottom of this ocean? Have you ever considered whether things were the same in the times of great polar adventurers, like Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen who were exploring these lands 100+ years ago? Do you worry about the impact that warming waters will have on these specialised marine animals?

 

These are the questions that get me out of bed in the morning and to find some of the answers I am going to spend the next two months in Antarctica plunging into these icy southern seas.

 

Who I am

 

My name is Jen Loxton and I am a marine scientist and SCUBA diver. I am currently working towards my doctorate looking at the effects of our changing oceans on the skeletons of tiny marine creatures known as bryozoa.

 

Thus far my investigations have been in Scotland and the Arctic but now I am joining the British Antarctic Survey and heading south to investigate one of the most rapidly warming places on Earth, the West Antarctic peninsula.

 

This blog and my Twitter feed will let you join me on my adventure as I investigate the marine life at the peninsula.

 

 

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Jen SCUBA diving in the Arctic with a ctenophore (comb jelly) © Piotr Kuklinski

 

Jen's research is being undertaken as a collaboration between:
Heriot Watt University, Natural History Museum, UMBS, Millport, and the British Antarctic Survey.

UTAO-logos-funding.jpg

 

 

Jen is funded by the NERC Collaborative Gearing Scheme and Heriot Watt Alumni Fund and sponsored by Catlin Group Limited, Apeks Marine and O'Three.

UTAO-logos-sponsorship.jpg

 

Image of the Antarctic Southern Ocean: © Connormah under CC BY-SA 3.0