Humpback whales put on a show

Conducting research in the Antarctic is extremely interesting as every day brings obstacles and special encounters with both the physical environment or the biology that surrounds us.

For example in recent cruise we saw nature revealed in two amazing ways. In the Bransfield Strait we were collecting krill and moving along from station to station. Towards the afternoon, as we approached a station to begin sampling, a Humpback whale began to swim near the ship. Within 20 minutes we were amazed to see more and more Humpback whales arrive and begin spy hopping, tail flapping and diving under the ship. As more and more scientists and crew went to the deck to observe these whales (all ideas about sampling immediately suspended) the whales also seemed to become more animated as if they were as excited to see us as we were to see them. This response has been described by many people but it never ceases to amaze.
During the same cruise we endured the awesome power of the physical environment when storms arrived. Winds in the Antarctic during summer are usually relatively low except when storms come through. In this particular year, after seeing the power of the biggest animals on the planet, the barometer started a frightening decline with a corresponding increase in the winds and waves. What looked like a normal storm continued to increase in intensity such that we tried to shelter in Deception Island, the famous caldera that has been used as shelter for a hundred years. Rather than declining, the winds continued to intensify and  the captain, who tried many times to anchor within the bay to no avail, finally drove the bow of the ship onto the forgiving volcanic sand shores and kept the propellers and the engine engaged. We stayed attached to the beach for several hours while the storm passed.

By the next morning, a bright sun, calm winds and declining seas enabled us to get back to work, wondering why we are fortunate to see and experience such amazing beauty and power in such different ways.

One third of the team arriving in Antarctica

During our research we are aboard research vessels. This year I was aboard the British ship the James Clark Ross. This is a world class research vessel that has berths for more than 20 scientists and laboratory spaces to conduct all manner of research. The heart of the research operations on this ship is the UIC. The underway instrumentation and control room. This is the nerve center of the science where all data streams are visualized so that decisions regarding the science program can be made. From this room, winches and deck gear can be operated allowing the sampling to be monitored. On the deck, scientists will deploy a variety of gear over the stern of the ship with the help of an excellent deck crew, all under the careful watch of the Bridge.

In general, aboard research vessels work is conducted 24 hrs a day so that people are always on shifts. Aboard the James Clark Ross this year I worked from 4 AM to 4 PM which took some adjustment! My work this cruise consisted of running acoustic data collection for krill, sampling the water properties using an instrument called the CTD, that measures temperature, salinity, oxygen, chlorophyll-s and the clarity of the water. Additionally water samples were collected for other collaborators that’ were conducting other studies in conjunction this cruise. My colleagues on the night watch also sampled krill, mesopelagic fish and conducted studies on krill swarms to better understand the acoustic properties of krill in swarms. The collection of samples was limited to night-time to minimize avoidance of animals to the net, and to capture animals that vertically migrate into the upper water column at night.

One of the best parts of being on a cruise is the food, especially when the cooks are great. I was fortunate on the James Clark Ross as all the meals were wonderful. And the one perk of getting up at 4 am is that I was able to eat all three meals, breakfast lunch and dinner. The mealtimes are also important times to exchange information with the officers and other scientists so are valuable from the scientific perspective.  On this cruise I was berthed in a small but comfortable to person room. And, because we didn’t have a large number of scientists, there was no other person in the bunk. This was helpful in providing a private space away from everyone, necessary when you are all on the same 100m boat!

Life at sea is regimented, and is very repetitive. The close proximity to others provides an opportunity to interact closely with people and see the world in a very unique and special way. The two best days at sea are often the day you leave port and begin the journey, and the day you return to port and can share the experiences with others.

About the extreme scientist Dr. Raouf Kalida


Let us just be open about it, not all scientists travel to the Antarctic to undertake research. Dr. Raouf Kalida sits in his  lab at the University of New Brunswick (Saint John) in Canada processing the eyestalks of krill individuals, while Dr. Reiss will assist with samples from the field and Dr. Kawaguchi will be responsible for providing him with known-age individuals to validate the results. 

That does not mean that Dr. Kalida does not like to travel. In fact he grew up in Cairo, Egypt, did his MSc in Scotland, his PhD in Texas and now work at the University of Brunswick in Canada. His focus area has been to study teh growth and age of various invertebrates, and especially the bivalves. 

This got him involved in a pretty crazy project back in 2007. Back then he was working at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Halifax, Canada, and was responsible for investigating the age and growth of mollusks and fish that have commercial importance for stock assessment purposes. In addition to mollusks, stock assessment of crustaceans (such as crabs and lobsters) was the focus of the research of other scientists working in the same institute. How old is this crab? was the question that triggered the project to begin with. Long story short. It took him five years to answer that question, 

The reason is that unlike fish, crustaceans lack hard parts from which age and growth can be measured. Finally, in 2012 Dr. Kalida and the rest of the research team managed to publish a manuscript demonstrating the direct age of four crustaceans including two shrimp species. The age of those taxa was determined by counting the growth bands in thin sections of their eyestalks. Thin sections were prepared in the eyestalk after cleaning and removing all tissues as shown in the figure below. The same technique was proven to be applicable in other species such as the Chilean Nylon shrimp. Given that krill can be considered as a “little” shrimp, we decided to give it a try and see if we could determine its age using the same method. 

Together with Dr. Christian Reiss from the US National Marine Fisheries Service and Dr. So Kawaguchi from the Australian Antarctic Division Dr. Kalida will be working to explore the feasibility of applying the new method for age determination of the Antarctic krill.

The goal of their work is to increase the understanding of the variability in population structure (growth, recruitment, and size at maturity) in order to improve the krill fishery. If shown to be robust, the expected results will provide scientists and managers the ability to compare spatial and temporal growth rates of krill in the Southern Ocean. It will also allow the development of age-based assessments of krill populations to better allocate catch in the krill fishery.

After listening in on Dr. Kalida's story we concluded that there are many nuances to being an Extreme Scientist. We see it as important part of this campaign to also honor those in the backdrop, as they are just as important to bringing about #extremescience.