University of Southern California

Posing Penguins and Diving Whales

Mark Brown, January 17, early morning — The intensity of the shared experience in Antarctica makes for the formation of strong personal bonds. This is my fourth trip to the continent, and, as has been the case previously, it isn’t just the wild beauty that surrounds us, but also the personalities that we are interacting with, that make for a truly vivid experience. Our class has students from many different nations and cultures. During our time in Christchurch, we talked about where we had come from and our science, and discovered shared friends or colleagues (the world of science is actually very small). Now, after a week in Antarctica, we talk about our shared experiences, as good friends in a close community.

Today, two marine microbial research teams shared an experience I suspect we will be talking about for many years. We took a sampling trip to the ice edge. It is here, where the southern ocean dynamically interacts with the winter sea ice, that many of the most important biological processes in Antarctica occur. A thriving biological community inhabits the sea ice. At the melting edge, this community is released into the water column, providing food that stimulates activity throughout the food chain. Hence the ice edge teems with wildlife. Within minutes of the helicopters setting down, we were surrounded by Adelie penguins. These are the most inquisitive creatures among the Antarctic wildlife, and the most entertaining. While emperor penguins retain a regal air and rarely take notice of human activities, Adelies seem happy to put on a show, often appearing to pose for photographs.

brown drilling.JPGWe had a very successful outing, taking several seawater and ice core samples (as well as photos — that’s me drilling at left). We are interested in determining how the microbial community changes in different marine environments. Although sea ice is “made” of seawater, the specific physical and chemical conditions that sea ice creates lead to a different type of bacteria inhabiting this environment. Further, the seawater microbial communities inside (five meters) and outside (50 meters) the photic zone (where light stimulates photosynthetic production) experience different environmental conditions, which also leads to shifts in community composition.

On our return helicopter trip, we were further treated to the sight of two Minke whales preparing for a dive under the ice shelf.

Sampling days are very labor-intensive. Even as we arrived back at McMurdo Station, all abuzz about our experience, we turned our minds to the task at hand of analyzing all the samples we had collected. An hour’s trip to the ice edge quickly turns into a midnight in the lab. But when is all done, we recognize these are the days that see us through.

Mark Brown is a researcher at the University of South Wales.


Great to read your Blog Mark. We are following the site with interest and enjoy reading the stories. Must be great experiencing it with such a diverse group.
Hey Judy We guess you got a "frosty reception" from the local inhabitants. Love Ed & Bannie