Breaking Ice with Skuas, Seals, Penguins, and Whales

This evening at 6 p.m., the Palmer cast off its lines, weighed anchor, started its great engines rumbling, and set off through the pack ice. After a few safety briefings, everyone flooded out onto the decks for a display of sea ice and wildlife like nothing I have seen before. The temperature was about 30 degrees, but a chilly wind blew over the bow. I put on my warm clothes: a red safety “float coat” over my jacket, a wool hat pulled down over my ears, and the soft fleece mittens my mom had sent me before the trip began. Read on through the slideshow to find out what we saw today:

As everyone filed back into the ship, microbiologists, chemists, engineers, and computer programmers alike were abuzz over what they’d seen. It was 10:30 at night and many had hours of work to do before bedtime, but no one was complaining. Being witness to these animals—living in such numbers in such an outlandish world—was a treat as well as an inspiration.

These hundreds of seals, penguins, and whales are marvelous examples of why we’re here. They wouldn’t live in the Ross Sea if these waters weren’t teeming with plankton, krill, and fish. Our ship’s science team has come here to take a microscopic look at these rich waters and learn why and how they’re so productive. When they’re finished, we may find we understand the penguins and whales better, too.

Now it’s 3 a.m. and we’re back among the ice floes. The Palmer shears past loose floes with a thud and a scrape down the hull; we occasionally lurch to one side on big impacts. Outside, patio-sized sheets of ice roll on our bow wave. As they pass by the portholes, I can see they’re criss-crossed by the footprints of penguins.

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About Hugh Powell

Hugh is a staff writer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and is on special assignment with the Rutgers University Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences. He has previously written for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

15 Responses to “Breaking Ice with Skuas, Seals, Penguins, and Whales”

  1. Why were the penguins swimming toward the orca? Did they just not realize he was in their path?

    • Dear Sophie, good question! Penguins have pretty good eyesight, so I would think they would have seen the orca’s dorsal fin while they were porpoising toward it, even if they didn’t see it while underwater. They were in a channel swimming alongside our ship, so they didn’t have a lot of choices about where to go. It’s possible that they are good judges of their own speed and agility, and they popped out onto the safety of the ice only when they felt threatened. Regardless, they came a lot closer to the orcas than I would have wanted to!

  2. Ms. Dunbar's 5th grade class January 20, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    After having spent a night onboard, what do you think will be the hardest part of this voyage? How much personal baggage were you allowed to bring?

    • Thanks and great question! The hardest part of this voyage for me is learning so much from the scientists and then figuring out the best way to tell you about it without making it confusing, boring, or getting it wrong! But that’s also the best part—getting to learn so much every day. The scientists know an incredible amount about what they study, and the way they apply their knowledge, creativity, and curiosity is really exciting to watch. As for baggage, we’re allowed 150 pounds on the flight to McMurdo, but I brought a lot less than that. The most important piece was the three giant chocolate bars I brought to keep me going late at night.

  3. Alex A. from Mrs.Barnett's 6th Grade Science class January 20, 2011 at 5:42 pm

    I love all of these pictures. They are so nice and show nature. Please thank the photographer for me.

  4. I love the pictures! I am curious how close you got to that seal? So cute!

    • Hi James, the ship came really close to the seal, but we were standing on the bow and were quite a long ways above it—that’s why it’s looking up in the photo. We were probably about 70 feet away from it, I would guess.

      • brendan from Ms Dunbars class January 31, 2011 at 11:59 am

        When the scientists went out on the ice did they see any penguins? We didn’t see any wildlife in the pictures. Do the penguins go up to them? Do they let the scientists pet them?

        • Hi Brendan. Actually, the scientists were surprised that they didn’t see any penguins on the ice. Every time they’ve gone out on the ice in the past the penguins have been curious enough to walk over and look at the scientists. But not this time.

          In any case, they wouldn’t let the scientists pet them—they’re wild animals. It’s also against the law to interfere with any Antarctic wildlife. So the penguins can walk up to the scientists, but otherwise the scientists must leave them alone so as not to disturb them.

  5. How do you reckon the time of day. You often mention a time a.m. or p.m. but if it’s always daylight, how do you know? Do you stick to a particular time zone, wherever you are?
    And it looks like the bridge Josh is cycling over is good old British Bailey Bridge, used by the Royal Engineers since WW2

    • Hi Owen! We’re lucky to have better chronometers than some of the early explorers, so we just look at our watches. We can tell the rough time of day by eye though, since the sun moves around the horizon all day. At midnight it’s in the south and it noon it’s in the north. To further the confusion, we’re keeping track of several time zones at once. We’re officially on Christchurch time, which is 13 hours ahead of GMT. We also keep in touch with people on both coasts of the U.S. (that’s 3 or 6 hours ahead of us and a day behind). And for recording data we rely on GMT “to keep things simple.” That’s pretty standard practice on oceanographic vessels since it keeps the time-zone changes from confusing the data. For us it’s especially important since we cross the international dateline from time to time. And you’re right, that is a Bailey Bridge. I had no idea what it was—that’s just the name they call it by here. Next time I see you it would be great to hear a bit of its history. Thanks for writing!

  6. The adorable seal captures the heart.
    Were they plentiful?
    Based on comparatives from the last mission has the number of creatures overall decreased?
    Has there been an attempt to record the penquin population with specific harmless “tagging” methods?

    • Hi DRyder, we saw lots of seals, but mainly around the sea ice near McMurdo and not out in the open ocean. This expedition wasn’t designed to measure animal populations, and there’s lots of variability from year to year and species to species, so I can’t answer that question. People do study penguins with a variety of tagging methods, although they’re typically not trying to measure population size with those studies, they’re trying to measure things like how long penguins live, how successful they are as parents, how much food they bring to their young, and so on.


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