In early November we had a stretch of a week or so where the winds were gusting at least 50 knots. Needless to say, we were not able to get out and sample that week. At the beginning of all the bad weather, the Lawrence M. Gould (LMG) came into port to drop off supplies and scientists. Onboard were our sea bird team as well as two more Palmer residents. The rest of the scientists on board were about to start their 20 day cruise studying Krill and Salps using acoustics on the West Antarctic Penninsula. The LMG was able to get through the sea ice to dock, however the high winds prevented them from offloading cargo. In order to get atleast half of the cargo off, all of us on station and on the boat assisted in hand carrying what we could off of the boat. We used daisy chains (lines of people) to pass the items we could carry off of the boat onto station. It was a great demonstration of what team work could accomplish, yet the larger items had to be left on the boat until they came back at the end of their cruise.
The sea bird team consists of two scientist, Jen and Shawn. I believe this is Jen’s 7th year here at Palmer and Shawn’s first, but he has been on the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) cruise down here twice before so he’s very experienced as well. The two of them were off to work as soon as the weather died down. They patrol the local islands and monitor the sea birds. A few of the birds they study are the Giant Petrels, Skua, Kelp Gulls, Gentoo penguins, Chinstrap penguins, and most importantly the Adelie penguins. The Adelie penguins are the poster children of Palmer Station. Bill Fraser who is the leader of the sea bird project has been studying them for 20 years here at Palmer Station, and has witnessed their decline first hand. You can read the book Fraser’s Penguins by Fen Montaigne if you are interested in this topic, its a good read.
Some of the reasons why the Adelie penguin is declining here at Palmer Station is because of the shift in weather becoming warmer and wetter shifting from a polar climate to a sub-polar climate. The area being wetter is a problem because if the nesting sites are full of water and the eggs are sitting in puddles then they are not kept at a good incubation temperature and will die. Additionally they are dependent on sea ice, and the sea ice has been declining here at Palmer over the last 20 years, despite the good amount of sea ice we have this year. Krill are also dependent on sea ice and are a major food source for the Adelies. If there is less Krill, less sea ice, and wetter areas for nesting then the Adelies have a hard time because they return to the same nesting and feeding sites year after year. The Adelies are a polar species however the Gentoos and the Chinstraps are a sub-polar species, so since the climate is changing here at Palmer the Gentoos and Chinstraps are moving in while the Adelies are doing poorly.
One of these nesting sites for the Adelie penguin is Torgerson Island (Torgie), which we are allowed to recreationally walk on half of the island. As soon as the birders were able to go out onto the islands they found Adelie eggs! They were here just in time for the egg laying to begin. That weekend a bunch of us went out rec. boating to see the eggs. There were also a few cracked eggs on the ground which is due to predation from the Skua. One thing you have to be careful of when you are out walking on Torgie is to not disturb the Elephant (E.) seals laying on the island. They are very large and if you startle them they can charge through the penguin colonies and crush eggs and penguins in their path. The Adelies are having a hard enough time as it is to additionally have E. seals crashing through their homes. In the pictures below there is a male E. seal with a torn nostril on the left, and pups on the right.
This picture on the right shows how penguins make chicks. Jen told me that penguins have one hole for everything, which is called a cloaca. The male penguin hops on the female’s back and after a little beak tapping the two cloacas touch transferring the sperm to the female, nicknamed the “clocal kiss”, and thats how baby penguins are made.
There are also Crabeater seals turning up a lot around station now. We’ve seen them both on the sea ice and in the water. We’ve even seen them in packs as big as about 7 or so swimming by. When they swim by in a pack it sounds like a pack of horses coming through because every time they surface for air they sound like a horse huffing.
Additionally we’ve had a very large ice berg stuck in between the islands for most of this month, and it is still out there now. When ice bergs hand around Palmer for a while they get a name. A few of the scientists have been thinking about naming it Debbie Steinberg in honor of the Krill project leader. Last year we had an ice berg named Mark Wahlberg sitting out near an island for about 6-8 months.
Here are some more pictures of Crabeater seals, E. seals pups, and ice bergs for your enjoyment.