7 and 8 January 2013

At Sea, en Route to Elephant Island

Akademik Ioffe

Akademik Ioffe

The Akademic Ioffe is starting to feel like home and our shipmates and crew are becoming friends. The two sea days on our way from South Georgia to the Antarctic Peninsula is a chance to catch up on sleep, gather laundry, and “go to school,” as the impressive roster of intellects on board adds up to full days of lectures. There’s also the bridge where staff are racking up a great list of whale and seabird sightings, and a drawing class with Ed Rooks.  The seas were relatively mild throughout, and many who were laid low on the first crossing from the Falklands were out and about this time.

Passenger Mindy Kimball has studiously absorbed the shipboard education and her class notes fill us in on the first day’s offerings:

“Tim and Pauline Carr shared with us more of their adventures from South Georgia Island, during the 16 years they curated the museum at Grytviken. One of the most interesting notes I took from their talk was the explanation for the name Grytviken, which is Norwiegian for ‘Pot Cove.’ Grytviken is named after the try-pots that the early seal hunters used to cook down the blubber of the elephant seals. They were thick black iron pots that sat over fires on the beach. They used penguins to start the fires because their feathers burned easily and their fat little bodies cooked well in the fire (horrible, I know, but you can’t make this stuff up). When early explorers established Grytviken as a more permanent whaling and science base, there were already abandoned try-pots on the shore, hence the name.

“Next Jim Danzenbaker gave a recap of our bird sightings so far, and acquainted us with some new seabirds that we will see as we get closer to Antarctica. So far the most spotted birds we’ve seen are the Wandering Albatross, Black-browed Albatross, Wilson’s Storm-petrel, Southern Giant Petrel, Pintado Petrel, Blue Petrel, White-chinned Petrel, Antarctic Prion, Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, and Common Diving Petrel. As we move farther south we should see the South Georgia Diving Petrel, the Snow Petrel, the Antarctic Petrel, more Pintado Petrels, the Southern Fulmar, more Wilson’s Storm-petrels, and the South Polar Skua. So far the only bird I can definitively pick out in flight is the Pintado petrel, but I’m working on getting better!

“Next we heard from Ian Dalziel about the geology of the South Georgia micro continent. He traced what we know of the history of the rocks, from the breakup of Gondwanaland to the Northeast Georgia Rise impinging on South Georgia Island to create compression and uplift (hence the reason for South Georgia Island’s impressive mountains at approximately 3000 meters high). He also spoke about the enigma of the Central Scotia Sea, and how it doesn’t have the same features in it as the adjacent seas (West Scotia Sea and East Scotia Sea). Ian’s lecture today was in memory of Peter Barker (1939-2012), a geologist who spent a lot of his time figuring out the enigma of the Central Scotia Sea.

“Our next lecture was fascinating, as we learned from Michael Moore about marine mammals, diving, and the effects of loud sonar. There is a huge variability between species on dive depths and frequencies. We learned that elephant seals, which just look like huge lazy blobs on the beach, are possibly the elite athletes of the oceans, diving to great depths and spending nearly 90% of their dive time deeper than 10 meters below. We also learned that some recent sonar experiments suggest that whales react to strong sonar signals in the same way they react to the calls of orcas (killer whales). Another super interesting fact is that whales don’t necessarily exhale when they dive the way that human divers do. Whales actually need some air in their lungs to make their echolocation sounds, so they recycle the gas back and forth across the muscles that make the clicking noises.

“Rob Dunbar spoke next about ‘Sea Ice and Why it Matters.’ Did you know that new sea ice is soft and salty, and 3rd year ice is drinkable?  Seasonal ice (that melts each year) is very different in the life it is able to support. Sea ice systems are the single largest ecosystems on earth, supporting algae, diatoms, crustaceans, worms, and various bacteria. Sea ice can fix 2-12 grams of carbon per square meter per year. That’s a lot. The bacteria growing in sea ice are food for krill, and krill are very important to much of the food web. One last interesting point is that when we see less sea ice in the Arctic, this means more moisture is entering the atmosphere and this leads to more snow in Europe.

“The last lecture of the evening was from Richard Alley about climate change and some of the good news about what lies ahead as we adapt to climate change (like jobs, more reliable energy supplies, etc). He recognizes that there are no magic bullets. There are major hurdles to overcome in order to enact solutions, and there are big equity issues with who gets the advantages (or who is able to deal with the climate changes before we actually adapt). A thought-provoking point is to consider how much money we’ve spent on national parks and land conservation. As ecosystems change because the climate is changing, whole species of plants and animals will try to move with the moving climate zones, maybe hundreds of miles north, and now those new places might be where a city or a cornfield is located. How will we then continue to conserve those ecosystems? His last point was intriguing and was about the uncertainty in what we know of climate change. He says that if you include the uncertainty in the scientific conclusions, then this should motivate more action now, as in, ‘The less you trust me, the more you should do.'”

- Kate Spencer, Staff Naturalist; Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris