The Curiosity of Giants!

By: Logan Pallin

As you can see Erin’s previous post, the whales have finally showed up. It has been a great last week for us on the water. We went back out to the area where we found all the whales the day before, and low and behold there were no whales around. We found roughly five more whales in the area and were greeted graciously by a young juvenile that put on an amazing displays of energetic surface behaviors.

The whale began by rapidly ascending to the surface in an attempt to thrash its fluke on the surface water. This is a behavior we classify as a peduncle throw. We proceeded several times to stay parallel with the individual in order to collect a biopsy sample, but every time we approached the whale would turn into us and proceed to swim under the boat. At one point and time, the individual proceeded to lie on its back at the surface, thrashing its fluke, allowing us to photograph the individual’s belly. From these photos, and with the help of some colleagues back in North Carolina, we were able to come to the conclusion that this was in fact a young female.

For several more minutes this whale danced at the surface around our boat, often times raising her large pectoral fins out of the water and bringing them down in a swift slap across the water’s surface. Lastly, she swam just within arms length of the stern of our zodiac and then proceeded to roll on her back and lay under us, showing us the extent of her white belly, pectoral fins, and fluke. We finally then collected our sample and drove off, leaving this curious and playful little humpback to engage her curiosity among the other wonders of this Antarctic environment.

This encounter, even when at times had Erin and I a bit nervous, really allowed us to experience the curiosity of these animals. Moreover, we witnessed the extreme finesse, care, and awareness that these animals have over their huge extremities. Never once was the boat bumped or jostled. These are in fact amazingly intelligent and beautiful creatures.

The Laurence M. Gould was back this week. It had spent the last month traveling the northern part of the peninsula with a group of soil scientists who are trying to understand the biodiversity of Antarctic soil and the ecological relationships between those organisms. Most of the station science teams left this morning and are heading back north to Punta Arenas to go back to normal civilization that lies State Side. We still have 22 days here at Station. Still lots of time to collect lots of samples and get some more great data on the whales in the area!


Whale there they are

Erin Pickett @ Palmer Station

Here at Palmer, we have expensive acoustic equipment that allows us to see down a hundred meters or so to the bottom of the ocean. If krill or small fish (or the occasional penguin) are beneath us, they’ll show up on our computer screen as fuzzy looking colorful patches suspended in space (or along the seafloor). This technology is kind of analogous to the weather stations we have around Palmer. We look at a computer screen or in this case, turn our marine radios to the ‘weather station’, and we get the wind speed, wind direction, temperature, humidity and air pressure all by pressing one button. So we know where we are by looking at our GPS, we know where the krill is thanks to our fishfinder, and we know what the weather is doing thanks to real-time updates on our radios.

Yesterday morning while Logan and I were taking our first few sips of coffee and looking at the latest weather forecast that is conveniently waiting in our inboxes every morning, there was a man standing on the shoreline by our boat dock. He happened to be one of my graduate advisors, and one of the most senior scientists here at Palmer Station, Bill Fraser. Bill has been studying the environment here for more than twenty seasons, since before most digital technologies. Bill was observing krill along the water’s edge. This was notable, because we have not recorded significant amounts of krill in the vicinity of Palmer Station this season.

Bill mentioned to Logan that the whales might finally arrive today.

Any great field biologist, fisherman, or surfer knows the value of constantly observing the weather, the waves and the sky to know what to expect out of the day. If we are lucky enough, we are able to do this across seasons and years and we’ll even know what to expect from large-scale climate fluctuations like El Niño. Most surfers on the west coast and Hawaii knew the winter surf season would be epic this year, just like many scientists along the Antarctic Peninsula knew it was going to be a big ice year.

Soon after Logan spoke to Bill, we got our gear together and about ten minutes after leaving station Logan spotted blows on the horizon. There were so many blows, so frequently, our first thought was that it might be a large group of killer whales. We hadn’t seen more than one or two humpbacks this month, and had never seen so many individuals at once this season at Palmer. As we approached we started seeing the tell-tale humped dorsal fins arching, and flukes raising above the water as the whales dove.

Logan and I spent the next three hours doing our best to collect biopsy samples and photographs (for photo identification) of each whale. There were nine animals in the vicinity of our boating limit and probably another handful too far away for us to get to. In the end, we collected biopsy samples from seven whales and lost our last bolt amongst a group of four animals travelling into the glare of the sun, out of our boating range as the swell and wind picked up. We attempted to use a handful of nearby Wilson’s storm petrels to guide us to the lost bolt as the birds are attracted to the tissue samples, but we did not find it.

Logan wrote a blog post earlier in the season describing our biopsy sampling procedure and what we will use these samples for: In short, each 25mm long sample will allow us to conduct genetic, hormone, and dietary analyses to assess the health and status of this population of humpback whales.

After a full afternoon of whales, we returned to station exhausted and exhilarated.  Over the next month, we will be continuing to search for whales and for krill on our fish finder. In addition to our sophisticated software and instruments, from here on out I’ll take a hint from Bill and use those good ‘ole analog methods i.e. I’ll remember to walk down to the shoreline and get a feel for the conditions.

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(Research activities conducted under the National Marine Fisheries Service permit no. 14809-2)

Lichen what we’re seeing

Erin Pickett @ Palmer Station

Summer has been moving right along here at Palmer Station. While Logan and I haven’t been observing high numbers of whales, we have had the opportunity to see some awesome wildlife and beautiful scenery lately.

While we focus on top predators, there are many other scientists working here at Palmer, all of whom share a focus on studying how climate change is affecting the marine and terrestrial ecosystems in this region.  One science group is studying microorganisms (and their role in O2/CO2 cycles), another focuses on phytoplankton, one is studying an insect (the Antarctic midge), and another is studying the chemical ecology of marine macroalgae and invertebrates.

I am slowly learning about all of these projects. For example, one of the ‘buggers’ walked by our lab yesterday carrying what looked like a glass of ice water and I said “Hey! What are you doing? Are you killing your bugs?” He patiently explained that the Antarctic midge prefers freezing temperatures. Ok, that makes sense. By the way, the Antarctic midge is 2-6mm long and the largest land animal on the Antarctic continent.

We have science talks one night a week at Palmer. Last week after learning about the chemical ecology of the local marine invertebrates and algae, I was nearly convinced to jump ship from team whale and join team macroalgae. A big part of this might be me wanting to go diving, but still. Chuck Amsler (from UAB) gave a great talk about the research that the divers will be doing over the next month.

All in all, we haven’t seen many whales in the past two weeks, but we have found many other plants and animals to keep us entertained and asking questions.

You can learn more about the buggers project here: and more about the Palmer LTER research components/labs here:

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The Month of February is Almost Over

By: Logan Pallin

The month of February is almost over. Doug has now left and headed back to the states and Erin and I will now remain at station until early April. Things have not picked up any more since our last biopsy event on the 6th of February. We have only seen three whales since then, just enough to keep us from going insane. We have also had some bad weather come through that has moved some very large icebergs into the harbor which always makes for a nice view.

We do tend keeping busy on the water, even when whales are not present, by boating around and looking for crab eater seal scat samples. From the scat samples we can determine which of the three krill species they are feeding on along the peninsula, which in turn will tell us something about where they are feeding as certain species of krill are found in specific locations. We find the scat on ice flows that the seals have hauled out on to rest. We then have a kitchen spoon, thanks to the palmer station galley, attached to a 10 foot piece of bamboo that we use to scoop the scat off the ice. We have collected two samples thus far.

It is amazing to see how much the glacier behind station has changed in just the month and half now that I have been at station. We know that since the 1950s that this part of Antarctica has been experiencing some of the fastest warming of anywhere on the planet. Scientists have shown that the temperature down here at Palmer Station has increased by 5 degrees C in the last 60 years. The snowcap has already disappeared off the glacier, and when we hike up it, if you listen closely you can hear vast amounts of running water underneath where you stand.

It is also that time of year now where most of all the adult penguins have molted and left the breeding colonies. Likewise, this years chicks have fledged and are now foraging on their own somewhere with in the palmer deep canyon most likely. Other animals have begun to show up in numbers. We are now seeing more weddell and Antarctic fur seals populating the islands as the summer progresses.

The Laurence M. Gould is sitting out in the harbour right now waiting to bring to station another scientific team that does a lot of scuba diving in the area. It will be exciting to have fresh faces on station, but more important are the fresh veggies that will be offloaded later today.

Meet the Southern Giant Petrel #seabirdsaturday

By: Erin Pickett

I have overheard about three different people today call the weather “gross”, which is understanding given the winds around here are gusting over 40 knots and it’s been raining all day, but I’m kind of enjoying it.

Due to safety concerns, we don’t take our Zodiac boats out if the winds are higher than 20 knots, so Logan and I have been occupying ourselves with indoor tasks today. I thought I’d take the time to share a few photos with you. Yesterday while Logan and I were surveying for whales we came across a group of giant petrels sitting on the water along with a few hovering Wilson’s storm petrels. Upon closer inspection we found the petrels scavenging on a fresh penguin carcass. Leopard seal leftovers perhaps?

Southern giant petrels are very cool! They range throughout the entire southern ocean and breed on many sub Antarctic islands and along the Antarctic Peninsula. They are large birds, with a wingspan of 150-210 centimeters (over 6 feet!). The scientific name of the giant petrel is Macronectes giganteus, which comes from Latin and Greek root words meaning “large”, “swimmer”, and “gigantic”. Another fun fact- the name Petrel refers to the story of St. Peter walking on water. Petrels have webbed feet that allow them to run on the surface of the water when they take off (they also make unique tracks through the snow).

The seabird team here at Palmer is monitoring the local population of giant petrels that are currently raising their chicks on nearby Humble Island. While they are raising chicks, mating pairs take turns guarding their nest and making foraging trips to obtain food for themselves and their young. Giant petrels are scavengers and will feed on carrion (e.g. dead and decaying elephant seals) and they are also predators that will kill live birds by taking them off the surface of the water.

Check out the photos to see what I’m talking about!


The finale: the Rosenthal Islands

Erin Pickett-

The Palmer LTER 2016 research cruise has come to an end and I am back at Palmer Station. In addition to a fantastic espresso machine, Palmer Station also comes with the added benefit of more internet bandwidth and a phone to call home. I thought while the memories are still fresh and my friends and family are beginning to ask, I’d better write down a few of my favorite field adventure moments.

Thinking back, there are a few common themes that all of these favorite moments have in common, and they are; high winds and snow stinging my face, dramatic cliff faces and rocky islands, shoes covered in penguin guano, sightings of whale spouts, and seabirds I have never seen before.

Overall, there were far fewer whales seen on this cruise than there have been in the past. Luckily, I was able to keep busy anyway, because when we weren’t finding whales I was assisting the seabird team in their pursuit of penguins. Toward the end of the cruise most of the science projects happening on the ship were wrapping up and the birders and whalers were given more freedom to direct the show. This meant we were able to work with the captain of the ship to chart courses to areas where we thought we might find whales and to rarely visited islands with colonies of Adelie, gentoo, and chinstrap penguins.

The first group of islands we visited were just east of Prospect point, called the fish islands. We used a handheld GPS and hand-drawn maps to navigate around a group of small rocky islands collectively named the minnows. Carrie and Darren (the “birders”) and I hopped on and off our skiff to count the chicks and adult penguins on each island. Meanwhile, our boat driver was keeping an eye on the wind and the icebergs surrounding us so that we wouldn’t find ourselves trapped in the bay if the sea ice became packed in by strengthening winds. Our ride back to the ship that day was quite wet due to a lot of wind chop, and we spent the rest of the afternoon drying our gear out and warming up so that we would be ready to return back to the minnows that evening to collect Adelie penguin diet samples.

Giovanni Fattori (
Prospect point is colored in red in the center of the peninsula, with Anvers Island and the Gerlache straight to the North. Image credit: Giovanni Fattori (

Diet sampling is a critical part of the birders work during the LTER cruise. Collecting diet samples from Adelie penguins over a long time period and over large geographical distances allows us to monitor how changes in sea ice along the peninsula are impacting top predators and their prey. We had a successful trip back to the minnows that evening and collected fresh diet samples from five Adelie penguins that had just returned home from foraging trips.

Two days later we arrived at the Rosenthal islands, which are located on the west side Anvers Island. Our goal at the Rosenthal’s was to census the local penguin colonies. The Rosenthal’s were unlike anywhere else I have been yet, with jagged islands set dramatically near the base of a large glacier and waves crashing over nearby shoals and icebergs. Southern giant petrels and skuas glided over our heads while groups of penguins porpoised around us. At the first island we came to we got to see a king penguin, a rare sighting in this area.

Luckily there were six of us to count the thousands of Adelie, gentoo and chinstrap penguins that were scattered in colonies all over the islands, but it still took most of the day to complete our counts. After one last trip through the Gerlache straight at sunset, we arrived back at Palmer Station.

I hate to admit that I didn’t have my camera with me at Prospect point and at the Rosenthal’s, so until I get a few from the rest of the field team here are a few from the last week of the cruise…

It has been a month now!!

By: Logan

So it is hard to imagine that I have been at Palmer Station for a month and 2 days now. The time has flown by and I still feel like there is a lot of work to be done. The weather has been on and off for the last two weeks. We have had winds exceeding 60mph that have kept us from going out on the water. Even when the winds are non existent, we have not been able to go out as the harbor has filled up with lots of brash ice.

It has been a slow year for biopsy sampling thus far. We normally, or well at least our team last year, had about 40 biopsy samples by now. I think Doug and I have only collected 13 as of yesterday. We have only seen two whales in the last two weeks. One was a single individual and the other was a mother calf pair and wow, was that calf curios. It would come right up to the boat, practically nudging the boat with the end of its mouth. It was quite the encounter to witness.

Ari and Erin should be arriving at station on Friday, which means Doug is going to head back north. Erin will be joining me at station and we will be here until April 9th, I believe. Life on station is pretty calm, but we try and stick to a pretty tight schedule to keep ourselves on track and busy. Things can get a bit challenging down here when you find yourself engulfed with boredom. Generally, we work all morning and until dinner, and some days we will be on the water well after dinner until about 9:30pm, when the sun starts to set. After dinner then we generally hang out upstairs in the lounge, make a drink, eat popcorn, and watch movies.

This week we welcomed Dr. Bill Fraser, a famous penguin biologist to the station. He has been coming down to Palmer Station for the last 40 years. Sunday, Doug and I were invited to join his birding team and count and measure penguin and giant petrel chicks on Humble Island. It was amazing to hold a penguin chick and feel how strong they are, even when they are only a month old. We counted skua nests, chicks, and eggs on Shortcut Island with the birders later that day as well. If you are unfamiliar with skuas, all you need to know is that they are relentless, will strategically poop on you, and will smash into your face at full speed if you go near their nest. Thankfully, I was wearing a hard hat. Even with my precautions these birds still seemed to nock it off my head twice, despite having it strapped to my head. At one point we were measuring one of the chicks, I believe at nest F1, and I was bent over holding the chick so Ben, one of the birders, could measure the beak as well as the first and second primary feathers, when all of a sudden I felt something land on my shoulder. I looked up and one of the chick’s parents had decided to land on my shoulder and peck at my head for about 15 seconds. At first I hated every notion of these birds, but seeing how protective they are about their young intrigued me.

On a similar birding note, we have had four penguins jump into our boat so far. The first two made it up on to the side tube of the zodiac, quickly spun themselves around and shot back into the water. The other two made it directly into the boat and were assisted back out by Doug. One of the penguins that made it into the boat, jumped right in at our feet, getting the computer and GPS wet, stood up and looked at us, and then just stayed there. He did not care at all that we were there and just wanted to ride along for the day. Unfortunately he made it a bit challenging to do our work so we had to help him out of the boat as well.

I cannot wait to see what the next two months has to offer down here. It is a beautiful place that I cannot even fully describe. I will check in again soon.



It’s hard to keep a straight face when you’re trying to write something serious about bubbles

By: Erin Pickett

When I was in middle school I wrote a report about bubble rings but I don’t remember if I had the same problem I do now of trying to sound serious, I was probably less concerned about that at the time. That paper was about individual ring-shaped bubbles, like the kind dolphins (or humans like me) blow underwater. This blog is about the bubble nets that humpback whales create to corral their prey underwater (I have yet to master this skill).

I have just finished auditing about 7.5 hours of video footage that we obtained from the suction cup tag we deployed on a Humpback whale earlier this month. My objective was to create a detailed log of underwater foraging behavior. We were especially interested in recording video footage and collecting fine-scale movement data from the whale during coordinated bubble net feeding events. This video footage is the first of its kind documenting this type of feeding behavior in Antarctic Humpback whales.

I found many occurrences of both bubble net and lunge feeding events, and in some cases the underwater visibility was good enough to observe other whales in the video frames. Throughout most of the 7.5 hours the tagged whale was travelling and foraging with at least one other whale, but at one point up to three other individuals were present. Other notable behavior included vocalizations and pectoral fin slapping on the surface of the water. Krill were frequently observed rushing by the forward facing camera just after lunge events.

Watching these videos over the course of a few days I became kind of committed to this whale’s story, and where each video ended and another began I found a narration running through my head that went something like, “next time on the life of the whale… will he find more food?” When the final video ended I even felt a little sad that I wouldn’t be able to keep following him on his journey.

I’ve included some screen shots below to give you a better idea of what I observed while watching the videos.

A lone Antarctic krill passing by the camera
A lone Antarctic krill passing by the camera
If you look closely you'll see two whales in the top frame (left side of the whale) and one whale in the bottom frame (right side of the whale)
If you look closely you’ll see two whales in the top frame (left side of the whale) and one whale in the bottom frame (right side of the whale)
This frame captured a whale slapping it's pectoral fin on the surface of the water
This frame captured a whale slapping it’s pectoral fin on the surface of the water
Another whale blowing bubbles in the background
Another whale blowing bubbles in the background
This frame looks over the front left side of the tagged whale and you can see the bubbles rushing by. You'll also notice a barnacle stuck to this whale.
This frame looks over the front left side of the tagged whale and you can see the bubbles rushing by. You’ll also notice a barnacle stuck to this whale.

P.S. I named this whale Mr. Opihi man, since the barnacles and the suction cups stuck to his back reminded me of the way Opihi (the Hawaiian word for limpet) stick to the rocks.

Storm Petrel Central: a gathering of birds above a whale fall?

Guest blog entry by: Dr. Doug Nowacek-Duke University (Co PI on Palmer LTER marine mammal project)

We spend a lot of time on the water, which we really enjoy because we get to see not only the humpback and minke whales we are studying but also all the other wildlife (penguins, seals, flying birds) and this amazing environment around Palmer. Just in the last two days (while we haven’t seen any whales!) we have seen this area in several different moods – from bright sunshine to cloudy with very cool lighting to a veritable blizzard! So, while we are doing our surveys for whales and/or krill, we are always on the lookout for animals, ice, or whatever. Sometimes when you’re paying attention, you see things that you may otherwise overlook, and while some of the things you notice turn out to be just a passing bird or seal, sometimes what you notice turns out to be amazing, cool, and interesting.

Each and every time Logan and I would pass the corner of Cormorant Island in the southeast corner of the boating area (see the Palmer Station Area map), we would see a small to medium sized grouping of Wilson’s storm petrels, sometimes joined by a few southern giant petrels (GPs). The first time or two I noticed the gathering of petrels, I didn’t think much of it, but then I realized that every time we passed that location (which has been often as we search for these bloody whales!), the birds were there. The storm petrels, as they do, would be flitting about and ‘dancing’ on the surface of the water collecting food. Well, we noticed this phenomenon enough times that we thought there must be something to it, but what could be attracting the petrels to the same spot all the time? Yesterday we did some echosounder surveys for krill in the area, and we decided to head to ‘storm petrel central’, and if the birds were again in that spot, we would run the echosounders over the area to see if there was a big krill patch. When we arrived, the birds were there as always, probably 20 storm petrels and 4-5 GPs. We approached slowly with the echosounders on and planned to do a couple loops around the spot; the GPs took off, but the storm petrels hardly knew we were there as they kept dancing around on the surface, presumably grabbing food. Well, the echosounders showed nothing in the water column…but, as we glided over the area we noticed two things (in addition to the birds!) at the surface. First, we saw small oil droplets coming to and breaking at the surface and quickly dissipating. Second, we smelled a smell that relatively few people in the world have smelled…dead whale!! We stayed for several minutes, while Logan took ~200 photos! And we continued to see little oil droplets and the storm petrels going nuts, with some of them actually diving beneath the surface, which is rare for them, I believe. The birds would change locations a bit and dance along the surface 30-40 feet from what seemed to be the center of the action, but the activity was very much centrally located to our spot and our presence did not deter them in the least.

Could there be a dead whale at the bottom here? And as it decomposes releasing little tasty bits for the birds? We went back today with the Station doctor after he joined us for some more krill surveys. The birds were most certainly there, maybe even more storm petrels today, and we actually saw some very small white chunks come near the surface and get snatched up by the little ‘butterflies of the sea’, as they are called in French. We also saw a good bit more oil hit the surface, and that unmistakable smell was in full force!!

Storm petrel central has been one of those cool experiences we didn’t expect to have, but will be an indelible memory of our work this year. And, who knows, if the Station gets an ROV soon, maybe someone could go have a look at our suspected dead whale!


A visit to Rothera Research Station

By: Erin Pickett

We had an eventful weekend on the LMG, visiting a British research station on Adelaide Island on Saturday and nearby Avian Island on Sunday. We arrived at Rothera Station early Saturday morning and traded most of our LTER team for a group of British scientists. The British base was very welcoming and had a full of day of crevassing, skiing, hiking and boating activities planned for us. Meanwhile, their scientists took advantage of the use of our ship for a few offshore science projects.

We “whalers” took advantage of the free time and good weather and spent the morning looking for Minke, Humpback and killer whales in the vicinity of Rothera. We had hoped to put a stop to our long streak of days without whales but unfortunately there were no whales to be seen. Despite this, we had a great morning taking photos of the many icebergs, leopard seals, Wilson’s storm petrels and blue-eyed shags in the area.

Sunday was a beautiful bluebird day and we had a gorgeous transit from Rothera around the south end of Adelaide Island to Avian Island. We left two of our LTER colleagues on Avian and they will be camping there for the week. They will be studying the island’s population of Adelie penguins, conducting diet studies and assessing reproductive success by weighing, measuring and counting Adelie chicks.

Spending a week each year on Avian Island is an important aspect the seabird component of the LTER program because Avian Island serves as a sort of “control” study site, to compare to the more rapidly changing Palmer site. The differing physical and biological conditions at each of these two sites allow scientists to assess how things like local sea-ice conditions and biological productivity affect each of the local penguin populations. There are around 80,000 Adelie penguins on Avian, so you can imagine that we could smell the krill-colored guano long before we landed on the island.