Just to the east of the Ross Sea lies Cape Colbeck, our next destination. Here, ecologist Dr. Gitte McDonald is hoping to find some Emperor Penguins. In the past, Gitte has had some of her Emperors come to this area to molt. But, no one knows where they go or what they do after molting, until they are seen heading back across the Ross Sea for breeding. Gitte and her team are hoping to catch and tag Emperor Penguins to shed some light on this mystery.
Whereas we were mostly in open water during our Ross Bank surveys, now the N.B. Palmer is heading into the ice. At this time of year (e.g., late summer in the Southern Hemisphere), we didn’t know what the ice conditions would look like at Cape Colbeck. Luckily, the ice cover was more than we expected – and the ice was covered with penguins!
Ice flows off Cape Colbeck. On the look out for penguins!
Spotting penguins on the bridge. Colin, one of the Marine Technicians, makes a plan for how to safely reach the penguins.
Gitte and her team off to an ice flow to tag Emperor Penguins.
One tagged Emperor and others waiting to be tagged! Photo courtesy of Sarah Peterson, ACA permit #: 2023-003.
It’s important to note that not just anyone can jump into a zodiac and get onto the ice with penguins. Well before the cruise, Gitte had to secure the necessary permits and training to handle Emperor Penguins. And, there are a lot of rules to follow to ensure both the scientists and the penguins stay safe! So, that means that we couldn’t join Gitte’s team out on the ice, but we did have some important jobs onboard!
While the penguin ecologists were out, we geologists were wrapping up sample processing and moving our samples into the cargo hold for shipping. However, we did get some chances to be penguinologists! While “penguinologist” isn’t an actual term, it’s one we’ve adopted on the Palmer. As penguinologists, we watched from the bridge to look out for groups of Emperors and to keep eyes on the zodiac in the ice. I’m definitely adding this to my CV!
After some successful penguin tagging at Cape Colbeck, we moved more east into Marie Byrd Land, towards the Saunders Coast. While at Cape Colbeck, the N.B. Palmer could either drift in open water or use dynamic positioning to stay in the same spot if there were some large icebergs nearby. Here, the ice cover was too patchy to drift so the Captain decided to “park” in the ice to save fuel.
Parked in the ice overnight.
While Gitte and her team were out with the penguins and we were not on official penguinologist duties, we had the opportunity to take out the zodiacs for a spin. Part of the adventure is actually getting INTO the zodiac (you climb into via a rope ladder hanging over the side of the ship). These trips were probably the closest we got to being “tourists” in Antarctica, but they were also training runs for some of the crew who were interested in driving the zodiac on future expeditions. While we maintained distance from the penguins, especially the ones Gitte and her group want to tag, we did get up close and personal with some cool icebergs.
Obligatory “Hey, Mom! I’m on a zodiac in Antarctica!” picture.
Our home away from home, the Palmer, with a group of Emperor Penguins.
Gitte and her team brought 33 penguin tags with them, and used all 33 of them! Once they completed tagging, they deployed net tows (much larger than our plankton nets) to figure out what the penguins were eating. In fact, they used up all their tags ahead of schedule, so we were able to squeeze in a mini multibeam survey around the Eastern Ross Sea, which is one of the most poorly mapped regions of the Ross Sea. Unfortunately, we had to cut our bonus survey short and head north to avoid storms that were forming in our transit path across the Southern Ocean back to Lyttleton, New Zealand.