Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Frozen ocean

“Ten thousand miles apart
A frozen ocean joins our hearts
I can’t wait to meet you where
The frozen waves, the ocean floors
You’ll be standing on the shore
I can’t wait to meet you there” 
- “Frozen Oceans” by Shiny Toy Guns

I was covered, absolutely covered, in layers of fleece and wool. I wore two pairs of gloves, two pairs of socks, four layers on my legs and five on my core. I topped it all off with a fluorescent orange waterproof suit issued to me for the cruise. I was warm.

Sea ice surrounding the ship
I had been standing on the bow of the ship for about a half hour, watching over the side as we steamed north. I was helping my colleague, Melanie, by recording any pieces of trash I saw on the surface. Ocean litter is an ubiquitous problem, yes, even in the Arctic, and Melanie suspects the Fram Strait gets much of the flotsam from Europe because it is carried northward by the current. I had only spotted three pieces of plastic during my transect, but then something else caught my eye. I leaned a little closer, gazing over the side of the ship. It was irregularly shaped. Could it be plastic too?

No, it was ice. It was perforated and almost clear, like a snowman melting in spring. My heart leaped! I knew the northward transit would take us into the sea ice, but I thought we were still quite far away. This frozen straggler must be far from home.

Selfie with the sea ice
Over the next ten minutes, I spotted more and more ice chunks (and thankfully no trash). After fifteen minutes, the first ice floe passed me, big enough for two people to stand on. I looked up and saw that about halfway to the horizon, in the slanted evening sun, the sea surface was glimmering white. We had reached it: the ice edge.

This cruise is my fourth time in sea ice, but I still find it captivatingly beautiful. The ice dampens surface waves, so the sea is always calm. White snow reflects sunlight, so the water looks dark black around it. Some ice floes have meltwater pools on top, while others are surprisingly large beneath the surface. When turned up on end, the ice floes are an intense, bright blue, like concentrated antifreeze.

Polar bear!
We came to the ice edge for two gear deployments, which will take place today and tomorrow. At about 80° N, these stations are the northernmost points for the expedition. Our time in the sea ice has already been exciting, because today there was a polar bear on an ice floe near the ship! The captain made an announcement over the ship’s PA system, and immediately we grabbed our cameras and headed outside. The bear was curled up, laying against a pile of snow, and seemed completely unperturbed by the large research ship passing him. He was close enough to the ship to be easily seen with the naked eye, but all too quickly, he had drifted past us and was gone.

I’m grateful for the chance to be back among sea ice and experience the beauty of the Arctic. It is gorgeous in the north!


I had a fantastic German teacher in high school who often went to great lengths to teach us vocabulary. I’ll never forget the day he dressed up like a homeless man and pulled plastic vegetables out of the otherwise empty classroom trash can, naming each one as he went. Trust me, I remembered my vegetables after that. One day, our vocabulary word was “überraschen” (to surprise), and he taught us the verb in an extremely clear way. He chose a student from the class and instructed her to go wait in the hallway. Then he chose another student, instructed him to wait inside the classroom, near the door but just around a corner so he could not be seen through the door. He whispered something in the inside student’s ear (at this point, the rest of the class was thoroughly confused), then stood back and gestured for the outside student to come back into the classroom. As she entered the room, the inside student sprang out from his hiding place and made a loud noise. She squealed. The teacher turned to the rest of the class and announced “Er überrascht sie” (he surprises her). We didn’t even need the translation to be clarified. We scribbled in our notes. An Überraschung is a surprise.
Hydroids living on the Tramper

Yesterday was a day of surprises, each one better than the next. The main event yesterday was the recovery of a deep-sea vehicle called the Tramper, which is an exceptional technological tool. It looks like an ROV with rollers like a tank, and for the past year, it has been recording microprofiles of oxygen concentrations in the sediment and then rolling itself to a new sampling location once a week. When the Tramper came up, I headed out to the deck with the other scientists to see the vehicle, and there was a surprise waiting for me.

Large pink polyps were living on the Tramper, about 14 of them, each 1 – 3 cm long. I could hardly believe my eyes. The polyps were athecate hydroids, and they actually reminded me of Tubularia, the hydroids that were all over my fouling panels at theWHOI pier this spring and early summer. It’s not the same species but probably the same family. My mind started going crazy with thoughts about athecate hydroids being the first opportunistic colonists on cold-water substrata. The polyps were on the top and front parts of the vehicle, especially on the two satellite antennae, which stood about a meter and a half above the seafloor. The elevation plus the vehicle’s weekly movement must have exposed the polyps to faster current, allowing them to feed efficiently and grow large. I ran into the lab, grabbed my forceps and sampling tubes, and started picking the animals off of the vehicle.

As I scoured the vehicle for polyps, I got another surprise: there was a second species of hydroid on the Tramper! It was difficult to see and I probably wouldn’t have noticed it if I weren’t already looking closely, but there were several colonies of a thecate hydroid on the satellite antennae covers. Thecate hydroids look like the Obelia that were on my fouling panels at the WHOI pier this summer. They have stolons running like roots across the substratum, and the stalks for each polyp stand up from the stolon. There are cup-shaped covers (thecae) around each polyp. This second species reminded me of Stegopoma plicatile, the species that dominated my fouling panels from 200 m in Kongsfjorden, Svalbard in 2015, but I’m not sure it’s quite the same. I’ll probably have to send a sample to a taxonomist to be sure.

Close-up of one of the large
pink (athecate) hydroid
polyps from Tramper.
I knew the thecate hydroids would be extremely difficult to get off of the antennae covers, especially intact, so I approached one of the Tramper engineers and asked what was going to be done with the covers now that the vehicle had been recovered. It took me a little bit to clarify that I was talking about the covers, not the antennae or attached battery packs, but eventually the engineer shrugged and said “Nothing.” I asked if the covers would be needed for another deployment. “Yeah, but we can build new,” he answered. I asked if I could have them. He shrugged. “Sure.”

I had my third surprise for the day – I got to take home the very substrate my animals were living on! The engineer even helped me cut the covers in half so they were easier to preserve, and did so without destroying any of the animals. I am extremely grateful for his helpfulness and diligence.

I packed my samples away and felt quite satisfied with my day of surprises. As I headed up to the ship’s bar for another scientist’s birthday party, I had no idea there would be one more before the night was over. Scientists and crew chatted and chilled in the bar, and then to our amazement, the ROV team entered, carrying guitars, a drum set, and speakers. The ROV team is also a band! They set up in a corner of the bar and played several songs – country, rock, some Johnny Cash. I listened and swayed and tapped along. It was a great way to end a successful day.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Fake dropstones

Friends, it’s the end of another day at sea, and we have more samples to show for it. The ROV dive today was to sample a long-term experiment at the central Hausgarten station, begun by my colleagues last year. This particular experiment concerns dropstones, which are random rocks deposited on the seafloor by melting icebergs. They’re very common in polar regions, especially near the ice edge. They’re colonized by all sorts of beautiful sponges, anemones, and soft corals, and they create sheltered habitat for amphipods and shrimps. Some of you might remember I wrote a paper aboutdropstone communities as part of my PhD.

Well, dropstones don’t just create habitat for sessile invertebrates; they also add heterogeneity to the seafloor. They alter the bottom current, creating turbulence and velocity gradients. Water flows around them in eddies, eroding or depositing sediment in the stone’s immediate vicinity. All of this affects the animals that live in the sediment, but until now, we didn’t know exactly how. How does the arrival of a dropstone on the seafloor alter the sediment infaunal community around the stone? My colleagues designed an experiment to find out.

This time last year, a series of fake dropstones were made out of cement and outplanted at the central Hausgarten station, in an area where dropstones naturally occur. The cement stones sat on the seafloor for a year and were revisited today with an ROV. Using push-cores, my colleagues, Pitty and Thomas, were able to collect sediment samples adjacent to the stones and far away. The infauna from the samples can now be counted and identified to see how the communities next to a stone differ from the background fauna.

I spent most of the day in the winch control room, watching the live feed from the ROV on a big screen. I wanted to see if anything had settled on the fake stones within the past year, and just as I expected, there were no visible inhabitants. One of the fake stones was actually surrounded by natural stones covered in sponges, so if the sponges had reproduced within the last year, their larvae would definitely have been able to reach the fake stone. The absence of any visible colonists lead me to two hypotheses: (1) Arctic deep-sea sponges do not reproduce on an annual basis, or (2) they grow so slowly that potentially year-old recruits cannot be seen with a camera. We know extremely little about the population dynamics of sponges in the Hausgarten area, so there are plenty of good questions for future research!

When the push-cores came to the surface with the ROV, I helped Pitty and Thomas process the samples. We divided the cores into preserved and frozen portions, then packed the samples away for transport back to Germany. I’ll be very interested to see what the results yield!

Sunday, August 27, 2017


I am sitting in the winch control room, a long room full of white tables covered in computer monitors and cables galore. The outer wall is lined with windows overlooking the working deck. Outside, the Arctic sun tilts towards the horizon.

A purple anemone (now closed up) collected for identification
during the ROV dive.
Today was our first day on station, and my team has spent the vast majority of it collecting samples. During an ROV dive, my colleague, Melanie, and I sat in the control van and showed the pilots which animals we wanted to collect. The AWI Deep-Sea Ecology Group has been monitoring the epibenthic megafauna in the Fram Strait since the early 2000s, and believe it or not, some of the species identifications are still unknown. Of course the easily-collected species were identified a long time ago, but there are still a few stubborn species holding out, refusing to be collected, keeping their names a well-guarded secret.

Particularly shady groups are the anemones and the sponges. Anemones that burrow into the sediment can close up and disappear into the mud whenever a collector approaches, so they are not very often found in benthic trawls. Today, we had the advantage of an ROV and the possibility of precise sampling with its manipulator arm, but many of the anemones still proved elusive. We eventually started launching stealth attacks, approaching the anemones quietly from the side, positioning the ROV’s slurp gun right above the specimen, and then turning on the vacuum. It only worked a few times, but that’s enough to identify another species.

A large sponge attached to a rock collected for
identification during the ROV dive.
Sponges are extremely difficult to collect for one reason: they live attached to rocks. You have your choice of collecting whole rocks (heavy and extremely difficult), or using an ROV to scrape the sponge off the rock. As you might imagine, getting a robot to scrape a small, delicate sponge off of a rock underwater from 2.5 km away is not easy. We did succeed, though! Four species of sponge made it to the surface.

Just to give you some perspective, there are over 20 putative species of sponge in the eastern Fram Strait, and two of the species we collected today were already known. It’s slow, steady progress, but friends, if Arctic deep-sea research were easy, somebody would have done this already. 

Thursday, August 24, 2017


Alright, friends, it's time I told you more about my cruise. I am going on the German research icebreaker Polarstern to the eastern Fram Strait. More specifically, we are visiting the Hausgarten, a long-term ecological observatory maintained by the Alfred Wegener Institute.

This expedition is actually quite different from past cruises I've been on. For starters, every single person on board speaks German (I'm one of just 4 foreigners in the scientific party, and we're all fluent), so it's an entirely German-language cruise. Second, most of the scientific party is actually engineers. The expedition is called ROBEX, for "Robotic Exploration of Extreme Environments." The ROBEX project is a joint venture of 16 German universities and institutions to develop new robotic technologies for exploration in the deep sea and outer space, and this is their deep-sea demo cruise. There are a lot of new vehicles on board, many of which will be tested for the first time. My group actually has nothing to do with technology development but rather has a second objective for the cruise: using robotic technologies for precision sampling in the deep sea.

We’ll use one of the vehicles on board, a remotely-operated vehicle (ROV), to collect samples and monitor long-term experiments at the central Hausgarten station. The experiment I’m particularly interested in concerns colonization of hard substrata in the deep sea. Back in 1999, my German colleagues outplanted a large metal frame on the deep seafloor (2500 m depth) at 78° N in the Arctic. Attached to the frames were plates of plastic, brick, and wood, so that they could observe what animals settled on each substrate over time.

A few of the plates were cut off and brought to the surface in 2005, but they were barely even colonized - only a bacterial biofilm was visible. The other plates were left behind, and they remain on the seafloor today.

During the cruise, the settlement frame will be brought to the surface with help from the ROV, and I will have the opportunity to observe and analyze what is living on the remaining plates. I am beyond excited to see what is there. Long-term datasets are rare, especially in the deep sea, and almost unheard of in the Arctic deep sea. No matter what is on the plates, it will be new, valuable information. Even if there is nothing on the plates, that will be an important result! I can compare the recruitment on the 2017 plates to the 2005 plates and also natural hard substrata (dropstones and a rocky reef) in the surrounding area, to understand how hard surfaces in the Arctic deep sea are colonized over time.

It's going to be a very good cruise! I’m still able to post blog entries from the ship, but unfortunately, there is not enough bandwidth for pictures. I’ll try to describe what I’m experiencing as well as I can, and hopefully text will suffice for now!

For more about the Robex project, visit
I also recommend the official Polarstern blog (in German), at 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017


I notice a slight ache in my quads as I climbed to the top of the stairs. Must be from my hike yesterday. Pushing myself forward, I cross the deck, climb another set of stairs, and reach my goal: the Peildeck (Pile deck).

It's the top deck of the ship, the roof of the bridge, the highest point where scientists are allowed. Not much is up there – well, besides the weather sensors. It is exposed and windy and often cold, but it is my paradise.

From the Peildeck, I can see to the horizon. The views are simply unmatched. Ice floes and polar bears and midnight sun and mountains. Northern lights and jellyfish and distant land and seals. I come up here to take in my surroundings, to get out of the lab and give my eyes a rest. But it's more than that. I come up here to decompress, to feel the sun on my face and the cold in my lungs. To breathe the air and feel the wind and thank God that I'm alive. On the Peildeck, I feel free.

Trips to the Arctic are always good for my soul, and this one could not have come at a better time. There have been several things knocking me off-center lately, both personally and professionally. But for some reason, whenever I come up here, I feel invisible weights lifting off of my shoulders. Whatever has been weighing on me dissolves in the cold air and is carried away by the wind. I am washed clean in the north.

This cruise is both a return to my past and a step toward my future. It's been so comforting to interact with my German colleagues again, and I can see our working relationships have grown and matured. Being in Norway and being among Germans again now that I'm a postdoc has made me feel more connected to those past experiences. I feel like my career is becoming less like a cluster of threads and more like a braid. As my collaborations continue and my projects develop, I hope it will become a tapestry.

The wind starts to bite my skin as I stand on the Peildeck. Below me, I can see the ship's crew preparing to set sail. Somewhere in the great distance, my samples rest quietly on the seafloor, clueless that they will soon be beckoned from the depths. I take a deep breath and relish the cold. Here, on the Peildeck, in the cold and the wind, with warm relationships around me and thrilling science before me, this is my center.

Monday, August 21, 2017

The gathering: part 2

I love meeting up with friends in foreign countries. The rest of my team for the upcoming expedition arrived in Tromsø today, and it was so good to see them again. On board the ship, the scientists will be divided into teams, and this is mine: myself and four other scientists from the Deep-Sea Ecology and Technology Group at the Alfred Wegener Institute. I've worked with these wonderful scientists before and co-authored scientific papers with two of them. Reuniting with them felt warm and comfortable. As we walked along the waterfront to find dinner, they asked about Woods Hole and caught me up on changes at the AWI. I asked about their kids. We swapped stories from past expeditions. My career is taking a more distinct shape now that I'm a postdoc, but I love knowing that I can return to and build on existing collaborations. My team is gathered. Let us set sail.

My home for the next few weeks: R/V Polarstern parked at the dock in Tromsø
My team: Pitty, Thomas, Melanie, me, Corinna

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The gathering

"Kirstin!" I heard someone call from behind me. Turning around, I saw my friend, Thorben, standing with wide-open arms and a smile of disbelief. "When did you get in?"

I walked up and gave him a hug. "About an hour ago," I said in German. 

Thorben switched into German as well. "How are you? It's been so long. I'm happy to see you. There are some members of the group here inside. Would you like to say hi?"

He lead me inside a waterfront restaurant with big windows, where a group of Germans had just finished dinner. Some of them I had met before, some I had not. All of them were from the Deep-Sea Ecology and Technology Group at the Alfred Wegener Institute, where I worked in 2011 - 2012. I settled into a chair and settled into the German conversation. Thorben asked me about my latest projects, about finishing my PhD, about Woods Hole, about life. He actually finished his own PhD about 6 months before I finished mine, so we sympathized with each others' adjustments to life after grad school. It felt good to catch up with him.

My favorite view in Tromsø: the fjord and the famous Arctic Cathedral
Friends, I am in Tromsø, Norway, and in about 36 hours, I will board the German research icebreaker Polarstern. I am beyond excited to be back in Norway, to be back among my German colleagues, and to take part in an incredible expedition. 

This is now my third time in Tromsø, and it feels more familiar every time I'm here. I took a walk along the waterfront this evening and even felt confident enough to turn inland and climb uphill. My mental map of this city is ever-improving. Sure, I'm still prone to lose my way among the narrow streets and cookie-cutter wooden houses, but the steep topography and dominant fjord provide very good landmarks for orientation. Tonight, Tromsø joined the list of places where I feel at home. 

Tomorrow, more of my colleagues will gather in this beautiful northern city, and Tuesday morning, we set sail. I look forward to a great expedition!

Friday, August 18, 2017

Noticing beauty: part 4

Seen at WHOI Beach

Quissett Harbor
Someone built rock stacks near Trunk River
Seen from Surf Drive Beach

Friday, August 11, 2017

Song for the departing interns

You came here to learn, to the Mullineaux lab
To Woods Hole, to the southwestern Cape
You were shy and reserved and preferred not to blab
For fear a bad impression to make

You read and you listened and you heeded advice
From scientists and mentors around
You opened your brains and saw with your own eyes
That the joys of our research abound

Your hands were awork and your minds were ablaze
For whatever the projects required
You came in on the weekends and even stayed late!
You seemingly never grew tired

To Meghan, whose ginger hair lit up the lab
In Redfield, room one hundred twenty
You've toiled and analyzed data for weeks,
Gaining experience plenty

I'm glad for the days that we both got to code
And decipher the language of numbers
Please carry these skills forth as long as you can
And for knowledge continue to hunger

Your research with oysters and their little babes
Will greatly increase understanding
I trust now that you'll go with more confidence
To your thesis and all it's demanding

For Deborah, your fire and ambition strong
Were always uplifting to see
Determined to always push science along
You inspired all here, even me

With samples from distant uncolonized vents
From nine degrees north EPR
You studied results of eruption events
Whether larvae came from near or far

Your passion for science will carry you, Deb
Through grad school and many late nights
Just know when your research is wrong, false, or dead
Relax, it will all be alright

Nicole, for your help on my experiments
I will for a long time be grateful
You counted and ID'd the plate animals
As assistant, you were ever-faithful

Your copepod work, though I missed it myself
Was enlight'ning to analyze with you
I trust that your readable, fine manuscript
Will be printed within a good journal

I loved teaching and chatting and trading ideas
I truly do wish you the best
For your gap year and then for your own Ph.D.
Press onward! Continue the quest!

For all of you, may this past summer have been
A springboard to launch your careers
And when you have made it or are lost and need help
You can call anytime, my dears

Mullineaux lab, summer 2017
Lauren (PI), Meghan (intern), Nicole (intern), me (postdoc), Deborah (intern),
Stace (Research Specialist), Susan (Emeritus)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The end

"Save yourself, serve yourself
World serves its own needs, listen to your heart bleed
Tell me with the rapture and the reverent in the right
You vitriolic, patriotic, slam, fight, bright light
Feeling pretty psyched...
It's the end of the world as we know it
It's time I had some time alone"
- "It's the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)" by R.E.M.

Well, friends, my succession experiment is done. This week, my intern and I collected our last round of data from Eel Pond and finished the experiment. It is over! Finished! No more!

As you know, the fouling panels at the WHOI pier surprised me in their last week by having barnacles. Well, Eel Pond had a surprise in store for me too. Do you remember the random plates that were covered in Ascidiella, the large squishy ascidian? Well, surprise! All of the Ascidiella disappeared. My plates that were covered in large, gelatinous mounds of the species were instead covered with small, new recruits of bryozoans and spirorbids. Another species of ascidian, Botryllus schlosseri, was also conspicuously absent from the plates. Botryllus used to cover large areas on my fouling panels, but it too has vanished.

I have two hypotheses for why the ascidians disappeared. The first is that Ascidiella mounds were heavy. In fact, the experimental panels got hard to lift out of the water when Ascidiella was so abundant. Maybe they sloughed off the panels, dragged off by their own weight. This explanation doesn't apply for Botryllus, though, since Botryllus was light and lay flat to the panel surface. Another possible explanation is that the ascidian disappearance was temperature-related. Similar to hydroids at the WHOI pier, they may have died in the ever-warming water. I have yet to download and analyze the temperature data from my loggers, but once I do, I will let you know what I find!
"Hey Kirstin, you match the plates!" - my intern, Nicole

With Ascidiella and Botryllus out of the way, the ascidian Botrylloides and all the bryozoans were able to flourish! Botrylloides is red-orange, and most of the bryozoans are tan-yellow, so the panels had a very bright color scheme this week. You can probably guess that orange is my favorite color just by looking at this blog, and as you might imagine, I was quite pleased to end the experiment with orange fouling panels!

Here's to the end of a great experiment!

Monday, August 7, 2017


"Like a lazy ocean hugs the shore
Hold me close, sway me more"
- "Sway" by Michael Bublé

As I turned around, I could feel the water resisting my motion. It was like moving through corn syrup as I kicked my legs and twisted my torso. Slowly, gracefully I spun. Cold water stung my lips, the only part of my skin that was exposed. But as I completed my aboutface, I could see tufts of red algae hanging suspended in the water. They were so still, almost frozen. The algal debris I had kicked up was stuck delicately in space. I stopped moving for a moment and watched the algal fronds hang there, then forget their places and begin to sink. It was peaceful.

Everything moves more slowly underwater. I've always been told that SCUBA diving is meditative, and now that I'm diving myself, I have to agree. There is nothing more relaxing than being underwater. The mammalian dive reflex lengthens my breaths, and resistance from the water slows down every motion. Kelp fronds and bryozoans and stringy red algae sway in the current. Particles hang suspended. Time disappears.

I'm not yet skilled enough to carry a camera on dives, but I wish I could show you the habitats I explored this weekend. I went to three dive sites near Cape Ann, north of Boston, and the seafloor at each site was gorgeous. Shell hash and boulders and kelp fronds and red algae. Pink sea stars (Henricia sp.) clung to the rocks while lobsters lurked underneath. Yellow bryozoans (Crisia sp.) stood up from the stones, where squishy ascidian colonies reigned (Didemnum albidum and Botryllus schlosseri). At one site, detached bits of red algae formed a thick mat on the seafloor. They drifted in the current like a rug getting pulled back and forth. At another site, giant boulders stood high, covered in a thin pink crust of coralline algae. A large club tunicate (Styela clava) protruded from a rock, its siphons open wide to feed. Nearby, a flounder lay motionless on the sand and hoped not to be seen.

Marine animals fascinate me, and being able to see them in person is a gift. Every time I emerge from the water, I think only about when I can go back. I'm grateful for the opportunity to learn diving and use it in my research. It was a wonderful weekend.

On the boat with my dive buddies for the day: my friend, Megan,
and my boyfriend, Carl

The ocean surface reflects the peace I felt underneath

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Revenge of the barnacles

When I first started my study of the mechanisms of succession in subtidal fouling communities, I thought it would be about barnacles. I thought the barnacles would be the first species to recruit to my panels, that they would have a huge impact on how the rest of the community developed, and that I could study that effect. Not so.
Look, barnacles!

There were barnacles, but not nearly enough to do a whole experiment with. I ended up focusing on other organisms - hydroids, ascidians, bryozoans. Well, this week and next, my study is wrapping up, and in an act of perfect irony, the barnacles started showing up. Imagine that!

I had been told there would be two pulses of barnacles, one shallower, one deeper, and I guess this is the deep pulse. The barancles are all in genus Balanus. The interesting thing, though, is that they're not on all of my plates. They're only recruiting to the plates where there was clear space because the dominant organism had previously been removed. For example, they're all over my "remove hydroids" plates at the WHOI pier but not abundant on plates in other treatments. Very interesting.

Ecology is full of surprises. The fact that barnacles finally recruited to my fouling panels in the last week of my study is pretty ironic. I had to laugh, but in reality, I have great data from my fouling panels and look forward to the analysis.

Well played, little barnacles, well played.