Monday, September 25, 2017

Like a hurricane

"Here I am
Rock you like a hurricane"
- "Rock you like a hurricane" by Scorpions

Differently-sized specimens of Cladorhiza gelida, the
carnivorous sponge, photographed using a dissecting microscope.
Friends, my first week back in Woods Hole was made significantly more exciting by the passage of hurricane José. My boyfriend actually started calling the hurricane "José Cuervo" because of its drunken, swerving path through the Atlantic. It parked off the coast of Nantucket for a good four days, giving us on the Cape the gifts of multi-directional wind and variable-severity rainfall for most of last week. To be honest, it wasn't quite as bad as I anticipated, but there was definitely rainwater getting thrown around from all directions.

I made sure to stay inside and work in the lab while José had his way with the outdoors. It was a good chance to start measuring the sponge and crinoid specimens I brought back from the Arctic. Yes, all my specimens made it safely home, so I've been busy at the microscope, measuring the lengths of the animals from the long-term settlement experiment and calculating how quickly they grow. I know the experiment was underwater for 18 years, but the individuals I found living on it were surprisingly small. I can try to estimate their growth rates and see how growth might be affected by altitude above the seafloor. (Remember, the largest sponge on the whole experiment was on the radar reflector, about 2 m above bottom.)

It's been a busy week of catching up, progressing forward, and trying to stay dry. I should have very interesting results from the specimen measurements. I'll keep you posted!

Monday, September 18, 2017

I will be back

"You made me swear I'd never forget
I made a vow I'd see you again
I will be back one day
And I'll find you there by the great big lake"
- "I will be back one day" by Lord Huron

Returning home from a trip to the Arctic is always a surreal experience. The climate in the high north is so different that I feel disconnected from whatever's going on at temperate latitude. I'm completely out of touch with American news. Especially after long trips, when I return home to a different season than I left, it doesn't just feel like I've been away; it feels like I've been on another planet.

Even though it's mid-September, it still feels like summer in New England. Temperatures are in the 70s (Fahrenheit), and I'm walking around in T-shirts for the first time in a month. Thankfully, most of the vacationers have gone, so the traffic in town is actually manageable. I'm settling back into my WHOI work, spending time with my boyfriend, and making sure we're prepared for hurricane José.

You know, on my first trip to Svalbard in 2011, I thought I was getting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I thought I would never get a chance to go back. It wasn't until I had been to Svalbard 5 times in 4 years that I started to think of myself as an Arctic biologist. At the time, I declared that I would be back even though I had no solid plans. I had a head full of ideas and just knew in my heart that I would find a way - a project, a collaboration, some grant money. Well, I designed a project and found the funding that I needed, and this time, I don't just know that I'll be back. I know when.

If all goes as planned, the larval samplers and fouling panels that were just outplanted on moorings for me will be recovered over the next 1 - 2 years. I'll return to Svalbard for the recovery cruises, and if I know myself, I'll have other projects to start too. Every time I come up to the Arctic, I go home with new ideas, and this time is no exception. It's taken me 6 years, but I'm comfortable saying it now: I am an Arctic biologist.

In the meantime, my samplers are underwater, swaying gracefully on the mooring lines, collecting larvae and recruits of hard-bottom benthic invertebrates. I leave them in peace.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Staged and ready

Today is one of those days when I sit down in the evening and realize suddenly that I am exhausted. My body is drained of all energy, and I can feel that the muscles in my legs and back have been used. At first, I could not figure out why I was so tired, but when I thought back, I realized I have done a lot today.

My day started at 7 am. I made sure I was moving early because I needed to get my larval samplers filled and prepped before a 10:30 meeting with the other scientists. I had sent myself a box with all the supplies to build the samplers, but they still needed to be put together. My poor hotel room turned into a mini laboratory as I spread out all my things, filtered water, and filled the samplers. As I worked, I kept thanking myself for thinking as far ahead as I did and not forgetting any of the necessary supplies.

Once the samplers were in order, I hiked down to UNIS for a meeting with the rest of the scientists. This cruise is quite a bit smaller than my last one, with only 16 scientists going on board. It didn't take me long to learn everyone's names and nationalities (it's quite an international group), and we chatted about our research objectives. The chief scientist gave an overview of the cruise plan and general schedule, then outlined the plan for loading the ship that afternoon. 

My work station for the day on R/V Lance. Do you recognize
the gray wooden box and settlement frames?
I ran a few errands over lunch and then got a ride to the ship with my now-completed samplers. On board, I was reunited with another box of mine, which had been loaded by my colleagues a month ago. I'm curious if anyone recognizes the gray wooden box on the left side of the picture here or the contents inside. Those PVC frames and their box were built in Oregon in 2014, shipped to Svalbard, and used in my settlement experiment in Svalbard fjords in 2014-2015. After the experiment finished, I left the frames in the box in Longyearbyen in the hopes of using them again. Well, I have now successfully secured that chance, and the frames will be outfitted with fresh plates and deployed on my Norwegian colleagues' moorings in north Svalbard.

View from the back deck of Lance today
I spent the afternoon on the back deck of R/V Lance, prepping and sanding and attaching new settlement plates to the PVC frames. I sorted out which frames were to be used on the Norwegian expedition, which were left over and would come home with me, and then packed the frames and my larval samplers into the gray wooden box. Since I won't actually be on the ship (the cruise conflicted with another obligation for me), I met with the chief mooring technician and showed him how my things should be deployed. He pulled out diagrams of the moorings, and we marked the depths where my samplers should go. We actually hung a length of chain from the lab ceiling to simulate the mooring and tested out our planned attachment method. It worked. 

I didn't realize it, but I was actually the last scientist on the ship. The others had finished earlier and gone back to town, so when I completed my work at about 5:30 pm, it was just me and the crew. Thankfully, a crew member offered me a ride, so I didn't have to carry my leftover frames the 3 km back to town. 

In the evening, the scientists met for dinner at Kroa, a restaurant in the center of Longyearbyen. Part of me couldn't help but think about the last time I was at Kroa and how far I've come since then. I am grateful for the chance to conduct yet another project in Svalbard and build up our knowledge of the Arctic. I am grateful that the timing of the Lance cruise allowed me to meet the ship in Longyearbyen and prepare my samplers myself. I am grateful for my Norwegian and international colleagues, who are willing to help me by deploying my samplers, and whom I can trust with my research. I wish all the best to the Lance scientists and crew. Bon voyage!

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Scavenger hunt

Ah, the life of a scientist abroad. It is certainly never boring!

Before I left for Polarstern, I had a box of supplies for the Norwegian cruise sent ahead to Svalbard. It was supposed to be delivered to the office of an Arctic logistics company, where I could go and pick it up. The box contained the larval samplers and fouling panels that I needed for the cruise, so it was critical to my project that I receive it. Well, friends, unfortunately international science is not that simple. When I showed up at the logistics company's office on Monday morning to pick up my box, I discovered it was not there and not in the company's system. Thus began my scavenger hunt.

Where's Waldo World Championship
It started in the company's warehouse. I described my box - large, black with a red lid, about 20 kilos. Two employees looked, but it wasn't there.

Sometimes packages are routed through the Norwegian parcel service, they said. So we went to check with them. I gave the tracking number. I described the box. Nothing.

Well, the parcel service works really closely with the post office, so maybe my box had been delivered there. I went to the post office. I gave the tracking number. I scanned the shelves of packages behind the front desk. No box.

The paperwork accompanying my box indicated it had been handed over to the Norwegian post, but yet, it was listed as "pending delivery." A couple of phone calls later, I finally figured out why. The paperwork for my box had been sent, but the box itself was in....drumroll please...Oslo!

Obviously, I was disappointed to find my box had been sitting on the Norwegian mainland for over two weeks, but on the other hand, I knew Oslo was just one flight away and my box still had a chance of making it on time. I pleaded my case and got it a spot on the next flight out, with a promise that it would be delivered the very next day.

Impatiently, I waited until all the businesses opened this morning and then called the logistics company to find out if my box had shown up. No, it had not, I was told, but it was probably at the post office (deja vu!). I walked down to the post office and thankfully met up with a very helpful logistics company employee who helped me track down the box.

When I told him it was supposed to be on a flight to Svalbard the previous day, he drove me out the airport and checked in the hangar. No box.

Maybe someone else from the logistics company had already picked it up, he thought, so he made a quick call to ask. Then came the first "yes" I had heard in the whole search. The box had come with the midnight flight from Oslo. It had been picked up early in the morning and brought to...drumroll please...the University Center!

I have no idea how, but my box got labeled for delivery to the University Center in Svalbard, not the logistics company. I suppose it's not that far of an intellectual leap for a box full of science equipment to go to the nearest scientific research institution, but technically that's not how it was supposed to happen. Whatever.

We drove to UNIS and asked the receptionist if any boxes had been delivered that morning. She said yes and pointed up the stairs. I climbed the slick wooden stairs, rounded the corner, and there, sitting in the corridor, was my black and red box.

I've never been so glad to see a black box with a red lid in my life. In fact, part of me actually felt like I had just won the Where's Waldo world championship. It was here. I had found it.

After thoroughly thanking the helpful logistics company employee, I returned home and opened the box. Its contents were all there, undisturbed, ready for me. Let the cruise prep begin!

Sunday, September 10, 2017


The aurora borealis, seen from the Peildeck of Polarstern
Since I last wrote, several things have happened:

1) I stayed up with the rest of the scientists our last night at sea, watching the aurora borealis from the Peildeck.

2) The ship arrived in Tromsø, and I hugged my dear German colleagues goodbye.

3) I treated myself to my post-cruise ritual of a long walk, a long shower, and a salad.

4) I went back to my blog posts from sea and added photos (check them out if you haven't!).

5) I flew back up north to Longyearbyen, Svalbard!

Now, you were probably expecting me to head south, not north, but I insist the back-track was for a reason. Do you remember the larval traps I spent so much time building in March? If you remember, I shipped them to my German colleagues in preparation for a cruise - the very cruise that just happened. The samplers I built in March are now underwater on moorings in the Fram Strait, and I'll pick them up next year.

What I didn't tell you before is that I also made an agreement with Norwegian scientists to deploy larval traps on their moorings. The Norwegian Polar Institute maintains a series of oceanographic moorings north of Svalbard, and thanks to a particularly collaborative colleague, my samplers will be deployed there as well. It worked out perfectly that the Norwegian cruise is starting this week, right after I finished on Polarstern, so I was already in the area. I came up to Longyearbyen to prepare my samplers, load them onto the Norwegian ship, and meet with my colleagues before they set sail.

I'm glad to be back up north in Svalbard and looking forward to the next portion of my Arctic adventure!

Friday, September 8, 2017

Farewell, Hausgarten

I’ve been referring to the Arctic long-term ecological research station by its proper name, Hausgarten, but I’m curious if any of you know that that word translates to. The closest English equivalent is “backyard,” and yes, that’s meant to be ironic. My German colleagues who founded the research station actually took it one step further by planting a garden gnome, a staple in every German garden, on the seafloor. The gnome has stood since 1999 right next to the long-term settlement experiment that was just recovered. He’s now quite alone. Of course there are other long-term experiments in the immediate area, so the gnome with be visited every few years.

As ironic as it is to name an Arctic deep-sea observatory “backyard,” reality is, the Hausgarten is a backyard for many of my German colleagues. The scientists who monitor the ecosystem up here every year feel quite at home in the Fram Strait. With practice, the annual expeditions become familiar experiences. After my third expedition to the Hausgarten, I’m quite comfortable here too, among the ice and the wind and the polar bears. Believe it or not, the European Arctic is my favorite place on Earth.

We’re now steaming back to Tromsø, leaving the Hausgarten behind. I’ve spent my last few days packing my things, arranging to ship samples back to WHOI, writing my part of the cruise report, and cleaning the lab. There’s always a lot to do at the end of a cruise, so I’m actually glad for the free time during transit to get everything done.

This cruise has been an overall wonderful experience for me. I am deeply grateful to my German colleagues who invited me along and trusted me with the analysis of such a rare and valuable dataset as the long-term settlement experiment. I am thankful that the experiment was recovered successfully, glad I was able to count all the plates already on board, and excited for the data analysis that lies ahead of me. It’s been a wonderful trip.

Thursday, September 7, 2017


Right now, I am on the ship’s bridge. I have my laptop on one of the windowsills so I can look out over the bow as I write. The sea surface is calm and blue-gray, rippling absent-mindedly beneath a similarly-colored sky. The waves are irregular, or rather, there are several different waves laid on top of one another. One is slow and rolling, another short and sporadic, all barely affecting the texture of the dampened ocean. A flock of gray-and-white birds is circling the ship, coasting on wide-spread wings just inches from the water.

I haven’t spent much time outdoors lately, but I know we’ve had bad weather. Sometimes, I could feel the ship rolling side to side as I sat at the microscope. Other times, I felt the ship pitch forward as we steamed. Unexpected waves or thick ice floes would send my swiveling chair into a spin and my poor, microscope-bound eyes into a frenzy. Still, I made it through.

I have just finished the analysis of the deep-sea settlement experiment, and I am extremely excited about the results. There are distinct patterns in the recruitment of animals on the plates. I can now describe to you the size difference in individuals living different distances above the seafloor and the variable species composition on differently textured surfaces. The experiment has given us new, valuable information about how communities develop in the Arctic deep sea, and I look forward to writing up the results when I get home.

There are still several days left in the expedition, so I have plenty of time to tie up any loose ends before we get back to port. With the plates now finished, I only have to take home a small jar of specimens, examples of each of the species I found living on the plates. I can pack up my microscope and lab supplies for shipment. In the meantime, several groups on board are still deploying vehicles and collecting data, so I’ll help colleagues where I am needed.

I am grateful for the chance to explore the Arctic, for the experiment entrusted to me, and for the rare and valuable dataset I now have. Like the gray-blue sea, I am calm and content.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Lily of the sea

Friends, I would like to tell you about another common species on the settlement plates. Its scientific name is Bathycrinus carpenterii, but you can call it a sea lily. Sea lilies are echinoderms, related to sea stars, brittle stars, sea urchins, and sea cucumbers. Like all echinoderms, they have radial symmetry (they look the same no matter which way you turn them) and arms in multiples of 5. The main difference between sea lilies and other echinoderms is that sea lilies live on stalks and filter the water for their food. They look very flower-like, with a long, tall stem and narrow, finger-like petals.

Up until the mid-1800s, sea lilies were only known from the fossil record. The discovery of living, extant sea lilies in the deep sea lead to a hypothesis that the deep sea was a sort of refuge for “living fossils,” ancient organisms that had died out everywhere else. The hypothesis has now been disproven, but sea lilies mark an important step in the history of deep-sea biology.

A large Bathycrinus carpenterii recruit on one of my plates
Bathycrinus is pretty common in the Fram Strait. We see it in photos of the seafloor, standing tall above the muddy sediment like widely-spaced flowers in a field of dirt. I had always been told that Bathycrinus settled on tiny pebbles and only appeared to be living on the sediment because the pebbles got buried. I had a hard time picturing it but now fully understand that Bathycrinus is a hard-bottom species because it was all over the settlement plates. It loves hard surfaces!

Species that filter the water for their food generally like to be as high off the seafloor as possible because the current is faster the higher up you go. More current means more food, which means animals have an easier time making a living. I haven’t run the numbers yet, but it seemed there were more Bathycrinus on the settlement plates that were higher up off the seafloor. It also settled on the ropes that held the plates to the frame and on the frame itself – anything to get up high into the water column.

One cool thing about sea lilies is that they’ll always show you which direction the current is flowing. Much like moss growing only on one side of a tree, sea lilies tend to face into the current to feed. Their stalks are flexible enough that they can bend and sway as the current changes. In a lot of the seafloor photos, you’ll see Bathycrinus individuals all facing the same direction.

The appearance of Bathycrinus on my settlement plates promises to tell me a lot about the species’ life cycle, growth, and reproduction. I’m glad for the chance to learn more about a common Arctic species!

Monday, September 4, 2017

Where the pink sponge grows

It is 9:45 pm, and I have been at the microscope for 10 hours today. I knew the analysis would have to happen fast, before the animals on the settlement plates rotted and wasted away. I saved half of the plates in ethanol to buy myself some time and kept the rest in cold water, sitting in nature’s refrigerator on the deck of the ship. After two days of work, I just finished the refrigerated plates, but I already have some very cool results.

A Cladorhiza gelida recruit on one of the plates
For starters, I’ve found about 15 species on the plates. That’s not very many in the grand scheme of things, but it’s actually more than I expected. Every time I find a new species, I photograph it, pick it off the plate with my forceps, and save a sample to identify later. Some of the species I can recognize and identify right way because their adults occur on rocks in the area, but others have me clueless. It’s going to be a fun adventure to figure out what they are!

One of the most common species on the plates is a sponge, Cladorhiza gelida. It’s a spiky species, and the small pink recruits look like a corn dog wrapped in velcro, or like a piece of cactus on a stick. The desert imagery doesn’t stop there, because in photos from the deep seafloor, Cladorhiza adults resemble tumbleweed. They’re a mess of white branches, and the colonies roll across the seafloor, blown by the current. We actually had a clump of Cladorhiza roll past the ROV during a dive earlier this trip. Sometimes, a clump of Cladorhiza will get caught next to a stone and stop rolling. Held stationary by a rock, the sponge often dies, but its skeleton remains and becomes colonized by sponges and soft corals. It’s pretty common to see dead Cladorhiza skeletons with their epibionts next to dropstones in the Fram Strait.

Cladorhiza is a very cool, ecologically important species, and it also has a unique way of feeding itself. Most sponges filter the water for their food, catching and consuming the microscopic particles within it, but Clardorhiza isn’t content just to eat crumbs. It wants steaks. Cladorhiza gelida is carnivore.

A new C. gelida recruit with a copepod stuck to it.
Photographed with a dissecting microscope
At first it may seem impossible for a sponge to be carnivorous (trust me, I didn’t get it at first either), but I assure you there are many such sponges in the world. All of them use the same basic principle. They have microscopic hooks all over their body, which they use to skewer copepods. (In case you don’t know, copepods are tiny swimming crustaceans.) I have a photo I’ll have to upload later, but one of my Cladorhiza recruits actually had a copepod attached to it, helplessly velcroed to its predator. Imagine sticking a lobster to a cactus – that’s what it looked like. Crazy thing is, the copepod was just about as big as the sponge!

Cladorhiza is one of the most common recruits on my plates, and I can learn a lot about its growth and population dynamics by examining the juveniles. I’m looking forward to learning more about an important Arctic sponge!

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The main event

Friends, my day has finally come! I’ve been waiting for an ROV dive to recover the long-term deep-sea settlement experiment so I could begin my analysis, and I’m happy to announce the frame has been recovered! It is now safely on board, and oh, how cool are the samples!

It all started yesterday around dinner time. We were at the central Hausgarten station and the weather was cooperating, so we went for it and sent down the ROV. Got to be honest, I was expecting the dive to take a lot longer than it did. It was a tricky operation but went very smoothly. The ROV had to first dive to the seafloor and find the experiment, then the ship lowered a weighted cable with a spool of line on the end, which the ROV had to find, grab onto, unspool, bring to the experiment without getting tangled, and hook onto the top of the frame. Imagine putting a hook in an eye underwater without getting tangled up. Lots of things can go wrong.

Thankfully, the ROV team already had experience with the maneuver, so when I spoke to one of the pilots that morning, she insisted everything would be fine. And it was – the pilot got the hook on the frame on the first try. The ROV then got out of the way, and the ship’s winch raised the experiment 2500 m to the surface.

I spent most of the ROV dive in the control van, leaning as far forward out of my chair as I could without falling, scribbling notes to myself about what I was seeing on the plates. There were visible organisms – not very large, but definitely there. I could identify three different species right off the bat. The largest, most conspicuous individual was a sponge living not on the experiment but on the radar reflector, situated high on a staff above the frame itself. I made a mental note to collect the sponge from the radar reflector later and wrote its name in my notebook: Cladorhiza gelida.

When the experimental frame reached the surface, Melanie and I were standing ready. We had waterproof suits for ourselves, cable cutters to remove the plates, two giant bins of cold water to temporarily store them in, and forceps and jars to collect any other interesting animals on the frame. I took us a good three hours to get everything collected, stored, recorded, and set, but it was very satisfying to see my samples on board.

May the analysis begin! 

P.S. If you read German, I recommend this post about the experiment recovery on the official Polarstern blog.