The One With The Peanut Butter M&M’s

By Shimi Rii

Shimi RiiIn May, I embarked on HOT-252, (possibly) my last HOT cruise for my Ph.D. project.  I say ‘possibly’ because you never know what your committee may spring on you at the last minute. Inside, however, I felt a bit giddy but already nostalgic – there were many adventures that sprung out of these trips to our most frequently visited station in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (NPSG).

Leaving Honolulu harbor

Leaving Honolulu Harbor for a business-as-usual HOT cruise.

I have now completed a 2-year collection of monthly DNA/RNA and primary production samples within the Hawaii Ocean Time-series (HOT) program.  The HOT program is now on its 25th year of physical and biogeochemical measurements at Station ALOHA (22° 45’ N, 158° W), an ocean station representative of the NPSG, one of the largest ecosystems on Earth.  For the last 2 years, I had a duffel bag packed with acid-stained garb that was re-washed after every cruise, a mini toiletry set, my yoga mat, and my ukulele, all neatly set aside and ready to go each month.  On May 20, I folded my clean clothes full of pukas (‘holes’ in Hawaiian) and stowed away the empty duffel, hoping not to jinx myself.

Station ALOHA, site of the Hawaii Ocean Time-series, located at 22° 45’ N, 158° W.

Station ALOHA, site of the Hawaii Ocean Time-series, located at 22° 45’ N, 158° W.

I’m looking forward to the benefits of lab life: carpal tunnel syndrome on my pipetting hand, the ability to tell which centrifuge is on by its particular drone, being able to catch up on All Songs Considered podcasts.  But I will definitely miss the monthly trips to Station ALOHA – especially the ping-pong match of playful insults I’ve grown accustomed to throwing at my shipmates, playing Dominion until the wee hours when we should be sleeping, and the constant fight against motion- or food- or microscope-induced seasickness.

In truth, my shipmates have become my sea-going family.  Each HOT cruise is marked by a random exciting event that distinguishes one from another, much like a Friends episode: “The One With All The Fish” or “The One With the Mysterious Smell (you know who you are).”  We worked like a well-oiled machine, understanding each other’s looks, knowing when a Trichodesmium bloom would occur, and enjoying moments of camaraderie at 1 a.m.

A cruise that will forever remain warm and fuzzy in my heart is HOT-242, my first birthday cruise. Though I’ve sailed on research ships for over 10 years, I somehow managed to stay land-rooted on my birthdays.  I woke up to a bouquet of balloons on my stateroom door with a gift bag full of candy and a card signed by everyone on board.  It was just another birthday, but I felt special. This year, I wasn’t going to have Facebook greetings from high school classmates that I never talk to anymore.  Never mind that I had to wake up at 3 a.m. for my CTD cast; I was with my Station ALOHA ‘ohana (family) and it was going to be an awesome birthday at sea.

Balloons from the Station ALOHA ‘ohana on stateroom door.

Balloons from the Station ALOHA ‘ohana on stateroom door.

Science on my birthday cruise was nothing out of the ordinary, with every hour being accounted for and occurring like clockwork, as per usual on a HOT cruise.  The only thing different was an assignment to track down a rogue seaglider that was deployed a week prior.  This seaglider, an autonomous profiling instrument designed to give us real-time environmental data, decided to ignore all assigned depths and commands and it fell on our crew to bring the rebel home.  Unfortunately, this resulted in a spontaneous jaunt to Kaua‘i across the 72-mile-long Ka‘ie‘ie Waho Channel.

The rogue seaglider that went off track during HOT-242.

The rogue seaglider that went off track during HOT-242.

I had been feeling great for the first 4 days of the cruise, and by the time the ship started its channel transit, I was done with my work and watching movies in the lounge with a bag of peanut butter M&M’s.  Unexpectedly, that familiar, slightly acidic taste had developed in my mouth.  “You doing alright? Ready for your birthday cake?” My colleague teased, noticing my fear-filled wide eyes.  “Are you sweating?” He kept on. I glared and waved him away weakly, overcome with sudden shivering. The M&M’s were now sloshing around in my stomach, much like the water around the boat.  It was dinner time, and the smell of sautéed shrimp, normally my favorite, didn’t help. I took deep breaths and closed my eyes, determined to make it to my birthday at sea celebration.

Finally in the mess hall, I closed my eyes to concentrate as my ‘ohana sang “Happy Birthday” and presented me with my cake.  I can do this, I told myself. This day can still be awesome. I managed a smile and stood up to cut the cake, when the room blurred and started spinning.

Gulp. “Fernando, cut this,” I blurted out, shoved the knife in his hand, and ran to the nearest head (bathroom on a ship).

Thanks to HOT-242, it will be a long time before I can eat peanut butter M&M’s again.

Sara Lee birthday cake that I never got to taste.

Sara Lee birthday cake that I never got to taste.

Shimi Rii is a 5th-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Oceanography at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.  Her current research looks at the diversity of tiny eukaryotic phytoplankton and their role in carbon cycling in the North and South Pacific Subtropical Gyres.  She enjoys creating things, relaying the awesome-ness of microbes to high school students, and practicing science writing. 

Breaking ice in Antarctica… to discover what lies beneath

by Jaclyn Mueller

Mueller headshot

In March of 2012, I had the opportunity to take part in Antarctic research for the second time in my life. As a graduate student at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, I study RNA viruses that predominantly infect phytoplankton, with a focus on communities in the Antarctic. When I heard that some help was needed on an upcoming Antarctic research cruise, I couldn’t wait to get back down to one of the coldest, windiest, most desolate and absolutely beautiful places on earth. The 40-day expedition took place on the Nathaniel B. Palmer, a research vessel and icebreaker. The cruise was part of a large, multidisciplinary study called LARISSA: Larsen Ice Shelf System, Antarctica, which is a National Science Foundation initiative funded to investigate the ecosystem impacts of a catastrophic loss of ice that took place in 2002, when a 3200 sqkm piece of ice disintegrated from the Larsen B ice shelf into the Southern Ocean on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula. We had a number of scientists on board, ranging from physical oceanographers, glaciologists, and geologists, to biogeochemists, marine benthic ecologists, phytoplankton specialists, microbiologists, and virologists!

The Nathaniel B. Palmer breaking through ice in Antarctica

The Nathaniel B. Palmer breaking through ice in Antarctica

As we departed Punta Arenas, Chile, the Straights of Magellan were quite choppy from the high winds and stormy weather in the area. Many people were immediately ill and turning to Dramamine and saltine crackers for comfort. Surprisingly, as we exited the straights and made our way into the Drake Passage, the seas became incredibly calm. The Drake Passage is the stretch of water where the Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean come together and the Antarctic Circumpolar Current rips through the narrow passage between the southern tip of Chile and the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. It’s notoriously one of the roughest crossings in the world. When the waters are abnormally calm, the passage has been referred to as the “Drake Lake,” and we were lucky enough to experience it!

On our transit through the Admiralty Sound, the weather was absolutely gorgeous and the scenery utterly breathtaking. I truly cannot put into words how beautiful and unique the world is down there. We saw numerous whales, seals, birds, and penguins with enormous ice capped mountains erected on either side of the Sound. Everyone’s spirits were high, with the sun shining and clear blue skies for miles. After the sun went down, a new beauty took over. It was impossible to capture the calm, serenity of the night with my small point and shoot camera. But imagine pitch-black darkness for miles in the distance, with the moonlight casting shadows over an endless sea of icebergs, growlers, and bergy bits. The stars were incredible. You could literally see the entire Milky Way from the top of the ice tower on the ship! At night, the captain, mates, and ice pilot used radar and spotlights to look for icebergs. It was really pretty amazing to watch. Though this vessel was built to break ice, we still had to avoid the giant icebergs and any “fast ice,” or really thick, sturdy ice.

 Clear blue skies on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula

Clear blue skies on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula

Most of our sampling in the Antarctic was dependent upon sea ice conditions. We spent a lot of time breaking ice and attempting to get to stations on our planned cruise track, but often had to make on-the-fly decisions to change location. When ice conditions were really bad, the ice prevailed! If conditions worsened at night, we had to wait until sunrise for easier navigation to determine our next plan of attack. If we were unable to make a large enough hole to maintain the ability to maneuver the ship, the ice was capable of closing in on us with great enough pressure to legitimately squeeze us in! (Don’t worry; the captain wouldn’t let this happen.)

 Adelie penguins on an iceberg

Adelie penguins on an iceberg

Breaking through the ice provided a very different experience for me, as far as cruising conditions go. Usually I get used to the constant rocking of the vessel with the rolling motion of the ocean, but in the ice, conditions are often very stable whilst on station. However, when we were moving through the ice, crushing along growlers, and pushing aside ice floes, it often sounded and felt much like an earthquake. The ship would often get stuck up on an ice floe and tilt sideways, slowly and dramatically, and then crash back down to position as it collided into another one. Working at sea requires us to tie everything down, as we often run into rough seas and everything slides across decks and floors, off of counters and tables, or tips over and onto the floor. While on station, we tend to forget these things; so once we start moving again, everything goes flying!

 A minke whale and crabeater seals following in the ship’s wake

A minke whale and crabeater seals following in the ship’s wake

On the cruise, I assisted with sampling for the Smith Lab, a Benthic Ecology lab at UH that studies organisms that live within and on the seafloor. I worked the night shift from midnight to noon. Scientists usually break up the work on oceanographic cruises into two 12-hours shifts to allow for constant operations around the clock. When it costs over $100,000 a day to operate a research vessel of this size, we can’t afford any breaks! Since I was working as an assistant to one group as well as collecting samples for myself, I had my work cut out for me. If my samples came up at noon, I had to process them fully before I could get to bed, and was still expected to be back and ready for action at midnight! It’s a good thing that ship had a fancy coffee maker and an in-house barista, ready to make me mocha lattes every morning!

 Image of the seafloor showing brittle stars and Scotoplanes (sesea pigs (a species of sea cucumber). Photo credit: Craig Smith

Image of the seafloor showing brittle stars and Scotoplanes (sesea pigs (a species of sea cucumber). Photo credit: Craig Smith

The benthic (seafloor) sampling began with a camera survey of the seabed to determine whether or not the sediment was soft enough for Megacore sampling. The Megacore is a piece of equipment with 12 plastic cylinders that penetrates the seafloor to collect cores of sediment ~20-40 cm deep. When the equipment came back on deck, below freezing temperatures made it very difficult for scientists to retrieve the cores as they were often frozen in place. We then sectioned the sediments by pushing the core up through the plastic cylinder with a piston extruder to slice off 1 cm sections; which were then analyzed for chemical composition, and abundance and diversity of organisms, both large and microscopic. This whole procedure took about 2 hours for deployment and retrieval of the Megacorer, and anywhere from 3-24 hours of processing of the cores.

Megacore sampling on deck

Megacore sampling on deck

The Blake Trawl was one of the more exciting operations, though processing of the sample was very time-consuming and tiring. We basically dragged a net along the seafloor which collected a bunch of sediment and rocks, and any organisms greater than ~2 cm in it’s path. After hauling the large glob of sediments, rocks, and organisms on deck, we dumped it onto a sorting table to hose away the mud and reveal the interesting creatures! The Blake Trawl sorting photo shows scientists hosing away the sediments during one of our night shift trawls. This was the very beginning of the process where we stopped to take a photo… by the end we were covered in frozen mud and water spray from head to toe! It was so cold outside that the water literally froze to our Mustang suits (orange float coats/pants, required for on deck operations), and formed icicles along the edges of the sorting table. As we uncovered the organisms, we sorted them into buckets of filtered seawater, and saved them for identification and food web analyses.

Mueller_trawl

Paulo Sumida, Buzz Scott, Jaclyn Mueller, Caroline Lavoie, and Laura Grange sorting the organisms from a Blake Trawl. Photo credit: Amber Lancaster

We unfortunately did not make it to all of the intended stations due to difficult ice conditions throughout the cruise. However, we were still able to collect a large number of samples from the Larsen A embayment for all of the scientists. We hope to put our samples from the water column and sediments into the context of climate change effects in this region, and determine the impact of large ice shelf losses on the ecosystems below. Continuing to monitor and explore these regions is crucial to understanding the implications of global warming in such a delicate, unique environment.

Jackie Mueller is a PhD student in the Oceanography Department studying marine RNA viral diversity and dynamics. She is using cultivation independent techniques to characterize the composition and structure of the RNA viral community along the Antarctic Peninsula.

Creatures Lurking in the Darkness

By Anela Choy

In clear waters to the far north-west of Hawaiʻi’s main islands is a series of submerged and partially submerged remnants of once volcanic islands and drowned coral reefs.  These land masses and the 139,797 square-miles of the surrounding Pacific Ocean comprise the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, our nation’s largest conservation area and one of the largest conserved areas of marine environment globally.  Of the Marine National Monument, the vast majority of this protected area consists of deep, offshore waters that are also the least explored.

In the summer of 2009 the good ship Hiʻialakai carried a crew of scientists throughout the Monument on a month-long journey to conduct a variety of scientific and cultural explorations.  The Drazen laboratory in the Department of Oceanography at UH Mānoa is also known informally as the Deep Sea Fish Ecology Lab and thus, our participation was focused on using baited deep-sea traps to describe the vastly unknown cast of fishy deep-sea characters.  John Yeh, who designed and built the trap, and I repeatedly threw the trap off the back of the ship at various depths (mostly in very deep waters thousands of feet below the sunlit surface) and at various locations within the Monument.  In addition to comparing the Monument’s deep-sea scavenger community to others’ around the world, we wanted to see how this community varied in both the horizontal and vertical dimensions of the Monument.

The creatures lurking in the darkness were a surprise not only to science but especially to my eyes and mind.  Bright red Heterocarpus shrimps with antennae as long as pencils, slinking and shiny eels with smooth grey skin, ugly deep-sea fish known as rattails with their eyes and stomachs blown-up…these guys were enough to give any normal person nightmares.  Most disturbing (and perhaps most fascinating!) was the giant hagfish (Eptatretus carlhubbsi) that came up in one particularly slimy haul.  We won’t talk numbers and sizes, but know that it was as big as any respectably scary boa constrictor or python.  The hagfish had a face only a mother could love, with multiple fleshy barbels dangling from a large slimy hole (i.e., nostril).  There were no real eyes to look into, only primordial eye spots that held no sign of emotion or previous life.  What stuck with me most (yes, pun intended) was the heinous amount of icky, sticky slime and mucous that oozed out of the collection of glands running along the length of its chubby, slithering body.

photo by A. Choy

photo by A. Choy

John and I spent hours burning through an entire roll of paper towels to clean the continually oozing sticky stuff from the hagfish and everything it touched, including us.  When the spineless fish was as clean as we could get it, we snapped an array of pictures as if it was a celebrity.  That month in the Monument left me awe-inspired and entertained, truly driving home the reality of Earth’s deep-sea environment being less explored than the surface of our moon.

photo by A. Choy

photo by A. Choy