Exploring and surveying the White Continent of Antarctica underwater
We get to gear up, charge the tanks into the dingy while the assisting military of the base starts the engine. In the background, a spectacular glacier stands above the ocean. The temperature is around minus 5 degrees. With the wind-chill, maybe minus 10. The water, around 0 degrees. Now I start to realize that I am going to dive in the freezing waters of Antarctica! Crazy!!
The scholarship, this time, has allowed me to join a Chilean team from the Universidad Mayor of Santiago de Chile that studies the eukaryote microorganisms that live in symbiosis with Antarctica marine sponges. By mid-November, I made it to South America to meet the 5 other members of the team: Mario, Nelson, Marlenne, Lea, and Diego.
The 24th of November we started our journey from Punta Arenas, one of the southernmost cities of Chile, on board of the armada vessel Aquiles that was going to take us across the Drake to the South Shetland Islands. Crossing one of the most furious seas in the world by boat was a unique experience. As you might imagine, it was bouncing quite a lot despite being a relatively big ship. Sea-sickness pills were needed, but this was counteracted by the spectacular landscapes with amazing fjords and glaciers that we left behind on the southernmost tip of Tierra del Fuego as we set sails from Puerto Williams.
An unbelievable journey
I can’t quite describe the feeling of spotting the first signs of land among the misty dusk from the boat. Glaciers appearing in the distance, chunks of ice passing by and groups of whales and penguins welcoming our arrival to the southernmost continent. It was a fantastic spectacle that set tears of joy in most of us.
After one week of sailing, we arrived at our destination, Base Arturo Prat, in Greenwich Island. This was going to be our home for the next 2 weeks. The scenery couldn’t be better. We had views to a huge calving glacier and were surrounded by tens of seals and a penguin here and there that inhabited the waters of Discovery Bay.
If something I’ve learned from doing fieldwork in Antarctica is that nothing goes according to plan. After having to solve some logistical problems and challenges, we finally started our work. It was the first time that a diving team was going to explore the underwater habitats of Discovery Bay, and very vague information was available on what was living in those waters. We were looking for marine sponges, specifically an Antarctic species called Dendrilla Antarctica. Sponges, which are one of the oldest ancestors of multicellular organisms usually like to settle in a hard substrate to filter thousands of liters of water daily.
So, we were looking for some sort of underwater walls or big rocks, and that was basically trying to search for a needle in a haystack. Using a very basic bathymetric map available for the area we selected some tentative points and we set off to explore them. After some failed dives without sponges we finally found the place that we were looking for! Tens of sponges were waiting for us in a vertical wall covered by seaweed, spotted with some of the most beautiful marine invertebrates I’ve ever seen.
Whales were singing in the distance to make the moment of our finding even more special! Hearing the voices of these incredible animals underwater was one of the most special moments of the expedition! Back in the base, we pre-processed the samples in the lab to send them to Santiago, where they will try to shine new light on the metabolic relationships between the symbiont eukaryotes and the sponges.
The next step in our journey
After our fieldwork in Greenwich island, we moved to King George Island to catch the plane that would take us back to Punta Arenas. Seeing for one last time the White Continent disappear behind us while we were flying towards the Drake Passage produced me quite of a special feeling. It was like if this piece of Earth was isolated from the rest of the World, like a bubble. A pristine place so far from everywhere else where humans inhabit, but at the same time, a place where our actions as a species produced anywhere else in the globe are causing huge impacts on this very important ecosystem for the correct functioning of our planet.
Some days before leaving, I got the news that another Chilean scientific team was looking for a last-minute diver for an expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula by January of 2019. And of course, I said yes! Who has ever the opportunity to dive twice in Antarctica in less than 4 months!
Once in Punta Arenas, I spent the Christmas holidays there and I did a quick visit to Ushuaia (the southernmost city in the world) to explore the underwater world of Tierra del Fuego. By the beginning of January, the Aquiles vessel was awaiting us again prior to its departure for the next adventure to Antarctica. In the boat, I met the team of divers and researchers that I was going to be spending the next one and a half months in the military base of Bernardo O’Higgins and in the base Julio Escudero, in King George Island studying the benthic communities of these areas.
After one and a half weeks of navigation, with many attempts to disembark, we finally got to the Peninsula. The truth is that Antarctica, sometimes, shows you its scary face, making you feel insignificant in an adverse environment. Here, the extreme climatology delays or even cancels all operations programmed and puts people in dangerous situations, but on these occasions, everyone finds the strength to continue and push forward, united, together.
If there is something that I like from science is that everyone works as a group and helps each other to achieve an objective. And when that happens in the most difficult situations it is guaranteed that you can share also the amazing moments that this part of the world brings from time to time, like watching amazing whales blowing next to you and immense beautiful icebergs passing by.
After our intense journey on board of the Aquiles vessel, we finally made it to the base of Bernardo O’Higgins, in the Antarctic peninsula. The whole site was a spectacle of nature. Picture a small rock, next to a huge glacier that expands farther than your eyes can distinguish along the horizon. And in the middle of that rock sits the big red building of the base! 360 degrees of amazing views 24/7. What is special as well about this place is that it hosts a big colony of gentoo penguins, chinstrap penguins and some shy individuals of adelia penguins.
And where there are penguins, usually, there are their predators! In Antarctica, one of the kings of the trophic chain is the impressive and intimidating leopard seals. With their big mouth full of sharp teeth, penguins can do very little other than trying to run away from them. Every day there were about ten of these amazing animals laying on the ice flows around the base. And guess what, we were going to dive there! How exciting!!!
An amazing team
Together with the chief scientist, Roger Sepúlveda, and the diving team, Paula, Valentina, Pedro and me, we were planning to sample the benthic communities of the surroundings of O’Higgins with the objective to unveil more secrets about the trophic pathways that different invertebrates associated to substrates like sponges, hydrozoans, algae and rock present in these ecosystems.
The first dives were just memorable. We first went to Sapo Island to sample a vertical wall which was full of encrusting and extremely diverse fauna such as big sponges and uncountable amphipods and other colorful invertebrates. Afterward, we visited Stays Island, which had also an impressive, though a smaller wall, where we conducted another successful sampling point. Two of the most amazing moments occurred after the exploratory dive that we did close to Kopaitik Island.
After the dive, we devised a group of humpback whales passing by close to us and we approached them gently, at the point that we were swimming among at least 10 whales passing by us at around 3 meters distance. Without any doubt, seeing these impressive animals so close, and starring at them eye to eye, produced me a thrilling feeling which is hard to explain with words. Together with the whales, a herd of chinstrap penguins was swimming effortless next to the whales, trying to catch some distracted krill. It was kind of ironic to see these birds being so graceful underwater, as opposed to when they are in the ground walking clumsily, and stealing you some laughs when they fall in the ground.
With very little time to recover from this once in a lifetime encounter, on our way back we stopped with the boat nearby an extremely beautiful iceberg. And for our surprise, we got the chance to see the king of the Antarctic waters, the leopard seal. With the aid of the amazing camera that PARALENZ has provided me, I had the opportunity to record some astonishing images of the magnificent seal swimming gracefully along with the ice break, getting extremely close footage, as the seal was very curious of our presence.
The future is set
Without any doubt, these two encounters have reinforced my convincement that I want to dedicate my future professional career studying more about the polar environments and unveiling more secrets to know what is happening to all this fauna due to our actions everywhere else in the world.
After the two weeks exploring the surroundings of O’Higgins, we moved to King George Island, in the South Shetlands Archipelago where we stayed in the Chilean base of Julio Escudero to conduct more diving sampling at other sites in Fildes Bay. Although the waters were a bit more turbid than in the Península, the amazing colorful walls didn’t have anything to envy the prior sites we visited. We even had the luck to discover some amazing small caves full of soft corals which were a perfect end for this amazing experience.
After spending the last 2 and a half months diving the white continent, I have discovered inside me a true love for this region of the planet. It’s hard to describe the feeling of being exposed to such a rough environment where life thrives anyway!
Living for almost a month in such a remote and isolated place as it is Antarctica develops extremely strong bonds between the people you are surrounded by 24/7, as everyone has to work as a team and help each other in the best and in the worst moments. And this is one of the things that I take most value out of this experience. Friends and colleagues that will last for many years.
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