Working in the Antarctic: It isn’t for everyone
Live icefish don’t travel well. They’re too fragile, O’Brien says. She and Crockett organize field trips to Antarctica every other year with their team of researchers and grad students to catch the bottom-dwelling icefish and conduct their studies.
“It’s so much fun. It’s like summer camp for scientists,” O’Brien laughs, a hint of glee in her blue eyes. When she is on campus at UAF, the 44-year-old associate professor of biology spends most of her time writing, teaching, and mentoring graduate and undergraduate students. She rarely gets to work in her own lab.
When the team is “on the ice” in Antarctica the situation is vastly different, involving many days of long hours, sometimes round-the-clock, to catch the fish and conduct experiments.
O’Brien and her colleagues head for the tip of South America with the support of grants from the National Science Foundation. They stage for departure in Punta Arenas, Chile.
An NSF contractor stockpiles supplies shipped south for Antarctic field trips. There is a wall in the warehouse where a sample of practically every item of clothing you need to be comfortable in a bitterly cold place is numbered and tacked up on display. Wool socks and balaclavas, neoprene gloves and polypropylene turtlenecks, down parkas, hardhats and heavy-duty insulated boots — everything hangs on that wall.
“You go up to a counter and tell an attendant how many of what you need and the items are checked out to you, like library books,” O’Brien says. When the researchers come back from a field trip, they return the items to be cleaned, reconditioned and readied to go out with the next group of scientists or support staff.
“You can pack a bag with just your underwear” to go on a research trip to Antarctica, O’Brien says. Most people like to have at least some of their own clothes, and at the research station where O’Brien works there’s a little store where you can buy toiletries. But otherwise workers pick up all their gear in Chile before they leave.
When weather and the seas allow, it takes about four and a half days aboard the 230-foot U.S. Antarctic Research Supply Vessel Laurence M. Gould to make the trip from Punta Arenas, through the Straits of Magellan and across Drake Passage to Palmer Station.
“The trip is always exciting, regardless of the sea state,” O’Brien said in a College of Natural Science and Mathematics newsletter last year. “The four-plus days provide us with an opportunity to finalize research plans and get to know the other scientists and support crew on board, many of whom have become good friends over the years.”
Palmer Station, owned and operated by the United States since 1968, is on Anvers Island, off the western shore of the Antarctic Peninsula. The station’s main building houses labs, dorms, a dining room, kitchen and offices; other structures hold generators, boats, more dorms and labs, a lounge and even a small gym. About 50 researchers and support crew can be accommodated there. When the ARSV Gould arrives, everyone piles out to welcome the new arrivals, put down the gangway and unload the ship. There might be several different research groups at the station at any one time, with scientists and graduate students collecting data on projects as diverse as the ecosystems of Antarctic fjords to a species of worm that lives strictly in whale carcasses.
“We are always there in May and June,” O’Brien says. “That’s the beginning of summer in Alaska but leading right into the Antarctic winter in the Southern Hemisphere.”
The day O’Brien’s team arrived at Palmer last year, they split into two groups. The less seaworthy among the group stayed “on station,” unpacking and setting up the lab. The more avid fisher folk, O’Brien among them, departed on the Gould for a four-day fishing trip.
“We fish 24 hours a day in two shifts of 12 hours each,” O’Brien says. It takes 20 minutes for a net to reach the bottom, they trawl for 20 minutes, and then it takes another 20 minutes to bring the net back aboard.
“We fish in an area where we know the bottom is smooth [so the net won’t tangle]. We run a pass in that area, and then we turn around and go back.”
Frantic activity ensues when the net’s contents are disgorged on deck. Scientists and crew transfer the fish into tanks filled with circulating cold seawater, and return any unwanted or invertebrate species to the water.
On average they fish for 72 hours — about six shifts — or until the tanks are full. Then they head back to the station to process the catch.
Once at Palmer, a crane operator slings the tanks from the ship’s deck to the dock. O’Brien and her crew scoop up the fish with nets and move them to seawater tanks inside the lab or on a deck outside.
That’s when the real work begins. Over subsequent days, the scientists remove fish from the tanks for study. Some are anesthetized and their blood collected, some are sacrificed for organ or tissue samples. Though a lot of the lab work is done at Palmer, some tissue samples are frozen for analysis at UAF or other sites.
Occasionally, once all the sampling is done, an icefish might end up as the main course at dinner.
“They don’t taste like much of anything. They need lots of butter and garlic!” says O’Brien.
The bland flavor of white-fleshed fish is related to the lack of myoglobin, O’Brien says.
“That richer taste when you’re eating meat comes partly from the presence of myoglobin.”