Tierra Del Fuego (The land of Fire)

I found myself with two additional days to explore in PA and its surroundings.  To save money, I stayed aboard the L.M.G. for the first two nights.  My friends, Domi, Stef, Kim, and I enjoyed walking (and running) around town, window-shopping, eating out, and the limited nightlife.  We went horseback riding for several hour among the rolling hills and along the beach with our Chilean cowboy guide, Philippe, thirty minutes south of town.  Unfortunately, we all forgot our cameras, but often paused to take “mental pictures.”  On horseback, we crossed rivers and deep swamps, climbed and descended hills.  On the beach, several us broke into a light canter, passing brightly painted, rotting fishing vessels beached on the sand in the surf.

To the south of PA the trees are less stunted by wind and the hills more rolling as you near Tierra del Fuego (the land of fire).  Because we had enjoyed our ride so much, Stef and I returned the next day in a rental car.   After visiting a Magellan penguin colony in Ottoway to the north of PA, we turned around, navigated through the busy streets of PA once more, stereo blasting Latin Pop, and drove further south to visit the settlement of Puerto Hambre.   Of all the penguins at Palmer Station, the Magellan penguins look most like the chinstraps (my favorites), although their facial coloring is even more distinct (Fig. 1; Fig. 2; Fig. 3)  Whereas many of the penguins in Antarctica make their nests on dry land with small rocks, the Magellan penguins burrow, making their homes in the soil, beneath the scraggly bushes that cover the region (Fig. 4).  Despite the differences between Adelies, gentoos, chinstraps, and Magellan penguins, their adolescent chicks suffer equally from awkwardness (Fig. 5).  Population statistics about the penguin colony in Ottoway were posted in Spanglish (Fig. 6).





Puerto Hambre is the oldest settlement in the south of Chile, founded by general Sarmiento, who was attempting to claim the Magellan straight for the Spanish, or so we read in our dated guidebook.   Sarmiento’s goal was to claim the territory before Sir Francis Drake could spread the word that this watery passageway wove through the tip of South America and could be used to avoid the formidable drake passage.  Unfortunately, the colony did not fare well, and its members all starved.  As a result, the La Ciudad Del Rey Don Felipe (the city of the king Don Felipe) was renamed Porto Hambre (Port Famine).  Sarmiento’s grave (Fig. 6) and a the remains of a stone chapel (Fig. 7) and beautiful views of Tierra del Fuego are all that remain of this primitive settlement (Fig. 8) .  We lost and found our way again, picnicked on random beaches, scooping out avocado halves with a single spoon, and grabbed a servesa at the southernmost establishment where the road turned to dirt.


We had promised to return the car by closing that day, so as not to deal with overnight parking.  As a form of insurance, the rental agency asks you provide your local whereabouts, credit card number ect… and sign an agreement that you will pay a whopping sum of 50 thousand dollars if the car is totaled (or for any damages that you incur).  Luckily, we added not a scratch to robust mid-sized car, and at 10 minutes to 7 had safely returned it after speeding back.  We shared a sandwich and artisan hot chocolates at a coffee shop in PA, returned to our hostel, showered and went out in search of our friends for a night worth remembering that would blur with all the rest.

Lizzy Asher


Peninsula Crawl

Typically the transit north from Palmer Station requires 4 days, however, it took us two weeks.  I left Palmer Station on February 21st.  I hiked up the glacier with a friend at 6am after a short nap (I had stayed up working until 4am the previous night; Fig 1).  Several bear hugs later, we boarded our research vessel, the Lawrence M. Gould (L.M.G.) and headed north.  From the aft deck, we watched our remaining friends polar plunge off the Palmer Station dock and waved good-bye.


Figure 1.

We headed north at the glacial pace of ~2.5 nautical miles per hour, although given all the calving events I saw this summer, I think that the glaciers may be moving and melting faster than we were sailing.  We oceanographers transiting north were offered the opportunity to tag along with seven geologists onboard.  The next morning we helped collect fresh rock fragments from various outcrops along the peninsula.  I had not wielded a rock hammer since leaving Dartmouth College (Fig. 2).


Figure 2.

The following day, two of our friends and marine technicians, Julie and Tom, took me and four friends recreational zodiac boating for 6 hours in Wilhelmina Bay, where we saw penguins, crab eater seals, leopard seals, Minke whales, and penguins.  We also witnessed some large glaciers calving and visited a halfway submerged rusted whaling ship that had run aground almost one hundred years ago.

On our third day, we went to a very remote field site, dubbed “Spring Point.”  Four friends and I assisted the marine technicians in  transporting and staging the equipment used to autonomously monitor of regional tectonic activity.   We laborers were dropped off first to survey the best route possible to the field camp, and the cargo arrived one hour later.   We traipsed up and down the rocky slopes that met the glacier three hundred feet from the ocean until the batteries and equipment arrived.  We clambered over boulders, skirted Skua nests, and explored the dilapidated Chilean shacks that once housed a kitchen, living quarters, and a sauna (the roof had was no longer; Fig. 3; Fig. 4).  We carried 1000 pounds of batteries and other equipment up a steep, rocky embankment.  I used it as an opportunity to train, carrying multiple batteries at once (and nearly 600 pounds in total in five trips).  In minutes, I was sweating in my t-shirt despite the freezing temperatures.


Figure 3.


Figure 4.

We would spend the following two days taking out field camps: Charreff and Copa, the second of which I had visited on our way to Palmer Station.  We picked up 11 new wild life biologists, whose research focus is leopard seals, penguins and skuas.

Camp Charreff is located on the Drake Passage, and thus, notoriously difficult to acess due to temperamental weather.  The weather turned sour as we sat on the beach.  We lost sight of the L.M.G. in the fog.  We hauled month’s worth of trash and loaded into the zodiacs, followed by a couple of loads of equipment and people.  Luckily, the company could not be beat (Fig. 5).

camp charreff

Figure 5.

We enjoyed better weather at Copa cabana, which is located on the southern (protected side) of King George Island.  My friend Stefanie and I got to wear fully insulated dry suits.  We added two additional nicknames to the usual term, “Surfers” (wading in the surf zone), “Copapods” and “Frog Women.”  We helped steady the Zodiac and keep the boat from crashing up against the beach while people and cargo were loaded or unloaded (Fig. 6).  At Copa, the weather was perfect, the mood light and the setting social.  Remaining beers and snacks were passed around, once the few loads of cargo and food had been loaded onto Zodiacs and returned to the L.M.G.  We returned to the boat around lunchtime and enjoyed a welcome meal of Mexican food and guacamole.


Figure 6.

During these first few days, we filled the remaining hours with data analysis, email, movies, board games and meal times, rejoicing in our good weather and fun times.  The next five days, however, we crossed the drake and puttered around the Magellan straight.  Many of us without much work to do grew bored and restless (if not seasick or drugged to prevent the onset of seasickness).  We amused ourselves with yet more movies, impromptu dance parties on the bow of the ship, and afternoon games of capture the flag on the deck.  I was the captain of team “Honey Badger” (No one fell overboard or suffered any other major injury, so we considered the L.M.G.’s first capture the flag game a great success).  Finally, we arrived in Punta Arenas (PA) early on the morning of the 4th (Fig 7), a bit haggard but ready for our next adventure.


Great pictures are courtesy of Mike Stukel, Domi Paxton and Stef Strebel (I lost my camera before leaving Palmer Station). Thanks guys!!!

Cloudy Skies and Busy Hands

“It’s never this nice,” I was told in November and December.  On January 3rd, the L.M.G. arrived with a boatload of scientists for the annual, month-long Long Term Ecological Research cruise north and south of Palmer Station along the Peninsula.  It was yet another calm, crystal clear day when the L.M.G. arrived, while we were sampling at Station Bravo (Fig. 1).  We met up with old acquaintances and friends, enjoyed beers on the glacier, recreational boating, and an evening at the bar.  Thirty-six hours later we bid them adieu under cloudier skies, and with fuzzier brains.  It was Sunday.  I lounged around in my sweats, milling about the lab.  I had a long month of hectic work ahead of me (a month that would stretch into the next month).

Figure 1

Figure 1

The focus of the LTER cruise is to survey the same biological, chemical and physical parameters along the same transect, year after year to determine the spatial variability along the West Antarctic Peninsula.  A core component of the work at Palmer station is also part of the LTER program.  Three different science groups monitor the primary production, bacterial production, and zooplankton abundance, respectively, to study the temporal variability by revisiting stations in our ~2 mile boating radius twice per week over the austral summer.

We added another member back to our two woman science group, consisting of Jodi (Fig. 2) and myself, B-003, my advisor, Philippe.  The day he arrived on station, we did an overhaul on both our Hiden Analytical mass spectrometers.  We shut down the instruments, changed the backing pump oil and the filaments (Fig. 3).  The backing pumps maintain a sufficient vacuum to operate the $10,000 turbo pumps required for this highly sensitive analytical work.  Over time, with exposure to air and water vapor, the pump oil degrades, which can damage the backing pump.  Changing the filaments is vital to the overall performance of these instruments because these miniscule light bulbs are the emission source that ionizes gas molecules in the mass spectrometer, giving them a charge.  The mass spectrometer sorts molecules according to their size (or molecular weight) and their charge. So, to be sorted and measured properly, all molecules must be ionized. After continuous use, the filaments can “burn out”, or weaken and snap, like a common fuse or light bulb (but a new pair of filaments costs much more than even a high-end light bulb).


Figure 2


Figure 3

With Phil on station, I could expand our weekly sampling schedule.  We continued to sample twice per week in conjunction with the LTER program, looking at the dissolved concentrations of dimethyl sulfide (DMS) and related compounds in the surface ocean, and the turnover of DMS in several hour rate experiments.  We also sampled once per week to look at the effect of micro-grazing of small zooplankton on DMS production, did weekly DMS depth profiles and maintained two instruments that routinely sampled dissolved gasses (oxygen, carbon dioxide, DMS) and two other reduced sulfur compounds, dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) and dimethyl sulfoniopropioinate (DMSP) using the pump house seawater delivered from 20m offshore.  I had begun working on the second of these two autonomous flow-through systems that measured DMSO and DMSP this past spring at UBC and at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (or WHOI, Fig. 4), and had brought down my prototype.


Figure 4

Despite the hectic schedule of experiments and measurements, I made time to chat on Skyke with Princeton grade school students, analyze data, give a science talk at Palmer Station to explain my project and results thus far, clamber around De Laca island (Fig. 5), and discover my new favorite birds, cormorants.  Antarctic cormorants have a penguin’s coloring, but are much slimmer and can fly (Fig. 6 and Fig. 7)!

Antarctica Jan 12

Figure 5


Figure 6


Figure 7

As many of my close friends and family know, I decided to stay at Palmer Station and let my advisor, Philippe, take my place on the northbound cruise back to PA at the end of January.  I stayed another 20 days, overlapping with another PI on our project from WHOI, John Dacey.  I wanted to do experiments with krill, looking at their impact on DMS production because they are a key part of the ecosystem at Palmer station.  Moreover, the micro grazing experiments that I had already conducted appeared to have a significant effect on DMS production.  I began those experiments with John, and he would continue them over the next month.  I left in good spirits after a grueling final push.  I was homeward bound on the L.M.G. at a whopping average of 2.5 nautical miles per hour (we had a full science schedule and several science and logistical stops planned).

Checking in soon,

Lizzy Asher

A Station Christmas Story

A Station Christmas story

We shared our favorite aspects of our southernmost summer holidays (Hanukah and Christmas) at this week’s station meeting at 3pm on Friday, December 23rd.  Lack of commercialism, food, snow, and family proved popular choices.  Applause and thanks took the place of the usual fifteen minutes of gentle reminders.

Thereafter, we continued the workday until 4:30pm.  Tables were rearranged and set, and a family-style feast ensued.  We enjoyed turkey and cranberry sauce, roasted vegetables, duck, mashed potatoes, bread and a wide array of deserts. I proposed after dinner Christmas boating, and urged others to join me.  Nine of us piled into a Zodiac and headed to Torgeson Island in search of newly hatched penguin chicks.  We found them, grey balls of fuzz, buried under their parent’s belly fat and feathers.

 After an hour of cooing at the chicks, we proceeded to Loudwater Cove, a de-glaciated narrow ocean passage between Anders Island, the large island, on which Palmer Station is now situated and Old Palmer Island.  We passed elephant seal families and ice walls over fifty feet high, until we reached the active, calving glacial walls.  We puttered in neutral for a few minutes in silence before coming about and returning to Palmer Station, where we warmed up in the hot tub.

What followed was a proper two-day weekend, the first since mid-October.  Christmas movies played in the lounge.  We decorated gingerbread houses and sang carols with guitar accompaniment in the galley.  Nearly everyone went recreational boating on Christmas day to watch the Christmas humback whales in Arthur’s harbor.

Science continued at a leisurely pace over the holidays.  I ran samples, helped a friend swap out a sediment trap for analysis, which collects particles and detritus sinking through the water column.  Nearly everyone managed an internet chat with friends and family.

I also finished my first New York Times crossword puzzle, analyzed data, skied, dabbled in art projects such as screen-printing t-shirts, and added promotional pictures to the box of my handcrafted life-sized Jenga set for the Christmas day gift exchange. Over the days leading up to Christmas, I had spent 15 hours cutting wooden two-by-fours, sanding down the edges and sides, and stenciling some Jenga blocks with “Palmer Station” and others with “Life-Sized Jenga.”  My favorite gifts included a hand carved wooden and painted orca, a poster depicting the Gentoo take-over of Palmer Station, and “Settlers of Old Palmer,” made by carpenter Steve, and my friends Stef and Mike, respectively.  The station manager, Bob warned us, “The gift exchange teaches us not to get too attached to anything.  Everything is ephemeral.”   Heckling, steal-backs, wrapped gift shaking and weighing followed for the next two and half hours.

The rain came the day  after Christmas to welcome us back to work.


Antarctica - Dec 12 - 8 092 Antarctica - Dec 12 - 8 227 Antarctica - Dec 12 - 6 463 Antarctica - Dec 12 - 6 530 Antarctica - Dec 12 - 8 093 Antarctica - Dec 12 - 8 100 Antarctica - Dec 12 - 6 136 Antarctica - Dec 12 - 8 290 Antarctica - Dec 12 - 6 125

JENGAPS Thanks to Mike for all the great pictures (I left my camera in my room).

Where Dreams come true, and nightmares are vanquished


I asked birder Ben which island was his favorite.

“Dream,” he replied.  There, he had seen his first rock-hopper penguin, a species of penguin that lives further north along the peninsula and sports a yellow and black crest.  But he insisted that the punk rock-hopper was not the only reason he fancied the island.  Dream offered good hiking terrain, Skuas, and several penguin colonies, Adelies, gentoos, and chinstraps (my favorite).  My interest peaked; I expressed interest in tagging along.

When the opportunity arose the following weekend, however, I was faced with a malfunctioning chemiluminescant detector and a dilemma: science or scenery?  Delicate seals on the chemiluminescant detector’s ceramic columns could not hold a vacuum, where gasses mixed with my analyte.  I chose science over the promise of illustrious islands outside our three mile boating perimeter. “You should take Nicole,” I offered.  Nicole is my good friend and roommate.

I tracked down the leaks in my detector by rebuilding the detector “burner” that houses the delicate ceramics and seals, and testing the vacuum by systematically blocking the inlets to the burner measuring the pressure using the pressure sensor on the detector.  Content, I settled into the realization that I might never see Dream island because the birders seldom took tourists or required helpers.  One week passed.  I sampled seawater at stations “Bravo” and “Echo” several times, ran samples, and analyzed data.  On Sunday, birder Sean informed me that they were headed to Dream Island, and I was invited in addition to my friend Mike.

Dream Island is located seven miles from Palmer Station, four miles outside the boating limits.  Adjacent to it is a series of small islands dubbed “Nightmare” because the uninvited cliff faces, shallow waters, and exposure to large swells make it particularly hard to land the Zodiac.

We arrived at Dream after a twenty-five minute boat ride across glassy waters, skirting the edge of the glacier walls.  We stopped briefly to inspect Gentoo penguin pioneers on a recent de-glaciated outcropping.  Gentoo penguins have fared well in recent years because they are adapted to a more temperate climate, while Adelies, which are hard-wired to return to the same breeding grounds every year and live at the sea-ice edge in the winter have struggled.  Colonies of each shared Dream Island with the Skuas, which also tending nests, live off penguin eggs during the summer.  Mike and I traipsed after birders Sean and Ben, post-holing through the snow and scrambling up hills of scree.  We watched Sean coax an egg from under a nesting Skua and measure its diameter with calipers before pacing it under the female once more.  Ben chased after several of the Skuas to read their anklet tags using binoculars.  They counted mating pairs of penguins, eggs, and individuals when we encountered small colonies, and photographed the larger colonies for digital counts back in the lab.  Mike and I filled our camera’s memory cards, while agreeing, how could photographs duplicate unparalleled beauty?   Nonetheless, I would like to share a few of mine(I have also added a few photos from our camping trip on Old Palmer island, where I built a small ski jump to goof off on over Thanksgiving weekend).


birder ben tracks a skua




Birder Sean measures a Skua egg


Me skiing off a jump, while Mike snaps a photo

Me skiing off a jump, while Mike snaps a photo



IMG_6217 another polar plunge with sven


The ugly truth about penguins

At Palmer Station, weekends mean one day off.  One day where science operates at a leisurely pace, and we cook all our own meals.  Many see it as a time to eat breakfast for three meals a day and to enjoy the great outdoors: the glacier, the Zodiacs, the islands, and the wildlife.

For an Antarctic research base, Palmer station affords both scientists and staff exceptional freedom to explore the glacier and nearby islands or zip around on Zodiacs, once we have passed boating one and boating two, which are two two-hour classes that review the basics of knot tying, landing, driving, survival and rescue.   If travelling by foot, we can enjoy a moment’s solitude, although two boating two graduates are required to commandeer a Zodiac. We sign out on a chalkboard with a destination, a return time, and a radio.  The recreational boating perimeter extends a few miles from station, and several islands are off limits without a specific scientific license.

As always, I saw my day off as time to enjoy yet more science.  This past Sunday, I tagged along with “the birders,” biologists studying penguins and giant petrels.  As an oceanographer studying the biochemistry of sulfur oxidation and reduction in surface waters, bird ecology is as foreign as diplomacy.  Birders Shawn and Ben summarize their work with a smile as, “Drive boat.  Count bird.”  Although I have used the Zodiacs to sample surface seawater, I had been too busy with my own science to venture to any of the nearby islands by boat.

On Sunday morning, we piled in their sampling equipment, personal dry bags, and my skis into the boat (after visiting Torgeson and Humboldt island, they dropped me off at Old Palmer Station to ski some steep bowls with a fresh dusting of snow). The sky was cloudy but calm, and the water like glass.  We sped off full throttle, the boat on a plane.  Zodiacs level out at a high speed and with enough weight in the front.  We tied up along the rocky embankment, between a group of recreational boaters from Palmer Station and a female elephant seal.

On Torgeson, Ben and Shawn trapsed off to measure the snow depth with large polls, count the penguins and check for eggs.   Stephanie and I were left to explore and observe the penguins.

The penguins cluster together.  They mate, nest and defecate on the same pile of rocks.  The tuxedo fronts become discolored with festive red and green excretion. One mate must constantly hold vigil over the nest to keep other penguins from stealing its rocks, or Skua birds from stealing its egg.  Usually, it is the female.  Meanwhile the male penguin fetches small rocks in his beak, with which to build the the nest.  He waddles quickly or slides downhill on his belly to the piles of small rocks a few meters from the colony.    Occasionally the penguins mate for a few seconds, the males standing on the females backs.   Lone, sexually mature male penguins crane their necks and uttering a guttural cry to attract potential mates.  Single males also make nests to attract members of the opposite sex, perhaps an instinctual demonstration of parenting potential.

A smaller colony of Adelie penguins took up residence at Humbolt Island for the summer.  We noticed a lone chinstrap penguin, alone among the flock, perhaps pioneering the island for his folk.  He stood among the Adelies, neither fetching rocks, nor seeking a mate.  Recreational boaters are not allowed to visit Humboldt island, but the birders hava a permit to do so.

The penguin colony also shared the island with a bull elephant seal.  The bull was twelve feet in length and weighed thousands of pounds, but his squat trunk likely earned him his title as the elephant in the Antarctic.  He left a track, a three-foot wide deep imprint in the snow.  With fewer birds to count, making the rounds required less time, and we were soon on our way to Old Palmer.  Three hours and seven ski runs later, three friends picked me up on their way back from an impromptu science mission.

Be in touch,


News on the USAP

The sun rose at 4:25am.   The weather forecast called for a high of -5C (23F) today.  Sunday is the day off for the staff, equated with zodiac boating to nearby islands, weather and sea ice permitting, and excursions up the glacier.  Indoor activities include eating leftovers (the cooks also have the day off), reading, lounging, playing cards, blogging and looking at old Palmer Station photo albums.  In the mid-1960’s Palmer Station moved across Hero inlet to its present location.  Since, it has undergone several renovations and communication upgrades.  Now, we can make phone calls to the United States with a Denver, Colorado area code, and have nearly unlimited internet access; streaming, internet chatting and large downloads are only allowed between the hours of 10pm and 7:30am.

Palmer Station in 1965

Scientists putter around the lab, cleaning and preparing for sampling on Monday or analyzing data.  Our automated gas sampling systems are up and running.  One instrument continuously pumps seawater directly from the ocean 50 feet away and measures a suite of biologically produced and climate active dissolved gases on a mass spectrometer.  Two other automated sampling systems purge gasses from seawater samples and measure sulfur gasses on a chemiluminescent detector (as the name implies, a chemical reaction produces light, the intensity of which is measured on a detector and recorded by the computer) and second mass spectrometer.  The second mass spectrometer is used to measure different isotopic species of sulfur compounds.  We use this instrument to  determine the sources and sinks of sulfur in the surface ocean using stable- is0tope labelled compounds made in the lab.    Concentrations of these different sulfur species is tracked over time in a tank where we replicate the natural conditions in the water column.

At present, I have been fine-tuning the software and instrument settings to maximize the instruments’ sensitivity, as well as running many standards to ensure reliable instrument performance.  We have decided to duplicate many of the seasonal measurements made by another group on station, so that we do not have to wait for the data over a year because my thesis advisor is in favor of rapid publications.  As a result, I have added large volume seawater filtrations to my list of duties on sampling days.  Some of the filters are analyzed for plankton biomass or plankton health here on station, while others are preserved for specific plankton pigments (indicative of particular taxa of phytoplankton) or protein analysis.  My lab mate and fellow grantee, Sven, requires several of these processed samples for metabolic and protein work.  We review the day’s sampling and data management plans every morning and organize and clean our lab bay every two to three days.

On a non-sampling day, Sven and I joined two other friends for our first polar plunge of the season (we jumped off the pier in to the the -2C ocean).  I took two steps through two feet of crusty snow, closed my eyes, and jumped.  Once our heads were submerged  our though processes were reduced to single syllable words and the instinct to flail towards the dock’s ladder.  Sven’s face registered the emotion felt by all.  Thereafter, we sprinted to the hot tub, followed by a beer in the sauna.

The polar plunge

Our sampling schedule ramps up as the ice retreats, and the animals come out to play.  While pumping water for science, we witnessed penguins jumping out of the water like dolphins.  They exhibit grace unseen on land.  A Skua bird tagged in 1985 and tracked to the L.M. Gould research vessel and the Rothera british ice station, is living outside our GWR building, where  my room, the gym, the bar, the lounge and the store are located.

Penguins in their element

We break up our workday on Saturdays to do station-wide cleaning duties, called “House Mouse.”  We draw our tasks out of a hat.  If there are enough people on station, one or more people walk free.  The time required to complete House Mouse ranges from twenty minutes to one hour.  Although I am loosing track of the days, I know that I have been here for two and half weeks because I have cleaned the men’s bathroom, the upstairs hallway and stairs of the “Bio” building, and the kitchen.  The Bio building houses the biological and chemical oceanography labs, the galley, and older rooms.

Following House Mouse, we have a station meeting at three thirty.  We received gentle reminders to use the proper waste receptacles, wear sunscreen outside to protect us from the abnormally high UV rays at high latitudes in the southern hemisphere, and to wear pants (as oppose to no pants?) in the gym, galley, labs.  I am not the culprit.    We were brought up to date with current events on station and in Antarctica.   Palmer station receives a new communication satellite early this week.  McMordo station’s ~20 mile pipe construction project, which will be used to pump water needed for ice runway, is underway.  That concludes my news this week on the USAP (united states antarctic program).

Stay tuned,

Lizzy Asher

P.S.  Many thanks to the photos located on our communal hard drive from friends and previous Palmerites.