Q&A with B-267

Outreach is an important part of the NSF’s mission. As we discussed last year, working in Antarctica and with “charismatic megafauna” such as the Weddell seal is ideally suited to get students of all ages excited about research and science. In addition to blogging about our Antarctic deployment and regularly posting pictures on Instagram, we are once again communicating with students via Skype and/or email while we are stationed in McMurdo.

Last week, we skyped with the 3rd grade students from Mrs. Braham’s class at Greenwood Elementary school in Wakefield, MA. We are also communicating again with Ms. Atkinson’s 1st grade class at the Shanghai High School International Division in Shanghai, China.

Here are some of the questions we answered:

How do you move around?
Transport from Pegasus Airway on the ice shelf (where we arrived) to town is with a “Delta”. In town, we travel in vans. Some of them have big wheels or Mattracks so that they can go onto the sea ice. To get from McMurdo to the Weddell seal colonies, we usually drive snowmobiles (skidoos). Other modes of transportation on the ice include Hagglunds and Pisten Bullies (see also our blog from last year).

Have you seen polar bears or narwhals?
We haven’t! Antarctica is the southernmost continent on our planet, and polar bears and narwhals live on the northernmost side (the Arctic).

Have you seen Santa?
We haven’t seen Santa – he is also up north with the polar bears and narwhals! We haven’t been in McMurdo for Christmas, but we’re pretty sure he stops by here too. 

Why do big whales eat small things?
Big whales need a lot of food. One of the most abundant food sources in the oceans is krill. Krill are small crustaceans that swim in very large swarms. It is very easy for a whale to eat a lot of them: the whales don’t even have to hunt, they just filter the ocean water they swim through.

Are there plants in Antarctica?
There are a few! On the other side of the continent from us, a part of the land sticks out pretty far to the North, towards South America (where it is warmer!). It is still very cold and dark for part of the year there, so only some types of small plants can grow in those conditions. Where we work, it is just ice, with no plants at all.

How big are the penguins?
Adélie penguins are about 2 feet tall. Emperor penguins are taller (4 feet).

Why is the sun up all day and all night? Is it summer now?
It is late spring here. Since mid-October, the sun has not set and is above the horizon 24 hours per day. It looks like the sun is making a big circle every day. Twenty-four hours of daylight is natural phenomenon that occurs in the summer months in places north of the Arctic Circle or south of the Antarctic Circle. In the winter, the opposite happens and the sun stays below the horizon throughout the day. This phenomenon occurs because the Earth is tilted on its axis.

How did Weddell seals get their name?
The Weddell seal was discovered and named in the 1820s during expeditions led by James Weddell, a British sailor and seal hunter.

How does food get delivered? How is food packed?
Every year in the early summer, an icebreaker cuts through the sea ice in McMurdo Sound to deliver nonperishable food and supplies. On its way out, it takes back all the trash and recyclables that McMurdo Station generated over the course of a year. Fresh food is delivered by plane. There are multiple flights every week during spring and summer (if weather permits) from New Zealand to the Pegasus runway on the Ross Ice Shelf. This year, the weather has been pretty good so most flights have been able to land on the ice. Last year, we had several stretches of bad weather and the station almost ran out of fresh vegetables (I guess that’s a good thing if you don’t like veggies!).

Have you seen an elephant seal?
Elephant seals do not live on this side of the continent. Southern Elephant seals live on the Antarctic peninsula so we never see them. One of our team members (Luis) is an expert and works with Northern Elephant seals all the time in California.

Why is a crabeater seal called crabeater if it does not eat crabs?
Crabeater seals mostly eat fish and krill (also called crustaceans). They do not eat crabs that are also a type of crustacean. So basically, they were misnamed.

What happens if someone gets hurt or sick there?
McMurdo has a fully functioning hospital (McMurdo General Hospital) and a fire department (with firetrucks and ambulances). We have doctors, nurses, and firefighters on base. If you get hurt or sick, they can take care of you. If you get badly injured or severely sick, you would get evacuated to Christchurch (with a plane). Last winter, someone got very sick at South Pole Station and had to be rescued. It was a very dangerous mission to get the person out (it was dark and very cold, <-50° Celsius) but experienced pilots got the job done! We feel very safe here!

How long can penguins stay under water?
Emperors usually stay under for less than 30 minutes. Sorry Devin: we cannot bring you back a penguin but you can go see them at the New England Aquarium!

Why can scientists live in Antarctica? What do you eat? Kevin, Rehan, Joe, Eugenie, Rachel C.
How do you live in Antarctica? Anthony, Sabrina
We live at a research station (called McMurdo) that was built as a US Navy base, but now is essentially a small town of about 900 people. Everyone lives in dormitory buildings, and we all eat our meals in a cafeteria (called the galley) in one of the main buildings. Most of the people working here are actually not scientists, but they are support staff who make it possible for us to live, work, and do research here. 

How can seals swim deep and deep? William, Michael, Aaishiki
That is exactly what we are trying to figure out! The seals we study are REALLY good at holding their breath. As humans, we can only hold our breath for a very short time, before we run out of oxygen that our body needs to function. The Weddell seals are able to go without oxygen for a lot longer (more than 90 minutes!), which makes them really good at staying underwater for a long period of time.

Do you have happy days living in Antacrtica? Ivan
Living here is exciting! We are in Antarctica during the summer season, which means that the sun is always up. We get to go out and work with the seals, and see the beautiful mountain range and glaciers across the ice. The weather can be difficult – often windy and very cold (-20 to -30 degrees Celsius) – so working can be hard, but we have a really neat job!

What do the seals eat? Ella, Logan, Carel, Julian, Pranali, Aaishiki, Carrie, Isabella, Sabrina, Ellie, Rui Xi, Dora
The seals that we study eat fish.

Have you seen the aurora borealis? Harry
We haven’t seen the aurora borealis, because those are the Northern lights! We’re at the other end of the world, where we can see the aurora australis (Southern lights). However, they are only something we can see when it is dark out. When we are here (in the summer), it is light out for the entire day and night, so we only see the sunlight!

How many scientists are in Antarctica? Lily
It is hard to say exactly how many people are currently on the continent. There are approximately 900 in McMurdo, 100 or so in nearby Scott Base (where our Kiwi friends operate from). There are about 70 research stations across Antarctica, run by quite a few different countries (including the 12 countries that signed the original Antarctic Treaty in 1959). At least 30 of the countries that have signed the Antarctic Treaty send personnel to research stations on the Antarctic continent and the Antarctic Peninsula.

How many animals are in Antarctica in all? Alvin
We have come across two types of penguins (Adélies and Emperors), two types of birds (Skua and snow petrels), two types of seals (Weddell and Crabeater). We also saw jellyfish and icefish swimming. The oceans surrounding Antarctica are teeming with life. Around the continent, there are other types of seals (Ross, Leopard), whales (Minke, Orca, and Humpback), birds (albatross) and many types of fish, including the infamous “ice fish” (the Antarctic Notothenioids) that have antifreeze protein in their bloodstream to prevent them from freezing as they swim in the frigid waters. Other creatures living in the oceans here are Antarctic krill, sponges, starfish, sea urchins, sea anemones, and sea spiders.

How big is a seal? Are all seals white and black? Ella, Amber
The seals we study can weigh upwards of 600 kilograms. They are different shades of grey, often with darker grey or lighter grey spots.

Have you ever kissed a humpback whale? Eugenie
Some members on our team have seen humpback whales but never gotten close enough to kiss them!

Don’t forget to follow us on Luis’ blog and Instagram.
Team B267
NMFS permit 19439; ACA permit 2016-005.