Early autumn in the Weddell Sea 1

Subject: Early autumn in the Weddell Sea 1
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Tue, 16 Apr 2002 14:51:05 +0200

                                EARLY AUTUMN IN THE WEDDELL SEA

It is a long way from Tromsø at 70*N to the Weddell Sea in the Antarctic at
65*S! But that is nevertheless where I am now in March 2002, looking out on
a grey calm sea full of icebergs from the German ice-breaker and research
vessel Polarstern. My colleague Jørgen Berge and myself were lucky enough
to have our project approved by the German Research Council and thus to be
invited to participate in the research cruise ANDEEP II, one of a series of
cruises exploring the  hitherto very little known bottom fauna of the
Antarctic deep seas. This particular cruise started from P. Arenas in S.
Chile on 27 February, and will after schedule return there on 1 April. We
are ca 40 scientists of 13 nationalities on board, and once more it is the
Amphipoda and my work on this group of shrimp-like animals, that has given
me the chance to take part in this exciting project, and at the same time
to see still an other part of this wonderful world.

Seabirds are not part of the project at all, but nothing is of course to
prevent me to watch for them en route---a deep-sea cruise has  regularly
periods in which nothing much happens: some type of gear is at the bottom
and will come up after three hours or so. The Polarstern is a wonderfully
stable vessel, so that I even can use my 10x field glasses on board without
being inconvenienced to any appreciable degree by tremors from the engines.
Moreover we have hitherto been uncommonly lucky with the weather and had
not even storm during the crossing of the infamous Drake Passage, between
Cape Horn and the Antarctic peninsula.

 Off the coast of the tip of S.America there were lots of seabirds:
White-chinned and Giant  Petrels,  Great  and Sooty Shearwaters,
Black-browed and a few Wandering Albatrosses. Towards the middle of the
Drake Passage there were fewer birds, but in the South Shetlands area the
numbers increased again, with now also Wilson?s and Black-bellied Storm
Petrels and many whalebirds, chiefly Antarctic Prions. We passed through
the Antarctic Sound, but that eagerly awaited event was an anticlimax:
dense fog, snow showers and adverse winds made the visibility very low and
the comfort factor on deck almost nil. Still, Antarctic Skuas and a lone
Antarctic Shagflew out to look us over, we saw some penguins porpoising,
too far away to identify, and Crabeater Seals lazed on an iceberg. The
first peace-dove-white Snow Petrel even stayed on deck all night!

Passing into the Weddell Sea we entered a winter wonderland of icebergs
(the pack ice itself is considerably further south still this summer), the
winds fell to negligible (not even whitecaps on the sea), and on rare
occasions even the sun broke through for a moment, spotlighting a few
icebergs so that they looked dazzlingly white.  The icebergs come in every
conceivable size and shape (The biggest ice-island is 90 km long!), and
they also vary a lot in colour, with startling blues predominating besides
the overall white main impression. There are icebergs whereever one looks ,
but the sea itself is icefree, and the temperature today just a few degrees
below freezing, (and even that came as a surprise; it somehow does not feel
all that cold. )

 The season is early autumn here, and this may be one of the reasons that
birdlife is  scarce: many birds may already have moved away for the season.
The most commonly seen birds are terns, and they too may be on their way
out. In the Weddell Sea most of the terns coming close enough for specific
identification were Arctic Terns, on their way to the Tromsø area maybe to
nest in the northern summer----in the Drake Passage I had the impression
that most terns there were Antarctic Terns.

A few birds follow the ship now and then for a while.  Mostly they are
Antarctic Fulmars, sleeker and greyer than their northern counterparts, or
the all white Snow Petrels (The Antarctic Petrel I have seen only twice
hitherto). But now and then a few Cape Petrels show up, and yesterday an
Antarctic Skua came to look  us over, a sinister dark presence
overhead.  Small Wilson?s Storm Petrels patter over the surface of the sea
now and then, somehow seeming out of place (little bird alone on the big
sea); but this is a very successful bird species indeed, and it manages

And what about those archetypical antarctic birds, the penguins? They
are  very thin on the ground (the ice) in this season, clearly, and apart
from a few loafing on ice-floes, too far away to be identified, we have had
to content ourselves with a single Chinstrap Penguin. That beast put up a
great show, swam around the ship for a while and performed complete
ablutions, now and then almost swimming upside down! Of course we are a
considerable distance from land here, and the water depth is 4000m. At this
station we are almost completely surrounded by icebergs, and, somewhat to
my surprise, Fur Seals are lazing on some of the shoals.

The next station, at 65*S and 43*W (and 4600m depth) showed what we by now
call ?only a few icebergs? around (maybe five in sight at each side), grey
weather, and gradually increasing wind and sea. But also definitely more
birds: a group of some 10 Cape Petrels and a handful of Southern Fulmars
lazed in the wake of the ship, and everywhere Wilson?s Storm Petrels
patter. Antarctic Prions regularly pass by, and a lone White-chinned Petrel
followed the ship for a while. A single Chinstrap Penguin literally called
attention to himself by repeatedly calling loudly, while swimming close to
the ship and then apparently diving under it to emerge on the other side.
That penguin stayed with us nearly all day.

(to be continued)

Sea 10-17 March 2002
                                                                Wim Vader,
Tromsø Museum
Tromsø, Norway

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