The newest diet: P-NED

Carl, ready dressed for poo work. Picture courtesy of  Irene Quaile, see her Ice blog here:

Carl, ready dressed for poop work. Picture courtesy of Irene Quaile. Visit her Ice blog, link in right panel (“Marine Night in DW”)

It’s that time again where everyone has finished with the indulging of the Christmas food, the fridges are getting empty and the gyms are getting full with people trying to loose their extra Christmas pounds. In association with new gym memberships the newest diets are also being posted in almost every media form showing how to achieve the perfect body size and shape, yet those that know me know that “diet” is not really in my vocabulary. Yet on this research cruise I really think I have found one diet that I have to spread the word about, and may even try myself. It’s the “Polar Night Euphausiid Diet” or P-NED, for those who like acronyms. The background to this diet is based upon the results from numerous faecal pellet (krill shit) experiments conducted on different euphausiid (krill) species caught in Kongsfjord at this time of year. The experiments are firstly run for one hour and then the water in which they have been swimming is checked under a microscope to see if they have expelled their bowels, if not they are kept for 12 hours and checked again. Upon checking many samples I have found no signs of them excreting and when I was giving up hope I found something in one of them. I was super excited thinking I had finally found a small bit of poop, sounds very strange to write that I was excited about some poop, but I honestly was! This excitement however was short lived as I was told that it was in fact not that at all but just a bit of detritus. After these negative results from this experiment, I have come up with this new diet in which the slogan will be “Winter is coming”. The diet follows what I believe is the way of these euphausiids, which consists of eating as much as you can in order to put on fat over the short summer period followed by fasting when food abundance is scarce during the long Polar Night lasting only on your fat reserves. Of course I am still hopeful to prove that these organisms are opportunistic and will feed if they get the chance (so to try and relieve the worries about missing the festive indulgence), so I will continue with the poop experiments. Yet if all else fails we can either move Christmas to a summer holiday or alternatively just alter the fasting period to spring.

Text: Carl Ballantine

When fieldwork becomes addicting

In my mind, the past few days on the Helmer Hansen have been unlike any academic experience I have ever encountered.  Of course, I have spent long nights in the lab, or studying for exams, but those nights have left me mentally drained and eager to move and get outside. These last few nights on the Helmer Hansen have been an entirely different matter. In my mind, the closest comparable experience is running a marathon. As an endurance athlete, I am very familiar with the long grind of the marathon. It feels great the first eight miles; things start to hurt around mile ten, and by mile 18 I’m really starting to worry….but then something magical happens (if I’m lucky). Right around mile twenty, after hours of pushing firmly on the wall forming in my head, I seem to fall through it, and my mind settles in a peaceful place somewhere on the trail in front of me and I no longer think about my aching achilles or upset stomach. At this point, I am completely absorbed in the movement of running. My thoughts are gone, and I feel like I could go forever. Some people call this ‘flow.’

Epibenthic sledge recovered from a haul. Photo: Mikolaj Mazurkiewicz

Epibenthic sledge recovered from a haul. Photo: Mikolaj Mazurkiewicz

Here on the Helmer Hansen, I reached this place around 4am in the fish lab on the 13th. After a few hours of stumbling through the motions, longing for my bed and cursing the dying fish in my hands, everything changed in what would have felt like a very short period of time, had I noticed. Suddenly, all thoughts of sleep, food, and tea vanished and my arms and hands moved automatically, and my mind entered the peaceful state of flow. I knew exactly what needed to be done, and suddenly I knew exactly how to complete it in the most thorough and efficient manner. Hours went by in minutes.
This is why I live for the marathon. The months of training, the injuries, the gruesome miles between eight and eighteen, all of these unpleasant things are eclipsed by the forty blissful minutes from mile 20 to 26. Of course, things do not end after the finish line. Leaving flow can be as painful as entering it. Things are great (and I mean really great) for a few hours until the endorphins wear off. Then comes the nausea, and the headaches and the deep sad sense of loss as you realize that it’s over. This is when, of course, you start planning for the next one….the next time you can enter that brief, yet blissful state of existence.
Here on the Helmer Hansen we had a packed four days of sampling. Day and night were consumed by filtering water and processing Trawls and Epibenthic sleds. There was no time to sleep or even think about food or water. I was completely lost in the moment, and specifically in the physical movements of the process. Of course, as with running, all things must come to an end. First, things felt really good, as I was consumed by the relief of being finished, but then I was reminded

Sledge catch. Photo: Mikolaj Mazurkiewicz

Sledge catch. Photo: Mikolaj Mazurkiewicz

that the return to the real world can be quite painful. First, the basic human needs that I had been neglecting made themselves heard: sleep and water being at the top of the list, then came that inevitable and intense feeling of loss as I was wrenched from my hours of intense focus. There is no way to just flip the switch; it is too hard to let go, and when you do, a short mourning period seems to be necessary. But then soon enough, just like when I finish a marathon, came the plans for my next cruise and the thoughts about the next time I can reach the state of flow. Who could have guessed that the hours of sieving muddy samples on the deck of the HH in the cold and dark of the Arctic winter, or the hours spent with a pair of tweezers hand-picking amphipods from a bucket could elicit such an emotional response? People say that marathons are addicting, and I think I can now say the same for field work. No wonder scientists keep coming back; I certainly know that I will, and as a young masters student just entering the world of research, I find that notion comforting.

Text: Maeve McGovern

It’s never too dark to settle

Somewhere out there, in an Arctic fjord draped in darkness, a lone ship rolls through the freezing waves. Inside the ship, in a chamber lit by bright fluorescent lights and filled with computer screens, a group of scientists document their most recent findings. It is the modern age, and we are the best brand of explorers. The surface of the earth may have been crisscrossed by man plenty of times, but the body of undiscovered knowledge remains vast. It is our job to simultaneously push the boundaries of geography and science, taking that which is unknown and making it known.

In my case, that unknown is how factors like temperature and sedimentation affect what animals (and how many) settle on hard surfaces in Arctic fjords. We actually know a lot about how benthic (bottom-dwelling) animals are distributed in Svalbard waters. You can find plenty of papers about what animals live on rocks, what animals live on algae, and how the communities vary in different parts of the fjords. We know comparatively a lot less about how those animals get there.

Most bottom-dwelling animals like barnacles, hydroids, and bryozoans spend their entire lives in one place. In order to reproduce and distribute their young to new places, they have a larval stage in their life cycle. Larvae often look very different from the adults, and they’re carried around by ocean currents until they find a good spot to settle. It’s the same idea as caterpillars and butterflies – well, if caterpillars could fly and butterflies spent their adult lives permanently attached to trees.

In most parts of the ocean, animals reproduce in the spring, and the larvae settle through the spring and summer. What I want to find out is if any larvae will settle during the winter, in the polar night. Conditions during the Arctic winter are anything but luxurious – it’s the cold, dark, and there’s not a lot to eat. Would anything be able to settle and metamorphose during this time of year?

Settlement plates before deployment

Settlement plates before deployment

My goal during the Marine Night campaign is to answer this question. Last September, I outplanted plastic plates in the fjords with the help of two SCUBA divers, and the divers are recovering the plates for me during the cruise. I got the first set back earlier this week. At first, it didn’t look like anything was on them, but when I looked under a microscope, I could see hundreds of tiny worms on the plates. The worms are called spirorbids, and they live in calcium carbonate tubes. I also found a number of bryozoans, or moss animals. Bryozoans live in colonizes of hundreds or even thousands of individuals, but the colonies I found only had one or two individuals, indicating they were very young.

Polychaete on settlement plate

Polychaete on settlement plate

I was astounded by my results! On just 8 settlement plates, I found a total of 1400 individuals. Can larvae settle and metamorphose during the polar night? You bet they can. Text and photos: Kirstin Meyer

See also Kirstin’s own blog here:


Investigating the bottom

During five days of the cruise in Kongsfjorden we want to investigate the benthic environment. We will scrape the bottom, collect tons of mud with grabs and corers. Everything will be dirty. We will probably sleep for three or four hours a day. There will be a lot of fun.

Just a little part of bags, prepared before the  sampling station (Photo by Mikołaj Mazurkiewicz)

Just a little part of the bags, prepared before the sampling station (Photo by Mikołaj Mazurkiewicz)

But from the beginning. As it is good to be prepared, two days ahead our first sampling station we decided to start preparations of our equipment and all the containers for our samples. It seems trivial and boring, but it is very important to have everything prepared, especially since we had to label hundreds of string bags and tens of jars and buckets. Those last one needs to be labelled three times – on itself, on the cover and on the piece of paper that we put inside. A lot of writing. There would be no time to do this on the station during the sampling procedure.

Now we can start working. We begin with scraping the bottom with a triangle dredge. We are especially interested in rocks

Picking out the rocks collected in the dredge. (Photo by Joanna Legezyńska)

Picking out the rocks collected in the dredge. (Photo by Joanna Legezyńska)

and boulders on which encrusting and calcifying organism like barnacles or bryozoans (moss animals) grow. Three stations with three dredgings at different depths on each. Sometimes the work goes clean and smoothly but sometimes we get a material full of mud and we have to dig in it to find what we are looking for. But this is just a little part of our tasks.

Before I started my oceanographic studies I had supposed that sleds can be used just for fun. Here on Helmer Hanssen we have sleds as well, and they don’t remind regular ones, they are called epibenthic sleds and we use them to collect animals living on and above the bottom. But honestly… it also provides a lot of fun, animals we collect are so numerous and alive. And it is also very clean work – something rare in benthic ecologist job.

Struggles with the box-corer (Photo by Maria Włodarska-Kowalczuk)

Struggles with the box-corer (Photo by Maria Włodarska-Kowalczuk)

Ok, but what about animals that live in the sediments – the infauna? To collect them we need to collect hundreds of kilograms of mud. We can use a grab and then sieve everything. It’s the easiest ant quite fast procedure but it provides only big animals. Collecting smaller animals or investigating some properties of sediments like content of carbon or chlorophyll concentration in different layers is much more tricky. We need to use a box-corer, a huge and a little scary device that brings on the deck an undisturbed, rectangular piece of sediment. Then let’s put some tubes into it, cover ourselves with mud during digging to pull them out, and finally put them on the extruder. Than we can slice those cores however we like. From each slice we can take subsamples for different analysis. A lot of fun, at least five hours at each station. And then there is no time to rest! All those samples needs to be preserved, string bags with sediments must be closed, packed and stored in the freezer.

Besides collecting samples on the deck, there was also a lot of work under it. Some of the animals that we got with the epibenthic sleds had to be identified alive, and then frozen. Little unpleasant work, but on the other hand it is not so drastic as fixing them with a formalin. These animals will bed analysed for lipid and isotopic content. The result will tell us a lot about the diet of this organisms. Is it different comparing to summer? Do they change their eating preferences? We will see.

Five days passed and we survived. Even after such short time, a persons priorities can change a lot. Usual and ordinary concerns becomes much less important, you don’t think about groceries, paying bills or buying new trendy gadgets that everybody is crazy about. All you worry about is: “Will I find any time to sleep?” and “Will I finish working on the deck before breakfast?”. You do not worry if you are wearing dirty clothes. You don’t care if your t-shirt fits to your trousers, they just must be worm and comfortable. You forget about television, newspapers and even internet goes wayside, especially because the connection is so poor. You realise that earth keeps spinning around though you don’t know what did your friends post on Facebook recently and you didn’t see last news on TV.

Sorted animals ready for the identification (Photo by Mikołaj Mazurkiewicz)

Sorted animals ready for the identification (Photo by Mikołaj Mazurkiewicz)

We got MUD

We had an entire week to get ready, but today is the day. We finally got mud!

I guess benthic ecologists just never grew up and stayed young at heart… We do not say we are going to sample sediment; we say that we are going to play with some mud 🙂 This is probably one of the reasons why benthic ecologists are usually feared onboard scientific vessels: we really have fun! This plus the fact that we just get everything dirty everywhere we pass, sometimes even places where we did not pass…

In “regular” ships, in temperate latitudes, benthic sampling always takes place at the worst time of day, at night when all other scientific teams are resting between 2 and 6 am. But since we are working during the polar night, time does not matter and we sampled in the middle of the day – since it was night anyway.

During this cruise, we aim to sample 3 stations along a transect from the glacier to the open water. We came at other seasons, in spring, summer, and fall, and this data will complete the seasonal set in order to better understand seasonal changes (or not!) in benthic communities’ activities. In Arctic areas with abundant ice cover, benthic activities have been found to change as a function of seasons, with lower activities in the winter. However, in Kongsfjorden, where the ice has been declining so much, will the benthic communities change their activities?

To answer this question, we deployed a boxcorer, from which we subsampled individual sediment cores. Some of the cores will be sliced and frozen for future lab analyses of the characteristics of the sediment at that time (carbon and nitrogen contents, stable isotopes, pigments). The rest of the cores will be incubated in order to measure benthic activities: respiration, remineralisation of nutrients and bioturbation.

In order to stay young, benthic ecologists have a little secret that I will reveal exclusively here. You may wonder what we do with the rest of the mud from the boxcorer, and what is the link with staying young… Well, here is our secret, we use it as facial mask and therefore look younger! We call it the Arctic beauty. You may order it (20% to the first 200 people) contacting

Mud picture

A part of the Marine Night group testing the new mud facial. Contact email above for more info. Photo: Nathalie Morata

Text: Nathalie Morata

Chasing Polar cods

Polar cods (Boreogadus saida) are the most abundant fish in the Arctic Ocean. They are perfectly adapted to the harsh unstable environments encountered at high latitudes and are believed to be an important link in the arctic marine food web. Their role as a keystone species also makes them a relatively well studied organism. That being said, much about the species ecology remains poorly understood.

My role on this cruise is to attempt to describe what polar cods feed on during the polar nights. More specifically, I am interested in the seasonal variation in polar cod’s diet in the Svalbard region. In order to do so, I must examine polar cod’s stomach content and identify the organisms they’ve ingested. This of course, involves in a first instance… Catching the polar cods themselves! This may seem a piece of cake when having the opportunity to board a ship such as the Helmer Hanssen equipped with trawling equipment, small mesh nets, and echo-sounder, but let us not be fooled. Chasing polar cod can often be a frustrating fruitless experience. Granted polar cods will most likely occur in “Arctic regions” (eg. Sill fjords, or fjords north of Svalbard) as opposed to “Atlantic regions” (fjords on the west coast of Svalbard) but they do sometimes occur in fjords influenced by Atlantic water inflow.

On this trip we will only visit fjords that are strongly influenced by the inflow of Atlantic water. In fact, most of our sampling will occur in Kongsfjorden on the west coast of Svalbard. Our first trawl was scheduled for Thursday the 8th at 2:15AM inside Isfjorden, right out of Longyearbyen. Although we got quite a number of fish, particularly atlantic cod, the polar cod catch was rather meagre (2 juveniles). We did have however quite a diversity of organisms in this trawl (including a number of benthic organisms) and spent a few hours sorting, identifying, measuring, and weighing. Paul Renaud helped us a great deal identifying the invertebrates and as always, the small spiny Parampithae hystrix was the mascot. The atlantic cod were surprisingly small. Carl froze the few skates, flatfish, and snail fish that we caught for further analysis. Pandalus borealis were dominating the catch in abundance with 262 of them caught in this trawl.

Even if there are no polar cods for me to analyze, a trawl does not go to waste. There are a number of projects on fish that will all claim a given part of the trawl content. Ultimately, all organisms (fish and invertebrates) will be processed and the resulting data will go towards a broader fish project taking advantage of any trawl happening on this cruise.

We are still at sea at the moment, sampling for zooplankton not far from the sea ice. The next trawls are scheduled for Kongsfjorden. Kongsfjorden, the fjord in which we destroyed the net in the past cruise when it got stuck in mud near the glacier. Hopefully, this time, mud won’t be at the rendez-vous and polar cods will be around.

Text: Marine Cusa

Marine with Cod

Successful cod-hunt

A Tourist destination

This is not what one imagines being on a ship, cruising around Svalbard, should be like. There are no dramatic vistas of sharp peaks, rocky shorelines, and glacier-covered mountainsides. Bears, seals, walrus, and sea birds have either left for more southern areas or are somewhere out of sight. It is dark. I mean really dark. Imagine crawling into your refrigerator (or more accurate, your freezer) and closing the door. If the light really does go out when the door is closed, that is pretty much what it is like here.

But then, we are not tourists either. In fact, it is this darkness that interests us since, in very recent years, it has surprised us with its high levels of biological activity. Planktonic and seafloor (benthic) communities, and even some seabirds, are very active. The interactions of sea ice, wind, and water now are , in part, determining the productivity of the ecosystem when the sun returns. We are here to study the biodiversity and ecological processes of the polar night to more fully understand how Arctic ecosystem’s operate.

So on second thought, maybe we are here for the same reason most people visit Svalbard: the mystery of a foreign environment that relatively few have experienced, and the feeling of being part of something far larger than we are. Our field of view is shortened, even in the lights of the ship or our headlamps, challenging us to look more closely at the details and letting our imaginations fit these into a bigger picture. So maybe the real sense of adventure and exploration of an unknown world that we are undertaking makes our voyage worthy of any tourist guide after all.

Text: Malin Daase, Paul Renaud

Helmer Hanssen with searchlights

Photo (Malin Daase): The research vessel Helmer Hanssen illuminates the darkness as it steams northward through sea-ice in the polar night.


January 6th, 2015 on board of the RV Helmer Hanssen in direction of Longyearbyen, Svalbard.

I won’t deny the soporific effect of the smooth rocking of a boat on its way to the Arctic Ocean, yet here I go, throwing myself into blog redaction and event reporting. Some of us haven’t been feeling particularly fresh ever since the boat left Tromsø yesterday after-noon and the captain sheered us up today when he announced that the seas ahead were quieter. A few minutes later, the ship pitched enthusiastically (just to prove him wrong) causing all sorts of stuff to hurtle across the “instrument” room including some of us attempting desperately to avoid the flying objects.

As casual as some scientists try and make this type of field work sound, it seems to me that describing it as an expedition would be most appropriate. A few numbers of us, professors, students, assistants, and a wonderful ship crew have embarked aboard an adventure that will last two weeks and that will take us into the depth of the Arctic everlasting winter nights. We will explore the ocean depths of west Spitsbergen fjords from the Helmer Hanssen research vessel. Darkness is a difficult world to grasp and to study, especially when it creeps in frigid isolated oceans, yet it is far from being devoid of life and wonders. Here, we will attempt to understand how organisms and ecosystems function in an environment that appears most frequently pitch black to the human eye. Each of us are appointed to one or several tasks, some of which are related to personal research projects. The research crew is quite international with scientists coming from France, Germany, the USA, the UK, Russia, Sweden, Poland, and Norway. This trip falls under the umbrella of the Marine Night project who’s ambitious goal is to provide insight on food web structure and marine biodiversity during the poorly understood Arctic polar nights. Thus, we will study a wide range of organisms, from foraminifera to polar cods, and take a number of important hydrological measurements throughout the duration of the trip. We will report on the daily activities aboard the Helmer Hanssen and will describe our projects and the organisms we study.

I am part of what we naturally called “the fish group” and will both be working on my own Master’s thesis on polar cod’s diet but also on an ongoing project indexing all fish species caught in the Svalbard region during the polar night cruises. I will describe both of these projects and the organisms they involve further down the cruise.

Text: Marine Cusa