Guest post – Emily Rowlands

The night the krill eggs hatched… 

Setting sail from the Falklands and heading into the open water, I was slightly apprehensive, with little knowledge of what to expect of the upcoming 40 days at sea on my first research cruise. A barrage of thoughts hit me in sync as I boarded the ship. How rough would the sea be? Would it make me ill? What would the people on board be like? Questions I’d perhaps put to the back of my mind beforehand as I was so focused on preparing for the scientific tasks ahead. Amongst the chaos of preparing the ship for leaving port, I paused to reflect on the first Antarctic expeditions aboard the Discovery, with Captain Scott. The apprehensions of the living conditions and weather worries were immediately put into perspective… I was as ready as I’d ever be!

With so many helping hands, the ship was transformed much faster than I had anticipated. The laboratories, previously blank canvases with nothing but wooden desktops had entirely transformed and were fully functioning with microscopes, light sources, weighing scales and everything else one might imagine needing for conducting zooplankton surveys, all screwed or tied in place to prevent them moving or falling with the rolling and pitching of the ship in rough seas. Finally, with the ship prepped and ready to, I could focus on my purpose for being on board.

LabsThe deck lab prior to unpacking. Photographic credit: Sophie Fielding

So what is ‘nanoplastic’? It’s a term much less heard than ‘microplastic’, crowned word of the year in 2018. Microplastics are categorised as small plastic particles under 5mm. Nanoplastic, unseen by the human eye, is even smaller! It describes tiny pieces of plastic less than 0.001 mm in size, that’s at least 2000 times smaller than a grain of sand! Because of their extremely small size, nanoplastics interact differently with the water particles in the sea and within the bodies of animals that eat them, compared to how bigger plastics behave.

We don’t yet know how much nanoplastic there is in Antarctic waters and we know little of how they impact zooplankton such as Krill. Krill are tiny animals that are hugely important for the Antarctic marine food web as they are eaten by larger animals such as penguins, sea birds and even whales. These are the things I hoped to address with my research on board.

The first hurdle for my research was catching pregnant female krill, so that I could look at how nanoplastics would impact the eggs that they produce. This was no easy task. Every day, midwater fishing nets were deployed and hurled by four people back onto the ship.

RMTRecovery of the RMT fishing net. Photographic credit: Alejandro Ariza

The nets, especially with a big catch, are pretty heavy –  and when the contents come aboard they were emptied into buckets. Everybody crowded around the buckets with each scientist searching for their focus species whilst trying not to block the little artificial light we had, since fishing often took place throughout the night when the ship was surrounded by darkness.

SortyingSorting the catch from an RMT net. Photographic credit: Alyasa Hulbert

When the day came in which pregnant females were found, we quickly moved them to holding tanks and the waiting game began. Now it was just a case of waiting for the females to release their eggs. The jars in which they were kept were checked day and night, looking for eggs sunken below the protective mesh which was added to prevent the mother eating them. I waited with bated breath and finally….there were eggs! After checking under the microscope we knew they were fertilised eggs that given the right care, would develop into adult krill. I was ready to set-up my experiment.

All set-up, my next job was to document how the eggs developed by taking photographs every 12 hours. In the early stages krill eggs develop very quickly, and it was exciting to see the cells dividing each time I checked from early stages of two cells or four cells to later stages of 32 cells or more. Soon the development of krill eggs slows and my observations at 2am, in a temperature controlled laboratory set at 2 degrees Celsius (we called it the cold lab) with tired eyes became more tedious. At this time the developmental rate is so little between observations it’s difficult to tell whether the eggs are still alive!

On day four of my experiment, at 2am in the morning, when everybody had gone to bed, I put on my salopettes and thermal coat and headed into the cold lab, expecting to do my usual assessment. With tired eyes, I attempted to focus the microscope and noticed a blurry blob moving amongst the eggs. Coming into focus, there it was, a tiny baby krill had hatched and investigating further, there were many more too! Never seeing this in real life before and with little expectation of the krill eggs developing to this stage beforehand (as the eggs from the last year’s cruise had failed to develop to this stage), I was incredibly excited.

KrillKrill babies! (C) Emily Rowland

After finishing my observations (with lots of extra time spent taking video footage of the baby krill), I left the cold lab and went into the main lab, a busy environment during working hours in which everybody is typing away on their computers waiting for instructions to put on their thermal clothing and head on deck for the next round of fishing. Now it was eerily quiet. I took out my laptop and sent some emails to friends back home, to share what to me was an extremely exciting day, though amused by the fact that they may not find it quite so exciting.

The next morning, I showed the video footage of the baby krill to the other scientists on board who were just as excited as I had been the night before. We celebrated the hatching of the krill, and that’s when I realised that one of the greatest things about being on a biology research cruise in the Southern Ocean was being with others just as passionate about the Antarctic marine ecosystem as I am.

Emily Rowlands is a PhD student at Exeter University, studying the effects of nanoplastic on Antarctic Zooplankton. To find out more about her research – give her a follow on twitter: @EmilyRowlands89

MinION sequencing on the RRS Discovery

Guest post by Emma Langan

 I’m on the RRS Discovery in the Southern Ocean, doing DNA sequencing of Antarctic algae or phytoplankton. To do this I’m using a tiny portable DNA sequencing machine called a MinION (shown next to the other kind of minion in the top photo).


Phytoplankton are microscopic algae which live in the oceans and make their energy from the sun, just like plants on land. They are important for making oxygen and also  carbon from the atmosphere – excellent news as too much carbon in the atmosphere is one of the causes of climate change. They are also the bottom of the food web, so without them, there wouldn’t be penguins and whales and seals.  My research is focused on investigating which species of phytoplankton are present and what tricks they use to survive somewhere as cold as Antarctica. To investigate this, I use DNA sequencing.


DNA is the basis of all life on earth. Like the code in a computer program telling a computer how to work, DNA tells your body how to work. DNA is made up of 4 bases, called A, T, G, and C which appear in different combinations making genes. Genes tell the body which proteins to produce, and proteins make muscle, or hair, or eyes in the right places. Different genes are what makes plants different to animals, penguins different to elephants, and you different to me. Looking at an organism’s DNA gives us a lot of information; we can use it to see which species are present in a sample and also to see what special genes they have which allow them to live in ice and snow, and in the dark.

IMG_8611The CTD is used to collect water samples from different depths

To look at Antarctic phytoplankton DNA, first we take water samples from the ocean and filter it to catch the phytoplankton. Next, I remove the DNA from all of the proteins and other sticky stuff in the cells. This process is called DNA extraction (if you’re interested and have an adult to help you, you can quite easily extract DNA from fruit or vegetables using things you can buy from a supermarket

Once I have extracted the DNA, I put it into the MinION which runs for 2 days, and you can start to see which species are present almost straight away. The MinION makes a list of all the bases that are in the DNA and compares it to DNA from species that we’ve already sequenced. This way that we can tell which species are in a sample, and what genes they have.

It’s really exciting to be able to do DNA sequencing on a ship, because usually we have to send samples home which takes months, and we don’t know if anything has changed since we collected them. Most DNA sequencing machines are the size of an oven so you can’t take them with you. The MinION is so small that we can take it anywhere – someone even did DNA sequencing in space. I’m going to use the information I get from it to look at whether the phytoplankton species change as the oceans get warmer due to climate change, and to investigate what genes they have which let them live in the Antarctic in the first place.

Emma Langan is a PhD student at UEA and Earlham Institute. You can find out more about her work by following her on Twitter @EmmaGLangan

When you can’t just phone 999…

Phil Keating gives us a run-down of what life is like as an Offshore Medic – when you’re the only doctor, dentist and all-round medical support for several thousand miles… 

My job on board is to look after the scientists and crew if the have any medical needs. This can be anything from coughs and sneezes, to broken bones or dental problems.
It is my responsibility to ensure that everyone on board receives the same level of medical care that they would receive at home. To achieve this the crew and scientists come and visit me, in the same way they would a GP, Dentist, or Paramedic at home.

On-board the ship i have a full pharmacy with all of the drugs and medicines that i could possibly need. I have an ECG machine to check peoples hearts and drugs to treat the heart if it has a problem.


I also have a specialism in prolonged field care. Unlike at home where you call an ambulance,it arrives in 8 minutes and takes you to hospital within another 30 minutes, If we have an incident on board ship, we are potentially 5 days from the nearest hospital. My specialism in prolonged care means i can provide intensive care level of treatment for my patient, and care for them in my hospital on board the ship before we get to a mainland hospital.

As we are also potentially 5 days from a Dentist, i am trained to carry out minor dental procedures such as replace a filling or extract a tooth. This is all part of the training on my offshore medics course, where we are also taught to give injections and carry out minor procedures such as stitching wounds. I have a satellite phone to talk to a consultant Doctor on the phone in case I need a second opinion an an injury or unusual illness.

Fortunately on this trip we have been light on medical issues. Another of my day-to-day roles on-board is to ensure that all my medicines, drugs and equipment are in good condition and within their expiry date. On top of this i am also responsible for carrying out first aid training for the crew, which includes CPR and defib training.

Some of the scientists are using some dangerous chemicals in their experiments, so another of my responsibilities is to have all of the information on each of the chemicals so i know how to treat someone if they have a spill. I also make sure that any antidotes that are required for the specific chemicals are stored correctly and in date.

The kitchen party act as my stretcher carriers on board the ship, so once a week i will do a training session with them and run a scenario with a mock casualty. This ensures that they get lots of practice, so when they are needed they can perform the duties really well.

I began my medical training whilst in the military, and i am also a commercial diver medic. My usual place of work is on offshore oil rigs or offshore wind farms. These types of projects also need a medic due to their remote location and lack of availability of a land based hospital team or ambulance service to reach our remote location in time to help a patient.

The Wandering albatross

Guest post by Simon Pinder

With a three-and-a-half metre wing-span a wandering albatross effortlessly soars ten metres above the waves. Utilising the wind currents, it can then glide 200 metres without expending energy to rise up over the next peak in the swell. Using this method wandering albatrosses soar around the southern oceans, covering huge distances efficiently. A tagged wandering albatross was recorded covering 6000km in 12 days.

Wandering and royal albatrosses, the great albatrosses, have the largest wingspan of any bird in the world. They breed on Sub-Antarctic islands for example South Georgia, nesting on platforms constructed of vegetation and earth. The female lays one huge white egg which is incubated for about 80 days, after the chick hatches it is fed by both parents who undertake marathon feeding trips to provision it. After almost ten months of its lonely vigil on the nest it is ready to take to the air, it will not return to land until it too is ready to breed. By then it will have circumnavigated the globe for up to 15 years.


Wandering albatross. Photo (C) S. Pinder

The albatrosses use the strong westerly winds of the roaring forties and the furious fifties way down in the southern hemisphere where land is scarce and the winds build in their uninterrupted passage around the world. The females and young males spend their time in the relative calm of the forties, but the older males, those over 40 years old, live in without competition in the fifties where the stronger wings aid their ageing wings.

One of the effects of climate change is a change in the world’s weather patterns; with more chaos in the system, windier places can become windier. This can pose problems for scientists in the field as windier, rougher seas can be difficult to work on. However, the greater force of these increased winds has allowed wandering albatrosses to travel faster and therefore spend more time foraging. As a consequence, they have become fitter and heavier*. Whether in the future this will result in even larger birds or an over-exploitation of resources is currently unknown.

Simon is a freelance ornithologist and marine mammal surveyor, based in Scotland.

* Weimerskirch, H. et al., 2012. Changes in Wind Pattern Alter Albatross Distribution and Life-History Traits. Science. 335. 211.  DOI: 10.1126/science.1210270

Storm petrels

Black-bellied and Wilson’s storm petrel. Guest post by Simon Pinder

Dragging its leg through the water, pattering its feet across the swell, bouncing over the wave tops storm petrels spend almost their entire time at sea within touching distance of the ocean’s surface.

Storm petrels are very small seabirds weighing (30-60g). They feed on tiny animals in the surface plankton dipping in to this biological soup, sometimes shallowly plunging just below the waves.

wilson's petrel hoppng_12

Wilson’s petrel hopping along the water surface. Photo (C) S. Pinder

Wilson’s petrels follow ships for hours feasting food stirred up by the vessel’s passage. They shadow whales for the same reason, benefiting from the whale’s movements to bring plankton within their shallow reach. They are often found alongside other seabirds, such as giant petrels and albatrosses, feeding on the remains of predated penguins and fur seals successfully hunted by killer whales and leopard seals.

black-bellied storm petrel dragging leg_12

Black-bellied storm petrel dragging it’s foot across the surface. Photo (C) S. Pinder

Black-bellied storm petrels search areas with seemingly random twists and turns, frequently dragging their leg across the sea’s surface as they pivot and zigzag, seizing tiny fish and other inhabitants of the plankton.

They return to land under the cover darkness to visit their single chick hidden in burrows on Sub-Antarctic islands, both nesting on South Georgia.

wilson's top bb bottom_12

Could you spot the difference from a moving ship?  Wilson’s storm petrel (top) and black-bellied storm petrel (bottom). Photo (C) S. Pinder

Simon is a freelance ornithologist and marine mammal surveyor, based in Scotland.