We’ve turned the corner into the Bransfield Strait and are making our way east in the lee of the South Shetland Islands. Pancake ice is pretty thick now, and every few minutes there’s a dull “thump” as we split something more substantial. I wish there were a way to convey the sensation of moving through ice like this – the sedate but relentless progress of the ship at night, three beams of blowing snow scintillating in our spotlights, the hum of the diesels punctuated by a metronome of sonar pings. The ice gives way without complaint, but the darkness and the sea, even in this narrow passage, goes on forever.
In the wake cleared by our path, the “zoo” team has leapt to action. As we leave each station, they drag a net for 20 or so minutes and haul up a sample of the local aquatic fauna. The net is emptied into buckets and spread out into trays where Cliff, Rachel, Patricia, Monika, Emilio and others peer and sort through species. Mostly it’s krill (Euphausia superba), but there are dozens of other, indistinguishable-to-me squiggly pink things that are important to these folks: “No, see – this guy is crystallaraphias; he’s got a longer rostrum, and no lappets in his first segment”. Kim takes the difficult cases under a microscope and gathers the younger scientists around her to instruct them in the subtleties.
There are gallons of krill here, swirling around in big painter’s buckets like miniature bug-eyed shrimp. To make conversation, I ask what they taste like, and Emilio pulls one out with his fingers: here – try one. I’m not sure if he’s joking, but he pops it into his mouth to demonstrate. I follow suit quickly, knowing I need to do the deed before the more rational part of my brain has time to voice objections. Images of micro-sushi blossom in my head, but my reverie is interrupted.
“Hey – look at this!” – Emilio’s fished another squirming indistinguishable-from-krill-to-me sliver of pink into a plastic spoon. Apparently Eusirus properdentatus is an unexpected find here, and everyone gathers around, ooh’ing and ahh’ing. I peer at it, feeling like an illiterate in an antiquarian book store. It’s…um… a squirmy pink thing?
Still, the excitement is contagious, and they put up with my naive questions. No, that guy spinning around in circles is an amphipod. See? Here’s the chart. And translucent squishy goo there? That’s a salp. A salp? English is not Patricia’s first language, so she defers to Rachel, who assures me that yes, it’s a salp. A salp? A translucent squishy invertebrate, related to sea squirts, she says. I find myself having no curiosity about what they taste like.
We’ve got something like 50 more tows scheduled, and 100 or so CTDs, so I’m sure the excitement will fade. I’m sure there’ll be a party after the last one, when everyone is sick and tired of squirmy pink things, when they’ll wipe their brows and say Oh god, I’m so glad we’re done with that. But for now, everything’s shiny and new, and it would take a jaded heart to not be swept up in wonder at what lives beneath us, in this frozen ocean at the bottom of the world.