Dive In with NOAA Fisheries

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NOAA Fisheries conducts world-class science to support sustainable marine life and habitats. We manage millions of square miles of ocean (almost 100,000 miles of coastline), support a $244 billion fishing industry, and protect and rebuild endangered marine species and habitats. It’s a huge job. Our podcast, “Dive In with NOAA Fisheries,” is about the work we do and the people behind it.

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Field teams have been living at rustic field camps studying changes in the Antarctic ecosystem for more than 30 years. Now, the field camps are getting an upgrade that will make it easier to conduct critical research.
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0:00:00.0 John Sheehan: NOAA Fishery's mission of stewardship takes our scientists all over the world, including the very bottom of it, Antarctica.

0:00:07.6 George Watters: Most of our field work is in the Antarctic Peninsula area, particularly on what are known as the South Shetland Islands.

0:00:15.2 JS: Small field teams have been monitoring the Antarctic peninsula ecosystem for more than 30 years, and focus on interactions between the environment and animals that live there, especially the all important krill.

0:00:26.4 GW: A lot of critters eat the krill and depend heavily on them for producing babies and all that kind of stuff. Those are penguins and seals and other kinds of sea birds.

0:00:37.3 JS: NOAA scientists employ advanced technology in addition to more traditional data collection techniques.

0:00:42.2 GW: We definitely count animals, but we do a lot more than just counting. We put little instruments on their back and track where they go at sea, how long they take, how deep they dive. For krill populations themselves, we use hydroacoustics.

0:00:54.9 JS: They even use gliders and drones to study the fish, seabirds, krill, and pinnipeds like fur seals, all to monitor and predict the effects of krill fishing, and provide scientific advice for sustainably managing Antarctic fisheries. And they're conducting the sophisticated science in extreme conditions.

0:01:13.9 GW: It's usually pretty windy, pretty cold and wet, just kind of gnarly.

0:01:18.9 JS: And making life even more challenging, worthy, let's call them rustic lodgings and field camp buildings that housed the teams for their months long research tours. But the field camp at Cape Shirreff, Antarctica just got an upgrade. This is Dive In with NOAA Fisheries. I'm John Sheehan, and today we'll hear about the new facilities recently constructed at Cape Shirreff, the Holt Watters Field Camp. My guest is Dr. George Watters, the director of the Ecosystem Science Division at NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center, and one of the camp's namesakes. The original field camp was established in 1996, and by necessity, it was made of wood, and was designed to be a temporary structure. Conditions at Cape Shirreff aren't necessarily what you might imagine when you hear Antarctica. It's not, for example, the South Pole with nothing but ice and snow.

0:02:11.8 GW: Our study area is what I like to call maritime Antarctica. It's very Antarctic-y, but it's not frozen solid ground. The animals that are breeding there need that snow free ground in order to successfully breed.

0:02:26.4 JS: When COVID-19 caused scientists to miss a season of field work, those funds were diverted instead to replacing the aging, weathered camp.

0:02:31.7 GW: So Cape Shirreff historically slept between five and six people. It was built out of wood, and that wood required constant maintenance over the course of the camp's lifespan. On the interior, what we were dealing with was mold, and on the exterior, what we were dealing with is just weathering of the surfaces, and kind of keep things painted and so forth. So in total, that camp required if a person was down there for a couple of months, 30% to 40% of their time was spent doing maintenance rather than science.

0:03:06.5 JS: That's so brutal. Getting back after a day of being out in the elements and then coming back to your home, and spending a third of your time cleaning mold or fixing up the shutters?

0:03:18.7 GW: Yeah, it was a huge amount of work and it's sort of simultaneously a big detraction from being able to do good science and in the labor of love. People really like living and working at our field camps and we want to take care of the place.

0:03:39.3 JS: Yeah, all the videos and pictures of previous scientists down there, it's always big smiles, and it does seem like there's a sort of camaraderie through trial. It's like really punishing conditions, but that's part of what makes it fun.

0:03:51.2 GW: I think you're dead on there. People ask me about that all the time. How do you maintain this highest breed decor in your team? And I think part of it comes from living and working together in these gnarly places. So, and it just is a natural outcome of that.

0:04:10.5 JS: And part of what I imagine had to be so difficult is you were sort of describing these pretty sophisticated scientific methods. You're in some cases sending up drones. You're using sophisticated sampling techniques, but you're doing it in such like rustic conditions that's gotta... There had to be hard to like even just like stowing your gear, finding like a working outlet.

0:04:34.0 GW: Oh yeah. I call this the big Antarctic dance, right? The dance is how do I set myself up for success today? Either what I'm wearing and I change my clothes a million times, or I'm gonna put my piece of equipment here and make sure it doesn't blow away. It's a constant dance. You're constantly thinking about the next step just in those kinds of details. Yeah.

0:04:56.6 JS: What are the, in addition to, I'm assuming just harsh weather conditions, what are the big dangers?

0:05:02.6 GW: Well, medical emergencies, those are things that oftentimes, the worst ones are the ones you can't control, right? We have lots of medical screening and so forth and training, but there are some things that are outside of our control that sometimes crop up. Those are dangers. A big danger is animal bites. You have to be aware of where you are, and particularly with the pinnipeds, and not get yourself into a situation where you would get bitten. Animal bites are really a dangerous injury. Then there's the whole gamut of slip, trips and falls while you're hiking out to wherever, whatever site to go count some animal or something. All that kind of stuff. And it's sort of made worse by the weather, if you will.

0:05:49.3 JS: It's also very logistically difficult, even just bringing provisions for those three months. You've got to take things in small loads from the boat that got you there to the camp by hand. That's so much work.

0:06:05.5 GW: It is a lot of work. I think that particular evolution of work where we're transferring material from the ship to shore and then have to carry it... Once it gets on the beach, and the beach isn't like a nice cozy sandy beach, it's got all kinds of cobblestone and it's hard to get good solid footing on things and you're carrying heavy stuff, you have to get it from the beach up to the camp itself. And that process definitely takes our newcomers by surprise about how much work that is and how much really our existence and our time is dependent on doing that successfully, and not getting hurt in the process. Yeah.

0:06:44.9 JS: Yeah. So the occasion we're talking today, these new facilities, speaking of how hard it is just to sort of get your life together at this camp, the construction process of these new facilities looked incredibly hard, and yet it was done in... At least the phase that's done now, it was done in such a short amount of time. Can you describe sort of what the new facilities are like, and some of the construction process?

0:07:14.5 GW: Oh, sure. Where do I begin? Let me start by sort of recognizing our partners in this Colorado building workshop at University of Colorado, Denver. They are the people who basically designed and prefabbed our buildings, and then our construction and logistics crew is Bespoke Project Solutions, also from Denver. And we've been working really, really closely with these... They're friends of ours now. We've been working closely with them for several years now. Our new buildings were by design, and tended to be prefabricated in Denver, and then all taken apart and shipped down there. And then by design, when we did the prefabrication, it was all done by hand without the use of cranes and forklifts and so forth. That way, we knew we could accomplish this in Antarctica. That practice session, if you will, it was more than practice. We had to make everything fit together and make as many cuts as we could, if you will, in Denver so that we have less waste in the Antarctica. All that stuff gets you ready to be able to do it, if you will, more quickly when the conditions are tough in Antarctica.

0:08:25.3 GW: But yeah, the materials that we use, we use... The walls, floors, ceilings are structural insulated panel SIPs that are like big giant ice cream sandwiches. The exterior of the buildings are clad in various types of stainless steel mostly, which then removes the requirement for us to have to paint them all the time. And that's gonna be a massive time savings over the course of the coming years. Then also, we're not starting out with a moldy building anymore, so now we don't have to do mold cleaning on the interiors. The interiors are, these things are like, I don't know, when you go on a Sunset Magazine and you see little mini cabins and you're like, oh, I wish I had one of those. That's what this kind of stuff is. It's amazing, the design. It's an order of magnitude if not more, greater quality of life now.

0:09:14.5 GW: And so now we do have more time to focus on the science. It's easier to not have to worry about, oh, I'm sleeping in this bunk today and I got this drip over here. I gotta deal with. We don't have to deal with any of that stuff, at least for the foreseeable future. Antarctica is gnarly enough where it's gonna take its toll on these buildings someday too, but we have a projected 30 year lifespan for these and hopefully much longer.

0:09:38.2 JS: The difference really is it's... The difference between what looked like kind of a humble fishing shack versus like a sleek, modern structure. It looks so nice.

0:09:51.4 GW: Yeah, it really is, and yet, simple at the same time. It had to be built relatively quickly and include people on the construction crew who are like myself, who are not, yeah, I can swing a hammer, but I'm not a construction professional, right? And so yeah, we, we all managed to get it done. And the the design element of them, it's hard to relate in words how that makes your life better in the camp, but it really does... A good example is, the old camp had windows, but they were sort of haphazardly placed in a odd heights. And so you could sit down at the dinner table in the old camp and not actually look out the window, right? But yet, we're in this amazing, beautiful place and we're all nature enthusiasts, so to speak. So we like to look out the windows and it's, you wanna see what's going on out there, even for safety purposes, right? And our new thing, every single window placement and size and orientation and the whole orientation of the buildings, every view is designed with a purpose and it blows you away. I'm not an architect, but it's like I learned a lot about what makes a professional architect good, and this is cool stuff.

0:11:11.0 JS: I was just thinking that there are probably hopefully some architects listening and who are shaking their hands in victory, saying, yes, they get it.

[laughter]

0:11:18.9 GW: There probably is.

0:11:20.5 GW: Yeah.

0:11:21.2 JS: And similarly, you've now got hopefully more space. You've got the right setup for the kinds of equipment and labs that you'll need, all to the betterment of the science.

0:11:32.4 GW: Yeah, completely. So one of the smart things that we did was when we endeavored to build a new building, we basically promised not to make the footprint on the landscape any bigger than the existing footprint, but the design of the camp itself in a sense as a campus wasn't that great. And we had a lot of wasted space, particularly with the decking. We use decking so we don't have to walk through the mud everywhere, right? And then you don't track it inside and so forth. And what we were able to do with this new campus is share the decking between the buildings and then both, and that does a couple of things. One, it orients the billions in a way that you get natural windbreaks from the weather, and get some protection from the wind. And then it also allows us to minimize the amount of decking and then increase the interior spaces for the same footprint.

0:12:29.0 GW: And so now we have more space inside, bigger laboratory space. We have two toilets instead of one. Just basic stuff like that makes life so much more enjoyable. We have a dedicated laboratory for doing pinniped research, whereas before it was intended to be dedicated, but it wasn't big enough to be dedicated. So it was just kind of a haphazard almost like the size of a closet, but now it's this big space. Our bedding, where people sleep, we would normally send five or six people there. We do that now, but now we have the capacity to comfortably sleep eight. And those individuals can choose, if you will, between some people like dark bedrooms and some people like brighter bedrooms, and we have a combination of both, it's spectacular.

0:13:20.7 JS: And the decking, that was one of the decisions that... And sort of watching these videos, I realized like, oh, that's really a smart choice that you have a place where you won't have to track mud into your domicile. And how much of a difference that really has to make, because if you're walking in with wet feet or if you have to like tromp through mud in your living room, that's a big bummer.

0:13:45.5 GW: Yeah, it is.

0:13:46.7 JS: Doesn't it affect your daily life?

0:13:48.4 GW: I will say that the conditions are wet enough there and muddy enough, even with the decking, we still added mud rooms to these new buildings so that you can go inside, and then get off all your yucky clothes before you go on the inside, inside. And it's still needed to have that but the decking is absolutely important, and it's all designed to be at working height. So when you're standing on the ground, and you wanna say, have a work bench where we don't need that work bench, we can work on the decking when the weather's appropriate for that. Yeah.

0:14:22.4 JS: And are some aspects of life sort of unchanged? I'm thinking mostly because of your level of connectivity. I'm assuming internet access is still pretty spotty. There's gotta be some level of isolation that still hearkens back to the old ways.

0:14:39.3 GW: Definitely. The location is still very, very remote and isolated, and that's sort of, if you will, one of the biggest kind of bummers in all this is that now we have this great model for field camps that are off grid that are self-sustaining and all that, but very, very few people will ever get to see it in person, right? There'll be some lucky few who work for us that get to do that, but the rest of the world will only be able to see it and be able to see it in pictures and videos and so forth. And those are nice, but when you're there, it's a whole different level of, whoa, this is pretty spectacular. Yeah.

0:15:21.6 JS: Are there any sort of staff traditions down there that are unique to Cape Shirreff?

0:15:31.8 GW: There are lots of staff traditions that... At both our field camps, we have traditions about who cooks and cleans. We have a rotating thing like that, and the scientists take pretty great pride in trying to be a good cook and provide food is major in terms of maintaining morale and so forth, and just caloric sustenance in the cold weather. So people take cooking seriously, and it's fun to the traditions of like, oh, I'm gonna go in the pantry and find some jar that's three years old and try to use that in my... That's all super fun and enjoyable. Everything from that too, we have games and movies and stuff like that for people to just entertain themselves. And there are traditions wrapped all into those things, and we're always gonna watch whatever movie. What is new now is we have this dining area. It's a multi-use area. It's a hangout area, a dining area, and people can just play games there and so forth. But it's also got... We can black it out and use it to project movies and it's like so much more roomy and comfortable and nice than the old one. Yeah.

0:16:49.3 JS: When you get home after a field tour, is it easy for you to sort of like reacclimate yourself to normal life, or are you kind of still in that, what do I have to do next? What do I have to do next? Kind of mental preparedness mode?

0:17:06.6 GW: That's a good question. I'm less in the mental preparedness mode, but it still takes me personally about, I would say two weeks to sort of get back in the swing of normal life, if you will. I think part of that adjustment is adjusting to the presence of people again. We really are isolated out there, and so the only people you see are the five or six people when we did the construction doors more, but the five or six people that you've been eating with, sleeping with, working with 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the last three months. And then when you get here, now, all of a sudden, there's way more people. You drive places instead of walk places. You go to a restaurant and you can take a shower whenever you want to, or all those kinds of things are like, they take some like, oh yeah adjustment.

0:18:01.8 JS: I'm a creature of routine, so once I get into a routine, getting out of it is very, very difficult. And it has to be so much more extreme, because the routines that you create are so specialized.

0:18:15.7 GW: Yeah. I think... My understanding is that every single individual has their own sort of transition period. Some people, it takes a little longer. Some people, it's pretty quick. Most people are happy to get home, because it's been a while. It's pretty arduous in some ways. And it wears you down a little bit physically, but a lot of people also, it's one of those things like when you're there, you wanna be home. When you're here, you want to be there. I don't know how to describe it, anything other than that. Yeah. For me personally, it definitely is a sort of reset button on life is like, okay, I can go down there, be off the grid, see nature in its rawest, most natural form, and it's just like, it just resets you, oh, this is why I do this stuff, right? This is pretty cool. It's worth it. And you come back here, and it's great to be with your family again and all those things. And then now you get to take the science that you... All the data that you collected and actually use it for our job to provide useful scientific advice. So it all connects and it's just, it's pretty magical sort of cycle, but it definitely is a cycle.

0:19:35.8 JS: Dr. George Watters, thanks so much.

0:19:41.4 GW: Oh, John, I appreciate it. I don't often, well, this is only the second podcast I've ever done and I enjoyed it. I appreciate the conversation, and thank you for hearing our story. I appreciate it.

0:19:55.7 JS: Dr. George Watters is the director of the Ecosystem Science Division at NOAA's Southwest Fishery Science Center, and one of the namesakes of the Holt Watters Field Camp at Cape Shirreff. There's a second camp as well on neighboring King George Island called Copacabana. And we should note that though very remote, there are mechanisms to ensure all individuals have communications at all times. In addition to watching out for medical situations and avoiding accidents, the scientists physical and mental safety is a top priority. I cannot recommend enough. The resources on our website documenting the field work at these camps. There are time lapse videos of the construction of the new buildings and demolition of the old ones, and situation reports going back years, sort of like logs or journal entries that document the team's scientific progress or just life at camp, like holidays or movie nights, or a well executed meal. It's a rabbit hole well worth falling down. That's at fisheries.noaa.gov. I'm John Sheehan, and this has been Dive In with NOAA Fisheries.

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