Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Green Christmas

I've never experienced such contrasts.  For two and a half months, our crew made Antarctica home, or at least as home as Antarctica would let us.  The sea ice, where we worked, lived, and slept, became as familiar to us as my backyard in Idaho.  The uninhibited white stretched before us everyday, as we went about our research amidst the groaning seals.  We became accustomed to the cold temperatures (but did not complain when conditions got "tropical" by the end of the season).  The immense Mt Erebus, steamingly eyeing us from above, although always awe-inspiring, became part of the backdrop.  The things that were so striking and surprising when we first arrived, became part of the daily routine.  It's as if we've only ever known daylight to be constant for 24 hours.  To become comfortable in a place, is to make it home, at least for the vagabond biologist, and that's what the field camp at Big Razorback Island in Antarctica became.

Post snow petrel flyby

Exploring the innards of a snow cave/ crevasse in the Erebus Glacier Tongue

But suddenly, our crew found ourselves packing and cleaning, tearing down the field camp and moving to McMurdo in preparation to leave the great white of Antarctica.  We took our last steps on the ice on Dec 16, boarded the C17.  Five hours later, our feet found purchase on the wet asphalt on a warm and rainy New Zealand night.  The smell of plants and soil wafted upon us, the dark night engulfed us.  Our life of white and cold was quickly replaced by green and warm.

Waiting to board the C17 (sniff, sniff)
In the belly of the whale
Note the dudes in the hammocks and camp chair
Birds are singing out my window as I write this.  Flowers are in bloom.  Trees are getting trimmed, lawns are getting mowed.  Decorated Christmas trees with presents aplenty can be seen through open doors and windows as you pass by, letting the summer breeze in.  A Christmas in the southern hemisphere.  White for green, and though Christmas makes me miss the white is pretty darn nice too.

Green New Zealand (Akaroa in Banks Peninsula)
The obligatory sheep picture
More green
Tui (too-ee) at Hinewai Reserve, Banks Peninsula (note band on leg--this bird was introduced to the Reserve a few years ago to try to reinstate native communities to the area)
Night exists!
I am not alone this Christmas, don't you worry.  My gracious host family (from a previous study abroad experience I had here) took me in, and, on Christmas day, I fly to Australia to meet my parents.  An unusual Christmas for the DeVoe family (minus Luke), but joyous nonetheless.

"Bleh!"  (translation: "Merry Christmas!")
Merry Christmas to all eight of my blog readers!!  Enjoy the white if you have it, but most importantly, enjoy family and friends, and dwell on the blessings of God....

Monday, December 13, 2010

Skua Tug O War

Can anyone guess what they are using as the "rope"?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Seal Pup Surprise

At the outset of my arrival in Antarctica, I intended to update my blog regularly in such a way that my readers could gain a better sense of the seal research we are doing and of the on-the-ice lifestyle.  I have failed miserably(!)...however, I hope that what was seen here was eye-opening, interesting, and/or entertaining.

As of now, our crew has 3 more days in Antarctica.  We fly from McMurdo to Christchurch, NZ on Dec 15, and thus will end the 2010 Weddell seal field season.  However, I intend to keep updating my blog with some of the season's highlights and excitements as time goes on.  It is also worth it to keep an eye on (or check out if you haven't already) Mary Lynn Price's Weddell Seal Science website, although it will remain dormant for a few weeks to come as she resumes video editing in a month or so.  Or you can just check back here for updates on that.

For now, I will treat you to another pup video.  This taken at Turtle Rock two days ago.  Most of the momma seals have completely abandoned their pups, and the pups must learn to get a long on their own now...and they are still learning the ropes on the ice....

To enlarge, click on the movie AGAIN after it has started playing.  From there you can even enlarge it more by clicking the symbol in the bottom right hand corner of the video.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Seals by Air

Most of our research is accomplished by snowmobile every day, but occasionally, we have the opportunity to work from the sky.  This video was captured during two helicopter flights, one to find any seals hidden behind ice pressure ridges or large ice masses that we missed in our first tagging efforts, and another to find any tagged seals outside of our study area (at Tera Nova Bay) to assess the amount of emigration out of the study population.  The resulting video is nothing special, in fact, it is very poorly done, as I am just learning the ropes of video editing (using Adobe Premiere Elements 9) and don't have a lot of time on my hands (apparently, editing video can take a very, very long time, at least in my case!).  I provide no distinction during the video between the two flights, but first half is in an A-Star helicopter and the second half is in a Bell helicopter.

The tiny black dots on the edges of the islands and cracks are seals!!

To make the video BIGGER, click on it AGAIN after it has started playing.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Ob Tube

Below the Ice

At temperatures below freezing, the water below the ice is crystal clear.  The sun shines through the ice above emanating colors of blue, green, yellow, and orange, accenting the deep blue of the watery world below.  A large jellyfish slowly pulses its path through the water.  The edge of Ross Island can be seen, dropping down to the depths; scattered along its underwater slope crawl bright red starfish and sea spiders.  White, flat, and shoe-lace-like, large worms creep along the sediment.  Shrimp-like critters (amphipod? decapod? copepod? I'm not a marine biologist!) swim placidly through the water column and along the underside of the ice.  Tiny, silver, antigregarious (I make words up sometimes) fish are spaced throughout the water column, moving would too if you were so cold!  *Interesting side note:  Antarctic fish have anti-freeze proteins they use to keep the water inside their cells and blood from freezing, since the temperature of the water is below the freezing point of their blood.

As terrestrial creatures studying Weddell seals, we are only able to observe the seals while they are on top of the ice or blowing bubbles in the holes in the ice.  But they're real home is the water, which is why all the pups are learning to swim.  They will spend most of their lives in the water after mommy leaves them.  One could put cameras under the ice at tide cracks or send a well-insulated diver down to watch and record the seals, or one could use an "Ob Tube" (or Observation Tube).  The Ob Tube is a vertical tube placed through the ice and into the water, just large enough for a man to crawl down to the bottom, where a very small space encircled with windows gives a 360 degree view of the world below the ice.  It is an enchanting experience for us who are always trying NOT to go below the ice (by falling in a crack or otherwise), but are always wondering..."what is it like down there?"

Hmmm...deep dark tunnel of delight
Looking back up the tube

Inside the Ob Tube--Glenn scanning for seals
Thierry hunting for penguins or seals out the windows

Tiny fish in the deep blue

Unfortunately, we are not permitted to have our own Ob Tube, but a visit to one right outside of McMurdo suffices for us, especially when we are treated to a real, underwater swimming seal (that is tagged!).  Sorry the video quality is so dark and poor, you might have to turn off all the lights and watch it at night to see anything:


Friday, November 19, 2010

Learning to Swim

Part of the process:

Video and editing thanks to Jessica Farrer, Weddell seal technician

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Pura Antarctica

The Antarctic summer has begun: the sun makes a complete circuit above our head every day, never dipping below the horizon.  The light effects on the edge of the photo are called sundogs, formed from ice crystals in the air.
The summer sun, in its seemingly-perpetual circling of the southern-most continent, like a halo being drawn and redrawn across the margins of the sky, has begun its deconstruction of the frozen seas.  The sea-ice edge creeps closer into Erebus Bay, the once frozen and hard layer of ice being stripped clean off the surface, revealing the depths of ocean below.  The northern-most edges of Ross Island, not long ago like a mountain rising from a plain, now lay bare to the wind-tossed sea.  The melting ice must bring joy to the Adelie penguin's heart, for no longer does this short, excitedly gesturing penguin have to traverse miles on the ice upon its short legs to find its colony at Cape Royds.  Now, the hurried penguin can take a relatively short waddle-jaunt to claim its prime nesting spot in the colony.

Adelie penguins chillaxin' on the sea-ice edge.  Royal Society Range in the background.

Adelie penguins on nesting site at Cape Royds.

These are the early arrivals, getting the primo nesting spots.  There was endless squabbling over pebbles and stones as one penguin would steal a stone from someone else's nest to build up its nest.  Lots of emphatic displays, gesturing, and guffawing.

Further inland (or "inice," as the case is here), vast stretches of flat frozen ocean still lay firm and strong.  As the summer slowly sneaks forward, the tidal cracks along the edges of the islands like Big Razorback and Tent Island, and along the coast of Ross Island at Turks Head and Hutton Cliffs, begin to widen.  Mush pools form, areas of...well...mush.  The melting ice gathers in depressions creating these pools of thick porridge of ice and water, much like the consistency of a tropical fruit smoothie.  And in these mush pools and tidal cracks, the Weddell seal pups are learning to swim.

Mom and pup in slush pool...they often just lay there for hours.

To be continued...

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Tagging the Seal

Newborn pup, within the past few days
"bleh!" says pup.
"Blehhh!" says mom.

Thus greeted, the Weddell seal research team takes their positions.  One man armed with tagging pliers, one man ready to distract the mom (or alert the tagger that "mom's a'comin'!!").  The process is usually over in less than a minute, and results in another tagged seal pup, adding to the over 20,000 individuals tagged in the past 41 years of this study.

Mom's tag

Pup's tags (with a temperature sensor tag, which will be removed near weaning time...this will be explained in a later post)

It is a fascinating endeavor, to go out on the sea ice of Antarctica seeking every single new born pup in our study area and to tag them.  The process:  "look there's a seal over there with a pup!"  Upon approach, we check the seal's colored tags, which are placed on the rear flippers.  If it has both tags and the numbers are readable (for each tag is inscribed with a number, so that each seal has a uniquely numbered and colored tag, and thus each seal can be individually identified), we gear up for tagging the pup.  This new life on the ice will from then on forever be known to the Weddell researchers (assuming both its tags don't fall off).  As I said before, this study has been going on for upwards of 40 years, so with this data, the lineages of some of our oldest seals can be uncovered (our oldest so far being 28 years old):  who her mom was, how many and who her pups were/are, if her pups have ever returned or been seen again, how many pups her pups have had (making her a grandma....aaawww!), etc.  With this much data, processes and variation in Weddell seal population dynamics slowly becomes revealed.

A new "tagger" (as we call them):


This is a very unique study for three primary reasons:

For one, it is a very long term study.  In fact, it's THE longest running research on a marine mammal in Antarctica.

For another, the environment that these seals live in has been untouched and uncorrupted by the hand of man.  It is a very healthy population of seals and provides a baseline of sorts for population dynamics of other long-lived marine mammals.  As Jay Rotella, professor and Weddell seal researcher from Montana State University analogizes:  it's like studying a healthy human.  If you don't know what a healthy person looks like, how can you know how sick an unhealthy person is.  The Weddell seals are healthy, most all other seal populations are unhealthy or unnaturally affected by humans.

The third reason is our ability to even study a marine mammal with this much detail.  Most marine mammals don't remain this visible and accessible and won't permit or tolerate close proximity with humans.  The Weddell seals, however, have no above ice predators and thus have no reason to fear anything that walks upon the ice.  Seals anywhere else in the world would scatter and disappear to the sea if they saw a biped drawing near.  The Weddells don't even look up until you are right next to them.

Some videos and photos:



All the sounds in this video are from the seal...turn up your speakers!!


RoboSeal...part of another group of scientist's research.  These seals are equipped with GPS we can know exactly where they go!
Every day is an absolute blast.  The seals are a constant source of entertainment, and I'm always fascinated by the diverse personalities.  Some mom's only glance at you when you grab their pup and tag it, while others won't let you even get near the pup....but we have our tactics for drawing them away long enough to get the tags deployed.  We have already tagged over 250 (I believe) new pups and we are only about half way done.  It is peak pupping right now, and every day we go out, there are brand new pups to be tagged.  Once the pup is born, the mom's stay on top of the ice for several days while the pups nurse, very quickly turning the pups from scrawny sacs of bone into plump and rotund blobs of engorged leaches (the mom's milk fat content being somewhere around 50%, I believe).  The mom's won't eat ANYTHING until the pup is weaned, thus transferring a high percent of her body weight directly to the pup during nursing.  It's a big eat eat to be fat fat fat, so you can give birth and stay on the ice with the pup (who can't swim until around 10+ days old) until he is fat fat fat and can find food on his own, about 35 days later.  All this leads to another part of our research: studying the mass dynamics of Weddell seals.  This I hope to touch on, with photos, in later posts.

Not a Weddell seal!  This is a crabeater seal...they can be a little crabby sometimes.  Note longer snout, lighter color, different patterned coat (Weddell seal in background).  I've only seen two of these dudes.
Dead seal?


Even I have to call them cute.
Snowmobiling to the seals.  Islands from left to right:  Big Razorback, Tent, Little Razorback, Inaccesible.
The circle of rainbow light around the sun is called a sundog...a part of ever-amazing Antarctic wonders
Sundog and Seals
The ever-looming Mt. Erebus
The first bird of the season (for me)...a South Polar Skua...they only can survive here because of the Weddell seals.  They eat the placentas that are left on the ice before the placentas freeze solid.

And the first penguins have arrived (since it is spring in Antarctica, all its animal life is returning from their winter homes in more northerly latitudes)! Emperor Penguins here:


And, after a hard days work of tagging and counting seals:

I find it to be an honor to be working with such a unique organism on such a unique research project in such a unique location.  There are a lot of "unique's" in Antarctica!

Don't forget about Weddell Seal Science!

And I recently discovered the McMurdo live webcam.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Weddell Seal Science video blog

For those who have been unaware, and have been waiting desperately for new posts on my blog (much honest apologies!), there is a place to go to allay your desperation!

This year, the Weddell seal research team is fortunate to have Mary Lynn Price on board, who is an esteemed videographer of science and educational materials.  She has already uploaded several videos to the Weddell Seal Science blog documenting the many aspects of our research project in Erebus Bay!  Also, you can get video podcasts on iTunes, just search for DiveFilm HD Video.  Also here!  Check them'll be pleasantly surprised!

And I'll just throw this in:

The first Emperor Penguins of the season (and my first ever!) wandering along the Cape Evans Road

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Boxes on the Ice

The Center of Excellence (the outhouse), so named by the McMurdo carpenters who constructed all of our huts, making them extremely comfortable, liveable, and warm.  Note Big Razorback Island and the blobs of seals on the ice at the head of the island.

It's 2 am.  I have to go pee.  I try not to bang my head on the ceiling or do a body slam on the floor as I groggily crawl and ease myself down from the top bunk in the men's sleeping hut.  I slip on my down booties and open the door.  "Aaahh! my eyes!" I exclaim (quietly and to myself, since everyone is sleeping).  Bright light harshly greets my blinking eyes.  "Huh...the sun is shining."  This surprise is met by another, and just as fiercely.  It's FREEZING outside.  I run towards the bathroom (called the "Center of Excellence"), making sure to glance up at Mt. Erebus, glowing in the sun, a small wisp of steam coming from the volcano's crater.  Crunch, crunch, crunch...I keep running...crunch, crunch, crunch...the sound always reminding me that I'm walking on sea ice overlaying, well, the sea (and who knows how deep).  To my right a subtle, distant moan reminds me that we have neighbors.  Twenty seals lay sprawled out on the ice, all doing absolutely nothing aside from the occasional flipper twitch, or belly scratch, or belly roll.  The fractures and cracks in the ice formed along Big Razorback Island providing their only outlet to the "upper world," the seals can be seen chillin' on the ice at all hours of the day.

Mt Erebus, the southern-most active volcano in the world.  From our camp it looks like you could just take a stroll to the top...but then you start to think about it: 12,500 feet tall and we are at sea level...

Such is the life of the Weddell seal researcher.  Twenty-four hour sunlight, freezing air temperatures, awe-inspiring views, expansive ice, and seals.  Throw in the occasional white-out storm and 40 mph winds, and that's Antarctica.

Field camp is finally all set up now, the finishing touches being the wireless internet and phone.  Camp consists of five huts: a kitchen hut, equipment hut, ladies sleeping hut, mens sleeping hut, and outhouse.  All the huts (minus the outhouse) are heated with propane gas...which is a welcome relief after a long, cold day riding snowmobiles and finding seals.  All the electricity, used to run all of our technical equipment (computers, chargers, etc), is obtained by borrowing a few of the sun's rays via solar panels.  We have enough hot cider to last us a couple of years (ok, that's an over-exaggeration), an espresso maker (which we scavenged from "Skua," a second-hand depository for those leaving McMurdo station who don't want to take their clothing or equipment back to the States), and even have a barbecue grill for the occasional hamburger dinner.

The Weddell seal field camp at Big Razorback Island

We are each provided with a snowmobile to cross the huge distances across the sea ice.

Our lazy neighbors

The huts: #5 kitchen hut, #11 equipment hut, #13 ladies hut, #18 (below) mens hut.  Mt. Erebus half-lit in sunlight in background left, Big Razorback Island in background right.

Tent Island to the left, Inaccessible Island to the right.

Inside the kitchen hut...the social gathering spot.

Men's sleeping hut.

If you came back to this spot a day later, they would hardly have moved.
Being in Antarctica means lots of training (for safety), and we have finally gotten all trained up.  Theirry and I had to take Sea Ice training, a half day course on determining what cracks in the ice are safe to cross on vehicles.  Then, our entire crew took Pressure Ridge training, another half day lesson on walking and working in areas of uplifted and contorted ice where cracks in the ice abound.  Normally, participants in the Antarctica Program don't have to take this second course, but since the seals that we study are usually found in the cracks and pressure ridges, FSTP (known as "f-stop" or Field Safety Training Program) specially created this course for us.

Drilling to check the depth of the ice near a crack.  Theirry on left.

Pressure Ridge training...everyone equipped with a probe or an ice axe.  Pressure ridges galore in the background.

Poking around cracks in the pressure ridges.  This ridge is probably about 10 feet above the sea....don't want to fall in one of those cracks!

More poking about...we do lots of ice poking around here.  Travel through such places can be safely accomplished with diligent poking.
Our research is off to a good start...we've tagged a couple dozen seals (adults and pups)...but more about that later...!