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...!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

An Antarctican Arrival

"You have all the fuel and food you need, so we'll see you in the morning!  Good luck and stay warm!"  With that, our instructors saddled their snowmobiles and zipped back to their hut, where they would spend a warm night in a cozy bed, probably with stuffed animals to cuddle with and hot chocolate at arms reach all night.  And so they left us.  Abandoned on an ice shelf on the coldest continent in the world, wind lashing at our faces, icicles slowly massing on our beards, temperatures down to -15 degrees F, and all wondering how best to mitigate the miserableness of the forthcoming night.  This was Happy Camper school.  Designed to make us...happy...campers?

It's at these times that I wonder how I end up in these situations.  The opportunity to come to Antarctica was presented to me so casually that it was easy to reply in-kind, with a casual "well...yes, I do want to go to Antarctica. Thank you for offering."  I had no idea what saying yes quite meant, and probably no newbie to the "ice" (as we refer to Antarctica) ever does.  And suddenly, I found myself in Christchurch, New Zealand (on September 28).  Aside: Oh wonderful, warm, pleasant Christchurch where the birds sing from morning till night!  Our crew of five (Glenn, Jessica, Shawn, Theirry, and myself) spent the few days we had in Christchurch eating at Thai restaurants (Glenn's favorite) and enjoying the mild climate.  I spent an afternoon and a morning walking about Hagley Park to find all the exotic birds I had enjoyed so much on my previous study abroad in Christchurch.  The New Zealand pigeon, the New Zealand scaup, the silvereye, the grey warbler.  But our main reason for being in Christchurch was to obtain our ECW gear from the CDC at the USAP ("Extreme Cold Weather gear from the Clothing Distribution Center at the United States Antarctica Program"; the USAP uses acronyms like hot cocoa powder on a cold day) and board the C17 south-bound for Antarctica (since New Zealand is in a prime location for deployment to certain areas of Antarctica).

It was like Christmas: collecting our ECW gear at the CDC -- each USAP participant was provided with two duffel bags filled with multiple layers of everything to keep us warm for the duration of our visit in Antarctica.  I have never before witnessed such large scale logistic efficiency and effectiveness than that performed by the USAP. 

Trying on "Big Red"-- the famous USAP parka.  I even get my own name tag to go with it!  We tried on every piece of clothing to make sure it all fit properly.  I promptly returned and exchanged multiple items, and kept doing much so that the exchanger dude made me promise not to come back again (he was joking of course).

Early morning line-up to get through security prior to boarding the plane.

Getting transported to the C17 -- everyone was pretty stoked!  (The dude in the red, blue, and white striped hat about mid-bus is Theirry or "Tearie" or maybe more like "Cheary" -- I say it wrong no matter what, but he doesn't mind -- from France, taking over the project next year for his graduate work.)

Boarding the C17, kindly operated by the US Air Force.

Is this really happening??  Heck yeah!  We were required to wear our ECW gear onto the plane so we would be totally ready when we stepped out onto the ice.  Nice white boots eh?  They call them bunny boots.  And you can actually blow them up with air for increased insulation.

The Weddell seal crew (minus Theirry who took the photo).  L to R- Glenn (crew leader and PhD student at Montana State), me, Jessica (returnee from last year), Shawn (also a returnee)

The first sign of ice at about 3.5 hours (of 5 hours) from Christchurch.

Pax = Passenger -- our pre-Antarctic lunch

In the cockpit!  You can tell these guys love their job.  They were terribly friendly and let us check out everything.

The unrelenting ice begins....

Inside the belly of the bird, taken from the cockpit through a bubble window-- notice no windows, which makes for an interesting landing experience.  You can't see it, but all the excess space above everyone's heads is filled with excitement.
Eventually, after about five hours, the pilot told everyone to put their seat belts on for the descent; with no windows, we could only guess how close we were to landing, but finally, the tilt of the plane and the thrust of the engines felt just right, and, sure enough, we were touching down.  It may have been the smoothest landing I've ever had; especially considering that I thought we would go sliding off the continent since we were landing on ice with wheels.  And then we walked out of the plane, down the steps, and took our first steps onto the ice.  They had been telling us to relish that moment, those first steps, the bitter cold, the vast white, the looming mountains; but I was not prepared for just how momentous those steps felt.  Crunch...squeak-crunch...crunch...the ice underfoot, extending for miles in all directions, completely flat, running for as far as the eye can see in some places and, in other places, interrupted by irruptions of white, stately mountains and volcanoes.  And the sky...maybe more sky than I have ever seen...a crisp blue dome above fading and merging into the white of the ice below.  The nip of the cold air was slightly shocking...I knew it would be cold but my northern-hemisphered-summarized body was not quite acquainted with this inundation of freezingness.  It's a lot like getting locked in a walk-in freezer with just your t-shirt and shorts on....for two and a half months in my case.  

Antarctica....I am in Antarctica...Antarctica, I say to myself over and over.  In the background, the C17's rumble is constant; they will keep the engines running while those departing (or "redeploying") load up so the engines don't freeze.  

Smilin' Theirry--also his first time on the ice

Mt. Discovery, an inactive volcano to the SW
Boarding an Antarctican transportation-- Ivan the Terra Bus
From the ice-runway, we boarded Antarctic-proof buses and headed to McMurdo, one of the research stations operated by the United States Antarctic Program.  It's outward appearance is similar to that of some mining town, buildings of all different colors placed here and there, at odd angles to each other, power lines and pipelines running aboveground all over town.  But beneath the somewhat unappealing outward appearance is an amazing working operation of extreme efficiency.  The purpose of McMurdo is for science.  Everything about the town is designed and operated for that sole purpose.  This means that if a crew of scientists, like ourselves, comes to McMurdo, we will have warm beds, we will be fed three meals a day, and we will have access to all normal conveniences (ie high-speed internet, post office, store, coffee shop, barber shop [yes mom, I can get a hair cut here], chapel with sunday services, workout gyms, hospital, and even a second-hand store where everything is free!).  We are also provided with our own lab room and have access to all and any lab equipment we may need.  And as scientists working in the field, we are provided with all training (snow craft [ie Happy Camper], sea ice, snowmobile, light vehicle, and helicopter safety training) and all the gear we need for our field camp, including four huts (kitchen, equipment, men's bunk, and women's bunk huts), full kitchen supplies, two and a half month's worth of food, all gear necessary to live and work comfortably and WARM on the ice, snowmobiles, and wireless internet(!).  Without a doubt, McMurdo is the most organized and most efficiently operated town I have ever seen...and it's all for science.  Our huts are in the staging area right now (on the sea ice down below McMurdo) and will be moved for us to our field location, about thirteen miles away.

Theirry and my dorm room--with my bed covered with all my winter gear.
Outside the dorm window-- there is 24 hour light during the summer, which is now (note all the snow).
The dorm rooms--mine is the one directly below the big white ball on the mountain in the background

The McMurdo station, situated on Ross Island (which you can't tell is an island right now (or maybe ever) because the ocean is frozen solid all around it.

Observation Hill behind the Science Center
Building 155, the center of McMurdo: food, store, post office, barber, craft room, Wells Fargo ATM....
The McMurdo coffee shop

A place for praise and worship

The Weddell seal lab
The buildings dead center of the photo are our huts, waiting to be filled with gear and transported to our field location.
And then, bam!  First full day in Antarctica and I'm getting hauled off to Happy Camper training.  Despite the bitter cold (as far as the cold goes down here, it wasn't that cold, so says those veterans of Happy Camper that had to withstand even colder temperatures during their training), we successfully built camp, built a wind barrier out of snow blocks, boiled water for hot cocoa and dehydrated dinners, and stayed as warm as it is possible on the ice.  We put up two Scott tents (the teepees in the photos), a bunch of mountain tents, and half the class built their own survival trenches to sleep in.  Most of us trenchers did so because we knew it would keep us warm digging until bedtime, and the trenches would also (supposedly) keep us just as warm if not warmer than the tents.  I felt like I was digging my own grave, but I made it as comfy of a grave as I could.

The Happy Camper camp
Digging trenches

Scott tent with snow wall.  Kitchen setup in the background.

The kitchen--we boiled water continuously for all of the evening and all of the morning.


Wishing my beard was massive
Theirry's trench--notice the snow blocks for the roof being added.

My trench, with sliding snow blocks for a door.  I stuffed my backpack in the remaining hole, leaving me completely protected from the world outside.  It was terribly claustrophobic and I was sure I was going to die of carbon dioxide poisoning, but I stuck it out, only having to forcefully shiver a few times throughout the night to stay warm.  The worst part: getting from your warm layers into your freezing sleeping bag in such a tiny space, and then waiting, horrified, as you feel your bladder slowly filling, knowing that you will have to repeat the whole process again!  The next worst part: feeling your bladder fill up even more rapidly after you have crawled back in the sleeping bag and forcing yourself to stay in bed until morning so you don't have to go through the whole process again.

Upon successful completion and survival of Happy Camper, we returned to McMurdo to continue our week of training.  The sunny day of our arrival was the last one I have seen, and even as I write this, it is Condition 2 outside:

"Severe Weather Condition II
Defined by one or more of the following conditions: wind speeds of 48 to 55 knots sustained for one minute; wind chills of -75 to -100° F sustained for one minute; or visibility of less than 1/4 mile sustained for one minute.

Sea ice training has been cancelled for the second time this week, and Theirry and I are not allowed into the field without it.  And so, our crew remains indoors, waiting for the weather to clear so we can finish loading up our huts.  Soon, we will be in the field, finding our seals, but everything is weather dependent in Antarctica.

Don't forget to check out Weddell Seal Science (there is a new post from Mary, part of our crew coming friday, weather dependent).

And, if you are interested in McMurdo, click here.  To get current conditions, click on "Information Pages" at the top of the page, then click "Weather, Channel 3".  You can cycle through different pages by clicking Next or Previous.

Weather also here.

Till next time, on the ice and with the seals,