Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Friendly Penguin Wave (Goodbye?!)

The 2012 Weddell seal science season for our crew is just about wrapped up, sadly enough.  Our camp has been pulled off the ice, and we've been busy scurrying around, returning equipment and gear, cleaning and washing everything.  We leave in 7 days!  Aaack!

It has been an incredible season with a lot of valuable data collected by a solid crew.  There are literally hundreds of people to thank for making this project a success...a substantial proportion of them working as support staff here on station.  Nothing would be possible without their wonderful and friendly support.  And I certainly can't forget to thank YOU (if you are a tax-paying American citizen).  Because this project is completely funded by the National Science Foundation, YOU are paying for it.

This may be my last season here on the ice, and so I hope you have enjoyed some of my attempts to capture not only the project, but also the incredible scenery and majesty of this place.  I may have a few more posts left in me, and then I predict Aspiring Ecologist to go silent for an indeterminate period.

A big, final THANK YOU to all my blog followers!  I received so much encouraging feedback, which helped me to keep at it, and I'm stoked there is so much interest in the Antarctic and the seals.

To the elementary classrooms that have been following along, THANK YOU too!  Keep admiring the world around you...even in your own backyard, there are incredible examples of how diverse, complex, and beautiful the natural world is.  And nothing is better to lift the spirits than to waddle around like a penguin for a bit.  Or even a seal if you can manage it.

Adios Amigos!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Pack Ice is In

The sea ice edge transformed by fast flowing pack ice and peculiar penguins:

Darren, over at Nature and Noise, has a great photo of some ice caves in the Erebus Glacier Tongue.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Seal in the Sun

All Weddell seal images obtained under NMFS permit no. 17236

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

White Islanders

About 60 years ago, the sea ice melted so far back into McMurdo Sound, that it began melting and breaking off the ice shelf all the way back to an island, called White Island.  Previous to this event, no seals were found at White Island, but the melting allowed several (estimated to be three females and two males based on an ongoing study by Tom Gelatt) seals to get to the island and take advantage of its underwater resources (food!).  But the seals did not prepare for the fact that they would never be allowed to leave again.  The next year, and every year after, even to the present time, the sea ice has not melted or broken out to White Island, and the ice edge has always been maintained at a distance too far for the seals to make it out.  So the seals have remained, and they have kept breeding.  Each season, we take a helicopter twice to White Island to tag any pups that are born, collect genetics samples (a tiny tissue sample from their flipper), and assess their status.  Since it is a small population, inbreeding is basically guaranteed and even though they seem to be doing just fine when we show up and tag a couple pups, there is a high degree of inbreeding depression (fancy way of saying decreased fitness, or reproduction in this case, because of low genetic diversity).  But they do keep breeding, and they do keep recruiting.  In 2000, the total population was estimated at 27 individuals (10 males, 17 females).

I wish I had more recent figures than that (figures come from a paper published by Gelatt et. al. 2010 "History and fate of a small isolated population of Weddell seals at White Island, Antarctica"), but this year, we tagged three new pups, and probably saw about 10 seals on the ice...which really says nothing because there are probably many more seals below the ice.  It is a very interesting population, and a great example of isolation occurring naturally, which we can then, thanks to multiple visits per year by the project, keep track of population dynamics to see what its doing, and possibly where its headed.

The north shore of White Island, where the seals typically haul out

North shore, looking back towards Ross Island (Mt Erebus to the left, McMurdo is located outside the photo further left).  Between White Island and Ross Island, it is an expanse of ice shelf glacier coming down off the continent to the sea.  That is basically the distance a seal would have to swim to get out.

One of the White Island seals...

Darren and Thierry recording what we find.

Horizon line, extending forever to the SE of White Island.  That way, is a cold and lonely place by the looks of it.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Edge

A helo flight to Marble Point (to tag pups from mom's that were previously tagged and retag any adults that needed it), brought us along the edge of the sea ice, where some pack ice has been blown in.  I have never seen this before, typically (the past two seasons being typical for me), it is just vast open ocean.  Pack ice tends to bring more critters, as some, like the leopard seal, crabbeater seal, and Ross's seal, are much more tightly associated with pack ice.  Here are a few shots of the pack ice:

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Slush Puppy Anyone?

Antarctic slush puppies are a bit different than back home...

Click here to make bigger and change quality if desired.

Video taken under NMSF permit no. 17236

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Comparative Fat Content Analysis

...a real science-y way of saying "Look at how fat that pup has gotten!"


About 70 pounds.


Pup is on the left (!)  About 270 pounds.  See how the mom diminishes as well.

Blubbery fatso (that's a compliment)

Chubs sleeping in a collapsed cornice
Working amongst the fatties.  Note the seal behind Jason...thats a mom whos been nursing for about a month...she used to be quite rotund, now you can see her shoulder and hip bones now that the pup has incorporated all her mass.
All Weddell seal images obtained under NMFS permit no. 17236

A Taste Of A McMurdo Thanksgiving

And this is what the seals do for Thanksgiving:

Check out a new post on the Weddell Seal Science blog!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Pup and Pickup Ride

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Diver Ex-entry

Divers Henry Kaiser and Rob Robbins entering a dive hole in a hut at Turtle Rock...except in reverse (they don't really come blasting out of the hole to get out).  "Creative!" you may exclaim to yourself.  Actually, its an inability to correctly put together a stop motion video.

What are these divers capturing in their dives?  Check out another Weddell seal team's (B470) YouTube channel to see some great underwater footage of the seals!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Terra Nova

At the most basic level, population studies (like ours on the Weddell seals) is all about input and output.  Births and deaths, immigration and emigration.
Simple.  Well, not really.  It's very difficult to figure out who's dying or leaving in an open system population.
One way we try to figure out who's leaving, is by taking a helo trip up the coast to Terra Nova Bay, to a small satellite population of seals, just to check if any of our tagged seals show up there.  We also make some stops closer in.  And this is what was done today, the helo picked our whole crew up at camp, and off we went:

Our first refueling stop, Marble Point, where two people live all season, simply to refuel helicopters as they come through.  And one of them is a cook, who made us some rice krsipy treats...awesome!

Finished refueling, getting ready to continue the journey.

Looking out the helo window into the vast whiteness...
the vast whiteness.  Those are icebergs frozen into the sea ice.  They will soon be released to the open ocean come January/February
The ice edge with Mt Erebus in the background.  Occasional penguins can be seen swimming or chilling on the ice edge. 

After about two hours, we arrived to Terra Nova Bay...

In color even.

Following the search for tagged seals, we refueled at the Italian base (Mario Zuchelli base)...and were very kindly and warmly invited in for lunch!

The kitchen...

The dining hall....great people, delicious food (a good change from McMurdo and field camp food)

Nestle chocolate, white yummy bars of something, prunes, and a hunk of cheese! (There was more food to eat than this...don't worry.  Lots of pasta of course, and the most awesome bread)

And the real treat!  An italian espresso shot.  They are SERIOUS about their espresso.

Just a helo shot.

One of the small bays we stopped in to check seals on the way home.