The population of McMurdo has ballooned from 350 when we arrived on the second “mainbody” flight to over 900 as the summer season is in full swing. The station runs 24/7 and most of the contractors and support staff work 6 days every week and have Sunday off (Sunday brunch is a big deal here). As grantees, we can arrange our own schedule. Since we depend on weather and ice conditions, we need to be flexible, and Sunday is just another day of the workweek.
Also last Sunday, we took advantage of a bit of a break in the weather to go out onto the ice. Our plan was to biopsy two animals. As we were performing the first procedure (at Tent Island) the wind started to pick up. We were about to call it a day, when we received word from our B-009 colleagues of a recently deceased adult seal at Turks Head. Since opportunities to necropsy an adult seal are few and far between, we decided to go for it. Our trip to Turks Head was complicated a bit by yet another skidoo breaking down (this time it was Kaitlin’s), so we left it by the side of Evans road to pick up on our way back into town) and Kaitlin got to ride on the back of Allyson’s skidoo.
The necropsies (Picture 1: Allyson and Kaitlin processing tissue) are probably my least favorite part of my Antarctic experience so far. But they are also very informative and will provide us with unique samples to study back home in Boston. The seal we necropsied that particular Sunday was especially interesting: it turned out to be a pregnant female that either succumbed while giving birth or because the pup had died in utero, likely causing sepsis. So Rachel got to deliver her first (unfortunately dead) baby seal on the ice (I’ll spare you the pictures, but please find some of my favorite seal pictures so far below!). Of the 9 necropsies we performed so far, most were of abandoned pups but several were on animals that had succumbed to massive lung edema and hemorrhage. These animals (older pups and an adult) appear in excellent body condition with respects to blubber layer, but they get weak, have bloody frothy nasal discharge and then die within a few days of apparent illness. We are planning to send samples to an expert to help determine the cause of death.
Most of the routes we travel are covered in a thin layer of snow (the climate is very dry here so it really doesn’t snow much at all), providing better traction for the skidoos than the very slippery “blue” sea ice. On the way back to McMurdo, we had to cross a stretch of blue ice as we skidood past the Razorback Islands where B-009 have their camp. Cross winds were whipping around Big Razorback. Suddenly, a wind gust picked up the Siglin sled I was pulling (carrying only a survival bag so the sled was pretty light) and spun me around, basically making me do a 180 on my skidoo. Luckily, I managed to come to a complete stop and could resume my way. Half a mile down the road, the wind got a hold of my sled again. This time, I was less lucky. As my skidoo spun 90 degrees, I ended up parallel to the direction I was going in. Next thing I knew, one of the skis on my skidoo got caught in a crack and flipped, catapulting me onto the ice. Fortunately, B-009 saw the whole thing happen (apparently, I slid on the ice for 15 seconds before coming to a stop) and ran out to come help me back up. Other than getting the wind knocked out of me, some bruises, and a sore back, I was fine (an unexpected advantage of wearing many layers of ECW gear). My skidoo was still running but would need extensive repairs as both the windshield and the hood were cracked. Monday would be spent licking my wounds.
On Tuesday, we were back at it with yet another report of a recently deceased adult Weddell seal. As Allyson and Kaitlin were taking care of labwork (the cells we are trying to grow need a lot of TLC), Luis and I made our way to Turks Head (location of one of the more remote and scenic seal colonies but a pain to get to on a very bumpy “road”) to perform the necropsy. On our way back to town, we briefly stopped at B-009 camp for a cup of coffee with Terrill (fearless leader of the B009 crew whose birthday happens to be on the same day as my wife’s; Rachel and I serenaded Terrill over the radio whilst preforming yet another necropsy a few days later), where we were told that a seal had just hauled out and died, feet away from where we had just been. This would be the freshest tissue we could ever hope to find, so we decided to rush back to town, drop off the samples, restock our necropsy kit and head back out, past the Razorbacks and the blue ice, all the way back to Turks Head. Luckily all went well and we were able to collect high quality samples. We also noticed an abandoned seal pup nearby. I watched it try and approach other seals but it got turned away time and again. Sadly, the pup died the next day; so again we headed out to Turks Head, this time in 40-45 knot winds. As you can imagine, performing a necropsy under those windy conditions (too windy to put up the onion) is not trivial. Science may not always be glamorous (this week, it certainly was not), it may at times be more physical than one would expect, but it definitely remains cool!
Don’t forget to follow us on Luis’s blog, Rachel’s blog, Instagram, and Twitter. I also highly recommend taking a look at these amazing images capturing the last days of Endurance and Shackletons crew’s subsequent struggle to stay alive, (Thanks Warren for sending the link!)
NMFS permit 19439; ACA permit 2016-005; Photo’s by @manu_buys