First Real Ice Adventure

First Real Ice Adventure

Today is our first major foray out on the ice in search of seals for sampling. The weather is gorgeous, and we’re all quite warm in our layers (no frostbite today!). We meet up with B-009 (a Weddell seal research team gathering census information on the animals in this area of Antarctica) in the morning, hoping to find some pups with them. We get to their field camp (Picture 1) around 9am, then spend a bit of time having coffee and planning the day. As we are preparing our skidoos to leave, Luis happens to look toward the ice behind the huts and notices a newborn pup right next to its mom about 75 meters from us (Picture 2)! We head over to check out the situation, as we are hoping to collect umbilical tissue from newborn pups and also placentas. Unfortunately the tissue has already frozen, but we all agree that we had missed our window of opportunity by only a few hours. Though we won’t get the samples we’d hoped for from this animal, everyone is cheered up from knowing that our chances of finding newborn pups are increasing. And of course, the presence of the adorable, fuzzy, wriggly newborn isn’t hurting anyone’s morale.

Following the initial flurry of furry pup excitement, we head out to look for pups in some of the other known Weddell seal colonies. The team decides to split into pairs to maximize the search area, while still maintaining contact via VHF radio. The ice is so flat where we are that we can see each other from a distance quite easily, but shouting in the wind isn’t the clearest form of communication (also, we would likely disrupt a good bit of seal snoozing). Allyson and I head over in one direction, and it’s only minutes before we come across another newborn. Some of the tissue is a bit frozen, but looks better than our first find. Unsure of whether we’ll come across anything better than this, we decide to take our chances and collect samples. Realizing that we’ve left our sampling kit in the skidoos (we hadn’t anticipated such luck!), I run back to grab the tools and containers we need. As I’m heading back over to Allyson, I hear Manu and Luis calling on the radio. They’ve found an even newer newborn pup! The mom they’ve found has just expelled the placenta (definitely not frozen!), so we change tactics and Allyson and I head their way. So much excitement! Luis is able to pull the placenta far enough away that we are less disruptive to the mom and pup pair, and we all begin the process of trying to figure out which arteries and tissue samples would be best to take. We have to work quickly, as the tissue freezes almost immediately upon contact with the air and ice! (Picture 3)

With our fresh samples collected (and mom and baby left to bond with one another peacefully – they have to learn to communicate so they’ll be able to find each other on the ice once mom starts to hunt again, Picture 4 and Picture 5), we amend our plan for the day. Culturing primary tissue is a delicate balancing act acutely influenced by temperature, so we need to get back to the lab quickly to start working. I put our vial of tissue and collection buffer in the pocket of my inner coat to keep it “refrigerated” but not frozen. Manu and Luis stay in the field to continue with the search, while Allyson and I head back into town with the samples. Once in the lab, we get halfway through the sample preparation before realizing that we are still working in our snow pants, boots, and hats. When we finally finish, around 3:30pm, we have a celebratory snack of chocolate bars (breakfast was at 7am and we’ve missed lunch entirely in order to “feed” the tissue!). Our cells are snuggled nicely into their 37oC incubator, which keeps them at body temperature (Picture 6). We won’t know for a few days whether we’ve been successful, but we are hopeful.

Side note from Manu: As we were roaming the seal colony (Picture 7 and Picture 8) in search of another fresh placenta, we encountered a pregnant seal in labor! Luis and I hung around for an hour or so to observe her (from a respectful distance).  The one thing that stood out most during that time was the deafening silence, only interrupted by the breathing of seals above the ice and vocalization of Weddell seals under the 2 meters thick sea ice (or as Luis called it: the sound of Antarctica).  At one point, a seal must have been right underneath the ice where I was sitting since I could feel him make his (or her) underwater sound. We did not end up with a second sample that day but it sure was worth the wait!

NMFS permit 19439, ACA permit 2016-005. Photos by @manu_buys. Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram and Twitter