One of the challenges of working with Weddell seals in Antarctica is finding them. There are several Weddell seal colonies in the Dellbridge Islands area and around the base of the EGT (Picture 1 shows a map of the current sea ice and ice routes; it also includes all the sites we regularly visit; can you find our B-267 fish hut #6?). As the season progresses, the seals move into the colonies at different times, especially the pregnant females as they look for prime real estate to have their pups. We regularly communicate with B-009 (the seal census group who surveys the colonies daily), as their work gives them the best sense of where the animals are from week to week. To get a first-hand look ourselves, we take advantage of the opportunity to head out in an A-Star helicopter so we can get the lay of the land and determine the best routes to access the seal groups. Allyson, Luis, and Kaitlin share the backseat, and are awfully surprised to find that there are actually four seatbelts in the back – we would’ve been hard pressed to fit a fourth person back there with us! Manu gets to ride shotgun. A little airsickness (this is Kaitlin’s first helicopter trip) is but a small sacrifice in the name of science for the incredible views we get.
From the air, we had a nice vantage point of the Ross Sea ice edge (Picture 2), from the Barne glacier (Picture 3) stretching east into McMurdo Sound. We were surprised at the number of Weddell seals stretched out along the sea ice edge, possibly a result of that edge being so far south this year. We also flew over Tent Island (Picture 4), caught a great view of our fish hut (Picture 5), Hutton Cliffs (Picture 6), Erebus (Picture 7) and the Erebus Glacier Tongue (looking pretty gnarly with the remains of a catastrophic icefall last year that killed dozens of seals still very apparent, Picture 8). Even though from the air gigantic seals look like very slow moving ants, it was obvious that pupping season is in full swing. On the way back into McMurdo (Picture 9), our pilot made a little detour over Mount Cis. The ice axe on the top of the hill is rumored to have been left there by Shackleton to locate an emergency supply depot (Picture 10).
We’ve been lucky with a few good weather days here lately, but it of course does get cold and windy. On one of our recent trips out, we found out just how strong the wind can be. We had gone out in the morning to finish setting up our fish hut and surveying the seal colony at Tent Island. In the hut we have a propane heater, a generator (that can power our centrifuge so we can process samples in the field) and lots of space to store food, survival bags and gear. It’s great to have a place where we can rest and warm up when we’re out for the whole day, or shelter in case we get caught in weather. As the day progressed, the wind started to pick up significantly (it’s amazing how quickly the weather can turn here in the Ross Sea), and we decided that our chances of getting any great fieldwork done were rapidly diminishing. So we called it a day and headed back into town. Perhaps it shouldn’t (after all this is the windiest continent on Earth), but the strength of the wind surprised us. A few minutes into the drive, we caught a blast of wind, strong enough to bend the windshield on our skidoos back. Not much later, the wind flipped the sled attached to Allyson’s skidoo, rolling it twice and scattering our gear across the ice, creating a blast of brightly colored objects rolling across the snow road ahead. Everything natural to Antarctica in our area is a shade of white, blue, or gray, so we realized immediately what happened, jumped off our skidoos and frantically started to chase down our gear, stuffing items flying around on the ice in our pockets or weighing them down with heavier gear that hadn’t taken off. Luckily, we eventually managed to collect and secure all our gear (Allyson and Luis had to chase down boxes that were flying away from us on the sea ice on their skidoos). Needless to say, we were all on high alert for the remainder of the drive home.
On one of the following days in the field, it wasn’t so much the wind but the cold that was complicating our job. To protect our faces from wind and cold, we wear multiple hats, balaclavas, neck gaiters, and a helmet, which, by the way, makes it nearly impossible to understand what anyone is saying; we all sound like Chewbacca in Star Wars. Protecting every piece of exposed skin is important; unfortunately, it makes it at times difficult to keep our goggles “fog-free” while skidooing. On really cold days, foggy goggles quickly become icy goggles, severely restricting visibility and taking all the fun out of skidooing in a -40C wind chill.
Luckily we catch a few more “warm” days (-15C but less wind), allowing us to collect and process multiple fresh placental samples. Its imperative we find the placentas very soon after they are delivered and before they freeze, so Kaitlin and Allyson can isolate living smooth muscle and endothelial cells. One month into our deployment (we left September 25th), and it’s looking good! Next week, we will move on to the next phase of our project and start collecting biopsies from adult male Weddell seals. Science is cool!
Don’t forget to follow us on Luis’s blog (with some great video of a suckling pup and a seal trying to get onto the ice), on Instagram https://instagram.com/b267_mcmurdo/, and on Twitter https://twitter.com/B267_McMurdo.
NMFS permit 19439; ACA permit 2016-005, Map by Brad Herried, Photos by @manu_buys