The last 2-3 weeks have been a whirlwind of activity, with all the days blending into one another (having the sun up 24/7 is not helping to distinguish between days). Midway through our field season, near perfect weather conditions (snow and ice are trying to melt a little bit) has allowed us to go out to the field for 16 consecutive days (except one when winds were forecasted to top out at 55 knots or >100 kph). We were able to collect high quality samples on every single one of our trips. So far we have biopsied 5 adult Weddell seals (collecting blood, skin, blubber, muscle, and swabs for the virome and microbiome), necropsied 4 recently deceased pups and 2 adults, and processed 12 placentas (many of which we witnessed being delivered so incredibly fresh). The high quality of our samples is reflected by the success Kaitlin and Allyson have had generating endothelial and smooth muscle cells. We hope that studying these cells (once we return to Boston) will help us address the hypotheses described in our NSF grant.
On one of our trips to the seal colonies, we were accompanied by two guests: Michael Lucibella and David Thesenga. David deployed to McMurdo as one of the PolarTREC teachers. PolarTREC (Teachers and Researchers Exploring and Collaborating) is a program in which K-12 teachers spend 3-6 weeks participating in hands-on field research experiences in the polar regions. The goal of PolarTREC is to invigorate polar science education and understanding by bringing K-12 educators and polar researchers together. Mike is the editor of the Antarctic Sun and is putting together an article about our work. After interviewing us, he expressed interest in visiting our field site and taking some photographs to accompany his article. David and Mike were able to observe us as we successfully sedated, anesthetized, and biopsied a 400kg male Weddell Seal. While taking a break in a nearby fish hut (at Turtle Rock), we were entertained by a Weddell seal who decided to take ownership of the dive hole.
I am not sure whether he enjoyed the warm air (the fish hut is continuously heated so the dive hole stays open and divers can comfortably change into their gear), or he was hoping to meet a female seal at the hole, but he ended up sticking around for a few days, giving us ample opportunity to take pictures!
Other highlights of the last few days included dinner at B-009 camp and encounters with other creatures, besides our Weddell seal friends. When Rachel and I skidooed out to the Evans Wall fish hut to check on an oxygen regulator, we noticed a jellyfish floating around in a dive hole. Later that week, Luis spotted two more Crabeater seals at Tent Island. Also at Tent Island, we noticed Adélie penguin footprints and sure enough, a single, lost-looking penguin was scurrying around the sea ice.
Interestingly enough, he hung out for a couple of days and was not perturbed by our presence. The last few days, more and more Skua (large seagulls that feast on placentas and dead pups, so our competition) are showing up too (when we were doing a necropsy last week, a couple of them kept circling the onion).
Next week, we’ll blog about our outreach efforts, including a skype session with a Wakefield MA elementary school and a Q&A with elementary school students from Shanghai.
NMFS permit 19439; ACA permit 2016-005; Photos by @manu_buys, Luis Huckstadt, and Rachel Berngartt