School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences
January 16, 2000
The last 48 hours have been a blur of activity on the ship and this is the first moment I have had any time at all to get to the computers to send out any mail. Two days ago, we arrived in an area where there were seals spread out all over large ice flows. I had hurt my hand a day or two earlier (a seal rolled over me, but that is another story) and so I was the spotter from the tower on the top of the ship. From 100 ft up, it is quite easy to see large, dark, 600 pound seals sleeping on the ice. When you are down on the ice however, you can't see them because the ice is all torn up and jumbled into large hummocks. Most of the pieces are taller than we are, so when you are walking around, it is sort of like being in an ice and snow maze. Luckily, no polar bears live here, or we would be in big trouble!
My job in the tower was to talk to two seal teams travelling on two different Zodiacs and tell them where there were seals on the ice. My directions were usually something like: "Drive your boat about another mile around the ice flow on your left and once you get there, pull it alongside, get out and walk about 500 yards to a seal" I had two teams on two completely different areas of the ice flow and was talking on two different channels of hand held radios. I was also monitoring what the bridge was telling the drivers, so I had feeling of being an air traffic controller. It was a great day though and the teams got samples from 17 animals. It may have been our most busy day, ever.
Meanwhile, the ice coring team was one the flow taking ice samples, the divers made two separate dives looking for krill under the ice and the oceanographers were taking water samples. Since this was during the "day" (the sun is up 24 hours),the fish trawling team was asleep. They work mainly during the night and I see them at my breakfast, which is their dinner. They have had extremely good luck trawling along the bottom here in shallow (1800 ft) water and found all sorts of interesting fish and maybe a few new species. They know that this area of the Antarctic has never been trawled before, so every sample is something new.
Yesterday was also just as busy. We knew from the helicopter flights that there were large flows about 10 miles away that had many Weddell seals on them. We need samples from this species, so three of us flew out in one of the helos to find a flow with seals on it. We discovered a medium sized flow (about 2 miles across by 1 mile wide) that had 5-6 Weddells on it. So, we set the helo down about 300 yards from the animals and then hiked over to them to collect samples. Again, it was like an ice maze and at one point, the pilot had to climb up on the helo to get high enough to tell us where they animals were sleeping. The work went very well and quickly, so we came back to the helo to get warm before flying back to the ship. For safety purposes, the helos stay with us when we get put down onto the pack ice. However, it is cold enough that they have to start them up every hour. Unlike Fairbanks, there are no electrical outlets on icebergs to plug your vehicle into to keep it warm!
When we came back from this flight, there was another team out working on a leopard seal. This species is very large and impressive. They are both beautiful and scary, since they are meat eaters (seals and penguins) and when you are in a little Zodiac right up next to one (800 pounds) sitting on an ice flow at eye level with you, you start to feel like dinner. While we were in the lab working on samples from these animals, the ship spotted another leopard seal and we were off , again. This one got away from us however, and disappeared down an ice crack in the middle of the flow. The ice around here is very cracked and we have to be a little careful that we do not go swimming. The water is below freezing and even though we have on survival float suits while working, it would not be pleasant to fall in. I got back to the lab and then we got another call that a Ross seal had been found. We went out again in the Zodiacs (now about 9 PM) and worked with this rare species. This animal did not know it was supposed to be a calm and gentle species though and we had a hard time netting it to collect our measurements. Eventually, we got everything that we needed and headed back to the ship about 1030 PM with a bag full of samples that still needed laboratory work. So, it was a late night.
This morning came much too early. One of my students went out on a helo to capture more Weddell seals like yesterday, the other went up to the ice tower to direct Zodiacs and I went out with a small seal team to collect samples from two crabeater seals that were about a mile away. There are only four species of seals that live in Antarctic waters (crabeater, Ross, Weddell and leopard). In the space of 24 hours, I was able to work with all four species, which is a real treat.
The cruise is now officially half way done, but we all have much more than work than that to do! We are due back to the main Antarctic base, McMurdo station, on Feb. 10 whether we have finished our work or not. I think our days are going to get a little longer and our nights a little shorter in the coming weeks.
Our weather is nice for mid summer in the Antarctic and we have excellent satellite images of the surrounding area so that we can plan our flights and our cruise path. I do not know how the old Antarctic explorers made their way through this pack ice. It is constantly shifting and changing and there are no permanent landmarks to use for reference. It can be really confusing to be watching a seal on a piece of ice, only to have the ice move.
We are having a great time, getting lots of work done and enjoying the adventure.