I’m back in the United States and actually back at Oregon State University taking classes, but I want to wrap up my blog and finish telling you all about my experience on the ice. The following blog post is from approximately the first couple weeks we were on the ice, rougly November 9th, 2011. Information about animal deployments and retrievals were updated later in the season however.
I had originally thought that I could write a blog post every day and try and keep up with it, the truth is I hardly have time to eat and sleep when we’re working in the field and I’ll just have to do the best I can at the moment when it comes to the blog. But, that in itself is part of the experience. If you’re doing research and it’s field season – it is all systems GO from the time you arrive until the day you depart.
We have deployed 13 packs of telemetry gear and thus worked 13 different animals. We have recovered 9 animals and relieved them of their gear. 2 adult non-reproductive females and 11 juvenile seals (juveniles are usually “yearlings” 1 year old seals). Juveniles are extremely easy to spot out because in mass, they are essentially the same as a pup, only over the past year they have changed quite a bit morphologically and turned into a long thin skinny seal, weighing approximately the same as a pup. Juveniles are supposed to be extremely difficult to find and therefore study, but this year there have been quite a few sightings. The general rule of thumb before we started on Sunday was that no matter what the plan was, if we found Juveniles they were first priority.
The project is more of a baseline or exploratory study, which means we are looking at a wide range of factors and animals in order to see what information we can find about Weddell seals in terms of their thermoregulation (heat regulation).
There are four groups of animals that we are studying:
Adult non-reproductive females (without pups/not pregnant)
Adult post-reproductive females (had a pup this season, but that pup is now weaned and no longer with the mother)
Pups (recently weaned)
For this season our goal was/is to work with 2 post reproductive mothers, 2 weaned pups, 2 non reproductive females, and 9 juveniles. We’ve already tagged and collected data from 11 juveniles and we have tagged 2 non reproductive females. Which means we still have 2 mothers and 2 pups to go, but obviously we have done more juveniles than what we originally were shooting for. But, this year has been “the year of the juvies” because they’re not usually seen… ever…
We’ll have to wait until later in the season to ensure that the the mother and pups are in fact “post reproductive” and the pups are in fact weaned. It is too early in the season at this point for any of the pups to be 34 days old at this point. 34 days is was written into our proposal as the youngest pup that we will work with and when we are confident that a pup is fully weaned. There is another science party group that has been doing a population study on Weddell seals for over several years, actually a few decades I believe. Their group tags all the Weddell seals in the area and the information they provide us is not only helpful, but critical in terms of determining the first pups of the season and ages of seals that we work with.
Our study is spread out over two field seasons, this year and next, and will include studying 40 animals in total. Our goal for this year is 10-15 and to finish the rest next year. Because this is the first year of the project it will have taken us longer to get set up and situated than it will next year.
A typical day on the ice:
We travel in two parties, the Piston Bully goes first because it drives about 5 mhr with Jo and Allyson and the skidoo party comes up next with the rest of us. Skidoos (snow mobiles) are obviously faster and much more fun (when the weather isn’t threatening to throw you off your skidoo and blow you onto the top of Mt. Erebus). We leave in the late morning (sometime between 9-12) and work until past dinner (anywhere between 6-9). We don’t usually go out in the mornings, because Weddell seals don’t usually haul out onto the sea ice until the afternoon. Afterwards, we return to lab and do as much as we possibly can to prepare for tomorrow. For me, that usually means downloading photogrammetry photos, cataloging them, and making sure they are useable photos within the Photomodeler program. Somewhere in there we have to eat dinner (which is often saved for us because we’ve missed dinner time) and head back to the dorms to get a bit of sleep before the next day.
Markus, Jo, and Allyson usually decide what kind of animal we’re going to be looking for that day and where we are going to be scouting for them. We’ve had really good luck our first week, we haven’t had to do much scouting in vain. Upon arriving at a site, usually what happens first is that Markus, Jo, Allyson approach prospective animal for a better look and upon discussion decide whether an animal is appropriate or not. A big thing we look for is that a female is indeed NOT pregnant, but since we’ve already tagged our two non reproductive females for the season the negotiations will fall to whether that particular juvenile or mother and pup are appropriate. Jo then takes a FLIR (infrared image) of the seal as we gently coax the seal to walk (or crawl, or flop, or “phocidulate” as we have as a team have been prone to call it) away from a crack or other seals into a clearing.
After the initial photos someone, usually Markus, approaches the seal with a head bag with long ropes looped to the bag. Markus and one other person place the head bag over the seal’s head and Markus then takes both leads on the rope, straddles the seal, and tucks the seal’s flippers behind the rope. We estimate the weight of the seal and Rachel approaches the seal with an allocated amount of anesthesia drugs and administers the initial dosage. After this, we refer to any additional meds given to the animal as “top ups”. After allowing the drugs to work their way through the seals body for a few minutes, Jo usually enters the scene to take blood samples. We then roll the seal onto a weighing sling and bring in a gigantic tripod to weigh the seal with. If all goes well, the animal stays fairly inactive for this procedure and we get an accurate weight on the animal. The weight will be helpful when making the energetic models and is also helpful for the continual allocation of anesthetic medication administered by Rachel. We then lower the seal onto a pad that prevents the seal from lying directly on the ice during the procedure, thus saving some of the seal’s heat from being directly lost.
Once the pad is down, I enter the scene to commence photogrammetry. We lay down four large metal rulers that have been pre-marked at 90 degree angles as close to the seal as possible. We also wrap 8 strategically placed ropes around the animal with marks that will help me to distinguish marks on the animal in the future when I am trying to make 3D models of the seals.
Then, it’s time for the onion to be put up! The onion is an amazing invention that a gentleman in Alaska created to the specific needs Jo, Markus, and Allyson needed for the project. He invented this tent especially for our project and it folds down and can be put up in literally under a minute. Five minutes if you include anchoring it to the sea ice. We can put the onion up around the seal and Rachel, who has to stay with the seal at all times to monitor the seal’s condition, and place all of our gear and ourselves in the onion in only a few minutes. The onion protects us from the wind and gives us a protected area to work in. It saves us time and saves our spirits. On Friday we worked in 50 mph winds in the onion and although it was cold, most of us still didn’t have our big reds on, which gives you an idea as to how sheltered we really are under the onion. The onion allows us to work in conditions that we wouldn’t be able to other wise and there have been times when other teams have had to turn around and call it quits, while we continued to work successfully under the protection of the onion. It’s genius.
After the onion is up and the gear is in, it’s go time. Rachel places a intravenous catheter into the seal, which allows us a continuous direct link to the main vein of the seal. From here on out it is through this catheter that Rachel will administer top ups and any kind of emergency drugs if that were ever necessary. After the catheter is secured Markus begins to shave little circular patches of hair where the Heat Flux Sensors (HFS) will go Jo is beginning to Ultrasound the seal at different locations to determine the seal’s blubber depth. Roger and Markus begin working at setting epoxy and the telemetry gear onto the animal. A total of two packs with four (sometimes six) HFS are placed on the animal. After Jo is finished performing ultrasounds, Jo and Allyson work with Rachel on refilling syringes of drugs and saline to keep the animal under a constant and consistent anesthetic state. Eventually, just after a “top up”, Markus, Roger, and John administer a stomach pill directly into the stomach of the animal. By placing a tube directly into the stomach and plunging the stomach pill through the tube until it falls into the stomach. This pill will give as a continual reading of internal body temperature of the animal until the pill is either passed or the animal regurgitates the pill. John is documenting the procedure on data sheets (later in the season I will be taking over this job) and usually helps out in a variety of different situations and I am usually at the head of the animal monitoring breaths per minute and reporting any and all signs of activity or alertness to Rachel. I am also taking a lot of photos documenting our procedure and the work we are doing. Plus, I step in when I can.
Some of the roles are flexible and hopefully as the season progresses I’ll have an opportunity to switch into different positions and experience first hand some different roles in the project.
This is usually the point where we start to pack up and put the onion away as well as all of our gear. Some days we’ll move on to deploy gear on another animal or retrieve gear from another animal. How many animals we work in a day will depend upon weather, how quick we become, and how long an animal as been out with gear.
When you’re not really sleeping and you’re mostly just working and you’re also probably a bit stressed out- it does quite a number on your immune system. On top of that, there is “The Crud”. Not only the name of a local McMurdo band, but also the name of the dreaded illness that hits almost everyone upon arrival at McMurdo. We’re all living and working within such close quarters of everyone that it seems almost impossible to prevent. Everyone is even required to wash their hands before entering the galley and people are STILL falling like flies left and right… And I officially have “the crud”. It’s supposed to be a flu (I think) that lasts anywhere from 7-10 days. I’m not really one who gets sick very often, at least the kind of sick that knocks you on your back side and prevents you from getting to work or school. But, it’s hard to get out in the field and survive let alone THRIVE while working, when you have “the crud”.
“The crud,” is why I have been lying in my bed for the last 4 days. I toughed it out for two days of work while I had it and now I’ve had almost two fulls days off to rest, and we’re supposed to go out tomorrow, but I’m not sure if I’m gonna make it. My original strategy was to tough it out, that worked OK the first day, but Friday I kinda fell off the deep end. It’s hard to be of any help to your team when you’ve hit that point. For the first time skiidooing wasn’t fun, I couldn’t breathe out my nose so I breathed out my mouth and by the time I returned home I felt like someone had sanded down the inside of my esophagus with 40 grit sandpaper. Realization? Sometimes staying home really is better. We had two days off and I’ve taken an additional two off. It’s a really hard decision for me to make and it’s hard to stay back, but I don’t want to make myself more sick by spending a day in the field.
Interesting fact about McMurdo that I have learned this week:
Ratio of Men to Women: Women 27%, Men 73%
I knew there were more men here than women, but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that the ratio was that unbalanced.
Which is probably why there are cute lines in local songs about how a girl can get any guy she wants…