NOAA Teacher at Sea
Onboard US Coast Guard Ship Healy
April 20 – May 15, 2007
Mission: Bering Sea Ecosystem Survey
Geographic Region: Alaska
Date: April 26, 2007
So there I was just working on my journal entry when a phone call came through into the science conference room. Dr. Michael Cameron, Ice Seal Team leader, was on the line. “We are going to try to tag a seal on the ice,” he said, ”meet us in the helo hanger.” I dropped the phone and exited the conference room as fast as my rubber boots would allow. What a great opportunity this was. I was going to see what it would be like getting a tagging event together!
Imagine my surprise when Dr. Mike came thumping down the ladder from helo headquarters, “Get dressed, you’re coming with.” My heart was beating in my throat.
Me? Coming with! I MUST be dreaming!
The rest of the seal team was casually slipping on their ice gear suits and white overcoat. I wriggled into an extra large survival suit, my bunny boots, and the white lab coat, which acted as camouflage. All I needed was a red safety helmet and off we went.
We were transported to the ice via the ‘Man Basket.’ The ‘Man Basket’ is a steel cage suspended from a long cable and driven by a crane. The crane operator lifts the basket, steers it, and then lowers it down to a stable section of the ice. Once the basket has stopped moving, you slip out of the basket, and there you go.
The seal team and bear watch designee were the first group taken down to the ice. As soon as they landed, they were scrambling over the rounded pack ice berms and bumps towards the seal threesome. I knew the importance of them getting out there quickly in order to catch either of the adult spotted seals.
Before too long, the basket returned, lifted us up into the air, and down onto the frozen Bering Sea. Gavin Brady, the last of the seal team, was off like a shot. I urged him forward to do the job he was here to do. My clumsiness held him back like an anchor. I tried hard to hurdle the icy ridges and rafts, but the MS 900 worked as an efficient brake to dull my progress.
I’m OK! Just GO!
The short sprint to the seal location took my breath away. The seal team worked lightening fast to net the two adult spotted seals. They used a huge net, that looked like a huge butterfly net, to trap them, and then transferred the animal quickly into a hoop net. My job was to watch the baby and make sure she wouldn’t separate from her mama and get lost in the open water.
But I wasn’t the only one seal sitting. In order to restrain it safely, one of the researchers straddles the seal, sits on it’s back, and controls its head and front flippers. Spotted seals have sharp, sharp teeth and they can telescope their neck to inflict quite a nasty bite. One researcher volunteers to act as a restrainer, which allows the scientists to collect their data quickly and effectively
The team concentrated on the two adults, one female and one male. I watched the baby. Of all the tasks that were available at the seal tag site, I think that was the best.
Taking advantage of my close but respectable distance I took many pictures of the furry bundle with very sharp teeth.
I was totally impressed with the speed and agility of the seal team. One of their major goals is to gather the data, and tag the seal as quickly and painlessly as possible. Their teamwork and communication was exemplary and allowed the mother seal to return to her offspring in a surprisingly short period of time.
Because I was preoccupied with the baby seal watch, I had missed out on what samples the scientists were collecting. Remember they are gathering data, some of it baseline for ice seals. The tagging will produce information that is original and first of its kind. So if you were to gather information on ice seals, what kind of information would YOU collect?
The male spotted seal and I were soon to find out.
Sexing is first on the agenda. Male or female? One hole or two?
Next is tagging the seal. The seal tags are marvels of technology. They contain computer chips and batteries that will permit the researchers to discover how deep the seals dive and when, where, and how often do they haul out. Two small holes are pierced through webbing between its toes, and the tag is securely attached. As soon as the seal returns to the sea, the salt water activates the tag. It will continue satellite transmission for up to a year.
Then the tissue from the flipper is placed in a small vial for DNA testing. Scientists can map the DNA and discover information about the different individuals and populations. Following tissue sampling, blood is taken to learn of the seal’s health. The researchers use a syringe and insert it into a special cavity (dorsal sinus) of the spotted seal, an easy target for them to tap. After the tagging event, the team will take the blood back to the boat and separate the solid red blood cells from the light colored serum. It is the serum that contains the antibodies and information.
This serum will be frozen, along with the tissue, for another scientist who specializes in blood work to decipher its content. Lastly, measurements are made. We didn’t have enough time to weigh the animal. The researchers use numbers recorded from tape measurements at the hip, belly, front flipper, and neck. They put the numbers in a special equation that use a special ratio to determine a good estimate of the weight of the animal.
The seal team does a quick check and double check to make sure all the numbers have been recorded. But there is an additional sample that the male spotted seal has left for the science party.
You know poop? Doo doo? Number two?
I was told that all wildlife biologists start out as scat collectors. Scat or vomit is commonly used to figure out what, how, and how much animals eat. The seal team was very happy to delegate scat collection in a whirl bag (special sample bag) to me.
They even had a special little shovel to transfer the scat to the bag.
The trek back to the ship was more relaxed than the sprint out. We needed to wait for the helicopter to take two members of the ice algae productivity sample group back to the sampling site we were at in the early morning. We got Andy, our Bear-Watcher-Outer, to take pictures of us all. Dr. Mike and the rest of the ice seal team were incredibly happy.
So there you go. From start to finish, a whirlwind of valuable data gathering, done in an efficient and non-invasive way. Yeah, this is science.
This is science done right.