Saturday May 5, started off ordinary, as ordinary as a Saturday on an icebreaker in the middle of the Bering Sea can be. I was lingering over lunch with Gavin Brady and Dr. Michael Cameron, two members of the NOAA National Marine Mammal Laboratory ice seal team. They were telling leopard seal stories and fun factoids about other seals. Unfortunately, I had to excuse myself, as it was time for me to make an ice observation up on the bridge.
In that very short period of time that it took me to lumber up the five flights to the bridge of the Healy, something happened. We were stopped at a station, a ribbon seal had been recorded close to the ship, and the ice seal team was going to try and tag it.
I stopped right smack dab in the middle of my observations and flew down three flights to the hanger, where the seal team was hastily putting on their zodiac safety gear. Our last week on the Healy had us in rotting ice, or fog, or no ice at all with few opportunities to tag ice seals. This was a golden opportunity, as the boat was stopped and on station. Zodiacs away!
Permission was granted and the seal team was good to go.
They met together, refreshed their netting strategy, and waited.
The Coast Guard worked as quickly as it was able to.
This was only the second time these zodiacs were launched; the crew was working out protocol and safety procedures.
Time ticked, ticked, ticked away.
Gavin Brady with driver Jay Ver Hoef descended the Jacobs ladder into the zodiacs below. They chugged off into the frosty fog, and were gone.
They had radios, GPS and other contact equipment. We knew they would be safe.
The rest of the seal tagging was done within a quiet and serene ice flowscape.
The three boats split up and surrounded the ice piece upon which the ribbon seal reclined. Sean Dahle and Gavin Brady quickly took control of the animal, it was a juvenile male.
The rest of the team measured its weight, some blood, it’s length, sex and attached the flipper tag.
Ribbon seals are willing subjects. They are true ice seals; they never touch land and rarely encounter humans. Because of their naivety of humans, they can often be approached more easily than other arctic species.
This young male was true to its breed.
So tagging number two can go down in the ice seal journal and in the event log of the 0701 Healy Science cruise as uber successful. Ordinary days? There are none, when you are on an icebreaker somewhere the middle of the Bering Sea!
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.
For the past few days, we have been seeing bearded seals. Bearded seals are extremely important to the Alaskan Native population that live along the Bering Sea. They use their skins for watertight boats, and their meat for food. They are solitary, love to hang out by themselves and are bottom feeders. Many times their heads appear reddish brown, stained from the benthic muck.
Where do bearded seals live?
Bearded seals live in areas of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans that freeze and form ice during the winter.
How many bearded seals are there?
There is no accurate population count at this time, but it is estimated that there are probably over 500,000 bearded seals worldwide.
How can I identify bearded seals?
A bearded seals most distinguishing feature is the beard of white whiskers they use to find food on the sea floor. Adult bearded seals are gray to brown, pups silver-gray, and do not have spots or other identifying markings. They do have small heads and flippers for the size of their bodies. The average length of adult bearded seals is 6.5 to 7 feet. They can weigh as much as 700 pounds, but the average weight is 400 to 500 pounds.
What do bearded seals eat?
Bearded seals are mainly bottom feeders that eat shrimps, crabs, clams and whelks. They will prey on fish such as cod and sculpin when they get a chance.
How do bearded seals have their young?
The bearded seal pups are born on the ice from the middle of March to the early May. Pups are weaned in approximately 3 weeks, and during those three weeks they gain a lot of weight. Their mothers then leave them to fend for themselves. The bearded seal pups learn to swim and dive within the first week of life. The pups then live a solitary life-like the rest of the bearded seals.
How long do bearded seals live? How do they die?
The life span of bearded seals is believed to be up to 31 years. The main predator of the bearded seal are the polar bear. Sharks, and walrus have been known to feed on pups, and humans also hunt bearded seals for subsistence.
Do you know what is really cool about bearded seals?
Bearded seals will ram their heads through thin ice to produce breathing holes!
Bearded seals lay on the edge of the ice looking downward into the water. They can then get away if a predator approaches!
The bearded seal gets its name from the white whiskers on its face! The whiskers are very sensitive and are used to find food on the ocean bottom!
Within a week of birth pups are capable of diving to a depth of 200 feet!
The bearded seals can be easily recognized because the body looks too big for the size of its head and front flippers!
Orca: The Killer Whale
The pilot from the helicopter gave us a heads up. Two killer whales headed our way. The announcement resounded through the ship via the pipes (announcement system). For some people on board ship, this was their first glimpse of the orca. Keep on reading if you are interested in learning more about the whale called Killer.
Killer whales are social animals that live in stable family-related groups. Killer whales display a high level of care for their offspring. In addition to the mothers, various pod members (mainly adolescent females) perform most of the care for the calves. As with most mammals, killer whales are very protective of their young.
Different killer whale pods “sound” different. Each pod has their own dialect of sounds. They can easily recognize their own pod from several miles away based on the differences in calls.
Killer whales are often compared to wolves because both species are top predators, maintain complex social relationships, and hunt cooperatively.
To some, killer whales look exactly alike however they can be distinguished from one another by the shape and size of their dorsal fins, the distinctive grayish-white saddle patches behind their dorsal fins, as well as distinctive scars, nicks and marks on their dorsal fins.
What are killer whales like?
Though killer whales, also called orcas, are considered whales by most people, they are actually members of the Delphinidae (dolphin) family. Killer whales are excellent hunters that a wide range of prey, including fish, seals, and big whales such as blue whales. Despite their hunting of other animals, free-ranging killer whales have never been reported killing a human being.
Where do killer whales live?
Killer whales can be found in all oceans but they seem to prefer coastal waters and cooler regions. Killer whales occur in family groups called pods. Three types of pods have been described:
* Resident pods: remain stable over time * Transient pods: dynamic in structure (are constantly changing) * Offshore pods: Are seen only in outer coast waters and not much else is known of them.
Killer whale pods are based on the lineage of the mother (mothers, daughters, and sons form groups); the whales live and travel with their mothers even after they are full-grown, forming strongly matriarchal whale societies.
How many killer whales are there?
There are no official killer whale worldwide population estimates. There are minimum counts in local areas. For example, approximately 1000 whales have been individually identified in Alaskan waters through photographs. Killer whales are at the top of the food chain and are not considered endangered.
How can I identify a killer whale?
Killer whales are extremely distinctive with jet-black bodies and white patches usually over the eyes, under the jaw, on the belly, and extending onto their sides. Female killer whales can grow up to 26 feet (7.9 meters) with a 3 foot dorsal fin while males are larger than the females growing up to 28 feet (8.5 meters) with a 6 foot (1.3 meters) dorsal fin. Killer whales have 48 to 52 teeth that are large and conical shaped as well as slightly curved back and inward.
How well do killer whales see or hear?
Killer whales have well-developed, acute senses. They can hear a vast range of sounds and possess skin that is sensitive to touch. Killer whales have excellent vision in and out of water. It is not known whether or not they may have some sort of sense of taste.
What do killer whales eat?
The killer whale diet consists of fish, squid, seals, sea lions, penguins, dolphins, porpoises and large whales like the blue whale. Some killer whales have been known to slide on to beaches in order to capture a good meal. Resident pods (pods that primarily reside in one area) prefer fish whereas transient pods (pods that travel over a relatively wide area) appear to target other marine mammals as prey.
Killer whales are very successful hunters due to their cooperative hunting, where all animals within the pod participate. This coordination is apparently developed and learned within pods.
How do killer whales have their young?
Killer whale males reach breeding age when they are around 22 feet (6.7 meters) long while females can breed when they are about 16 feet (4.9 meters) long. Killer whales breed all year around and calves are born about 8 feet (2.4 meters) long after a 17 month gestation period. Female killer whales usually give birth every 3 to 10 years.
How long do killer whales live? How do they die?
Killer whales have no natural predators (they are the top predators of the oceans) and can live to about 50-80 years old. Killer whales have been hunted by humans but not with enthusiasm as it takes 21 killer whales to produce the same amount of oil as 1 sperm whale.
Ribbon Seals: Phoca fasciata
I saw my first ribbon seal today! These beautiful creature are the most highly vulnerable critter that live up in the Arctic. Why? They never touch land. They spend their entire lives on ice flows, even give birth there. What will happen to them if there is less and less ice? Think about it.
Where do ribbon seals live?
Ribbon seals range northward from Bristol Bay in the Bering Sea into the Chukchi, Okhotsk and western Beaufort Seas.
How many ribbon seals are there? In the mid-70s, the estimate of the world’s population of ribbon seals was thought to be 240,000, but there is no accurate estimate at this time.
How can I identify a ribbon seal? Ribbon seals are very distinctive. Males are dark brown to black with four ribbons of white. Females are lighter with less distinctive stripes. The stripes are located around the front shoulders, the neck and the rear section. Young seals are gray and will acquire the distinctive ribbons by the age of four. Ribbon seals have large eyes and small teeth.
What do ribbon seals eat? Ribbon seals feed mainly on groundfish and shrimp, along with some crustaceans.
How do ribbon seals have their young? Ribbon seal pups are born on the ice in the spring. They are white at birth and become silver gray in 3 to 6 weeks. They are weaned in about at month and then spend time learning to move on ice and to dive.
How long do ribbon seals live? How do they die? The life span of ribbon seals is believed to be up to 25 years.
The main predators of the ribbon seal are the killer whale, sharks and humans. There seems to be little interaction between commercial fishing and the ribbon seal.
Do you know what is really cool about ribbon seals? Ribbon seals have an internal air sack, over their ribs on the right side of their body. They are the only seals with this air sack! We do not know what it is used for!!
Ribbon seals move on the ice differently than other Arctic seals, they move one fore flipper at a time at a time, while other seals pull with both their front flippers to move forward! For short distances, they can move on the ice as fast as a man can run!!
Why do we know so little about ribbon seals? Ribbon seals are hard to study because of the amount of time they spend floating on pack ice and in open water, away from land. Luckily, this also makes it harder for predators to prey on them. At birth the pups are pure white. We know that ribbon seals stay close to the pack ice, but after most of the pack ice has melted, the ribbon seals are believed to be in the open sea.
Today was our first close encounter with a spotted seal. Spotted seals are the most common ice seals in this area. They are known for their spicy personality.
Where do spotted seals live?
Spotted seals live along the continental shelf of the Beaufort, Chukchi, Bering, and Okhotsk Seas, south to the northern Yellow Sea and west to the Sea of Japan.
How many spotted seals are there?
There is no accurate population count at this time, but it is estimated that there are under 300,000. They are the most common ice seal up in the Bering Sea.
How can I identify a spotted seal?
Spotted seals are wary and hard to get close to. Adult spotted seals are silvery-gray with dark grey on the back and covered with brown to black irregular spots. Pups are born with a white coat but molt to the adult colors after 3 or 4 months. It is believed they winter in the Bering sea. Following the ice front, they travel north in the spring and summer. They reverse the process and follow the developing ice south in the fall. Spotted seals may get to be 270 pounds, but males and females average 180 to 240 pounds. Length of grown seals is between 4.5 and 5.5 feet. Newborn pups weigh 18 to 26 pounds (8 to 12 kg) and average about 33 inches (84 cm) long.
What do spotted seals eat?
Spotted seals eat many things, depending on the season and their location, including Arctic cod, sand lance, sculpins, flatfishes, cephalopods, and a variety of shrimps.
How do spotted seals have their young?
Spotted sea pups are born anytime from early February to the first part of May, depending on their location. Pups are white and weigh 18 to 26 pounds. They are nursed for three to six weeks, during which time they more than double in weight. During the first few weeks after weaning, pups seem to spend most of their time on the ice, but they do not enter the water. Spotted seal pups take longer than other ice seals to learn to swim and dive! In the spring, spotted seals will form small groups of a male, female and her pup.
How long do spotted seals live? How do they die?
The life span of spotted seals is believed to be up to 35 years.
The predators of the spotted seal include the polar bear, sharks, Steller sea lions, brown bears, humans and walrus. Wolves, foxes and large birds have been known to feed on pups.
Did You Know? Spotted seal are the only seal that breeds in China!