Tagging of Pelagic Predators

Whale shark

Weddell Seal Tagging 2011

Where do Weddell Seals go in the winter??Dan Costa TOPP PI from UC Santa Cruz and his team have partnered with Jen Burns and her team from University of Alaska to study the movement patterns and diving behavior of Weddell seals in the Ross Sea Antarctica.  In addition to studying the animals movement patterns they are collecting data on the temperature and salinity of the Ross Sea in the winter using the seals to carry oceanographic sampling devices.  
Dan sent the photos in the slide show below so we could all share in the adventure. 



  • Scott Statue
    Scott Statue
    Christchurch has a long history in Antarctic expeditions as this was the jumping off point for Capt Scott and Ernest Shackeltons expeditions. This is a statute of Capt Scott in downtown Christchurch.
  • In-flight meal
    In-flight meal
    The flight to McMurdo station takes about 5 hours and they provide you with an inflight meal.
  • Arrival
    The flight to McMurdo station takes about 5 hours and they provide you with an inflight meal.
  • Ivan Bus
    Ivan Bus
    After you disembark from the C-17 a large US Air Force plane you walk over to Ivan the Terra Bus. Ivan is a large bus with gigantic wheels that can easily make it across the snow and ice. However, Ivan is slow and it takes about an hour to make the 15 miles to McMurdo Station.
  • McMurdo Station
    McMurdo Station
    McMurdo station is the largest facility in the Antarctic and in the summer houses as many as 1200 people!! It is a year round facility, with a winter population of about 150 people. While we are here the sun never sets, it makes it easy to work 24/7 if the weather allows.
  • Weddel Seal at Scott Base
    Weddel Seal at Scott Base
    On the other side of the hill from the US station, which is run by the National Science Foundation, is Scott Base a much smaller facility approx 50 people that is run by the New Zealand Antarctic Program. Both stations share a lot of resources and carry out joint research efforts. The animal in the foreground is a Weddell Seal.
  • Twin Otter Flight
    Twin Otter Flight
    After several days of getting safety training and getting checked out with snowmobiles, we get started on our research. One of the first tasks was to find out where the seals are and where we can work. So we took a reconnaissance flight on a Twin Otter aircraft and travel about 300 miles to the Northwest of McMurdo looking to find out where the seal colonies are.
  • The Continent
    The Continent
    Along the flight we get an opportunity to really see the Antarctic! As you look out the window you see an amazing variety of shapes, colors and geometries. Its breathtaking, but its hard to take in because the stunning vistas are everywhere!
  • Ice Sheets
    Ice Sheets
    The pack ice forms amazing designs from the air. We are surprised to find that this year many of the areas where we worked before are now open water.
  • Pack Ice
    Pack Ice
    The suns makes for a dynamic image.
  • Seals from the Air
    Seals from the Air
    From the air we locate lots of areas where there are large aggregations of Weddell seals. Weddell seals occupy an unusual niche. They live along cracks in the ice that are along the shoreline, along glaciers or anywhere that there are cracks in the fast ice. They tend to avoid the open pack ice. This is the habitat of the crabeater seal, but also leopard seals and killer whales. Weddell seals thus have a food resource to themselves, the fish underneath the ice and are also protected from predators.
  • Pack Ice
    Pack Ice
    More geometries formed by the pack ice and open water along the coastline of Antarctica.
  • Ice Tongue
    Ice Tongue
    An interesting feature in the Antarctic are Ice Tongues. These are glaciers that extend beyond the shoreline and are floating on the ocean. In some regions these ice tongues can go for miles offshore. This end of this ice tongue is at least several miles from the coastline.
  • Seals along ice tongue
    Seals along ice tongue
    In this image you can seal a colony of seals that is using a crack in the floating glacier, or ice tongue to gain access to the ocean.
  • Snowmobiles
    Once we figured out where the seals were, we had two means of transportation. For animals close to McMurdo Station we used snow machines.
  • Helicopter Crew with Seal Team
    Helicopter Crew with Seal Team
    However, we also wanted to deploy tags on animals that were 100-200 miles away from McMurdo Station in order to get a better idea of what Weddell seals do in general. For these deployments we used a Bell 212 helicopter and flew 150 miles to colonies to the northwest of McMurdo.
  • Luis in helicopter
    Luis in helicopter
    Luis Huckstadt keeps the look out for a good place to land to find seals.
  • Helicopter on ice
    Helicopter on ice
    One of the advantages of using a helo is that in the process of working with seals you get to go to some pretty amazing places.
  • Emporers
    On one of our trips we came across a group of Emperor penguins that were molting. They basically find a good place and just sit there for a few weeks while they replace their old worn out feather with new feathers
  • Happy Feet
    Happy Feet
    In fact some of us decided it was time to see if the penguins had seen the movie "happy Feet" as we did our own rendition of the Dancing Penguins. Unfortunately they weren't too impressed.
  • Penguin Tracks
    Penguin Tracks
    Penguins also leave a particularly distinctive track in the snow.
  • Adelie penguins on Ross Island
    Adelie penguins on Ross Island
    There are three Adelie Penguins colonies on Ross Island. The closest one to McMurdo Station is at Cape Royds. It is also the southern most Penguin colony in the world.
  • Weddel Seal
    Weddel Seal
    Back to the whole purpose of this trip. That is to study the foraging behavior of Weddell seals.
  • Tagged Weddel Seal
    Tagged Weddel Seal
    To work with Weddell seals we first use a light sedative and then glue our tag to their head using 5 minute epoxy. However, before we glue the tag, we need to make sure that the animal has fully molted. The animals molt once a year at this time, so if we put the tag on an animal that is molting it will fall off within a few weeks. If done properly the tag will last up to a year until the next molt when we either remove the tag or it falls off with the molt.
  • Adelie Penguin
    Adelie Penguin
    We also came upon Adelie Penguins. These little guys have attitude!!
  • Weddel mother and pup
    Weddel mother and pup
    This picture was actually taken during our October-November field season. October is the period when Weddell seals give birth. During January and February the seals are molting. Thus we come to catch the seals after they have molted.
  • Weddel in ice hole
    Weddel in ice hole
    The habitat of Weddell seals is associated with cracks in the ice. Here a seal looks up at me from one of their access holes.
  • Seal nose
    Seal nose
    You can imagine that finding air breathing holes in the ice can be problematic in the middle of winter with ice everywhere. Weddell seals are quite good at finding and keeping holes open. In this picture you can see the nose of the seal just sticking through the ice.
  • Weddel Seal with CTD Tag
    Weddel Seal with CTD Tag
    Here is a seal wearing its new salinity temperature depth recording tag. As its sits at the surface the tag transmits the data to the ARGOS satellite overhead.
  • Weddel Seal with CTD Tag
    Weddel Seal with CTD Tag
    Weddell seal with a telemetry tag on its head.
  • Happy Seal
    Happy Seal
    This seal was bending over scratching itself.
  • Weddel Seal at Pressure Ridge
    Weddel Seal at Pressure Ridge
    This is the pressure ridges area, where we equipped 8 seals with telemetry tags.
  • Seals and Castle Rock
    Seals and Castle Rock
    A major feature in the McMurdo area is Castle Rock. THis is the large brown rock lifting out of the snow covered arm of Ross Island.
  • The Crack
    The Crack
    Working in the various regions, we have to be alert for large crack. This crack was the transition between the land and the sea ice. While it looks rather large it was quite safe to cross it on a snow mobile.
  • Cape Evans
    Cape Evans
    One of the unique aspects of working in McMurdo is that it is a historical place. In the immediate area there are three huts that were used for expeditions to the South Pole. The hut in this image is at Cape Evans and is called Terra Nova Hut and was the staging area for Capt Scott's expedition to the South Pole in 1911-12. He made it to the pole but did not make it back alive.
  • Cape Evans Hut
    Cape Evans Hut
    Close up of the outside of Terra Nova hut.
  • Scott's Hut
    Scott's Hut
    Here is the kitchen inside Scott's Tera Nova hut. It looks like people were just living there. In addition to Scott's 1911-1912 expedition to the pole. The Terra Nova hut was used by Shackeltons ill fated 1914 Transantarctic expedition. His plan was to make a dash to the South Pole from the Weddell sea and go onto the Ross Sea. The team that was stationed at Cape Evans had the task of laying supply depots across the Ross Ice Shelf to support Shackelton. They didn't know that Shackelton never made it to the Polar Plateau and continued to lay the depots, they knew he would be relying on them.
  • Scott's Lab
    Scott's Lab
    One of the things that set Scott's Antarctic expeditions aside from many others is the amount of science that was done. Some of the foundations of Antarctic biology and meteorology were carried out during his expeditions. Here is a photo of one of the lab benches in Scott's Terra Nova hut.
  • Inside Scott's Hut
    Inside Scott's Hut
    Inside Terra Nova hut at Cape Evans. This picture shows the main table which is just to the left of the kitchen.
  • Look Out
    Look Out
    A view from one of the windows in Scott's Hut.
  • Shackelton's Hut
    Shackelton's Hut
    One of the other historic huts is Shackelton's Nimrod Hut. It was from this hut that Shackelton make the first real attempt to reach the South Pole. He got within 90 miles of the South Pole, but turned back because he feared that while they could make it to the pole, they would not make it back alive.
  • Inside Shackelton's Hut
    Inside Shackelton's Hut
    This is the inside of Shackleton's Nimrod Hut. This hut was built before the Cape Evans hut and was used for the 1907-1908 expedition to the South Pole. While this hut was smaller than the hut at Cape Evans, it is a much more inviting hut, with a warmer feeling.
  • Cross at Cape Evans
    Cross at Cape Evans
    While Shackelton never lost a man under his command, three people died who were on the Ross Sea Party. That is the party that was laying the depots to support Shackelton after he made it to the South Pole. Three men died, one died of scurvy during the sledging journey to lay the depots, and two died at the end of the sledging journal as they tried to make it back to Cape Evans before the ice was solid. It is 15 miles from Discovery hut to Cape Evans and they tried to get across the ice when the wind came up and they were never heard from again. This cross at Cape Evans was erected in their memory.
  • Discovery Hut
    Discovery Hut
    This is Discovery hut, which was actually the first hut constructed in the McMurdo region. This hut supported Scott's first Antarctic Expedition in 1902. This hut was more of a supply and shore depot, as it proved to be too cold and the men lived on the "Discovery". The ship that Scott brought down and overwintered in. It was from this hut and ship that Scott discovered the route up the Beardmore Glacier to the PolaPlateau. It was this route that Shackelton and then Scott would take on their attempts to reach the Sout Pole.
  • Inside Discovery Hut
    Inside Discovery Hut
    Inside Discovery hut. The rooms are quite small with limited cooking facilities. The last people to use this hut were from Shackeltons Ross Sea Party. They spent several months here after they laid the depots that were to support Shackelton as he made his transarctic crossing. After they returned from their sledging journal they had to wait for the sea-ice to form so they could make it safely back to Cape Evans. Two of the men couldn;t wait and left too early and were never heard from again.
  • Discovery Hut Supplies
    Discovery Hut Supplies
    A box of supplies in the Discovery Hut.
  • Final Seal February 11
    Final Seal February 11
    A final image from the seal team as we pose with our last seal. This was the 20th tag we deployed on a Weddell seal this season! We know can upload the data via the internet as the data are transmitted via satellite.

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