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20 October, 2003

After yesterday's low visibility and high winds, today was an amazing day. We began, once again, with some incredible gusts of wind-the huts were rocking in the breeze. It was, however, a beautiful clear morning and it was certain that, without the wind it would be beautiful. So we did what any good field-based researchers would do-dawdle over coffee, cook a big breakfast, and wait for things to change. Lo and behold, by the time the last breakfast dish was washed and put away, and the thermoses filled with hot water for our lunch packs, the wind died. We quickly changed from hut wear to field clothes-a difference of at least 3 layers top and bottom-and got ready to go.

Today we surveyed the southern half of our study area, starting at South Base and finishing at Pram Point (don't forget to check the study area map from 10-17 if you're confused). We traveled south on the relatively smooth sea ice road until it was necessary to cut east across the usual 4-wheel drive snowmobile terrain to reach South Base. South Base is at the southern side of the Erebus Glacier Tongue, and is an area with icy cliffs, snow-covered valleys, and a persistent crack in the sea ice. Today, however, there were no seals taking advantage of that crack.

From there, we followed the coastline to Turtle Rock (guess what it looks like), and then to the Hutton Cliffs to check on seal activity. Each time we saw a seal or group of seals we would stop and check to see if the adults were already tagged or if they had broken tags that needed to be replaced. We tagged 5 live pups today and 2 dead ones. We have now tagged 12 live pups and 6 dead ones. It's fairly obvious why we would tag live pups, but why tag dead ones? In a population study such as this, it is important to look at survival rates. Data must be collected about the number of seals who make it from birth to adulthood, but it is equally important to account for those that don't. In addition, it is important to tag all dead seals (pup or adult) just to make sure you have counted every seal.

I tried my hand, once again, at the seal bag dance. This time, after a few half-hearted throws, I decided to act with a bit more commitment, instead of tossing the bag and silently hoping I just might miss so I wouldn't have to find out what riding a 1000 lb. seal is really like. I lunged heartily and, miracle of miracles, the bag ended up over the seal's head. Then the fun began as I gripped the side ropes tightly, straddled the seal, and tried to anticipate the bucking and rolling that was coming-sort of like riding a bucking bronco. I'm not sure who was breathing more heavily, the seal or me. We came to an understanding, and the seal lay still long enough to receive its tags. Afterward I realized I should have paid closer attention at our local rodeos to see how the pros do it!

Our southern tour ended at Pram Point, near New Zealand's Scott Base. Last week, when Gillian, Darren, and Brent did an aerial survey by helicopter they saw one seal in that area. We surveyed a pressure ridge and ice crack for any signs of that seal or others, and found none. It was almost 6:30 and time to head home for a well-deserved meal. The ride home on the packed road took about 30 minutes-and seemed much smoother than my initial ride from McMurdo on the sea ice road last Thursday.

When we got back to camp, the phone setup folks were here installing our phone line. Our phone works via a VHF radio relay back to McMurdo. I suppose it's just another piece of amazing Antarctic technology. Once all the bugs are out of the system, we'll also have internet access from the camp. Until then, I'll be saving up journals to send in a frenzy each time I come to McMurdo.

Daily Haiku:

We go seeking seals

Lounging near the open cracks

Feeding their babies

Mark Johnston bagging a seal for tagging

I'm ready for another great day!

While Mark holds the seal, Kelly and Gillian place tags in her rear flippers.

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