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12 November, 2003

Today was the second of our 8 censuses. As planned, we changed census direction and groups. Colonies were visited in a counterclockwise direction, as opposed to last week's clockwise loop. Kelly and Gillian had the northern section, Mark and I the southern, and Darren and Brent stayed with the Delbridge Islands. The day's weather was also different from that of our last census. We began with cloudy conditions and finished with clear blue skies, but it was cold, with gusty strong winds the entire day.

Mark and I started by snowmobiling to the area near Scott Base to check on the seals in that area. While last year there was a small colony there, we have yet to see any seals this year. It may be that the ice is just too thick there this year, so reliable cracks are difficult for the seals to access. From there we retraced our trail to the transition area by McMurdo. When we were in town on Monday we'd seen 12 seals basking in the sun near some of the dive huts. Today there was only one seal longing on the ice under grey skies. As we rounded the corner heading north towards Knob Point we traveled across glassy smooth sea ice, made even glassier by the constant winds that were raging over the surface. The coastline there has tall cliffs with cornices of snow that tower above and provide an apparently endless source of snow to blow down and envelop you as you ride below. It's a bit tricky to look for seals in a swirling ground blizzard-but you do what you can in the name of science. On the last census, they saw a few seals in that area, but there were none today.

By the time we got to Hutton Cliffs the skies had cleared. We ate a quick lunch on the ice and began our census. The seal colony there stretches for perhaps 2 kilometers, taking advantage of a series of cracks and pressure ridges that lie both parallel and perpendicular to the coastline. There's plenty of nooks and crannies for seals to hang in, and numerous meltwater pools for seal census-takers to avoid as they try to reach all those seals. Today we counted almost 200 seals in that colony.

Our last stop was South Base. This area, at the base of the Erebus Glacier tongue, is nicely protected from the wind. By now it was almost 6pm and the lighting was perfect-the icy walls were glowing in the sunshine. If I were a seal, I think I could live quite happily here, hidden from view behind a snowdrift, lying in a windless area along a small ice crack. Definitely seal heaven. The first time we checked this area, it was hard to imagine any seals being here. Now some of the ice cracks are far more apparent and there's a small group of seals and pups lying in the valleys behind the drifts. There were also 2 new pups in need of tags. Once they were tagged it was time to head homeward, paralleling the glacier tongue to where it intersects the main flagged road.

Today's count was 749 seals. This is about 200 fewer than the last census and shows the variability you see when counting animal populations. That's why we census more than once. Besides the likelihood of encountering a variety of weather conditions, doing multiple censuses and varying the time that each colony is visited during the census, gives a much better overall picture of seal numbers and the population composition. Our next census will be on Sunday. Until then, we will continue tagging any adults that were found untagged during this census, and looking for new pups that need to be tagged. The number of new pups has decreased dramatically. Only 5 were seen during this most recent census. The pups we do see are getting mighty big. Many are swimming with their mothers and some have even exchanged their original coat of long, soft fur for the short smooth coat of the adults.

Daily Haiku:

Census in the wind

Snow-crusted seal flippers

Hidden tag numbers

Counting seals under the towering cliffs.

The view in South Base. It's hard to believe, but there are seals back in here.

At Hutton Cliffs, it's a good idea to look up sometimes!

Looking for seals to count at South Base. I have the field computer and notebook ready to enter the numbers of any seals we find.

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