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4 December, 2003

What an amazing day-we were able to leave the compound and venture forth into our snowy seal kingdom. It was time for our penultimate census. On Sunday will do our last census before packing up camp and moving back to McMurdo. It's hard to believe that in 10 days we will be in New Zealand, in a world where green is the predominant color.

After a lengthy snowstorm, it's a good idea to check under the hood of the snowmobile before starting it up. If the snow is really packed in tightly, the fan belts and drive belts don't work right and can result in some major damage. Although we had covers on our machines, the engine compartments were packed with wind-driven snow. Once we had shoveled and brushed the compartments clear we set off, equipped with ropes and shovels just in case we found deep snowmobile-eating drifts blocking our paths. As it turned out, the snow had filled in the ditches between the sastrugi mounds and travel was actually much easier than it has been for most of the season. It was kind of like the difference between skiing down a run covered with rock-hard bumps and skiing on a powder day when you are greeted with a smooth white layer of fluffy snow. Of course, all that smooth snow meant that we spent a considerable amount of energy wading through drifts up to our knees to get to the seals. It also meant that we had to be extra careful traveling near areas with ice cracks and crevasses, since they were hidden under the snow.

All was well in the kingdom. Today we counted 980 seals across the study area. We didn't find any seals that had died since the last census, but there are some motherless pups that are looking mighty thin and forlorn. The larger pups all seemed as fat and content as ever as they lounged next to their mothers or lay next to holes waiting for their mothers to return from swimming. I continue to be amazed at how big these pups have gotten in a very short time. Their high fat diet has very impressive results. Some are ready for weaning and will soon be on their own when their mothers return to the water.

Today was also incredibly warm. The temperature was at or above freezing most of the day. When the wind stops it is almost hot-or what passes for hot weather down here. What an incredible change from the cold days of October and the first few weeks of November. The melt pools are growing, the ice cracks are spreading, and you need to step carefully in the slushy areas lest you find a soft spot that is higher than a boot top.

Daily Haiku:

Fat seal pups on ice

Lose one coat grow another

Weaning time is near

It's a good idea to check under the hood of the snowmobile before starting it up after a big snowstorm.

The new snow has filled in all the spaces between the hard sastrugi mounds. It's much smoother travelling, although you need to look carefully for cracks and deep drifts.

The view from North Base is much snowier than it's been this season.

Compare these two seals. The one on the left is much smaller. This is the pup that appeared at our hut at the beginning of the storm. Apparently, it has been abandoned by its mother and its chances for survival are pretty low. The seal on the right was lying waiting for its mother to return from a swim. You can see how much fatter it is.

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