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11 March, 2000

Alien Spaceship Invades the Floes, an Anthropomorphism in Two Acts. Act the First

71 21 s, 111 59 w

Mapping shelf edge, moving east around large mass of pack ice, until possible to move south to Thwaites Glacier

Depth 524 m (1719 ft)

Temp 4 C (25 F), Wind 35 knots (43 mph) out of northeast

Pressure 975 mb, dropping sharply

Heavy pack ice with 10% open leads

Low overcast, no precipitation, visibility estimated 10 km (6 mi.) (Visibility estimate could be off by factor of five)

Seals, whales and penguins constantly visible on both sides of ship

You've probably heard stories of people who claim to have met alien beings from UFOs. The aliens approach them or capture them, do some sort of examination, and eventually leave the way they arrived.

Think of it from a Weddell seal's point of view. It's a frigid gray afternoon and you and two of your friends are basking on an ice floe, enjoying the fall sub-freezing temperatures and the wind driven snow. You are 50 kilometers from land, and happen to have stopped a long way from other seals. There are old, broken bergs here and there, a lot of comfortable floes, and enough breathing holes and open leads so you don't have to worry. An occasional pod of Orca whales passes far away, but there haven't been many lately. You can relax, in or out of the water. You've just had a full meal of cold wiggling fish and salt water, and what you'd really like to do is just doze off and digest your food. The world is a pretty good place.

One of your friends asks you if you can hear a strange noise, a low grumbling with occasional sharp metallic cracking sounds. At first you tell her that she is imagining things, but after a while you hear it also. As you discuss it with her, the noise gradually gets louder. It appears to be coming from the direction of the setting sun, but a two meter high pressure ridge blocks your view. Being a seal, you are somewhat curious about the noise, but not curious enough to wriggle a few feet to see around the ridge. You close your eyes again.

The noise doesn't go away. In fact it gets louder until suddenly, although there is little wind, your floe is shaken, rocked, and turned a quarter of a turn. The move exposes a huge red and yellow object, towering high above the floe. It best resembles a long, symmetrical berg, not as big as many you have seen, but moving a lot faster. From it comes the low grumbling noise. You realize that the sharper metallic noise is made as it moves along, breaking and turning over perfectly good resting floes in its destructive path. You and your seal friends are curious and not quite happy about this apparition, but you don't think of it as dangerous. The only danger for you if you are above water is killer whales that may try to break or tip your floe. Of course there are old stories about dangerous beings above water. Great Grandseal used to say that his Great Grandseal remembered a time when he was just a pup. Above-water beings, who propelled themselves about vertically on their flippers (right!), came and did terrible things to all the seals. Great Grandseal had lots of stories, true and not so true.

Now the apparition has stopped crushing floes and is resting one hundred meters from you, still making its low rumbling noise. You and your friends are vaguely uneasy, but you are curious by nature, and one of you starts to wriggle over in the direction of the big orange and yellow berg. Then something new happens. A small round flying berg (that's

right, it flew through the air like a skua) comes out from the side of the object, hovers down, and lands near you on the floe. As it comes to rest, you see there are three seal like beings riding on it. They resemble you, but there are important differences. There eyes are very small and their whiskers are short or non existent. It is impossible to tell which of them are male and which female. Their fur is red at the top and black at the bottom. It is roughed up and uneven, so they must be shedding. But two things about them strike you as most strange. They have an extra set of flippers, like penguin's wings, coming out of their sides, and, yes, they are actually moving about vertically on their hind flippers!

You are too fascinated to move, as the three aliens progress towards you, making strange unintelligible noises. With their upper flippers they carry long straight icicles, one with a piece of red fur attached to one end. They continually poke the floe in front of them, and you wonder why. Could it be that they are afraid to swim under it? Why would these beings be afraid of something so simple as swimming under a floe? They probably are worried about killer whales. Whatever the case, they are clearly interested in you and your friends. Was Great Grandseal's story true after all?

When they are several meters from you, they stop. You look at them, and they look at you. One sheds a little piece of yellow fur from underneath its red fur. It plays with it for a while, making noises to the other ones, and then hides the yellow fur under its red fur again. Then they move towards you, and you become alarmed. One comes

straight at you and another makes bright flashes in your face (like the sun shining off a turning berg.) The one in front of you is waving the red fur end of its icicle in your face, and instinctively you bite at it. You twist and turn to bite the icicle, or to escape it; you are not sure which. Suddenly you feel a sharp little pinch in one of your flippers.

You look around, and there is the third creature (you had forgotten about that one) moving away from you with a little icicle in his flipper. The pinch didn't hurt much, just like a play nip from a friend, but it did leave a little hole in your flipper. You aren't bleeding.

Having pinched you, they seem satisfied and retreat a few steps. Again they watch you and you watch them. The one shedding the little yellow piece of fur sheds it again, and plays with it, while the pinching one plays with the little icicle. Eventually they lose interest and return to their small orange floe, which miraculously flies off to the big orange and yellow berg. The berg has never stopped its rumbling. As soon as the little flying floe has disappeared on top, the rumbling gets louder and the apparition begins to move away. It destroys floes and terrifies some Adelies for a few seconds, but otherwise seems to do no further harm. Before it is lost in the mist, you go back to some serious napping. The next day you and your friends tell other seals about what happened, but of course they think you made the whole thing up. If it wasn't for that tiny little hole in the edge of one of your flippers, you wouldn't believe it yourself.

The word "anthropomorphic" means human shaped. "Anthropomorphism" means attributing human consciousness, form, motives and emotions to non-humans. Donald Duck is a good example of anthropomorphism. It is easy for me to do, but anthropomorphism is not the same thing as science. Like stories of UFOs and medical examinations by aliens, what animals feel or perceive is usually not measurable or repeatable. This is not to say that animals don't have feelings or can't think. I am personally convinced that seals, pigs, dogs, and whales are conscious beings, though not capable of complicated or predictive thinking. I do not think they are metacognitive, meaning I don't think they can think about thinking as we sometimes do. But that belief is based solely on my own observation, and others would disagree. What is true for me might not be true for others.

DNA analysis and population estimating, if done carefully, are measurable and repeatable. Anyone who did the same observations in the same way would come up with the same results. True and false would be the same for all.

Please forgive me my occasional anthropomorphism. I'll replay the whole encounter from the scientist's point of view tomorrow. I know about it because I was the alien being making the flashes.

Sue writes down notes in her yellow notebook while Brad gets his gloves back on.

The seal people approach a mature male Weddell Seal. They are poking at the ice ahead as they walk, making certain it is safe.

Taking a DNA sample from a Weddell Seal pup. Sue holds the red flag to distract the animal while Brad gets a small skin sample from the flipper. The picture is deceiving. Nobody stood still until it was all over.

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