On Sunday night, we completed our crossing of the Drake Passage and were “into ice” (a.k.a., closing in on Antarctica!). Many of the people who have crossed the Drake before said we had an extremely smooth crossing with relatively mild waves. The Drake is notorious for large waves moving in different directions since there are few landmasses in the Southern Ocean to slow winds or water movement, which results in washing machine-like waves. I was quite grateful for the calm seas to say the least!
When I woke up this morning (Monday, October 26), we were definitely in ice… icebergs were in the distance and floating chunks of ice were right up against the Gould. We were slowly making our way through the ice, and the fog, to Cape Shirreff, Livingston Island, to drop off five pinniped (or seal) researchers for their five-month field season. We had to wait a bit for the fog to lift, but the seas and weather were favorable for the off-loading to begin or what I now call the Cape Shirreff Schlep!
If you’ve ever been to Hurricane and helped unload a grocery run, this effort was about 10 times as intense… there were approximately 30 of us working for about 3 – 4 hours. It was an epic production that involved all hands on deck. First, the Zodiacs (or small inflatable boats that can carry gear and 10 passengers to shore and back to the Gould) were craned over the side of the boat and one crew headed towards the field base to start clearing the beach where we land the gear. On deck, the rest of us started moving boxes of food – both fresh and preserved, propane tanks (40!), drinking water and gear to prep for being loaded onto the Zodiacs.
On the second trip, we climbed down the side of the Gould and onto one of the Zodiac so we could be onshore to meet incoming boats, off load their gear, and then schlep the gear about 400 meters to the buildings on Cape Shirreff. We used toboggans with harnesses to drag multiple boxes or pieces of gear at one time. Maggie and I did about 10 round trips each while others helped shovel snow away from the buildings.
Some major highlights included seeing a group of penguins hike behind the buildings, across the island towards the known penguin colony on Livingston island – we definitely took the time to admire the passing wildlife. One of the researchers said that hiking, rather than swimming around the island to the penguin colony, has become their strategy for avoiding leopard seals that frequent the waters around the Cape. We also successfully got an ATV from the Zodiacs onto the Cape with many hands working together to pull the ATV up the snow berm from the boat.
The Cape Shirreff team has been monitoring the seal populations on the island and over the last few years, have noticed a marked increase in the number of female leopard seals inhabiting the Cape. They aren’t sure why this increase is happening, but they are studying the seals’ habits in terms of their diet, how they’re hunting, and individual behavior and health. They sedate seals, place a tag on some of them, and then take measurements of the length, weight, and girth. In addition, they’ve teamed up with National Geographic Critter Cam to put high definition video cameras on a leopard seal’s back when they’re sedated to film the seal’s activities once they recover – it provides a perspective the researchers have never before been privy to. With this video footage, they have a better understanding of the seal’s hunting and foraging behavior, which has implications for the populations of penguins and other seal species on Livingston Island.
All in all, it was a tiring, but rewarding day. I greatly appreciated the opportunity to stretch my legs and hike after being cooped up over the last few days on the boat. Also, now that this job is done, it’s time for us to start collecting samples for our experiment at Palmer Station!