Expedition to the End of the World Studies Weddell Seals

Written by on October 14, 2009 in Marine Life, Other News
Weddell seal at a breathing hole - NOAA's Ark - Photographer: Giuseppe Zibordi - Credit: Michael Van Woert, NOAA NESDES/ORA

Weddell seal at a breathing hole - NOAA's Ark - Photographer: Giuseppe Zibordi - Credit: Michael Van Woert, NOAA NESDES/ORA

For the first time, a team of nine researchers from UC Santa Cruz, Texas A&M University, and University of Texas started a research expedition to the Antarctic in winter.  Their intention is to study the Weddell seals and how they survive beneath the sea ice, the only mammal to live in McMurdo Sound during the brutal winter months.

Historian Thomas R. Henry described the Weddell Sea as the most treacherous and dismal region on Earth in his 1950 book The White Continent.  Weddell seals stay in the water in winter time to avoid blizzards with only their heads poking out of breathing holes, which they maintain open with their teeth.  They can stay submerged for up to 80 minutes and live farther south than any other mammal, about 810 miles (1300 km) from the South Pole.

Antarctica and Wedell Sea - the northeast bay is the Weddell Sea - NASA

Antarctica and Wedell Sea - the northeast bay is the Weddell Sea - NASA

Leading the team is Terrie Williams, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz, who said: “We have already gone through a 100-degree change in wind-chill temperatures, from minus 100 to 0 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Contrary to previous experiences and thanks to technological improvements, the monitoring equipment used on this expedition is smaller and more sophisticated than ever, giving the team a new perspective on the lives of Weddell seals.  The miniaturized instrument packs worn by the seals record what they see and hear underwater, monitor where they go, and even record the ocean temperatures and other environmental conditions they encounter.

Night chills: Seal Song

Williams said she is particularly interested in how the seals will respond to changes in their environment caused by global warming.  “The seals are monitoring marked changes in the polar environment that will ultimately dictate their survival,” she said.

The researchers are posting notes, photos and video from a remote field site on the Antarctic sea ice on an expedition web site and will be posting updates each week for eight weeks.

Their expedition is funded by the National Science Foundation, Division of Polar Programs.

Weddell seal - hauled out on the ice getting ready to give birth - NOAA At The Ends of the Earth Collection - Photographer: Commander John Bortniak, NOAA Corps

Weddell seal - hauled out on the ice getting ready to give birth - NOAA At The Ends of the Earth Collection - Photographer: Commander John Bortniak, NOAA Corps

Read about the 2001 expedition, during which Williams studied the underwater world of Weddell seals during the Antarctic summer using video cameras worn by the seals during their dives beneath the ice.

Terri Williams described her adventures studying Weddell seals in a 2004 book, The Hunter’s Breath.

Copyright ©  2009 by Marine Science Today, a publication of OceanLines LLC

About the Author

About the Author: Celia is Director of Business Operations for OceanLines LLC and is a frequent contributor to both OceanLines and Marine Science Today. She is a certified diver and her favorite topic is marine biology, especially stories about whales. .

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