Tuesday, November 27, 2007

On the Beeb

BBC Radio 4 ran a two-part programme on whaling. I get to chat a little in the second part, from Monday 26th.

Link is here
There is no more of this one

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Monday, November 19, 2007

A little about me....................

In 1989, I was awarded my PhD on the behaviour and ecology of bottlenose and humpback dolphins in Moreton Bay, off Brisbane, making me the first Australian to get a PhD by studying living cetaceans. By then, I'd already started on my next project, assessing the effects of the then-new whale watching industry in Hervey Bay. That work provided the primary scientific input for establishing the Hervey Bay Marine Park, the first marine park established to manage commercial whale watching.

The dolphins I studied in my Ph.D. work were affected by fisheries. Trying to understand how we humans affect marine mammals, and helping to mitigate problems that are identified through research, has been the focus of my work since then. While in Australia I worked on humpback and right whales; dugongs; snubfin, humpback and bottlenose dolphins. The work took me from islands a few miles from Papua New Guinea to the desert by the sea at the Head of the Great Australian Bight, and to the edge of the Antarctic pack ice.

But I ended up in a strange employment situation – acting as a tenured faculty member at a University, but employed on short-term teaching contracts. Something had to give. My wife won a great postdoctoral fellowship to work at the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsø, and a job came up for a population ecologist to work on seals at another research group in the same town – the choice was clear.

Given Norwegians' fame as marine mammal hunters, this probably seems like a strange move, but I'd worked with Aboriginal people hunting dugongs in northern Australia, so I was under the impression that the job in Norway would involve something similar – using science to work towards ensuring that hunts were sustainable. To my shock, I found myself in a research group where the main interest seemed to be providing scientific backing to the idea that marine mammals should be culled in the name of “Ecosystem-Based Fishery Management”. This site has stories of my time working in that group – so far, on a survey of harp seals, and a “lethal sampling” trip to the ice of east Greenland.

In early 2004, the Norwegian parliament instituted a new policy on managing marine mammals, giving official approval to the idea that ecosystem management is all about culling. I refused as a matter of principle to work on research that would support the policy, and so had no option other than to resign my Principal Scientist job.

We moved to the USA in mid-2004. I've discovered just how costly it is to resign over a matter of principle. Not recommended as a Good Career Move.

For a sense of my academic work, here are some (relatively) recent papers from my areas of interest. I have most of these as pdfs, so if you want one, just shoot me an email:

Marine mammals and “Ecosystem-Based Fishery Management”:

Corkeron, P. J. 2006. Opposing views of the “ecosystem approach” to fisheries management. Conservation Biology 20: 617-619.

Corkeron, P.J. 2004. Fishery Management and Culling. Science. 306:1891.

Whale watching, sustainability and what whales mean to us:

Corkeron, P.J. 2006. How shall we watch whales? pp 161-170 in D.M. Lavigne (ed). Wildlife Conservation in Pursuit of Ecological Sustainability. Proceedings of an International Forum. The International Fund for Animal Welfare, Guelph, Canada and the University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland.

Corkeron, P.J. 2004. Whalewatching, iconography and marine conservation. Conservation Biology. 18: 847-849.

Marine mammals of tropical coasts – conservation biology:

Parra, G.J., Corkeron, P.J. and Marsh H. 2006. Population sizes, site fidelity and residence patterns of Australian snubfin and Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins: implications for conservation. Biological Conservation 129: 167-180.

Parra, G.J., Schick, R., and Corkeron, P.J. 2006. Spatial distribution and environmental correlates of Australian snubfin and Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins. Ecography 29: 1-11.

Chilvers, B.L. Corkeron, P.J. and Puotinin, M.L. 2003. The influence of trawling on the behaviour and spatial distribution of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops aduncus, in Moreton Bay, Australia. Canadian Journal of Zoology. 81: 1947-1955.

Chilvers, B.L. and Corkeron, P.J. 2003. Abundance of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins Tursiops aduncus, off Point Lookout, Australia. Marine Mammal Science. 19: 85-95

Chilvers, B.L. and Corkeron P.J. 2001. Trawling and bottlenose dolphins' social structure. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B. 268:1901-1906.

Marsh H., Eros C., Corkeron P.J. and Breen B. 1999. A conservation strategy for dugongs: implications of Australian research. Marine and Freshwater Research 50:979-990.

Marine mammal acoustics

Risch, D., Clark, C.W., Corkeron, P.J., Elepfandt, A., Kovacs, K.M., Lydersen, C., Stirling, I. and Van Parijs, S.M. 2007. Vocalizations of male bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus) classification and geographical variation. Animal Behaviour. 73:747-762.

Van Opzeeland, I.C., Corkeron, P.J. Leyssen, T., Simila,T., and Van Parijs, S.M. 2005. Acoustic behaviour of Norwegian killer whales, Orcinus orca during carousel and seiner foraging on spring-spawning herring. Aquatic Mammals 31:110-119.

Van Parijs, S.M., Corkeron, P.J., Harvey, J., Hayes, S., Mellinger, D., Rouget, P., Thompson, P.M. Wahlberg, M. and Kovacs, K.M. 2003. Regional patterns in vocalizations of male harbor seals. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. 113: 3403-3410.

Van Parijs S.M., Smith, J. and Corkeron. P.J. 2002. Using calls to estimate the abundance of inshore dolphins; a case study with Pacific humpback dolphins, Sousa chinensis. Journal of Applied Ecology. 39: 853-864.

Van Parijs S. and Corkeron P.J. 2001 Boat traffic affects the acoustic behaviour of Pacific humpback dolphins Sousa chinensis. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. 81: 533-538.

Van Parijs S. and Corkeron P.J. 2001. Vocalisations and behaviour of Pacific humpback dolphins, Sousa chinensis. Ethology. 107: 701-716.

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Seal stomachs VII: Aftermath

This set of posts starts here.

Once back in Tromsø, the rest of the work started. Jaws boiled in a large pot, stench-stew in a small room with its own air supply. The teeth softened from boiling, I wrenched them from jaws, cut them with a tiny bandsaw, fixed them in epoxy to microscope slides. Then I counted the rings in teeth – rather like tree-rings – telling me how old the seals were when they died.

Lotta saw to the stomachs and intestines - thawing, washing, sieving to sort contents. Dried earbones from fish, checked and measured under a microscope for species identification. Squid beaks.

Seals can live long - harps and hoods into their thirties. The youngest harp seals reach sexual maturity at four, some female hoods mature at three. Given what's known about other, better studied, seal populations with similar life histories, about a quarter of the harps and hoods in the West Ice population should have been immature.

Of 127 seals killed on the expedition, the ages of 119 were determined from their teeth. Over two-thirds were immature (and of those, 63 were yearlings). The eight animals that weren't aged from their teeth were, judged by their weight, immature as well. We had killed too many young seals, and not enough older seals, while out on the ice. And – obviously - there was nothing that could be done to remedy the bias in age classes once we were back.

Tore wanted to use the data to make inferences on the diet of harp and hooded seals in winter, and whether the diets of the two species overlapped. What he ended up with was data that could tell him a little about the diet of very young individuals of both species, and not a lot more.

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Seal stomachs VI: Seal kill

This set of posts starts here

Back into the pack ice, and another day of searching. Tore and I were on the bridge together, so I grabbed the opportunity to quiz him about the project.

“So Tore, aren't you worried about being further south than you'd intended?”

“No, I think we'll find seals here”.

“But – don't you want to get seals from the same area each year?”.

“Not really – they move north after pupping, so next year we'll be working further north anyway”.

I was getting to one of my bigger concerns.

“Hmm. Now, this project – you're looking at seasonal variation in seal diet. And you're taking them in late winter this year, summer last year, and late autumn next year, yeah?”

“Yes.”, said Tore, looking at me.

“So your data'll be temporally confounded.”.

Tore just looked at me.

“Okay,”, I said, “You get samples in winter one year, summer another, autumn another – how do you know that any differences you find will be due to the seasons, and not because something's varied between the years?”.

“But that's not a real problem.”

“How do you know? How can you tell, from this design?”

Tore just looked at me a little more, shook his head, resumed scanning for seals.

The first animal, late in the evening - we'd moved south far enough to experience a noticeable difference in time of sunset – was another grise. She was followed by three adults in quick succession, then another two youngsters. By then, it was after seven, too dark for Kjell and Bjørn to continue shooting. And it seemed that Tore had found himself a patch of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of seals.

The next morning, and I was back on the bridge, watching. Only by now, when I'd see a young seal, I'd say nothing. I wouldn't even keep my binoculars on it, in case I alerted anyone else to its presence. We'd killed nineteen animals - all hooded seals - but only a third of them had been definitely mature. At the rate we were going, the only thing that Tore would have was information on what immature hooded seals ate. I had enough problems with the whole expedition without adding an extra layer of uselessness to it.

I also had trouble with the idea that if I observed an animal, I was condemning it to death. It rather took the thrill out of observation. So I stayed on the bridge for a while, kept looking, ignoring the seals I saw. The haphazard nature of Tore's watch system paid off for the seals – I'd got my eye in, and noticed a few before the call came – someone else had seen one.

At least the ice was always beautiful. Once I saw a gyrfalcon, the pure white falcon of the Arctic. It watched us, haughty, from meagre vantages of floes, then soared away.

But I didn't see much ice for the next three days. One dead seal followed another for two days - 26, then 30 each day. By the end of both days, I needed Jan Mayen's spotlights to see what I was doing on deck.

A telling incident amid the splatter. The corpse of another pregnant female hooded seal disgorged a live pup, bleating across the deck. The crewman who'd killed the last pup clubbed this one too. Lotta was off delivering seal body parts to Tore, and so didn't see it. After he'd clubbed the pup, I looked at the crewman, shook my head, said “Et lieveling.”, just as he had before. He looked down at me, snorted, walked off. As I thought. Nothing like showing off a soft side – whether it's there or not - to impress a possibly-available woman.

And then our big day – three seals in the morning, 44 in the afternoon. The day I crushed the wounded female's skull with the sledgehammer. By evening, a dozen seals were still lined up under the glare of the deck spots for me to dissect. Kjell came to help with the dissections – it was too dark to shoot. He could skin a seal in half the time it took me.

All around me there was jubilation. Kjell and I were still working, slicing and hacking at the seal carcasses, Lotta disposing of pieces into plastic bags as needed. Tore decided it was time to celebrate, cracked open beers for everyone. Only I refused. The deck was slippery, my knife was – as always – razor sharp, and a mistake amid the bacterial soup of the dead seals didn't bear thinking about. Too dangerous for my liking.

Besides, I saw nothing to celebrate.

Once the last carcass skinned and eviscerated, chunks of gut safely stored in their plastic bags, I wiped my hands, cracked open a can of beer. After four days spent mostly bent over, manhandling, lugging over a hundred lumps of flesh weighing up to five hundred pounds, my back was beginning to ache. I'd had enough of the gore.

Next morning, when it looked like another day of killing, I had Julie find me some painkillers, spent the day reading. As it happened, only five animals were shot that day. We'd left the huge group of seals, and were heading for home. Tore was satisfied.

Continued here

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Seal stomachs V: How do we know what seals eat?

This set of posts starts here.

Stomach contents are to diet as weather is to climate. At its simplest, the accumulation of records of the weather each day – the temperature, how much rain falls - allows us to build up a picture of the climate for a particular place over time. So it is with animals' diets – if we could watch every meal that every individual of a species or population ate, then, by accumulating records of their meals, we'd have perfect knowledge of their diet. For marine mammals is this obviously impossible – unless our population of interest are all kept in captivity.

So. How do we know what seals eat? The most intuitively obvious answer would be to watch seals feeding. Then we'd know what they ate, because we'd see it happening. Logistically impossible, although technology offers hope. So. We can either find ways of looking at what our animals have ingested, or we can look at where they've gone to feed and work out what's there, or some mix of both of these. And we can do this in ways of varying sophistication.

What do seals ingest?

We can look at the contents of their stomach for recent meals; or in their intestines for slightly older material; or at their faeces, for what was in their intestine without actually handling the seals. Intestinal contents can be obtained without killing seals - they discover the joys of involuntary enemas. For seals that haul out on ice, faecal sampling presents problems that are seen as insurmountable. Enemas on ice are difficult, but not completely impossible.

And what do we do once we've removed the gut contents? There can be whole fish or squid in a stomach, or just remnant hard parts – the ear bones, backbones or ribs of fish; the beaks of squid. By sorting and measuring these back in a lab, and with access to a suitable reference collection - bones and beaks of likely prey, including examples of different sizes of the same species - we can tell what species the seal ate, and what size the prey were. Whole prey items from a stomach are easy: we can simply count, measure and weigh them. But what of hard parts? How do we allow for changes to those that we find – different bits erode in their own ways. And what do we do with hard bits that we can't identify to species, but to some higher taxon (cod-like fishes, for instance)? One way around this is to analyse the DNA of all gut contents, or of problematic goop. These analyses can be reliable and precise, but they're always time-consuming and expensive.

Or we can turn to chemistry for evidence. Chemically, seals are what they eat. Tell-tale fatty acids, absorbed from fish, shellfish, squid - or whatever else that seals might eat - turn up in seals' blubber. The chemical composition of these fatty acids, extracted from blubber samples, can, using sophisticated data-mining algorithms, be compared with the chemical composition of likely prey items. We were collecting blubber samples for Tore's colleague at the Polar Institute who did exactly this. All that's needed is a plug of blubber from the seals, and representative samples of possible prey species for the chemical analysis. And a chemistry lab and a good statistician.

Another chemical option involves comparing the relative composition of isotopes of important elements – primarily carbon and nitrogen – with representative samples from putative prey. Patterns in isotope composition provide information analogous to that from fatty acids, and can be obtained from old bones, as well as from fresh chunks of animal (skin, hair, teeth, internal organs, whatever).

Chemistry smears data over time. It offers panorama, but sacrifices detail. Stable isotopes provide insight into what an animal has been eating for months or longer, and fatty acids for weeks or months, depending on how the species under study lays down fat. But this longer perspective must have a price – it's harder to tell exactly what species has been eaten.

So it would appear that gut sampling is the best option. But detail also has its price. Fresh, just eaten food in a stomach is easy to identify. But what of animals with nothing in their stomach? What are they telling the researcher, other than that a lot of animals must die to provide data? More problematically, what about the half-digested gunk that's usually there as well? Squid beaks are chemically nothing like the hard parts of fish, and seals' stomach acids digest beaks much more slowly. How do we account for this?

Answering these questions requires addressing a far more basic one – why are the data being collected at all? Why do we care what seals eat? After all, tootling around the Arctic in an ice-strengthened research trawler doesn't come cheap. We were supposed to be addressing two questions about the foraging ecology of harp and hooded seals: how did each species' diet vary over the course of a year, and was there dietary overlap between the two species?

The question that goes begging here is – why ask these particular questions?

Because an animal's diet is the food its eats over time, the chemistry-based approaches (fatty acids and isotopes) offer the advantage of having time resolved, sacrificing detail to do so. But what of gut contents? At best, intestinal or faecal sampling provide data on meals over the past few days. So how can we make inferences about feeding over time - diet - from meals - snapshots in time?

Drawing inference from field data preoccupies ecologists. Sampling theory – how can we infer population-level conclusions from a set of field samples – drives the design of our protocols for data collection. How can we ensure, to the best of our ability, that our samples will allow us to come to unbiased conclusions about the populations of interest? It's here that a couple of key concepts come into play.

Randomization is vital. To a scientist, random means something special, something different from haphazard. In normal usage, the two are interchangeable. In scientific sampling, they are worlds apart. Random sampling is like a lotto draw – each sample has the same probability of selection. Haphazard sampling is when no thought is given to the probability of selecting a sample. Bias – the bane of being able to make inference from data – will almost certainly result from haphazard sampling, and what's worse, even if there is no bias, no-one can ever know.

Pseudoreplication is another key concept. Now that computer programs handle the grunt work of statistical analyses, there's a presumption that ecologists will collect a lot of samples of their data. These samples are supposed to be independent, otherwise they provide another source of bias when it's time to make inferences. Pseudoreplication involves collecting samples that aren't truly independent for the inferences made in the study. Like beauty or pornography, pseudoreplication can be in the eye of the beholder. Are the inferences that we make from our data appropriate? An example from the world of marine mammal stomach contents offers clarification.

A Norwegian government scientist goes into the North Sea on a whaling ship. The whalers kill a dozen or so minke whales, and the scientist checks the whales' stomachs to see what they've been eating. The whalers are interested in killing their quota of whales as quickly as possible (they're out there earning a living, after all), and find many whales in one discrete area. Most of their quota of a dozen are killed in this one spot, a few square miles across. The whales' stomachs are full of sand eels, a small fish that occurs in huge, discrete aggregations.

What inference can the scientist draw from these data? That working from a commercial vessel provides data that can be biased, because commercial considerations override a scientist's desire for randomization? Sure, and rightly so. That a large aggregation of sand eels can attract minke whales, that will feed on them? Not entirely unreasonable. What about – most minke whales in the North Sea eat sand eels? Absolutely not.

That final inference must be based on a few assumptions. The most important is that the whales killed were a representative sample of all minke whales in the North Sea. But we know - from surveys in the North Sea, and from other information on the biology of minke whales – that minkes occur elsewhere, not just in that one specific area where there happened to be a lot of sand eels. The assumption that the stomachs were a representative sample is what's known as a strong assumption – an assumption which, if it's wrong, causes everything about the study to fall apart and leaves the scientist looking like a bit of a goose.

This example – with the inference drawn that sand eels are the main food of minke whales in the North Sea – was published in a scientific journal a few years ago. The author treated each stomach as an independent sample, in order to make his inference about the whole of the North Sea. But most of the whales that were killed had aggregated to feed on the same thing (sand eels), which is why there were where they were, and so available for killing and having their stomachs investigated. So his samples weren't independent samples. Hence the term, pseudoreplicates.

Place matters, particularly when studying marine mammals that can move through entire ocean basins. So what about looking at where marine mammals feed? These days, SLTDRs are tool of choice for seals that probably can't be handled twice (like harps and hoods). There are other options for seals whose behaviour makes it likely that they can be found again – ones that return regularly to a haulout site accessible to scientists. The coolest toys for the well-heeled scientist in this situation are tiny video cameras that store digital imagery, instead of storing depth data. So finally, we can watch how seals feed. But as we can't ever be sure of re-catching a harp or hood, this isn't an option with them. SLTDRs (Satellite-Linked Time-Depth Recorders, remember?) are used, but they're kissed goodbye once they've been attached.

After our day ashore, Tore had his permission to hunt in Icelandic waters. So we all made our way back to the Jan Mayen, the ship cast off, and we steamed into Denmark Strait. Thanks to the accident while at Jan Mayen (the island), we were about to hunt seals in an area well south of where we intended to originally.

Continued here

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Seal stomachs IV: Grise

This set of posts starts here

The last carcass of the day had been a young hood, a blueback. Norwegian sealers call them grise, which translates, literally, to pigs. I have no idea why. Their backs are dark bluish, bellies off-cream. Giant deep-black eyes over a stubby, rounded muzzle set with a frizz of whiskers. They must be a strong competitor for the prettiest animal in the known universe.

Jan Mayen was trudging through ice, just in from the edge of the pack. I was on the bridge with Tore and a couple of other scientists, watching. After the first five hoods, a day of nothing. The following afternoon, and a crewman spotted a seal. I swung my binoculars, finally got to see one on the ice. Okay - so that's what I'm looking for. Another grise. Kjell and Bjørn hurried across the foredeck, into their shelter on the bow, rifle cases in hand. I headed down to the trawl deck. Time for another dissection. It was the only one for the day.

The next day saw another seven seals shot, all juvenile hoods. I'd got the hang of the dissections, they were becoming repetitive. At least small animals were easy to roll. They were all immature, which made finding their gonads tricky, but Lotta and I had developed a routine.

Once I'd got the basics of dissection resolved, other scientists could join in. One of Tore's most attractive traits was the way he'd invite scientific hitch-hikers along on his expeditions. This cruise was actually a joint operation, and we were sharing vessel time with some fish biologists – geneticists and physiologists – from the Norwegian College of Fisheries Science, based at Tromsø's university. And Tore had let some other scientists tag along, too.

There was Jo, a student at Tromsø university, doing his PhD on the thermal physiology of marine mammals. He was collecting squares of seals' blubber and hide, to take back to the lab, to test how well they conducted heat. His work was easy – once I'd measured a seal, he'd step in, slice off a large square from its back and take it off for storage.

Our other hitch-hiker was Jørgen, the professor of anatomy from the University of Copenhagen – a small, solid, happy man, who wanted a couple of different things. He collected seals' arm bones - once I'd cut the foreflippers off, he'd whittle flesh off them. He wanted to see how seals' bone density changed over the seasons. His other project involved collecting blood from seals' hearts as soon as possible after death (for reasons that I never fully understood). So as soon as I'd finished skinning, he'd race over with some vials, I'd slice into the seal's heart with a scalpel and he'd collect the blood. Another Dane – Jørn – was along too, as Jørgen's offsider.

Jørgen taught human anatomy to medical students, and towards the end of the day, he was deep in conversation with Julie, the nurse we'd picked up from Jan Mayen (the island), and with the crewman who'd handled the Zodiac for the changeover. We soon found out why. Over dinner, Tore announced that we had to make another detour – to northern Iceland. The crewman had broken his foot while keeping the Zodiac and Jan Mayen's hull separate, on one of their more extreme swing-meetings. Jørgen and Julie couldn't set his foot with the first aid gear available on the boat, so we were off to the nearest hospital – in Akureyri, in northern Iceland, a day and a half's steam to our south.

More time for me to slog through MatLab code.

Two dawns later, I was on the bridge, watching the mountains looming over Eyjafjord as we approached Akureyri. The scenery could have been northern Norway – small wooden farmhouses , racks for drying fish, barren mountains. A small, funky, prosperous-looking town, Although only 16,500 people, Akureyri's the largest settlement in northern Iceland, so it has all the trimmings of a city - international airport, university, cafés – and a hospital. An ambulance took the crewman away, and we had the rest of the day off.

We'd come so far south that Tore decided our best option for finding seals was in Denmark Strait, the water and ice between north-western Iceland and south-eastern Greenland. Tore had some calls to make - permissions to kill seals in Icelandic territory - so we had the day to wander town. I headed out with Jim and Kim, the fish physiologists who shared the cabin next to mine.

Jim was a postdoc, British, dark Celt. He was working on contract at an American university, deep in the midwest. As we walked, he told stories of his bemusement at the culture of there – of watching farming families at local diners, holding hands, heads down, praying aloud before eating. A different world from his childhood among the uprooted Irish of Liverpool.

Kim was Danish, eversmiling, bright red hair, freckles. He was Jim's offsider, recently finished his undergraduate degree, and along for some more Arctic experience. He'd brought his fishing rod, and wet a line off Jan Mayen's stern whenever he had the chance. Sometimes he even caught something, but if he didn't, he didn't care. For him, fishing was part of being by the water.

And so we wandered around Akureyri, stretching our legs. One shop with a Billabong surfwear sticker in the window. Scandinavian abstract sculpture on the street. Coffee. Different food. Scandinavian, but different. The joy of walking more than twenty metres in one direction.

Time to reflect. I was thinking about what we were doing.

Continued here

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Seal stomachs III: Into the ice

This post starts here

The bad weather blew itself out quickly, and next morning we steamed off. A days' sail and we were approaching the pack ice edge. The swells eased, smoothing the ship's motion. It was time to build the shooting station.

Lethal sampling animals is the euphemism of choice for killing. Kjell and Bjørn - a different Bjørn, the scientific diver for the local University - were responsible for shooting seals on this trip. But the bow of a ship crunching through pack ice is a rather cold and unpleasant place, and the shooters have to stay there all through the daylight hours. Into the ice

A few days before we'd gone to sea, I'd driven down to the docks, to the local University's storage shed, with Nils Eric, Kjell and Bjørn (the diver). We'd checked that several wooden boards clamped together properly, making a small shed. Now I understood why. We were in the ice, so there was little risk that huge seas might destroy the shooting shelter. We walked to the bow, helped Bjørn and Kjell clamp, then nail, the boards together. Kjell and Bjørn had a shelter from which they could shoot.

All we needed were animals.

We were into the edge of the pack ice, surveying for seals. Something strange happened. More to the point, something normal didn't happen. When surveying for marine mammals, I've always worked a roster of watches - usually two or three hours on, and a couple of hours off. But Tore didn't organize anything. Those who felt like it ambled to the bridge and kept a lookout. Kjell and Bjørn didn't, as they needed to be ready to shoot on a moment's notice- but for the rest of the marine mammal crew – watching was up to them. There was no pattern, no regulation, to our watches. It was haphazard.

There's something about just seeing a marine mammal, out in the ocean, no matter where. It always gives me a huge kick. Even seeing bottlenose dolphins and humpback whales – and I've seen them thousands of times – is a lift. This was my first trip into the Arctic pack, so I was on the bridge almost every daylight moment.

Apart from the novelty, I needed to get my eye in. When we humans look for something (anything), we have a search image – our imagining of what it is we're looking for. Seals on ice are a very different target from whales or dolphins or dugongs in the water. Apart from my time in Ny Ålesund, I didn't have experience with seals on ice - and the view from the Jan Mayen was very different from the little Buster. I was keen to start seeing animals.

Mid-afternoon brought out first sighting, and I missed it – an adult female hooded seal. By the time I got to see her, I was standing on the trawl deck, wearing my fleece-lined overalls, knife in hand. By then, she was a carcass, dangling beneath the cage that the crewman stood in as he was lowered by the crane onto, and off, the ice.

I was working with Lotta, the other research assistant in Tore's marine mammal crew. Lotta was Pippi Longstocking in her thirties – freckles, light blue eyes, red-gold hair, fit.
The carcass thumped to the deck, Lotta and I tied a rope to her hind flippers. Then we attached a set of scales to the crane, signalled to the driver to lower his hook (the cage had been detached while we were busy with the dead seal). The scales had a loop that we attached to the crane's hook, then we signalled to hoist the female – all six feet of her - off the deck. One hundred and sixty-six kilos. Lotta made notes on the data sheet on her clipboard.

The deal seal was deposited on the deck again, on her back. We removed the scales, signalled to the crane driver to lift the empty hook. Tore stepped forward, a look of slight bemusement on his face.

“What is it?”, he asked.

I looked at him, at the seal, blinked. “Hood. Adult female.” What is this – some sort of trick question? How can he not know what this is?

A few weeks previously, I'd been with Nils Eric and Lotta at the aquarium in Bergen, where there were two harbour seals in captivity. Nils Eric had asked if they were ringed seals, and I'd assumed he'd had some sort of brain fart. Maybe not.

I shook my head. Tore stepped forward, to show the measurements we needed to take. Length, girth in a couple of places. Then I had to roll the carcass over – not the easiest operation on an icy steel deck – and measure the thickness of her blubber with a steel ruler.

Time to remove her skin and blubber. First, rolling her over again, her back to the deck. Tore showed me how to get the cutting started, hitting the knife into her body with the heel of my palm. Tough hide. Cuts down the abdomen, around the flippers, the skin and blubber off in one piece, to one side for weighing later. Foreflippers off.

Dissection time. I cut through the muscles of her abdomen, reveal her viscera. She was pregnant, small whitecoat pup curled inside her. It was cut out, weighed. Tore pointed out what he wanted – stomach, large intestine, reproductive tract. A small chunk of blubber, for a colleague of Tore's at the Polar Institute. All dropped into separate, clear plastic bags that Lotta held open. Finally, Tore directed me on how to remove the jaws, using boltcutters.

The centre of Jan Mayen's stern was a large open chute, for trawl nets to slide down. After finishing the dissection, I dragged the carcass to near the chute, where one of the crew would slide it into the sea at the end of the day. I'd just done this when we heard a shot, the crane whirred into action again. The first female was followed by two males.

The fourth carcass was another female. She, too, was pregnant. When her body thudded down, her pup emerged, bleating, onto the deck. He (as we soon knew) was scrawny, still in his white coat, looking more like a baby harp seal than a hood. He wriggled on the deck. A crewman grabbed a hakapik, smashed in his skull.

The crewman looked to Lotta. “Et lieveling” - a little one - he said , shaking his head slowly, as he picked it up.

One more seal was killed before it became too dark to shoot.

I stank. I'd been scrabbling around in seal guts for the past four hours. Just off the trawl deck was a small changing room, for situations like this. It was where Tore kept his watch, sorting the samples that Lotta brought, dropping them in groups in a freezer. Lotta and I climbed out of our overalls and boots, there, washed hands and gloves.

I'd dissected plenty of marine mammals before, mostly dolphins that had washed up dead on a subtropical beach somewhere. Putrid, bloated things. Even though they stank much worse than the seals, what I'd just done felt dirtier.

It must have showed. Lotta, washing her hands next to me, said, “You know, when I went out on my first killing trip, I thought it was really awful. But you get used to it.”.

She smiled at me, shrugged, pale blue eyes, freckles, went back to washing her hands.

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Seal stomachs II: On Jan Mayen to Jan Mayen

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We were on Jan Mayen, the research ship, named after Jan Mayen, the island. Like Lance, she's ice-strengthened. She was originally a fishing boat – a stern trawler, catching Arctic shrimp. For some reason, after a couple of years fishing, the government bought her and handed her over to the University of Tromsø for marine research.

Because she's a trawler, Jan Mayen is mostly used for fisheries research. Stepping below decks for the first time, the smell – a decade's worth of leftover fish and shrimp, mixed with more than a hint of diesel – was enough to put my stomach on notice. And we were still at the dock. I had to walk through the steel cavern of fish-processing area to find my cabin, which was tucked along the hull, deep below the waterline. Sofie, along to say goodbye, was turning the same light green as the processing area's paint by the time we'd dumped my gear, traversed the fish processing area again, and emerged into breathable air..

“Ummm - well, this is going to be great, isn't it.”, she said, losing her green tinge with each breath. “I feel like puking and we're not even moving. Yeuckkk. Rather you than me.”.

“Thanks hon. That's all I need – like this'll be such fun.”.

“Oh sweet, you'll be okay. Just get through the first few days and you'll be fine.”.

“Yeah. It's not just seasickness tho'.”.

“I know. Almost a month. I'll miss you.”.

The crew were getting ready to cast off. It was time for Sofie to leave.

After I'd seen Sofie drive off, I joined the rest of the science crew, gathered on the bridge. We watched the hills and islands of Tromsø until it was time to file onto the trawl deck for our safety demonstration. We had the fire drill and lifeboat drill explained to us, well before we sailed out of the protection of islands, and into open water. Once we sailed out of shelter, conditions were rough. The Arctic in late winter.

After my ritual day of feeling seasick, I staggered to the bridge to see who'd found their sea legs and what was happening on the ocean. The bridge was over 30 feet across, with a 270 degree panorama of ocean through armoured windows. A central island of electronics – what looked like a game controller for steering the ship, plus a bank of gizmos for navigation and communication – with a well padded, swivelling armchair, was the nerve centre. The huge windows, blond wood trimmings, carpet, plush chairs – Jan Mayen's bridge was a world away from the dull greens and stench of the fish processing area.

Tore was already ensconced, sitting in a swivelling armchair on the port side, drinking coffee, looking like he hadn't felt a moment's illness, because he hadn't. Viking genetics, perhaps. Outside was rough, dark, rolling ocean. Someone had reported a sperm whale as we'd crossed the edge of Norway's continental shelf, but after that, nothing in the way of marine mammals.

I had a couple of hours of watching waves and avoiding coffee. I find that coffee's one of the best promoters of feeling seasick, and coffee on Norwegian ships is invariably extra-bitter, just to get that nausea-revival really happening. I'd planned on using some spare time on the cruise to teach myself a new computer language, so I trundled below – regaining a slight greenish tinge as I hustled through the fish processing area – and cranked up my laptop. Equipped with a newbie's guide to MatLab programming, I intended to while away the couple of days left to Jan Mayen with some serious geekiness.

It was not to be. The next day, we ran into a gale, and so the ship sat, trudging slowly into huge seas. Everything that wasn't tied down below decks found new and interesting ways to bounce. Holding my laptop still on the desk in my cabin, trying to think, and not falling off my chair became too much of a challenge. Before I broke something (either the laptop or me), I gave up, climbed into my bunk, braced myself and picked up a novel.

After a day's bashing, the storm eased and we could continue on our way to Jan Mayen. We anchored as close to Olonkin Town as possible, and a 14ft Zodiac inflatable was readied on the trawl deck - which, being almost 50 yards long and at least 10 yards wide, had plenty of room for the little inflatable. Despite being at a designated anchorage, and on a decent sized ship, we were rolling. The ship's crane, set on the starboard stern quarter, lifted the Zodiac off the trawl deck. Swung off the ship, hanging over the ocean, it started swaying, and crewman on board kicked it away from the ship's hull. Once it was tied off, Agneta, the nurse we'd brought along, was deposited by crane, along with some bags of post. Tore went too, to help handle the Zodiac.

We were running an errand for the Norwegian government. Julie, the nurse doing a tour on Jan Mayen (the island), had a sick relative and needed to return to Norway. She had to be replaced. No-one just pops out to Jan Mayen, and as we were heading out that way, Tore was asked to make a detour. The Zodiac met with Jan Mayen (the island's) small tender just off the beach.

The chop on the Zodiac's return from their rendezvous was even worse, the Zodiac-swaying even more impressive as it was lifted over, deposited on the trawl deck. Finally people and boat were safely aboard. Jan Mayen (the ship, obviously), upped anchor, steamed for a while, took shelter under Beerenberg, as far inshore as the skipper dared take her. The rough conditions were the prelude to a serious blow, predicted to come out of the west that evening. The volcano's mass would offer some protection.

And blow it did. I was in my cabin, struggling with MatLab, and could feel the ship jarring. I made my way up to the bridge, where there was a wind meter to put the view in context. Despite being in the most sheltered waters we could find, the seas were wild. The wind meter was vacillating around 50 metres per second – 100 knots.

I don't think that I was the only one who was grateful that we were hiding behind Beerenberg.

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Seal stomachs I: Harps and Hoods

The start of this post is here

We steamed slowly through loose pack ice. Harps and hoods are seals of the Arctic pack, and we were sailing through the roof of their world. Kjell and Bjørn shot seals that were resting on floes.

All seals haul themselves out of the water at some time in their lives. Generally, hauled-out equals on-land. But for many polar seals, ashore is ice, simply a change in the phase of water. They live in and on the ocean, resting by climbing onto a handy, frozen chunk of it.

Our imagery of harps comes from pupping time, when mothers-to-be congregate in their thousands. The pictures create an impression of gregariousness. But pupping lasts only a few weeks. For the rest of the year, harps circuit the Arctic Atlantic, and just how sociable they are is not clear. We had stumbled into some harps, clumped enough to suggest sociability. It was late winter, the time for laying down fat, preparing for the stresses of pupping and mating in a few short weeks. Were there so many seals because there was plenty of food nearby, or because harps tend to hang out together? Another unknown.

Flecked in amongst the harps were some hoods.

Hooded seals seem to lead a lonelier - or at least more solitary - life. Even when they give birth, females keep to themselves. One male wins the right to accompany her while she nurses her pup. And hooded seals nurse their young for the shortest span of any mammal – four days. So a hooded seal “family” (as they're known) mum, pup and male – is a rather brief relationship.

It's through their pups that we make our links between harps and hoods. We find pups of both species on pack ice, close to the ice edge, together. More or less. “We” being, almost always, hunters. Most of the interest that people have in harps and hoods is thanks to the fur wrapped around pups. Harp seal pups are no longer killed for their famous white coats, but for the fur that reveals itself once that white moults - a couple of weeks' difference. Hooded seal babies are killed for the fur they're born with – the two-tone that gives them one of their names - bluebacks. They, too have a white coat, but they moult it before they're even born. Only four days suckling with mum - they have no time to waste.

Harps and hoods differ in other ways too. Harps are the smaller, with females growing to about five-and-a-half feet and somewhere under 300 pounds, and males marginally bigger. Hoods are much larger again, with females of nearly 7 feet and 350 pounds. But male hoods are giants in comparison, reaching over eight feet and weighing in at around 650 pounds. Adult male hoods also have a huge, flubby nose, complete with a large reddish balloon that they can blow out of their left nostril. For reasons that are, no doubt, obvious to other hooded seals.

Unlike harps, there's no population of hooded seals breeding off northwestern Russia. Hoods are seals of the western Atlantic basin: three of four subpopulations live among the ice and islands between Canada and Greenland. The seals we were killing were probably from the westernmost subpopulation of hoods, breeding in the West Ice (off eastern Greenland, the name comes from it being west to Norwegians) – the same place as the central population of harp seals.

Although hoods don't occur in the Barents Sea, individuals occasionally find their way to the Caribbean. Harp seals ignore the lure of the tropics.

It's not only in two dimensions - latitude and longitude - that harps and hoods differ. There's also the ocean's third dimension – depth. Harps are fairly shallow divers, usually staying within a couple of hundred metres of the surface. Hoods, on the other hand, are much deeper divers, and can swim down to over a kilometre.

How do we know where these seals dive to, in remote Arctic waters? Nuclear submarines on the lookout? No. We know this because scientists (Garry among them) have attached satellite-linked time-depth recorders (acronymed into SLTDRs) to these seals. SLTDRs are miniature computers (they range in size from a little bigger than a TV remote control to about the size of four bars of soap) that are glued onto the top of seals' heads. There they sit, sensors recording time and depth every few seconds, storing and assimilating numbers. Then, when the right satellite appears in the sky, and the seal – and hence the antenna – is at the surface, the SLTDR dutifully dumps its data via radio link.

From the way the message is received by the satellite, the position of the transmitter (and hence, the seal) can be calculated. So we can infer, from the depths and shapes of dives (coupled with their changes in geographical position), what seals have been doing underwater – travelling, feeding, sleeping. And then from looking at where and how deep seals are on their feeding dives, we can make inferences as to what seals are eating. Because the transmitter is glued onto the hair on a seal's back, it just falls off when the seal moults, as they do every year.

But we weren't doing anything as technically sophisticated as attaching computers to seals. On our expedition, we were just killing, and cutting open. It's the oldest, and simplest, scientific method available to infer marine mammals' diet, but it's still used in the 21st Century. And we weren't really where we'd intended to be when we'd started the cruise a couple of weeks earlier. A minor mishap had brought us south, to Iceland, from the West Ice a few hundred sea miles north.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

A seal and a sledgehammer

February 2001, Denmark Strait

The seals lie in rows on the steel deck, dead. Their blood congeals, freezes into pools, dark red ice between the bodies. They're a mix, harps and hoods. Mostly small, juveniles – young hoods in two-tone, blue-gray backs, cream bellies; harps in greys and dark speckles. But some larger bodies are arriving, adults - almost all harps.

A warning - expletives and gore follow.

The crane's motor whirs, the cage appears, lifting, the crewman inside with another corpse, impaled on the spike of his hakapik. The cage swings toward us, descends, angles towards the stern, the end of the lines of bodies. There's a thump as the crewman kicks the corpse off the hakapik, the new addition drops those final feet. It lies on the deck, bleeding. The crane's already whirring again, the cage lifting, swinging, the crewman bound for the ice once more.

A seal lies on her back, skinned, slit open, dead. I cut through her abdominal muscles, reach inside with my rubber-gloved hands, move entrails. Hold her stomach, slice it out from the rest of her digestive tract, drop the lump to the clear plastic bag that Lotta's holding open. Scrabble a little more through entrails, sloppy, stinking, find the large intestine. Trace it back from her anus. Hold both ends again, two cuts, the end of her gut - about a foot long - drops into another bag Lotta has ready. She makes some notes in black marker. I move entrails aside once more, find the seal's ovaries tucked against muscle wall. Two more quick slices, another plastic bag, we're done.

Now her jaw. I pick up the boltcutters lying where I'd left them last, the gap where I'd dissected the last seal. At least I can stand, give my back a rest. I prise her mouth open, set the jaws of the cutter back as far as I can on her lower jaw, right back where mandible meets cranium. Stand, squeeze in on the handles of the boltcutter. Finally, a crack, bone breaks. I repeat, cut the other side, and her lower jaw comes off. Another plastic bag, and her jaw – with teeth, from which we'll be able to tell her age – is labelled to match the other chunks of her body that we're saving.

I drag what remains of her skinned, eviscerated body towards the stern, to join the growing pile of bloody leftovers there. There are small chunks of muscle, guts lying around, freezing solid, everywhere. She's adult, so no-one will come for her meat, as they do the pups. I walk the few steps back, past the growing lines of dead seals. A couple of dozen now.

We've found a patch of several dozens - possibly hundreds – of seals on the ice, and finally, we're working hard. I hear another crack, as either Kjell or Bjørn pots another seal. I walk past one with a neck wound. With so many seals around, Kjell's now using his semi-automatic .308. Seems it's not as accurate as his bolt-action rifle – or Bjørn's – as the seals haven't all been shot in the head. Some are turning up with neck or chest shots, the occasional one with two bullet holes where Kjell's put a second round into them, to make sure.

Next one.

I bend over, tap the knuckle of my index finger on its eye – the blink test. Adult male, by his broader, chocolate brown head. No blink, he's dead. The crewman is supposed to do this when he first gets to them, on the ice, but my gut tells me he's not. Lotta has the tape, we measure length. Girth measure next, so I have to roll the seal over. Today's been almost all harps, some over 300 pounds, and I'm tiring. With a steel ruler, I measure the thickness of his blubber.

I bend down, pick up my knife. In my peripheral vision, I see Jim walking the rows of seals, shaking his head. He stops, shouts, “Hey, this one's not dead”.

I get up, walk over. It's happened before – seals appearing to breathe after they're already dead - something to do with their diving behaviour. It's why I always blink-test every corpse.

Jim isn't a marine mammal biologist – he's along to study the proteins that stop ice-dwelling fishes' blood from freezing. No-one had warned him about the seal killing.

He's right. A adult female harp seal is lying in the middle of a row, chest shuddering. She's older – the tan-brown, curved V patterned on her back shows clearly - the harp that gives these seals their name. Neck wound. It certainly looks like she's breathing. I bend over, blink-test her, and she blinks. I look up at Jim who's standing above me, arms folded.

“Yeah, she's alive.”. Jim shakes his head, glares.

I look around. There's a sledgehammer leaning against a wall, by the edge of the trawl deck. I walk over to get it.

Fuck. How long has she been lying there? Half an hour? An hour? More? Fuck. Isn't that dickhead supposed to do this BEFORE they come on board?

I grab the sledgehammer, walk back. Jim steps away. I meet his eyes, shake my head. I position myself, think about my aim, swing. My first blow's slightly off, hits the seal where her braincase meets her muzzle. A few chunks of skin and bone mulch into the steel deck. Frontal lobe peeks through.

Fuck. Quickly, poor thing.

I swing hard, hit true. The bone of her skull splinters under the hammer, revealing brain, light grey jelly. Again, to make sure. The next hit slams through what's left of the top of her skull. All of her brain now lies, open, mush on the deck.

Still holding the sledgehammer, I bend down, looking to blink test again. Some of her eye isn't splattered, I tap it. No response. I tap again, watching her chest. She's dead.

I stand. Look around. Everyone's watching, curious. I breathe out, put the sledgehammer back where I found it. No-one speaks.

I return to skinning.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

West Ice survey 2002: final

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We tagged for a few more days. The ice was breaking up, pups were more spread out. Callan and I had trouble meeting up with Sofie and Ilse for a helicopter pickup – the ice was moving so fast in the wind and swell that their icehopping wasn't making headway towards us.

Interesting experience.

On the ice, scattered floes, scattered pups, we had a final scare. Lance was steaming near us. Floes started jostling each other in her wash, making movement difficult. Just standing still was getting dangerous. Lance kept coming, steamed to within a couple of hundred yards from where we were tagging. When only two big floes away, we realized that the crew hadn't noticed us. They were still coming

Garry radioed, and with a sharpness I'd not heard from him before, said, “Lance, what do you think you're doing?”.

They slowed, backed off, angled away. We could move again.

Then we heard it, and knew what had been so important. Crack crack – shots - explained their inattention. More seals killed to pass the time, using the excuse of Tore's permit. So much more important than tagging.

Sofie and I looked at each other. Ilse was recording a pup's calls, we were just hoping that she wouldn't hear the shots. Of course she did. When she'd finished the recordings, she walked to us, pale, eyes empty. We all looked at each other, shook our heads.

We kept working. Sofie and Ilse had trouble getting any recordings, and tagging got tougher. Females started coming for us as soon as we stood on the floe that held their pup. Spooked? Spooked didn't come close. The mothers were furious, terrified, ready to attack.

That last afternoon, we left more pups to aggressive mothers than we had for the entire time we'd been on the ice. And the floes were more spaced out. A debacle.

There were a couple of pups in the late afternoon, stuck on floes that would have taken some extra-adventurous icehopping to approach. We surveyed a path, started off. More open water than we'd thought. Garry saw a way through. Maybe. I shrugged my shoulders, shook my head – we'd already tagged hundreds of pups over the past few weeks.

“Garry”, I said, “are a couple of pups really going to make a difference?”.

He shrugged, pulled out the radio, called the helicopter.

It was our last walk on the ice.

The white pelts – the reason the pups were killed - weren't cleaned or salted on the voyage back. By the time we reached Tromsø, they were rubbish, unfit for any use. That anyone could view those small bundles of white, living joy as nothing more waste inside a fur seemed heartless to me. But to let the furs then rot was unimaginable, until I remembered. They're pests. They eat fish.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

West Ice survey 2002:VII

Read the first part of this post here.

Life on Lance took on its own pattern. Our routines were fun, days spent icehopping, tagging seals, helicopter flights for extra entertainment. Evenings of meals, meetings in the large room across from our cabin to debrief and plan the next day, occasional videos. Most days, after dinner but before our meetings, I'd be inputting data, while Sofie and Ilse spent an hour or so on the roof of the ship's bridgedeck, recording the behaviour of pups. Bjørn and Nils Eric found Sofie and Ilse incomprehensible - they chose to spend extra time – drinking time - out in the cold. And, for all possible reasons, to watch pups' behaviour.

Life for the crew was different. We were hardly moving, the ice presented no real threats, so the ship was secure. The crew's workload was drastically reduced, so the captain seized the opportunity to catch up with some maintenance. Empty cabins were repainted. Some of Lance's crew were itching to get out on the ice.

The weather was warming, we had a little more sunlight each day. Some larger stretches of water appeared between floes. Pups were losing their white coats.

Tore contacted Kjell regularly. They were flying - mostly from Jan Mayen - checking for any other whelping patches. There weren't any more. Over beers in the evening, Tore and Garry's discussions on when to run the final helicopter survey got serious.

We'd been out tagging, one of those afternoons with Lance below the horizon, hours of seals and ice. Callan and I always made for the bow, entered the covered fo'csle to a lab where we'd wash our woollen gloves then drop them in some detergent to soak overnight. We'd slip down the companionway to the storage area below, ditch our floater suits and Sorrel boots, pull on some sandshoes, head back towards Lance's centre. Callan made for his room, I climbed up the steps to our cabin. Sofie was waiting there, mouth drawn, eyes hard.

“What is it?”, I asked.

She snorted, tipped her head, eyes pointing to the stern. “Look at this.”.

It was only a few yards, past Tore's cabin, to the door opening to the stern. As we stepped out, Sofie pointed to something hanging from the metal pipes that crisscrossed the deck's roofed areas. A few scrawny little black-red corpses, the meat cut from them, hung downwards. In a corner, a pile of dirty white pelts lay in a heap.

“They've been shooting”, she said.

She turned, walked back to our cabin, sat on the lower bunk. “So, are you going to say something to Tore?”, she asked.

“And say what? He gets permits to shoot hundreds of fucking seals each year. He'll have an excuse for it. Saying anything will just make life difficult for the rest of the time we're out here.”.

Sofie frowned.

Norwegian sealers aren't allowed to hunt whitecoat pups, so white pelts are rarities now. It's one remaining success from earlier anti-sealing campaigns. The crew were getting bored, so Tore had indulged them by allowing them to shoot a few whitecoats.

Genetic samples, apparently.

Had anyone asked for genetic samples, we'd have brought back chunks of afterbirth that would have served just as well. We'd even have brought back the carcasses of pups that had died naturally. No-one ever asked, of course.

The following night, seal pup stew appeared for dinner. Dark, pungent, purple-brown meat in thick gravy. Thankfully, the cook had the decency to offer another choice (veggie lasagne, as Ilse was vegetarian) for those of us who couldn't stomach pup stew.

A few days later, we were heading down from the helicopter deck again. Sofie and Ilse left, Callan and I sorted out some gear. Finished, we made for our cabins. Sofie and Ilse were standing on the walkway of the boat deck, looking forward. Ilse seemed pale, like she was about to throw up. Sofie looked ready to explode.

“What's up?”, I asked.

“Have a look. Lotta just told Ilse that the guys were playing with a female hooded seal on the front deck”.

Playing indeed. Someone had shot a big female hood, and the crew were butchering and skinning her on the deck. Dark blood spread everywhere, pooled into the ice slush. Callan and I walked down, stepped around the carcass. We left a trail of bloody bootprints into the fo'csle.

I worked through my cleaning ritual – gloves washed, grubby gear off, (and blood washed off boots for a special addition), wandered back. Sofie was standing outside Tore's cabin. I caught “we didn't expect to see this shooting......”, saw the half-smile on Tore's face, looking down on Sofie, as I walked into our cabin.

Luckily, it was time to run the final helicopter survey over our whelping patch, and everyone was too busy for a couple of days for anything else. Shoot more seals, for instance. The conditions stayed fine, clear skies and almost no wind. We'd been impossibly lucky with weather. The helicopter survey went as near to perfect as these things ever go.

All that was left was for Kjell to fly the photographic survey. The weather stayed awesome - clear, sunny and calm, but we'd seen no sign of the plane for a few days. Kjell was working out of Jan Mayen, but the dirt strip there was muddy and unusable. Local rain.

Late one morning, Callan, Garry and I were out tagging seals. We still couldn't believe our luck with the weather, blue skies with no wind. It was to dream of in the Arctic, and there was no way it was going to last forever. The hours passed, we tagged dozens of pups, but something was clearly bugging Garry. He kept looking up and around. Finally, he pulled out the radio, called Tore.

“Tore, can you get on the phone to Jan Mayen, ask Kjell what's happening to the plane”.

A few minutes later, Tore called back. Garry listened, nodded, coloured. “Okay”.

“What's the score?” I asked.

“They had a party last night at Jan Mayen. Kjell isn't even up yet.”. It was getting on to midday.

Alcohol is tax-free on Jan Mayen.

Kjell ran the photographic survey a couple of days later.
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West Ice survey 2002:VI

Read the first part of this post here.
Harp seal hunting has burgeoned over the past few years. Back in 2002, the hunt of the population we were surveying was small – a couple of thousand animals at most. Almost all publicity is on the Canadian hunt, but there are four different hunts on three separate populations of harp seals. The biggest, most famous, population (and hunt) of harp seals is found in the waters between eastern Canada and Greenland. Another group of harp seals breeds on the ice off the eastern side of Greenland, and lives in the Arctic Ocean, between Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard. A third population lives in the Barents Sea, and gives birth on the ice off northwest Russia.

Over three years in the early 21st Century, Canadian sealers killed nearly three-quarters of a million harp seals, all under a government quota. Once again, Canadians can claim the biggest hunt of marine mammals in the world. But Canada is not alone. In 2005, more Norwegian sealing boats headed to sea than at any time in the past two decades. In Norway, there's talk of offering “quota bonuses” - higher quotas for the fish that they catch over the rest of the year – to fishermen who are prepared to risk tearing their vessels open in the pack ice to get to seals - or who'll risk the financial and fuel costs of ice-strengthening their boats. There have even been calls in Norway for a return to hunting whitecoat pups.

Harp seal hunting never really went away; it just dropped from public view. Since 1970, in the years for which hunt data are reliable (there are a few glitches in the records), there was no year where people killed less than 100,000 harp seals.

Most of the harp seals killed are from the largest population, off the Canadian coast. These days, most killing is done by Canadians. But in decades past, Norwegians were the main players. Other hunts take place off the east Greenland coast, (the “West Ice” to Norwegians, where we were on this trip), off the White Sea (the “East Ice” to Norwegians), and off western Greenland. Norwegians and Russians (or Soviets, in times past) hunted seals off the West Ice and East Ice. Now the West Ice hunt is all Norwegian, the White Sea hunt mostly Russian, but Norwegians have moved back there recently. Greenlanders hunt mainly off west Greenland.

Despite receiving the most publicity, the Canadian hunt of harp seals hasn't always been the biggest. For example in 1985, just under 20,000 harp seals were killed in the smallest Canadian hunt on record. Yet a total of over 120,000 harp seals were killed that year, over 80,000 in the East Ice, and more than 20,000 by Greenlanders. And the real number of seals killed is always greater than the records show. The quoted numbers are the size of the catch that is “landed” – brought back to port. There are always some seals that are mortally wounded and not recovered - not “landed” - so these numbers of dead seals are all underestimates.

The government agencies tasked with regulating seal hunts need to know something about the populations being hunted. Enter scientists. Estimates of animal abundance have to come from somewhere, and there's a little more to counting animals than taking your shoes off once you've seen ten. Grand plans for “managing” animals amount to nothing if there aren't people with the scientific nous and physical capacity to work out how many animals actually exist. Off the West Ice, that includes working in one of the most extreme settings our planet has to offer.

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West Ice survey 2002:V

Read the first part of this post here.

We were surrounded by thousands of young pups, lying on ice. We'd found our home for the voyage.

Most mums were in the water when we'd get to their pan, a few stayed, watched us suspiciously, then glomp into the water. Up close, adult female harp seals are big enough - Labrador faces, rottweiler teeth, more mass than us but built for swimming. Solids belong to us, liquid to them, so they were slower on the ice, than we were. But not by much. The occasional mum took offence at molestation of her pup. So one of us tagged, quick as possible, another kept mum away.

Our hakapiks were on long birch poles, so we'd fence with the mothers. Some used cunning plans – swooshing out somewhere different each time, circuiting the pan, looking for an opening. Or the direct approach, a mum just charged us, teeth bared. Poke poke poke back, trying not to hit her too hard: deter-hard, not injure-hard. An interesting balance. We had a few near misses with their big canine teeth, but not even a tear to a floater suit. One or two mums were just up-front aggressive. There was no deter-hard, they just kept on coming. We weren't prepared to risk seriously injuring a mother just to tag her pup, so we left them alone.

As the days passed, life on the patch changed. Males appeared more and more, with their broader, bigger, heavier heads; darker chocolate brown upper bodies. They'd cruise in groups of a dozen or so, watching us, doggy faces, bobbing, damp hand puppets in the open water between the pans. The water was crystal. Males displayed, look-at-me underwater swoops, we'd lean over the edge of a pan to watch. They'd hang around in the biggest patches of open water.

Male calls sang through the water, into the air for us to hear. Their calls were shorter, more varied than the bearded seals in Svalbard. When we took a coffee and chocolate break with Sofie and Ilse, they'd drop in a hydrophone, we'd take turned listening.

Were the males singing to females - pick me, pick me, pick me; or were these just warnings to other males? We weren't in a position to resolve that one. Harp seal society remains a mystery.

Females in their tens of thousands were nearing the end of nursing. Pups filled out, firm teddy bodies, Greenpeace poster-child eyes. Ludicrously cute. Some started losing their trademark white fur. Stronger, wrigglier, some became quicker across the ice, others too fat to worry, just a bleat as the tag clipped in, then back to resting and growing.

The weather stayed good – we were out almost every day. The bliss of activity. No thinking beyond finding the next pup, planning a route across the floes to reach it, watching for angry mums, catching. Locating the next cluster of pups. Keeping warm, gloves off to tag, back on fast. We tagged carefully, trying not to draw blood from pups. The icescape changed with the days, Lance lying still in the ice, drifting.

After dinner on Lance, Lotta or Nils Eric would give me their day's data sheets, I'd input the data from tagging – the sex and stage of each of dozens of pups, their tag number – into a spreadsheet. Depending on how the day went, an hour or so of input, then some more time rechecking. Finished, I'd join the others for a beer to discuss the day's work.

The records were needed for when the tags were returned. A returned tag would mean a dead seal, either drowned in fishing gear or killed by hunters.

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West Ice survey 2002:IV

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Those forays on the floes, although enormous fun, were really an aside. We had to be out on the ice for a few weeks, but only needed a few days for the aerial surveys. So tagging was useful, but not the primary objective of the expedition. Our main task was to fly over the whelping patches of females and count newborn pups.

The harp seals that meet off east Greenland are wanderers of the Arctic Atlantic. After giving birth in the West Ice, they either swim north along Greenland's east coast, east to Svalbard; or to Iceland and points south - some almost to Scotland's Western Isles - with occasional forays to the Norwegian coast. The only time all members of the population seem to get together is at pupping. Even then, the males are mostly underwater, females often in the water, and only the pups stay on ice floes.

This means that pups are the most reliable animals to count. That was why we had the helicopter, to fly transects - regularly spaced lines - over each patch in order to estimate the number of pups born. But there's a catch (in field biology, there's always a catch). All harp seals in a population give birth over a short period in March and April - exactly when varies between the three separate Arctic populations. Generally, the females in an individual whelping patch all give birth within two weeks of each other. Harp pups suckle for less than two weeks - the average is 12 days. Towards the end of those 12 days, pups moult their trademark white fur, replace it with their adult coat, and start contemplating their future as swimmers, rather than ice floe couch-potatoes. This means that once pups have moulted their white fur, there's no guarantee that they'll stay on the ice. Getting the survey timing right – including allowing for weather and pups' maturation – is the crucial balancing act of the exercise.

While they're suckling, pups change size and shape so quickly that it's possible to estimate their age to within a couple of days. Seal biologists have developed a system for categorizing pups into seven stages of these first few days of life, based on how they look. So, by flying a series of surveys using the helicopter, in which we estimate the stages of each pup seen, we could get a quick-and-dirty overview of the relative age of the pups there. Additionally, we recorded the stage of every pup that we tagged when we were out on the ice. Between the “staging surveys” as Garry called them (they're a Canadian invention), and our tagging data we had a pretty good sense of the age of pups in a patch.

Initially, we'd see many tiny white pups, lots of fresh-frozen meaty afterbirths, and some very satisfied looking gulls. After a few days, newborns became less common. We had to make some tradeoffs with timing for running a counting survey - flying over the patch to estimate the number of pups born, as distinct from the staging surveys – too early, and there'd be pregnant females with pups still to be born, too late and the some pups could have already taken to the water. And of course, we needed to think about weather and safety, too.

The Arctic's like that.

It was time to prepare for the counting survey, to work out our observers' strip widths.

We needed to know the area covered by each transect – the length was easily calculated from GPS-derived start and stop points, but width is slightly more complex. Strip width, from simple geometry, depends on the height that the helicopter flies – higher gives a wider strip, but fly too high and pups get hard to see. This is the most simple form of what's known in the trade as distance sampling - the observers should be able to reliably count every pup that is within the strip, and so there to be counted. If the area through the helicopter window was too large, pups would be missed.

Once our strip width was established, we'd know the area (transect length multiplied by strip width) that we'd sampled. As we also knew the total area occupied by all the seals in the whelping patch, we could calculate the proportion of the patch that we'd sampled. From years of experience, the Canadians worked with a strip of 30 metres when the helicopter flew at 100 feet.

Ivan and I were the observers. We needed to get our 30 metre strips marked out. So, Ivan Tore, Garry and I jumped in the helicopter and flew out to some large pans well away from any seals. We checked there were no polar bears around (as we hadn't brought rifles), then landed. Tore and Garry got out with a measuring tape. They marked out two strips, 30 metres apart, then lay inside them, doing seal impersonations. Ivan and I were taken to 100 feet above the ice - the helicopter had an altimeter that used a laser for measurement, so we knew it was accurate. Then we made ourselves as comfortable as possible while turned sideways in a helicopter seat, and nursing an old laptop computer. One at a time, we directed the pilot until the lower strip on the ground was just blocked by the helicopter's lower skid, then marked off the top line with a bit of electrical tape on the window. Field biology survives on electrical tape, duct tape and cable ties. We retrieved our seal impersonators and flew back to Lance.

And then Garry, Ivan and I practised. Our laptops were linked to a GPS receiver, with a little program (courtesy of one of Garry's computer wizards) written so that whenever we pressed the keyboard, it stored a position fix from the GPS. Unfortunately, it only worked on Windows 98 machines, so we'd had to drag out a couple of somewhat antique laptops for the trip. Ivan and I had to tap a key to record each time we saw a harp seal pup. As well, we'd call out our sightings as we made them, into the microphones of the aircraft headsets that we all wore. Garry recorded our numbers into a notebook as backup to the computers.

All my previous experience with strip transects had been with whales, dolphins or dugongs1 – mammals in the ocean, with an unfortunate habit of diving, and so being mostly out of view. To me, counting animals that lay stationary on the ice seemed a bit like cheating. A few practice runs and we were ready for the real thing.

These visual surveys from the helicopter don't provide a permanent record of the seals we actually saw. So, Kjell and his crew in the plane were also going to fly over each patch. As the plane had an aerial photogrammetric camera aboard, they could photograph a series of transects over the whelping patches as well. Photographs provide a permanent record of the survey. The concept is exactly the same as the helicopter counts, except that the photos create their own strips.

As the time neared to run the full survey on the first patch we found, Kjell radioed to announce that from the plane they'd found another, far larger patch a few hours' steam to the west. Lance's engines came back to life for a few hours.

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West Ice survey 2002:III

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The A team - now Nils Eric, Bjørn, Lotta and Ivan - made their first trips onto the ice. Tore, coffee in hand, coordinated activities from Lance's bridge.
Garry was the only one of the B team with ice-floe-hopping experience, so for the first few hours, Garry showed we novices how to get around.
Moving on the pans was all about avoiding falling in. With the water at –2C, the air at -10C, a dunk in the water would have meant calling for the helicopter to get us back to the ship to dry out. The biggest pans got to more than 50 metres diameter, the smallest, little ice cubes. With a big swell running, pans drift apart, tripling the jumping distance between them.

We had unusual tools to help us hold and steady smaller floes. Back in Tromsø, Nils Eric had collected birch poles to make a few hakapiks1, Norwegian seal clubs - a black steel head on a birch pole. The pole's a little over five feet long. On one side of the metal head is a short knob, used to smash in the skulls of baby seals. The other end of the head has a spike, about six inches long, used by sealers to drag carcasses along the ice. The spike is great for whacking into ice, dragging pans as needed. So we'd swing, lean and haul, everyone across, then whoever held the hakapik jumped. Mostly we just hopped, pan to pan. Timing was all, particularly when a small chunk had to be used for a stepping stone. Being stuck on a sinking chunk of oversized slushie, watching more solid ice move beyond jumping range could be a little disconcerting.

After a couple of excursions, Bjørn's decades on the ice started to tell and he spent most of the time in his cabin. The A team, morphed into Nils Eric, Lotta, and Ivan, were more aggressive with their icehopping and had a couple of drenchings. The legs of our floater suits were reasonably watertight, and the suits were made so that you needed to be immersed almost to your underarms before water could spill into the suit from the top. Even so, Nils Eric and Lotta occasionally needed a helicopter pickup after a particularly deep mishap. We novices were far more cautious.

Garry, Callan and I would wander off, tagging pups. Sofie and Ilse moved less, as their recordings required more time with each pup. They'd find one, a little away from where we were tagging, and record its calls. They needed several from each pup – the demands of statistics. So they'd lie out next to a pup, trying to look inconspicuous in their bright orange floater suits, and stick a microphone as close as they could to the pup, and hope the pup felt like calling. Tore christened them “the pup interviewers”.

Female harp seals spend some of their time in the water, so to find their pup - the ice keeps moving – they must listen for them. Once they've located their pup's general direction, they slip onto the appropriate floe, and check any pups there either by their scent, or by their feel. To do this, the mum goes up to a pup and rubs noses – either smelling up close, or using the bristles around their nose to feel for something distinctive about their particular pup. It looks just like mums greet their pup with a kiss.

Just in case the pups, by themselves, weren't cute enough.

Garry's experience meant that he led from the start. But as he was also the heaviest, physics provided our verb of the trip: Stensoning. To Stenson was to push hard off a small chunk of ice, leaving the next unfortunate dealing with a half-submerged iceblob, calling, “Oh No! I've been Stensoned!”. After a few days, Garry made a habit of bringing up the rear.

The days passed, and Garry needed to spend some time on the ship, sorting out the design of the helicopter surveys with Tore. Callan and I worked together. Callan was lighter and braver than I. He tended to lead the way when Ilse and Sofie were near us, finding the safest and easiest routes. He overdid it badly once – stepped onto a small chunk, maybe two feet square. Immediately half of it collapsed into the sea. Callan was waiting for the swell to bring the next large pan close to him. He turned, laughed, said, “Well, don’t stand on that bit”. As he did, the leftover that he was standing on (just big enough for his feet) disappeared into slush under him. He dropped, eyes widening as he went. I reached out, grabbed his arm, pulled. He was only wet to his knees. Sofie and Ilse took care of Callan, dragging his boots off, drying his feet, replacing his socks with dry ones, filling him with chocolate and coffee. We sat around until we knew he'd be dry enough to keep going, then found another path.

When it came to icehopping, I guess I was lucky. On one of our first days out, I had a sad moment on some slush. I'd gone last, and the stepping-stone piece of ice was looking a little Stensoned after Garry and Callan had traversed it. There was a big swell running, pans moving three or four yards away from each other. I jumped onto the stepping slush, and it started sinking. I'd timed it badly, the next pan was still moving away. Seconds passed, spent waiting for the swells to bring the next big pan towards me. Seconds can seem rather long. Water rose over the rubberised soles of my Sorrels, started seeping under the legs of my floater suit. Eventually I could jump. After that learning experience, I seem to manage to jump – fall, lurch, blob, roll - the right way. Hardly ever got my feet wet. It's amazing how important dry socks are.

Sofie and Ilse never had any serious problems. Perhaps I could pretend that this had something to do with chivalry from us men, but I'd be lying. They were light, sensible and athletic.

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