Monday, September 17, 2007

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.

Read the next part of this post here.

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