Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Seal stomachs IV: Grise

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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.

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Seal stomachs III: Into the ice

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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

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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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