Tuesday, October 16, 2007

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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