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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