A Week of Challenges

“Field work in Antarctica is way easier than we thought,” said no one, ever. We finished up a long and challenging week of sampling our 3-week old pups, and we have become experts in troubleshooting on the fly in some of the most extreme conditions on Earth.

We were all excited to start our week 3 sampling last Saturday. We piled into our Pisten Bully and headed out to our field site at Turtle Rock (about a 1.5 hour commute). It was an extremely cold day, colder than any other day we had attempted to do field work, but we were determined. When we got there, we went through all the normal motions: we found our animal, who was in a miraculously great capture spot after having been in hard-to-reach locations the whole week before, and we got our metabolic chamber out and set up. The pups were now starting to get into the water and learning how to swim, so we were interested in measuring their metabolic rates in water. To do this, we had to drill a hole in the sea ice next to our hut and use a specially-designed pump to fill our metabolic chamber with water. We learned that the ice was nearly 3 meters (9.8 feet) deep after drilling the hole! The pups weigh between 60 and 90 kg (over 100 lbs) at this age, so we also needed to use our 1-ton capacity tripod to lift the animals into the large metabolic chamber. The tripod was fairly simple to set up, but because it was entirely made of metal, it was more challenging to set up in the bitter cold.

Things were going swimmingly until we tried to turn on our generator. The generator is critical for metabolic days because we need it to power the computer and metabolic system! But this time when we started the generator, it sounded “off” and would not provide any power to our equipment. Even after trying everything imaginable and speaking to the mechanic at McMurdo over the radio, we could not get it to work. This was not a great start to our first sampling day. But we had to persevere, and we ended up making the 3-hour round trip back to the station to get a new generator and drop off our malfunctioning one. (They gave us a smaller, backup generator to have on hand as well.) Once we got our new generator and the metabolic system working, it turned out to be a really great day for gathering data. The weather completely turned around in our favor and became warm and sunny. Also, our animal cooperated with us and we got some excellent data, including the first ever metabolic rate of a baby Weddell seal in water!

The next couple days of our sampling week went smoothly, and we performed physiology procedures on three of our pups. We hit another logistical bump in the road when we headed back to Turtle Rock to perform our second metabolic procedure of the week. The generator worked just fine, the weather was great, and we got data for the pup’s metabolic rate in air. But clearly our day was going too well, because as soon as we turned on our pump to get water into the metabolic chamber, it tripped the circuit breaker on the generator. We tried the pump on our backup generator, and it tripped the breaker on that one, too. Again, we attempted all the troubleshooting we could think of. When we are working with the pups, we have to be very aware of our handling time, and do everything we can to make it as short as possible. Therefore, we had to abandon our water metabolic trial for this pup because troubleshooting was going to take too long. After the procedure, we figured out that we had not re-drilled deep enough into our refrozen hole, and the pump sucked up slush that quickly froze and jammed the pump. Like any situation involving failure or misfortune, we turned this into a learning experience. Now we make sure to completely drill the hole until we are sure we have reached the water, and we keep our pump inside and warmed up right up until the moment we need it.

To finish off our already difficult week, our last metabolic animal was in an absolutely dreadful spot for capture. Our little guy was peacefully sleeping right in the middle of a large melt pool, on the other side of a crack filled with breathing holes. To make matters worse, the pup’s mom showed up and coaxed him into the water for a little swim. We had to wait for them to return before we could begin our procedure. We call this pup’s mom “Momzilla” because she is very aggressively protective of him. After they got back from their swim, Momzilla was hanging out in the breathing hole right next to our pup, and would periodically and terrifyingly lunge herself out of the breathing hole to check on him. We needed a solid plan for this capture that would keep the pup and our team safe. After a couple hours of strategizing and waiting for Momzilla to leave her pup alone to go swimming, we enacted our plan. It was like a scene from a movie: three people carefully crossed the crack and quickly got the pup into the capture net. Once the pup was in the net, we rolled him onto the transport sled and strapped him down so he couldn’t roll out into the nearby breathing hole. The other two people carefully and quickly guided the sled across the treacherous terrain and we successfully captured our pup! The scariest part was that midway through, we saw Momzilla in the breathing hole, and we had to move the pup quickly before she noticed us and decided to intervene. Seal science turned Mission Impossible!

Our Week 3 sampling point was tough, but we got some great data and have been able to watch our little pups go on some of their first swims. Who knows what will be in store for Week 5!

Written by: Emma Weitzner

Heather Liwanag