Here is the full 12 minute version of the "Being Different If You're A Weddell Seal in Antarctica" project short film:
This film was a 2014 Finalist in the Cannes Film Festival American Pavilion of Emerging Filmmakers and an Official Selection of the Cannes Short Film Corner, an Official Selection at the New Media Film Festival in Los Angeles, an Official Selection of the Beneath the Waves Film Festival, an Official Selection of the recent San Diego UnderSea Film Exhibition (a 5 minute version), and a Finalist at the BLUE Ocean Film Festival & Conservation summit next month.
Currently, I am working with the Weddell population project scientists on our new short film, "Do Mom's Matter?" (fondly referred to as "Who's Your Mama?"). I will be posting on this blog during the current pupping season on topics relating to how Weddell moms matter to their pups' likelihood of survival to adulthood and future reproduction.
- Mary Lynn Price
Working in Antarctica brings with it a host of new experiences, thoughts, and sensations. Once experienced, it's never forgotten. And you can find yourself wanting to return over and over again. What is especially fascinating are the first impressions of team members as a new season begins. What follows are the writings of some of the 2014 Weddell seal field team members soon after arriving for the upcoming Weddell pupping season:
Thank you to the 2014 Field Research Team Members for letting us in on some of their impressions of Antarctica shortly after arrival!
- Mary Lynn Price
Dr. Jay Rotella, Co-Principal Investigator
|Dr. Robert Garrott, Co-Principal Investigator
Bob is a Professor in the Ecology Department at Montana State University and director of the MSU Fish and Wildlife Ecology and Management Program. His work focuses on the abiotic and biotic ecological processes that influence mammalian populations and communities, in both terrestrial and marine ecosystems, and contributing to basic science as well as applied wildlife management and conservation through collaborations with state and federal natural resource agencies. Bob received his PhD in Wildlife Conservation, University of Minnesota, 1990. More on Bob.
Dr. Donald Siniff, Co-Principal Investigator
Don is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at the University of Minnesota where his work has centered on the population dynamics of large mammals. Don's research has focused on the population characteristics of three species of Antarctic seals, concentrating on a long-term program on Weddell seals with shorter term studies on the crabeater and leopard seals of the Antarctic. He has also studied sea otters in Alaska and California since 1975. Don received his PhD from the University of Minnesota, 1967. More on Don.
Terrill Paterson, Weddell seal research field team leader
Terrill is a PhD student at Montana State University, and has a background in science education. He began working on the Weddell seal project in 2013. Terrill is the 2014 Field Research Team leader. He is also an accomplished field photographer and videographer.
Michael Yarnall, Weddell seal research field team
|Kirstie Yeager, Weddell seal research field team
This is Kirstie’s second year working on the Weddell Seal Project with Montana State University. Prior to coming to McMurdo, Kirstie received a BA in Biology from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and has worked as a Bio-Science Field Technician on a variety of projects including: the Colorado River Fisheries Project with the US Fish and Wildlife Service; a variety of terrestrial mammal projects with Colorado Parks and Wildlife; the seabird component of the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) project at Palmer Station, Antarctica; the Hawaiian Monk Seal Project in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands; and the Steller Sea Lion observation program at Ugamak Island, Alaska. Kirstie is currently a graduate student in the Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Colorado State University where she is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Ecology and Fish & Wildlife Studies.
Kaitlin Macdonald, Weddell seal research field team
Jonathan Rees, Weddell seal research field team
Jonathan Rees is originally from Yardley Pennsylvania and a graduate of the University of the Arts with a Bachelors of Music in Jazz Studies and a Master of Arts in Teaching in Music Education. He taught for four years in the Pennsylvania Public School system and performs professionally on national and international stages touring with ensembles such as The Glenn Miller Orchestra, The Joshua Stamper Quartet, and the Philadelphia Boys Choir. For the past five years Mr. Rees has worked as a Park Ranger and EMT with the National Park Service and most recently as a research assistant with MSU on various ecology and range science projects. Mr. Rees is a constant adventurer and is thrilled to be studying seals on one of the most remote and beautiful places on earth.
Eric Boyd, Weddell seal research field team
Mary Lynn Price, Weddell seal project video and digital specialist
Mary Lynn has been working with the Weddell seal project since 2010 as a public outreach and informal science education video and multimedia producer. Her digital production background includes short format videos for news and science organizations, educational institutions, film festivals, art galleries, and internet projects. She developed and maintains the Weddell Seal Science multimedia web portal, and produces short videos for public outreach and informal science education. She has deployed to Antarctica to produce videos since 2008 when she participated in an International Polar Year project producing short video portraits on woman working in Antarctica. Her recent work also involves editing 4K stereoscopic 3D underwater footage for natural history cinematographers. More on Mary Lynn.
The 2014 sea ice camp has now been set for the Weddell pupping season, and is located at Big Razorback Island, one the volcanic Dellbridge Islands in Erebus Bay. The sea ice camp is located near the southernmost active volcano on Earth, Mt. Erebus. This frame comes from a wonderful satellite imaging flyover created by NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio; LIMA Data provided by: Patricia Vornberger (SAIC); LIMA data produced by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and NASA.
What follows is a report from field crew leader and Weddell project PhD Student, Terrill Paterson:
Good morning, all!
Seal camp has officially been put it, and B-009 is ready to get to work! Weather delays have caused quite the back up of teams and personnel trying to get to the ice; many of our friends have been delayed over a week. We were lucky and made it to the ice on a clear day before a week of snow and storms. A wide variety of people at McMurdo helped us tremendously as we geared up for our season. Ten days of preparation finally paid off as we had camp pulled out to Big Razorback yesterday, and the carpenters and electricians powered and heated our huts today.
Whilst in McMurdo, we managed to get out several times as conditions permitted. We spend a few days flagging roads from Big Razorback to Turk’s Head and Tryggve Point, and again from the Cape Evans road to Turtle Rock. The conditions here are very nice for our work. Last summer, much of the multiyear ice that causes us such headaches ‘blew out’ of places such as North Base, Hutton and South Base. The resulting sea ice is very smooth and apparently quite stable. As a bit of a treat, several large icebergs have been grounded near Cape Evans a few miles north of camp. These are large chunks of ice which broke off the Ross Ice Shelf and drifted into Erebus Bay. They are very beautiful, and we will send pictures soon as we investigate them for safety and survey reasons.
We tagged our first pup on October 5th at Turtle Rock, a pup our support staff thinks may have been born in late September, a very early birth day! There are few pups just yet. We have only found a few at Tent Island, including a newborn pup that was still wet and an unfrozen placenta. We know his mom pretty well and plan on finding out as much information as we can about his swimming habits and changes in mass as he nurses from Mom.
Our upcoming week (working from camp) is very exciting. We have a helicopter flight scheduled for Monday morning (Sunday on US time). I am taking Michael (an excellent returning field tech with experience on many projects, responsible for the mass database) and Kirstie (an outstanding returning field tech and a woman with a great deal of experience from the Monk seal project in Hawaii, responsible for the temperature tag database) to explore our study area, looking for cracks and seals. They will be responsible for leading teams in the next week (as experienced and returning technicians) and it would serve us all well to get a broad perspective on the study area. Later that day (and probably a couple of ensuing days), we will press into the Hutton cliffs area, one of the most beautiful places in our study area. Our objective is to get out there to tag and weigh pups! I am excited to learn how to weigh moms using a specialized sled and a whole lot of patience. It is a lot different than running cattle through a chute, which is what I spent time doing as a kid.
The Weddell seal population study 2014 field research team is now in Antarctica, and making preparations to set up the remote sea ice camp from which they'll be working this Weddell pupping season. The team this season includes team leader and PhD student Terrill Paterson, returning field team members Michael Yarnall and Kristie Yeager, and new field team members Kaitlin Macdonald, Jon Reese, and Eric Boyd.
The team's arrival on the ice outside McMurdo Station followed a brief stay in Christchurch, New Zealand where they were issued Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear at the Clothing Distribution Center by the United States Antarctic Program, New Zealand.
After boarding a specialized jet for the five hour trip South to the ice, the team made the best of the flight by catching up on sleep, and enjoying the view of their approach to the Antarctic Ice.
Once in Antarctica, the team was briefed at the National Science Foundation chalet, and issued dorm rooms at McMurdo Station where they will stay while preparations are made for setting up the seasonal remote sea ice camp where they will live and work during the entire Weddell seal pupping season. The team will also go through a number of training courses while at McMurdo to better prepare them for their work on the sea ice.
In our upcoming posts we will further introduce the members of the 2014 field research team, as well as introduce our theme for the upcoming Weddell pupping season, "Do Moms Matter?"
- Mary Lynn Price
The 2013 Weddell seal pupping season is now coming to an end. The Erebus Bay sea ice is melting and breaking up as the pups are left to fend for themselves. They will soon head out into the Ross Sea for the Antarctic summer to start their new lives, and will face difficult times ahead as they hunt for food and try to avoid their predators, Orcas and leopard seals. The Weddell population project field research team has now flown off the ice to Christchurch, New Zealand, and will be heading on to various holiday destinations.
As this holiday season approaches, our new Weddell seal project video that tells the story of "What It Means to Be Different If You're a Weddell Seal" is now available as a high definition video free at iTunes through the featured podcast, DiveFilm HD Video. The beautiful photo of Weddell pups in the iTunes Podcast Home Page marquee above is by Montana State University graduate student and Weddell project field team alumnus Jesse DeVoe, obtained under NMFS Permit No. 17236. (Thank you, Jesse!)
This new 12 minute high definition video also has been released in broadcast quality via TelVue Connect on the Roku channel, "The Knowledge Network." This great new Roku channel offers science-themed videos from sources associated with the National Science Foundation.
Featured in the video is some of the most amazing footage ever of Weddell seal pups underwater, filmed by renowned musician, Antarctic diver and videographer Henry Kaiser, courtesy Project B-470 obtained under NMFS Permit No. 15478 and ACA 2003-12. (Thank you, B-470 and HK!) The video also features some of the best of B-009's Weddell project imaging, including remarkable footage of a Weddell seal birth, and numerous shots of engaging Weddell pup and mom interaction, obtained under NMFS Permit Nos. 1032-1917 and 17236.
Interviews on the ice with Montana State University Weddell project ecologists Drs. Jay Rotella, Bob Garrott, Thierry Chambert, and MSU graduate student Jesse DeVoe help tell the story of what being different means to the lives and future of these extraordinary Antarctic marine mammals living in the most pristine marine environment remaining on Earth.
Thank you to all who helped make this video possible, the entire 2013 Weddell project research field team for the work they've done to continue the study, and to the good folks at NSF and iTunes for helping to get word out about the vital work of this Antarctica Weddell seal population project.
A friend of mine called the other day to tell me he liked the new Weddell seal video. He also said he wondered, though, just why it is that these particular Antarctic seals are the focus of our study. After all, he asked, why can't all this population stuff be studied just as thoroughly by working with seals that live closer to home--like the harbor seals that congregate down at our local breakwater?
As I began to think more about what he said, I realized that he was asking a very good question--why is it so important to study these particular Weddell seals?
So here it is: A list of 10 top reasons why it's important to study these Weddell seals of Erebus Bay in Antarctica:
Reason #10. This group of Weddell seals in the Erebus Bay area of Antarctica's Ross Sea is a healthy, stable population of high level marine predators. So it's kind of like being able to study a healthy patient if you're a doctor--it helps you to better understand how a healthy population of long-lived mammals works in order to better understand and manage other long-lived species that are endangered or aren't doing as well.
Reason #9. This stable population of long-lived mammals lives its entire life in the most pristine marine environment left on Earth. So this is a rare opportunity to study a healthy population of marine predators that is currently functioning well in a healthy marine environment--and in so doing gain a better understanding of healthy interaction in a healthy ecosystem.
Reason #8. This stable population of Weddell seals, however, is living in a nearly pristine marine environment that is just beginning to experience potentially problematic environmental changes--both natural and man-made--climate change, increased ocean acidification, and possibly an increasing occurrence of extreme environmental events, such as more frequent calving of giant icebergs. These seals can act like as a bellwether of the kinds of effects such environmental changes can have on a previously healthy marine mammal population.
Reason #7. These Weddell seals are a high level marine predator that are part of a currently intact food web, but that food web is just beginning to experience measurable changes possibly related to unregulated or under-regulated commercial fishing pressure on Antarctic Toothfish, krill, and other commercially harvestable marine life in the Southern Ocean. These seals can act as a bellwether of the kinds of effects such changes in the food web and in marine resources can have on a previously healthy marine mammal population.
Reason #6. Located very near the main U.S. Antarctic base, McMurdo Station, this population of Weddell seals provides researchers relatively easy access using surface vehicles based at McMurdo Station, with an entire support system in place to ensure vital science support to the researchers.
Reason #5. Tending to be fairly docile toward researchers, these Weddell seals are relatively easy to approach for scientific observation and interaction. This is likely because Weddells do not have a long history of dealing with natural predators on the sea ice during the Austral winter.
Reason #4. These Weddell seals are "philopatric" meaning they tend to return to the same areas where they were born to have their own pups. So even though there is some limited immigration and emigration of seals into and out of the established pupping colonies, for the most part this is a fairly closed and stable population, with predictable pupping colony sites.
Reason #3. The moms and pups are easily detected on top of the sea ice for the first week or so after the pups are born and before they learn to swim because they must remain on the surface, where they are particularly visible and accessible to the researchers.
Reason #2. Because of this ease of access, this particular population of Weddell seals has been studied for nearly half a century (>45 years), and an extensive database has been developed during that time that includes information on thousands of mom/pup pairs over several generations.
Reason #1. This longterm population database of a long-lived mammal studied intensively over generations spanning decades is unique in the scientific community, and provides scientists with a dataset that makes possible innovative ecological discoveries as the fields of population modeling and statistical methodology continue to advance.
Oh, and this top ten list doesn't even mention that these amazing animals are the southernmost mammal on Earth! That they are fantastic divers that travel further under the sea ice than any other animal on our planet to birth their pups safely away from other large predators. And that they spend a lot of time nurturing their young and likely passing on valuable survival skills during the nursing period!
Weddell Seal Project Huts At Big Razorback Island
The B-009 Weddell seal population study field team lives and works in wooden huts not all that different from the historic wooden huts built by members of Ernest Shackleton's and Robert Falcon Scott's expeditions during the "heroic era" of Antarctica exploration in the very early 1900s. In fact, Scott's and Shackleton's historic huts are located geographically so near the Weddell project field team huts that one cannot help but have a palpable sense of being surrounded by the very history of Antarctic exploration.
Shackleton's Nimrod Expedition Hut
Built over 100 years ago in 1908 as part of Sir Ernest Shackleton's Nimrod Expedition, the hut is filled with the effects and furnishings from that "heroic era" expedition. Because of the hard work and diligence of the Antarctic Heritage Trust, the hut and its historic contents have been restored for future generations of visitors and scholars to enjoy, learn from and be inspired by.
The Antarctic Heritage Trust describes the decision Scott made to build his second hut at Cape Evans: "The gently sloping ground of this narrow volcanic neck of land with the ramparts of Mount Erebus rising behind and McMurdo Sound in front proved ideal for establishing his base. Originally discovered during Scott’s National Antarctic Expedition 1901–04, the area was named for the large number of skuas that flocked there, but Scott renamed it Cape Evans after the expedition’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Edward ‘Teddy’ Evans. A short distance inland is a large lake named Skua Lake, while to the east the ground rises to form The Ramp and beyond, glaciated slopes rise toward the summit of Mount Erebus. From the hut site there are fine views east over McMurdo Sound to the Trans-Antarctic Mountains and south to the Dellbridge Islands."
White Island. A small volcanic island of the Ross Archipelago in Antarctica poking up through the Ross Ice Shelf several miles south of McMurdo Station. The island is home to an isolated colony of Weddell seals that are trapped there by the Ross and McMurdo Ice Shelves, and the seals' inability to swim far enough under the ice to rejoin the main Weddell seal population in Erebus Bay.
One of the tasks of the Weddell population project is to travel to White Island during the Weddell pupping season to survey, tag, and collect genetic samples from the trapped colony. Last season they found 6 adult females and 3 pups (so 3 of the adults were moms), according to field team leader Thierry Chambert. Here is a short video of a helicopter trip to White Island during a previous season...
Weddell seals are the southernmost mammal on Earth. And this small colony of Weddells trapped at White Island has the distinction of being the most southerly of all--and closer to the South Pole than any other mammal on the planet.
The situation of this isolated Weddell colony is described in an informative and fascinating paper, "History and fate of a small isolated population of Weddell seals at White Island, Antarctica" (Gelatt et al. 2010):
"The minimum distance between the island and open water averages approximately 20 km, but varies annually depending on the extent of sea-ice break-out in McMurdo Sound. Except for a narrow crack along the island’s northwestern side (Stirling 1966), maintained by tidal action and movement of the ice shelf, the ice exceeds 15 m thick within 20 m of shore (Castellini et al. 1984, 1991). There are no other known cracks or holes in the vicinity. A small isolated population of Weddell seals breeds and pups at White Island and uses the tidal crack as its only access to the surface."1
Using historic accounts of earlier explorers and researchers, it is thought that the seals became trapped at White Island sometime back in the late 1940s to 1950s when the sea ice broke out during the Antarctic summer so far south that a small group of seals was able to make it to White Island. However, when the sea ice reformed, the seals that didn't leave the island in time were trapped there. The swim under the ice is further than they are capable of surviving. And they are also likely blocked by the Ross and McMurdo Ice Shelves, as well. Since that historic time, the sea ice has yet to break out far enough south again to free these seals.
So, how is it that a small colony of Weddell seals trapped at White Island for over half a century and isolated from the rest of the Weddell seal population in Erebus Bay has managed to survive and successfully reproduce?
Because White Island is subject to the same tidal rise and fall of the ocean as is any other island, a tidal crack in the fast ice surrounding the island is maintained year around by that tidal movement. However, because the island is located in the Ross and McMurdo Ice Shelves, the ice surrounding the island is very thick--as deep as 45 feet in places near the island. The White Island seals have access to the ocean to hunt via this very deep tidal crack. To give birth on the surface of the ice, somehow these seals make their way up to the surface of the ice shelf through this deep tidal crack. Even more mysterious is how the Weddell pups born on top of the ice shelf are able to survive the steep drop down through the deep tidal crack to reach the ocean below to learn to swim and hunt.
One thing is for certain: despite great challenges to their survival, this colony of hardy seals has persisted for well over half a century to live and pup at this isolated colony, cut off from the general population of Weddells many miles away. How long they will continue to persist is a mystery; and equally so, whether the sea ice will ever again break out far enough to free these seals so that they may rejoin the Erebus Bay colonies.
The Weddell seal population field team makes two annual visits by helocopter to the White Island Weddell colony to survey, tag, and collect genetic samples from these seals, and has been doing so for many years. While the seals are unable to mix with the general population of Erebus Bay, they are still originally of the Erebus Bay Weddell population. The Weddell population project collaborates with other Weddell research groups to make census information and genetic samples available for further study.
Geneticists have determined that, "The White Island [Weddell seal] population showed altered reproductive dynamics compared to Erebus Bay [Weddell seals], including highly skewed sex ratio, documented inbred mating events, and the oldest known reproducing Weddell seals."2
According to scientists studying the genetics of these isolated seals, "The extensive amount of data available about the White Island population provides us with an opportunity to better understand the origin and fate of such Weddell seal colonies, and, by extension, of other small and isolated population of large mammals."3 This kind of insight may also be useful in better managing threatened populations of other large mammals elsewhere in the world--populations facing habitat loss or other challenges to their survival.