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Dispatches from Antarctica: Pupping Season for Weddell Seals

The NOVA team in Antarctica visits Big Razorback Island, where a colony of playful seals give them an unforgettable experience.

ByCaitlin SaksNOVA NextNOVA Next
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Arlo, a newborn Weddell seal pup, rests within an icy seal rookery with his mother. Photo credit: Arlo Perez | This image was taken under the authority of NMFS MMPA Permit No. 21158- 01

October 20, 2018:

This is what I texted home to my husband when I got back from the field today:

One of the most stunning, unforgettable, magical experiences of my entire life.

It has taken a long time to get here. About a week of travel to Antarctica. And then once in Antarctica, another week of tedious training. I say “tedious” not because the training itself was boring—actually, it was quite helpful and, in some cases, even fun. But tedious because it has felt like we haven’t even really started our project yet. I’ve been watching the days whiz by without our being out in Antarctica filming, which is what we need to do.

But then, there was today.

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We aimed to leave around noon, but actually got out of town around 2 pm—which was a marked improvement in how far behind schedule we have been running. We hopped on snowmobiles and headed out to Big Razorback Island, a little over 10 miles away from McMurdo Station. It’s a 45-minute ride, which of course took us two hours because we had to stop to take pictures; that’s how we roll.

Big Razorback is a ridge of land poking up through the sea ice. Most would imagine that land means safe-haven. But here, land means cracks. The ice that is attached to the dry terrain is strained and warped as tides rise and fall, and as the sea ice flows. As the ice is stretched and compressed, cracks form. While hazardous to the humans who have no rightful place in this landscape, the cracks provide a lifeline for another mammal: seals. Specifically, Weddell seals.

We were heading out to meet Jay Rotella and his team of seal researchers. They set up a charming little outpost on the leeward side of the island: four small huts housing eight people. A fleet of snow mobiles were parked outside. And a colony of seals speckled what I thought of as the “back yard.” I have seen seals before back in the states. My impression was that they are sort of like lazy beach slugs, so my expectations were not all that high.

But what we beheld took my breath away.

It is pupping season for these Weddell seals, and within just a few seconds of our entering their area, we started spotting babies. They were just days old, puppy eyed and snuggling with their moms. At the first mom/pup pair we reached, we stood transfixed for minutes just watching. I couldn’t help but coo at the pup as if he were a newborn child… encouraging him to find his mom’s milk. We watched him flop around, struggling to find a nipple, and then finally succeed. On a diet of fatty milk, this baby would grow from the size of a second grader to the size of a professional football player in about a month!

Off by the sea ice cracks, we caught a few males yapping at each other, fighting for territory. Another male was resting in the water with just his nose floating in the air to breath. Not far away, we came across another mom and pup. This pup was a few weeks older, and we watched as mom slipped into the water and then called for her baby. The young pup wasn’t ready to go swimming yet, and so threw a tantrum. Mom called back to him trying to coax him in. It went on for over 30 minutes… but the pup would have none of it. After a while, they seemed to reach a stalemate, as mom kept swimming, and the pup laid despondent on the ice.

We went in to the Rotella’s camp huts for dinner; burgers, beans, and fries were on the menu. The Rotella seal team is tightly knit. You can sense it in their demeanor as they banter and laugh together. They share the responsibilities of cooking and cleaning… and, of course, of doing the research. But most of all you can see it in their eyes when they talk with each other over dinner. There is a deep-seated mutual respect all around, from the youngest student to the seasoned veterans.

It was, frankly, inspiring.

We are a small film crew. It is just three of us, and we are all doing everything. (Well… I guess I let the guys do a bit more of the heavy lifting). It’s kind of crazy, and at times very intense. Arlo or I usually try to avoid being on camera together, so we can support Zac behind the camera. In our first week of being a team, we’ve rapidly learned how to work with each other. At times it has been a challenge, as we learned each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and how to work constructively with both. And I think I’m actually starting to feel the same strands of kinship form that I saw in the Rotella team. It is a bond forged of necessity, when you are with the same people day in and day out, all day long. You have no choice but to become dependent. Just like that mom and her seal pup.

After dinner, we went back outside to do a bit more filming and discovered that a new pup was born while we ate dinner. Mom and pup were still bonding, forging those essential tendrils of kinship… so we didn’t get too close. This was the miracle of life in its purest form, and it was not our place to disturb that.

I would have never guessed when I woke up that morning that I was going to experience something so profoundly fundamental to being a living creature on this Earth. Something so raw, so real. This is not a human experience, this is a living experience—this is what it means to be alive on planet Earth. It is not easy for me to put it into words, but it felt powerful—a feeling not in my mind, but in my soul. And… I am not just talking about seeing the seals in their natural habitat, living, giving birth.

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I am also talking about how I witnessed and experienced how we humans pull together in a way that is just awe-inspiring.

We left the Rotella team around midnight – characteristically behind schedule. We drove off into the eternal sunset of the midnight October Antarctic sky. I was so proud. Not only did we witness some of the most miraculous natural wonders that this planet has to offer, but as a team, we jelled. We were working. We succeeded. It felt so good.

This reporting was conducted under the authority of NMFS MMP A Permit No. 21158- 01

Funding for this reporting is provided by the National Science Foundation.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1713552. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Funding for NOVA Next is provided by the Eleanor and Howard Morgan Family Foundation.

National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Draper. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust.