Ringed seal equipped with advanced satellite tag

A ringed seal has for the first time been equipped with a new advanced satellite tag, in northern Svalbard. The tag will record the animal’s movement and diving patterns as well as physical oceanographical information and – a feature added this year – a fluoresence meter (which provides an indicator of primary production). This information will enhance our understanding of how climate change affects ringed seals and other arctic inhabitants.

Ringed seals and ICE – second field report

Female polar bear and cub swimming

The mother-cub pair turned away from our nets (with a little encouragement). Photo: C. Lydersen and K. M. Kovacs / Norwegian Polar Institute

Arctica and Meridian in Reliktbukta

Arctica and Meridian in Reliktbukta, in Duvefjorden. Photo: C. Lydersen and K. M. Kovacs / Norwegian Polar Institute

This is a follow-up on the first field report this season.

A week has passed since the last report and we are now sitting weather-locked in Reliktbukta on the west side of Duvefjorden. It is clear with bright sun, but it is blowing 40-50 knots. According to the weather report for this area it should be a mild breeze from the west, but the reality is a strong gale or more.

We conducted intensive net-fishing for seals at various places around Rijpfjorden in the days following the first letter, without success. We found an area deep in the fjord with a glacier front that had some seal traffic and looked promising, but for the most part the traffic was bearded seals rather than ringed seals. We did set nets in hopes of encountering the latter, but after only half an hour we had a bearded seal in one of the nets. It weighed about 350 kg and such big beasts do a lot of damage to our rather delicate nets (built for ringed seals). We did manage to get the seal out quite quickly, but it took many hours to get the net in some sort of operational order to restart fishing.

Polar bears continue to be an issue this week. As soon as we are organized with nets in the water from land bases, bears seem to home in on us. The mother-cub pair pictured here headed straight for our nets and we had to turn them away using the zodiacs. Some few hours later, when we were pulling the nets to shift location, a large male bear came into base and was totally unwilling to alter his chosen path. Several rifle shots over his head induced him to move some 50-60 m back, such that we could get the last net off shore-line and move out to sea with it so that we could pull it in peace.

After some reflection over maps of the area we headed for the west side of Duvefjord (the neighbouring fjord, just east of Rijpfjorden) to search for ringed seals in a little set of lagoons. We know from other places on Svalbard that seals occasionally take little trips into such areas that hold ice late into the summer to do a bit of feeding. When we came into Duvefjorden from the north and around into Reliktbukta, we met another sailboat. It was an old friend from the past on which we have spent many, many months on various expeditions over the years catching white whales, walruses and various other marine mammals up here in Svalbard. Arctica was out on another Norwegian Polar Institute expedition, this time with our bird researchers, doing the SEAPOP colony monitoring. They had just finished counting the bird cliffs in this area, after having been down to Hopen and Kong Karls Land. The expedition leader Eirik Grønningsæter told us that they had experienced a lot of bad weather, particularly around Hopen, with fog and high winds. For our Captain (and owner of our boat - Meridian), Hans Lund, it was a special meeting. He built Arctica in Denmark many years ago and sailed her in Svalbard for some years before selling her to Heinricdh Eggenfellner in Longeyearbyen. After a brief visit and goodbyes to Arctica and her crew, we checked the first lagoon for seals. It had little ice and no seals, so we continued south to check other lagoons in the bottom of Duvefjorden.

Ringed seal equipped with a satellite transmitter is released into the sea

The world’s first ringed seal equipped with a CTD-fluoro-SRDL (Conductivity-Temperature-Depth-Fluorometer-Satellite-Relay-Data-Logger) keen to get to work collecting data. Photo: C. Lydersen and K. M. Kovacs / Norwegian Polar Institute

In the innermost lagoon, we found a single ringed seal. We quickly closed off the entrance to the lagoon. Within no time, we finally had the right sort of seal in the net! Because of the steady, unwanted attention from local wildlife, we took our seal for a little ride in the zodiac and glued the satellite transmitter onto the seal a good safe distance from the shore so that none of us ended up being bear food.

Our CTD-fluorometer tags have never before been deployed in the Arctic. They are new technology that has only recently been developed by a colleague in France in co-operation with the Sea Mammal Research Unit, and thus far have only been tested on a few elephant seals in the Southern Oceans. All of the physical and biological data that the tags collect will provide a wealth of novel data for exploring the ringed seals’ world up here in the Arctic.

It was Sunday evening that our first seal was captured (“Fifi” in honour of our French connection), and Monday morning she was joined by a second seal, a male of similar size, captured in the same lagoon. Wind then drove us to a safer anchoring place and some hours of household chores. We hope to check the other lagoons in the area as soon as the zodiacs stop jumping off the water surface on their own.

Polar bear in Relikbukta

This bear’s lip-licking response to our first scent has convinced the men on board that it might be time that they take a moment for their first baths of the trip! Photo: C. Lydersen and K. M. Kovacs / Norwegian Polar Institute

We have complained a little about polar bears up here, but it must be said that if you can observe these animals from the safety of our zodiacs, they are truly wonderful to see. This picture was taken in Reliktbukta, and his lip-licking response to our first scent has convinced the men on board that it might be time that they take a moment for their first baths of the trip! Thus, a double-positive experience from Kit’s perspective!

Best regards – Kit and Christian

» Continue to the third field report, concluding this season