ICE Ringed seals 2012 First Field Report

We have just arrived in Ny Ålesund after almost 3 weeks in Nordaustlandet where we have completed the first phase of this year's ICE ringed seal fieldwork. We are here in town to pick up two new expedition participants that will be with us for the rest of the trip.

Kit, Hans and Christian aboard the Meridian.

Kit, Hans and Christian in the "dog-house" on Meridian. Photo: Kit M. Kovacs & Christian Lydersen / Norwegian Polar Institute

This season is the third and last fieldwork for this project, whose primary purpose has been to instrument ringed seals with very advanced satellite "tags" in order to study their relationship with ice outside the breeding and moulting periods.

The satellite tags measure how deep and for how long the seals dive, record where in the world the seals are and also collect oceanographic data and other biological data from the water masses in which the seals swim and dive. For more information about the tags and how they operate see the field reports from the project in 2010 and 2011.

In the first project year (2010) we instrumented ringed seals in Nordaustlandet. These animals travelled over enormous distances, while the ringed seals we captured in Kongsfjorden last year (2011) remained in their capture areas throughout the time that the tags reported data. Therefore, this year our intention is to deploy tags in both places during the same summer-season so that we find out whether the differences we saw were inter-annual patterns, place-dependent patterns, or something else.

Ringed seals with satellite transmitters

Two of the lucky ringed seals that get to participate in this year's work, wearing the new high-tech gear. These two were tagged in Wahlenbergfjorden in Svalbard. They have just had their satellite tags placed, and are ready to do a one-year term as research assistants. Photo: Kit M. Kovacs & Christian Lydersen / Norwegian Polar Institute

Similar to the last two years, we are on the good-ship Meridian, a Colin Archer sailboat, with Hans Lund as our skipper. In Phase 1 of the trip we have been just three souls on board, as our fourth man had to cancel shortly before departure time (we hope that all is going well with him and his family!).

We sailed from Longyearbyen on the 25th of July and arrived in Wahlenbergfjorden on Nordaustlandet ready to work 4 days later.

During the summer months we catch ringed seals using nets set from shore. This involves a lot of waiting and watching to ensure that animals that hit the net are detected right away. There is also a lot of cleaning bits of glacier ice out of the nets and ensuring that animals we do not want to capture, such as white whales, polar bears and other seal species, get shooed away before they strike the nets.

The job is actually often really boring, with very long periods staring at the float line, with nothing happening. This trip we had four days in a row (with good sighting conditions), without seeing a single ringed seal near our nets, and it rained for much of this time. But, then suddenly a seal arrives and all the boredom instantly vanishes and supper time is again full of chitter-chatter recounting the excitement of the day.

During 10 days in Wahlenbergfjørd, we captured the eight ringed seals we intended to tag up in the Northeast. Additionally, we captured some seals that were too small for tagging, as well as a few that were still moulting their old coat, and hence not suitable for our purposes because we glue the tags to the fur.

Polar bear

We encountered one wonderful, big guy during one of our area searches, sleeping on a beautiful green spot on a hill. Photo: Kit M. Kovacs & Christian Lydersen / Norwegian Polar Institute

Polar bear

… he did make the effort to come down to the water-line to check us out, but made it clear via multiple wide-mouthed yawns that we and our rubber boats were not very special. Photo: Kit M. Kovacs & Christian Lydersen / Norwegian Polar Institute

Polar bear

Around the same time, we did have one thin male bear visit our netting site on two separate occasions. Each time we had to encourage his departure. Similar to his companion, his body language gave a very clear message regarding what he thought about us and the situation (see below). Photo: Kit M. Kovacs & Christian Lydersen / Norwegian Polar Institute

When we were in Nordaustlandet to capture seals in 2010 we were harassed quite often by polar bears that were all too interested in us and our activities in the area. This time we had much less polar bear visitation, and no dangerous situations. We encountered one wonderful, big guy during one of our area searches, sleeping on a beautiful green spot on a hill. He had not washed himself for quite some time, but he has many months before the next breeding season, so perhaps in bachelor life it is not so important. He did make the effort to come down to the water-line to check us out, but made it clear via multiple wide-mouthed yawns that we and our rubber boats were not very special.

Around the same time, we did have one thin male bear visit our netting site on two separate occasions. Each time we had to encourage his departure. Similar to his companion, his body language gave a very clear message regarding what he thought about us and the situation.

Walrus calf and adults

A 2012 walrus calf in the shallows in Palanderbukta adjacent to a well-known haulout site. Photo: Kit M. Kovacs & Christian Lydersen / Norwegian Polar Institute

Fin whale and minke whale

A fin whale up to blow right beside the sailboat (left) and a minke whale engulfing a vast amount of some sort of food that was also of interest to the many circling, diving kittiwakes (right). Photo: Kit M. Kovacs & Christian Lydersen / Norwegian Polar Institute

Upon completion of Phase 1 of the ringed seal ICE expedition, we set course for Ny Ålesund. On the way out of Wahlenbergfjorden we passed through Palanderbukta to check on a favoured walrus haul-out site. During all earlier visits to this site there have been only adult males using it; it was an "all-male" site. However, we found several calves and their moms, similar to several other sites that have changed to mixed sex groups in recent years. Such sightings bode well for the recovery of the walrus population in Svalbard.

During the last few months we have had several reports from Expedition Leaders on various tourist boats in the region of blue whale sightings in the north end of Hinlopen and the mouth of Woodfjorden, so we set sail for these areas in hope of collecting skin samples for a global-genetic study of this species. We searched for a couple of days but without luck. We saw many other whales, including curious fin whales that approached the boat very closely on several occasions – a fantastic experience each and every time.

So, now we find ourselves at the dock in Ny Ålesund waiting for the plane to bring our final two field folks. Unfortunately it is fogging and the plane has been delayed several times already today. But, one thing we have become used to, and very good at, on such fieldwork is waiting!

Bye for now!

Kit and Christian

» Continue to the second (and final) field report