ICE Ringed seals – 2nd (and final) field report
We are soon on our way south toward Longyearbyen, weather permitting, at the end of a successful expedition, which is the last field work for this project. Currently, we are on anchor in Farmhammna, where we have spent the night hiding from the wind for a while. Yesterday it blew a strong gale up to a little storm and it is still blowing hard, so it in not going to be a cosy trip back, even if the wind subsides enough for us to get underway.
This is a follow-up on the first field report this season.
But – to finish the trip log … we picked up two additional field folks in Ny Ålesund two weeks ago – Lars Boehme who is an oceanographer at the Ocean Science Centre at the University of St Andrews in Scotland and Charmain Hamilton who is a student with us (in partnership with Rolf Ims at the University of Tromsø).
As soon as we had the new folks settled in we were back out seal catching in Kongsfjorden. The seal densities are really low this summer, but we did manage to catch a few animals in the area with a lot of effort. We do not use anaesthetics (knock-out drugs) when we glue tags onto ringed seals; they are calm when lightly restrained at both ends. They do not bite or display other aggressive behaviour, unlike many of their close relatives. Similar to last year, we also captured a few bearded seals to deploy GPS-CTD tags on them.
Bearded seals are also very calm and easy to handle, so similar to the ringed seals a bit of restraint is enough to keep everybody safe during the handling process. It is a bit strange perhaps that both of these Arctic seals are so passive, while other seals are so aggressive. But, perhaps it is because the biggest threat to these animals comes from polar bears, and defence is not much of an option for seals against this particular predator once it has a seal; quick escape before contact is the only solution to avoiding becoming lunch.
When we set our ringed seal nets in the sea there is no guarantee that we will catch only what we are after. Many times this season we have captured ringed seals that we deemed too small to tag. We also had individuals that had not yet completed their moult.
Just the other day we ended up with a narwhal in a net, deep in Kongsfjorden. We saw no sign of whales before the net was rapidly being pulled off the beach! After managing to catch the shore-end, with three of us serving as an anchor, up popped a young male narwhal, with a 50 cm long tusk. This is the first time that this species has been registered in the area, so all concerned were a bit surprised. Our little male was presumably part of a group, but there was so much wind and large waves that we saw no sign of other whales.
Such animals create total chaos in our nets and must be cut out, leaving rather large holes behind. Later the same day, we also caught a harbour seal. Then glacier ice rushed in with the tide and there were no ringed seals to be seen. The final straw was drawn when a polar fox came and peed on our backpacks. We were all in agreement – it was time to try our luck another place!
A couple of the ringed seals we have tagged earlier travelled south to St Jonsfjorden, just south of Kongsfjorden, so we too set sail for St Jons. It turned out to be a smart move, with a record catch of four wonderful big ringed seals the first day down there.
Among these seals, there was a special treat. One of them was an animal that we tagged last year in Kongsjorden. All of the seals that we handle are marked with small, individually numbered tags that are placed through the webbing of the hind flippers that remain attached through the life of the animal. This seal, "Samson", is a large male ringed seal that weighed 100 kg last summer. This is really big for this species. This year he tipped the scales at 103 kg. Samson was not just chubby, he was out rightly FAT, so fat that we had to carry him down the 6–8 m of beach to the water’s edge because we were afraid he would overheat or have a heart-attack.
The following day we repeated our 4-seal catch. Among these animals was the lucky seal to get the final GPS-CTD tag for this year. So, the field work is over for this year, with 8 CTD tags out on ringed seals up in Nordaustlandet and 10 GPS-CTD tags out on ringed seals on the west coast of Spitsbergen (along with two tagged bearded seals).
So – we are finished the field stint and looking forward to dry socks!
Kit and Christian