Seal tagging time has arrived !
We are putting the little instrument packages shown below on seals, glued on the back of their neck, to record temperature, salinity and pressure as the seals dive. The data is transmitted by satellite when the seals surface. The instruments stay about a year on the seals, and are lost when the seals slough their skin.
Yesterday, they tagged two seals while we were sleeping. When I learned that we were tagging seals, I was really excited ! I watched on the ship's bridge for seals. We spotted one, but only one non-expert person was allowed to come and help the other 5 experts, and the first try was for Kjersti, the Norwegian girl from the University of Bergen. I followed attentively the procedure and took some pictures from the ship deck. After they had come back, we started watching again for other seals. We spotted another one, aligned the boat along the ice float where the seal was resting, and I was offered to come and help for this one ! I went in my cabin to put on warm clothes, ran to the wet lab, but nobody was there. I went back to the bridge to learn that the seal had run away... Patience ! Soon thereafter, another seal was spotted, and we prepared ourselves. We were lifted from the ship deck in the air by the ship crane, swung over board, and carefully landed onto the ice float. I thank Kjersti Daae for taking the following pictures, in which I am the one with the black pants and red bonnet.
Once on the ice float, we had an orange stick to try the ground before us, to avoid falling through a hidden hole into the ice-cold water ! The yellow bag hanging from our life vest contains a rope that we could throw to somebody that would have fallen into the water, in order to get him out.
At first I was not too reassured, but then the ground felt solid and thick enough, and I gained some (illusory ?) confidence. I could feel the whole ice float slightly rolling, very slowly, which reminded me constantly that we were floating over the freezing water...
I am not allowed to show publicly pictures of seal tagging, unfortunately, because although no harm is done to the seals, the British Antarctic Survey wants to avoid unnecessary publicity for this activity. But I can show some pictures of the seal alone that we tagged. She was a beautiful Weddell Seal female with big dark brown eyes, measuring 234 cm long.
I could feel her skin, which looked like polar fleece, with the characteristic white spots of Weddell Seals.
After the tagging procedure was finished, a new living Automated Underwater Vehicle (AUV) was born !
And one of my dearest dreams, to approach a wild seal in its natural environment, had just been realized.
What else could I expect from this cruise, except for visiting the Halley base on the ice shelf ?...
To cap it all, two inquisitive penguins came to watch what the hell we were doing ! They even looked happy to be taken photo after photo like stars, but they were not the only ones to be happy !!!