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Cal Poly team headed to the end of the world to study baby seals

A Weddell seal mother and pup lie on the ice in Antarctica. Cal Poly researchers will have to wait a year to make a return trip after a problem with permits scuttled this year’s expedition.
A Weddell seal mother and pup lie on the ice in Antarctica. Cal Poly researchers will have to wait a year to make a return trip after a problem with permits scuttled this year’s expedition.

Cal Poly graduate student Emma Weitzner’s passion for marine biology has led her to study monk seals in Hawaii, sea turtles in Puerto Rico and bottlenose dolphins in Wales. Now, it’s going to lead her on her farthest journey yet — to Antarctica — where she will be part of a five-person research team spending 10 weeks studying Weddell seal pups.

She’s taking Cal Poly’s “Learn by Doing” to the end of the world, and it’s a childhood dream come true.

“I’ve wanted to go to Antarctica to study seals since I was 10 years old,” said Weitzner, who grew up in Cleveland.

Weddell seals are the southern-most breeding mammal in the world, and Cal Poly’s team hopes to figure out how the seal pups are able to develop the physiology that allows them to dive up to 2,000 feet for as long as 90 minutes in 28-degree seawater.

The team leaves Wednesday and will arrive just in time for spring in the southern hemisphere, when new pups are born. Funding for the trip, one of just a few dozen to take place this year, comes from a more than $1 million National Science Foundation grant.

Weitzner, a second-year grad student whose focus is on the physiology of pinnipeds — a class of animals that includes seals, sea lions and walruses — will join Cal Poly professor Lars Tomanek and veterinarian Sophie Whoriskey as they make the roughly 13-hour trip to Auckland, New Zealand. From there, it’s a 90-minute flight to Christchurch, where they will board a transport plane to McMurdo Station. There, they’ll join professors Heather Liwanag and Linnea Pearson, who arrived earlier this month.

That last leg is the most treacherous.

“At the half point, you have to make a decision: If the weather isn’t good, you have to turn around because otherwise you’re running out of fuel,” said Tomanek, one of the team’s co-principal researchers.

“It doesn’t really get more extreme than Antarctica,” he said.

I’ve wanted to go to Antarctica to study seals since I was 10 years old.

Cal Poly grad student Emma Weitzner

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Cal Poly graduate student Emma Weitzner has studied sea turtles in Puerto Rico. Cal Poly

McMurdo Station was established in December 1955. Built on bare volcanic rock, the station includes a harbor, landing strips and a helicopter pad.

“It’s basically our base camp,” Tomanek said.

And when you get there, you’d better hope you remembered to pack plenty of layers. Temperatures in Antarctica have been as low as minus-58 degrees, while the monthly mean temperature is a relatively balmy 0.4 degrees.

“You can’t forget anything,” Tomanek said.

Weitzner said she’s had to be economical when packing for the trip.

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“Every tube, every software, every battery that you may need, you have to think about ahead of time,” says Cal Poly biology professor Lars Tomanek of the planning for the Antarctica trip. Cal Poly

“We have some pretty strict weight limits, so I can’t bring a ton of stuff,” she said. “I’ve got a bunch of books that I’ve loaded up in my Kindle.”

Weitzner is also bringing a couple of items requested by team members already at McMurdo, such as lithium grease, which protects against rust.

“Every tube, every software, every battery that you may need, you have to think about ahead of time,” Tomanek said.

After all, the nearest hardware store is hundreds — if not thousands — of miles away.

Once they get there, they plan to hit the ground — or ice — running.

“We plan to be out in the field all day, every day, weather-permitting,” Weitzner said.

The rest of the time, they’ll be back at McMurdo Station studying samples in the laboratory, or resting up.

“I don’t think we’re going to be bored,” Tomanek said. “I think by the end of the day, we’re going to fall into our cozy beds and be glad for some rest before the next day.”

They won’t be the only ones keeping busy.

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Cal Poly graduate student Melissa Voisinet till handle the Cal Poly team’s blog and Facebook page back home, to share the research with the world. Cal Poly

Grad student Melissa Voisinet will be back home handling the team’s blog and Facebook page, “all the tools we’re going to use from this trip in order to communicate our science to the public,” she said.

“One of the things I’m really passionate about is outreach and education,” said Voisinet, who is slated to travel to Antarctica next year.

The team also plans to host a series of Skype video conferences with a variety of Central Coast K-12 classrooms over the coming weeks.

“We’re going to have a big public, social media presence,” Weitzner said.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Sophie Whoriskey will travel to Antarctica as the team’s veterinarian. Shawn Johnson will remain stateside as the team’s consulting veterinarian.

Andrew Sheeler: 805-781-7929, @andrewsheeler

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Cal Poly’s seal team

Follow Cal Poly’s research team from Antarctica on Facebook at facebook.com/sealteam030/ or its blog, icyseals.com.

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