Cal Poly team studying seals in Antarctica overcomes ‘perfect storm’ to begin research

Heather Liwanag, left, and Linnea Pearson pose in front of Turtle Rock, in Antarctica in this photo posted on Oct. 5.
Heather Liwanag, left, and Linnea Pearson pose in front of Turtle Rock, in Antarctica in this photo posted on Oct. 5.

Cal Poly’s five-person research team has successfully settled in for its 10-week Antarctica expedition to study Weddell seal pups despite delays from a spate of bad weather — severe even by Antarctica standards.

The first delay came before half the team even arrived in Antarctica. Bad conditions at McMurdo Station prevented professor Lars Tomanek, veterinarian Sophie Whoriskey and graduate student Emma Weitzner from leaving Christchurch, New Zealand, on the scheduled Oct. 9 departure date, according to the group’s blog, “Growing Up On Ice.”

The group’s luck turned around, on Friday the 13th, and their plane successfully arrived at McMurdo, where they joined professor Heather Liwanag, the principal investigator, and professor Linnea Pearson, who had earlier arrived at the station.

But the bad weather wasn’t done wreaking havoc on the trip, delaying Liwanag and Pearson from beginning their observations. The plan was to observe seal pups from birth through the age of 7 weeks, and that meant finding animals “born no later than Oct. 19,” Liwanag said in an email interview, with the team scheduled to return from Antarctica in the second week of December.

Then Liwanag said a “perfect storm” of bad weather and safety hazards, including cracks in the ice, made it hard for the Cal Poly team to find enough seals for the study, so they were forced to partner with a team from Montana State University, doubling up on the same group of eight baby seals.

“This required us to coordinate with them, to ensure that neither group imposed upon the work of the other,” she said.

Weddell seals are the southern-most breeding mammal in the world, and Cal Poly’s team hopes to figure out how 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.

From left to right: Sophie Whoriskey, Heather Liwanag, Linnea Pearson, Lars Tomanek and Emma Weitzner pose with the sign for Antarctica’s McMurdo Station. Weddell Seal Pup Research Facebook page

Despite the adversity, the group has successfully examined all eight animals at one week of age, collecting metabolic rates from one half and tissue samples from the other. Now, the group is determining how far along the pups are in molting their “baby fur.”

“We are also preparing for our three-week time point, when we will revisit the same eight animals and repeat our data collection with them,” Liwanag said. “We have been surveying all of our study animals regularly, and they look happy and healthy alongside their moms. We saw one mom trying to coerce her pup to get into the water today, but he decided he wasn't ready quite yet.”

A newborn Weddell seal pup nurses with its mother. Weddell Seal Pup Research Facebook page

On top of all that, life isn’t easy at the end of the world. In an Oct. 20 blog post, Whoriskey wrote that virtually all supplies have to be flown in. Even fresh water is a scarcity, despite the abundance of ice.

“Showers are short, and we are asked to limit our showers to 4 times a week. On station, we recycle and reuse as much as possible,” Whoriskey wrote.

She added that, “We even have to pee in a water bottle (well-labeled with a big P, to distinguish it from our drinking bottles) and bring it back to station to dispose of its contents properly. There is a wastewater treatment plant on station that processes all of the wastewater to protect the delicate ecosystem right outside our windows.”

Despite those challenges, Liwanag said the group has adjusted to the new lifestyle.

“McMurdo is a funny place. It feels like home in a very short amount of time. People you’ve just met become great friends, and the way of life — living in a dorm room, heading to the galley for meals (and, in our case, usually bringing a sack lunch into the field), and not seeing the sun set at night — quickly become the norm,” she wrote in an email.

Andrew Sheeler: 805-781-7934, @andrewsheeler

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