Cal Poly seal researchers were set to leave for Antarctica. Suddenly, the trip was canceled

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.

A team of Cal Poly researchers that included a San Luis Obispo High School graduate was preparing for a return trip to Antarctica to study baby seals when a permitting issue derailed their journey days before the scheduled departure date.

Professor Heather Liwanag, who led last year’s 10-week expedition to Antarctica, was scheduled to leave Thursday with a team of four or five others to spend nearly three months studying Weddell seal pups.

But a problem with their paperwork changed the team’s plans at the last moment.

Liwanag said she was disappointed when the trip was canceled, but she remains optimistic that a different team can return again next fall.

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Cal Poly professor Heather Liwanag was gearing up for a research trip to Antarctica when a permitting issue unexpectedly derailed the trip. Liwanag hopes to return in fall 2019. Joe Johnston

Liwanag said to perform research on Weddell seal pups, the team is required to obtain permits through two federal agencies — the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Antarctic Conservation Act — and a third through the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee.

“We had our protocols under all of these permits,” Liwanag said, “and then based on the work that we did last year, we requested modifications to our protocols in order to improve our ability to get the data that we were seeking. ... We ended up with a pretty long list.”

The research team submitted their modifications soon after returning from last year’s trip, Liwanag said, and some negotiating took place over the summer leading up to Thursday’s departure date.

As the date approached, Liwanag said it became clear the modifications for the Antarctic Conservation Act were not likely to go through in time to begin research in October.

Ultimately, the National Science Foundation — whose $1 million grant makes Cal Poly’s research possible — determined it would rather not send the team this year without all of its requested protocols fully approved.

“In the interest of the success of the project, NSF felt that it was better for us to wait,” Liwanag said. “I want to make it clear that, though I’m disappointed, I appreciate that people are looking out for the animals.”

SLO High graduate Melissa Voisinet, now a second-year graduate student at Cal Poly, had waited more than two years to make the once-in-a-lifetime trip to Antarctica.

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Cal Poly graduate student Melissa Voisinet, also a SLO High alumnus, was slated to be a member of this year’s research team in Antarctica. Joe Johnston

Liwanag said it’s unlikely Voisinet would go on next year’s potential trip, given she’s on track to complete her master’s program by then.

“I think it’s a very sensitive thing to work on super young seal pups, and that it’s a good thing that people care about them and are looking out for them,” Liwanag said. “They just want to make sure the everything is all above board before we go.”

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Cal Poly SLO students unveiled on Saturday, April 7, 2018, their ultra-lightweight solar car called “Dawn,” which is made of carbon fiber composites and over 100 square feet of solar panels. They hope the car will break the world land-speed record.

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