Monday, December 22, 2008

Since this was another sea day, we got a later wake-up call. Getting to sleep the night before was an adventure, because at about 11pm the ship started really rolling. The ship had veered off course to keep the waves "smaller," but at 11pm the captain turned back directly towards South Georgia. The direction it was rolling was parallel with how our beds were arranged, so our feet would smash into the end of the bed, and then our heads would go towards the other end. We didn't get sick, but it was near impossible to get to sleep. Justin found that wearing his cold weather hats worked well for comforting the blow (not to mention keeping warm). Also, he didn't move around nearly as much as everyone else, since his head and feet were already at the ends of the bed - nowhere to slide.

After breakfast, we just went into the bar and read a little bit, listened to some music, and played some Scrabble.

At 10am, we got a lexture on seals from Lex. There are three main types of seals - Otariidae (eared seals, such as fur seals), Phocidae (true seals), Odobenidae (only the Walrus). The Weddell seal has very big eyes (to help them see underwater), nostrils that are normally closed, very sensitive whiskers. The difference between the eared seals and the true seals has to do with walking ability - the ear seals can walk (and run) very fast, whereas the true seals are basically marine only. The fur seals also have external ears, as opposed to a hole on the side of the head.

In the Antarctic fur seals, the males are about 2-4 times bigger and heavier than the females. The males have a harem that they need to defend, so over time the males got bigger and bigger. For breeding, the males arrive at the breeding ground first, start defending their territory, and then wait for the females to show up. The females give birth shortly after arriving on the beach, and not long after they are ready to breed again. After breeding, the males take off (since they've been fasting for some time now). While gestation is 9 months for baby fur seals, there is a 3 month "stop period," making gestation essentially 12 months. The Antarctic Fur Seal feed almost exclusively on krill, which is very different from other fur seals.

There are 5 main types of true seals - Elephant, Crabeater, Ross, Leopand, and Weddell. We likely will see all of these but the Ross seals. Elephant seals are enormous - almost 6 meters in length for the males. The males are also 4-5 times bigger than the females. Elephant seals breed in nearly the same way as the Fur Seals. One slight difference is that elephant seals defend the females, not a specific spot of land. Elephant males have a big "nose" which amplifies their size when they make noise.

The Weddell seals have distinguishing spots. Its distribution is all around the Antarctic continent, and is true ice loving. In fact, babies are born straight onto the ice. The mother's milk has the highest fat content of any mammal on earth. We can get quite close to Weddell seals - they aren't afraid of us - but we need to stay 10m or more away. If they get up from their nap when we come in - we have walked too close. They feed at night because at night, Plankton rises to the ocean surface, and Krill eats the Plankton, so by waiting until the night the Weddell seals don't need to dive as far. Weddell seals are very vocal, both above and below water. Their teeth are postioned slightly forward, to help them scrape the ice. During the winter, they use their teeth to keep breathing holes in the ice open. Unfortunately, their teeth wear down prematurely, at which point they can't feed, and so they die around 20 to 25.

Crabeater seals, ironically, do not eat crab. There is no crab on Antarctica. Instead they feed exclusively on krill. Their coloration is from light brown to a greenish tint. This is the most abundant seal on earth - more than all the other seals in the rest of the world combined. It's teeth are like balleens of a whale - sort of a filter for eating krill.

Nobody likes the Leopard Seal, because they feed on penguins. Their range extends to the tip of South America and South Georgia, but Lex doubts we'll see any there. Their appearance is more reptilian. By eating only some of the penguin, the remains feed skuas and petrels. So Leopard Seals serve an important function. In one recorded instance, 4 Leopard Seals were responsible for taking out 15,000 penguins over a 6 week period. Their teeth look ferocious - they reminded us of our Doberman Suge's teeth.

Ross seals have a round body, and are even better insulated than others.

Seals run into problems from fishing gear, plastic bags, etc. The fur seals are especially susceptible, since they are very curious. So curious, in fact, that they will seek out oil spills to play in the oil.

Fur seals were nearly hunted to extinction in the early 1900s, but have come back to such large numbers that they are considered a nuisance, because they take up room on the breeding grounds of birds and penguins. Why their numbers are so high now is a guess, but one guess is that there is an abundance of krill due to whaling. In other words, when whales were abundant, they competed with seals for krill. Now, however, there is much less competition, and since the seals can reproduce so fast (especially in contrast to the whales).

After Lex's presentation, we saw a short documentary on Weddell seals. Then Anja gave us a short presentation on South Georgia and the things we might expect to see there. We know she does not want to oversell things, and its a good practice to manage expectations, but she didn't really get us pumped up to visit this place that will cost us no more than 5+ full days at sea (coming from the Falklands and going to the peninsula), which is about 1/3 of our trip. We hope it all works out.

After lunch, we went out on the back of the boat, and that was nice. The waves at sea are pretty tall - many seemingly as large as the boat itself. We kept rising up over the waves, then falling back down, then up, then down, and so on. For particularly large waves, when we fell back down, the crest of the following wave was well above our heads. Occasionally water would get onto the deck, either because we fell too far or because a wave crashed against the side. There were a few birds out - not as many as other days. Perhaps it is because we are farther away from land.

We were going to watch what we thought was a documentary on Shackleton, but we left when we found out it was a Hollywood movie, not a documentary. So instead of watching that, we got our clothes ready for vacuuming. South Georgia is very strict about not wanting foreign material coming to the island. It has had a problem with invasive plants and animals (particularly rats), so the British enacted strict regulations to prevent this from occurring nay more. In fact, there are a couple of islands off of the main island for which no people are allowed. These islands have rare and endangered birds, and have no rats (yet). Hopefully it will stay that way.

After we cleaned our clothes, we hung out in the bar until we got our briefing for the next day. At least as of now, we're on pace to get to South Georgia early, sometime in the morning. Before we can go out on the zodiacs, however, we need to get our IAATO training. Numerous people are still too sick to come to briefings, so Anja wants to wait until we are in calmer waters, which won't happen until we are right next to our landing site. At least we know we'll be getting off this boat tomorrow.

At 9pm we went down to watch the last two parts of Life in the Freezer. We made it only through the first, though, since we were very tired.