Marine Mammals

"For the Captain has told us, and he says out of hand, there are a thousand whales off, of the coast of New Zealand!" (Whaler's song of 170 years ago.)

Subantarctic waters were the mecca of the whalers. After the pelagic and shore whalers had virtually exterminated the Sperm, the Blue Whale and the Humpback aorund New Zealand waters, it was found that rich whaling grounds were to be found around the Antarctic ice edge. With steel-built steam-powered catchers and mother ships and the harpoon gun they did not last long. Between 1904 and 1965 175,250 whales were taken from South Georgia and the Weddell Sea, 41,515 being Blue Whales. The Ross Sea was never very productive though once we passed through a whaling fleet in the fog, the nippy little chasers with their high bows and catwalks from the bridge to the harpoon gun, wildly swerving out of our way. Orcas or Killer whales were regarded as being too small to be hunted and were common, as are the Minke Whale and the Sei Whale. The others are rare and have the annoying habit of sounding at the instant you press the camera button. Consequently, no pix am sorry to say. The "fishing line" for whales is 1 inch nylon. Sperm Whales migrate to the Tongan Islands for breeding and go though odd manouvres leaping entirely out of the water, several at a time. Are these mating rituals??
The Humpback is recovering somewhat, I counted 13 from the air off Kaikoura recently. The Japanese have since 1996 killed about 600 minke whales "for experimental purposes" annually. Obviously the minke is also to be reduced to uneconomic levels. Studies around the Crozet Islands have found sharp reductions in killer whale due to over-fishing and decline in elephant seal.

Weddell Seals

A Weddell seal may weigh from 500 lbs to nearly half a ton and is 10 – 12ft long. They live rather longer than the husky dog who is their cousin, to about 20-25 years. A very streamlined beast, he is very fast and agile in water, using his front flippers for steering and rolling and his trailing remnant of feet as a propellor. On land or rather ice, for the Weddell is seldom seen on rock, he is very awkward, He cannot tuck his feet under him as a sealion does and can only move by humping along on his belly. Sometimes he will move away from you by rolling. As there are no bears, the southern seals have no enemies on land other than people who have virtually exterminated the fur seals and sea-elephants but the Weddel has neither desireable fur nor large amounts of blubber, so thas been left relatively alone.

A Weddell seal's diving hole in McMurdo Sound off the Dellbridge Islands. Notice the teeth marks round the edges and the nose of the seal getting some air.
His only worry in maintaining his diving hole through which he enters and leaves the water if he is not near an open lead or open water. Usually seals lie along tide cracks where the ice is broken near the shore by the rise and fall of the sea-ice in the tides, or along pressure ridges where moving pack has broken the sea-ice into piles of blocks, with often small open pools of water. This will tend to freeze over so the Weddell keeps it open by sawing the ice back with his teeth. An old seal may have his teeth quite worn down.

The Weddell diet is exclusively fish. Biologists have timed the length of a seals dive under water, I do not know what the record is at this point but it is about an hour an hour and a hundred fathom depth. We found seals by tide cracks away out at Brown Island about 20 miles from the open sea. As they could not possibly swim this far without air, they will be trapped there until an unusual season comes when the ice "went out" all the way to Brown Island. Another trapped group exists near White Island. As the ice is several hundred feet thick, how they haul themselves out (they can be seen on any warm day) is something of a mystery.

The female seal produces a pup (occasionally twins) in late October on the sea-ice after a gestation period which must be close to 12 months. The pup lies there drinking an enormous amount of milk and puts on weight fast. Sea otters and even sea-lions have to teach the pups how to swim, but I think Master Weddell gets by without teaching.

Baby and Mum; Weddell Seals

Weddells have stiff hair about half an inch long, not fur. They have a warm, oily, rather fishy smell. If you sit on them they may ignore you, or turn a head and look as much to say "What do YOU think yer doin'?") and go back to sleep. Or they may roll over. If offended, they sometime hump away and slide back down their diving holes at which point it is advisable to get off.

Seals have a 2 inch layer of blubber under their hide which can burn furiously, so if one is stranded without food, many explorers have survived by killing seal and cooking meat on a blubber fire. Blubber cubes mounted on a mesh of bone with a wick of tow, can be used as a lamp as the Eskimos do in Greenland in their igloos. The meat is like tough string embedded in a kind of black jelly, it is not a gourmet's dish. Weddells obviously also have a low opinion of people as a diet staple. My waterproof mukluks are made of seal skin, and strips of seal hide (or White Whale) are used to lash Nansen dog sleds. Eskimos make seal skin (or Polar Bear) britches but they are a little stiff unless well chewed by a female Eskimo with good teeth. Cubes of frozen seal blubber are also good to chew on, a kind of organic candy.

Woken up from a quiet snooze!

Sometimes Weddells get lost, humping along close to the ground trying to find the ice edge or a new diving hole, they cannot see far and they may head off in the wrong direction. We have found them dead more than thirty miles up the Ferrar Glacier, and a similar distance into the dry valleys. Occasionally a penguin will do the same thing. It is a frustrating business to encounter a penguin a hundred miles inland, determinedly heading south. Half an hour of, "Yer goin’ the wrong way, chum! The sea is thataway!" does little to convince him. An Adelie is a pigheaded little sod.

Weddells are quite gregarious and lie in groups of a dozen or twenty along any pressure ridge. Pressure ridges are always found at any point or cape on the coast, I have seen as many as 175 seals, mostly with pups, at a cape between Marble Point and Cape Roberts and frequently thirty may been seen in the ridged up pressure near Scott Base. Other good locations are along the tide cracks at Turtle Rock around the point near Glacier Tongue, where one can guarantee to find twenty or thirty on a warm day, or, near the Dellbridge Islands or even the Dailey Islands which are right at the southern end of McMurdo Sound. Once we came back down the Blue Glacier in September when the sea was frozen five feet thick to well beyond Cape Bird forty miles away, and the temperature had been forty below, but down on the sea-ice it was only about zero. There was a seal at a tide crack near the glacier front and we soon had him for dinner. (See "Transport, Dogs")

Does this seal look happy or terrified?
He is carrying a TV camera etc wired on by a group called Weddell World. Did this project pass an ethical committee?

Female seals with pups can be quite aggressive and may try to attack your dog team uttering ferocious roars. There may be no bears or wolves in the Antarctic but mama seal knows a menace when she sees one. As your husky dogs (which are large animals with teeth bigger than the seals) would also like to attack the seal and you, the puny dog-driver is in between armed with only a dog-whip, it can lead to an interesting experience. Seals are not easy to count even from the air as at any time half of them are down in the water but there may be a thousand or so in McMurdo Sound. Hundreds have been tagged in order to arrive at a more accurate counts. One wonders why and again, about ethical considerations.
Their only real enemy is the Killer Whale which has Sperm Whale-like teeth. I have seen 4 Killers tear a big Weddell to shreds in the water in a few minutes turning the water into a bloody mess. Mother Nature is not a nice old lady at all!

The Crab-Eater Seal

The crab-eater is slightly smaller than the Weddell (~700 lb) and lighter coloured. He does not eat fish but lives entirely in krill (euphausia) which are a very plentiful kind of shrimp which are also the main diet for the baleen whales and the sea birds and Adelies. The crab-eater has very odd teeth divided into branches which act like the baleen of the whale. Presumably they take in a great gulp of water and krill, squirt the water out between their teeth and eat the krill.

Crabeater teeth

They are reported to be the most numerous seal but as they live away out of the drifting pack ice and seldom come into McMurdo Sound they are not that frequently seen. Passing through 50 to 100 miles of pack in an icebreaker, usually only a dozen or so appear. People say there are about 13,000,000 scattered round Antarctica but I would like to know where. If they also pup in October, the icepack is still solid and not shifting that much so there should no problems. One might assume that in the later summer when the pack has largely melted, that the "crabbers" move in towards the shore.

Crabbers are better eating than the poor old Weddell as they do not smell of fish and the flesh is less like chewed rope. Sea Leopards like to dine on them as a change from penguin diet and many crabbers have ghastly scars in their hides. Photo by Angus Wilson.

The Ross Seal

Mainly seen up around Cape Adare, the Ross seal has a characteristic head up stance and black spots and patches down its front. It is not common and not well known.

The Sea Leopard

A truly nasty animal, one to walk wide of. Larger than most other seals with the females weighing up to 1200 lb, the Leopard has a spotty hide, (hence the name), very sharp teeth and a gaping maw he can open very wide. Leopards are not fussy about diet, they will eat anything with meat in it. They scull backwards and forwards out of sight in the water at the ice edge as the Adelies peer over anxiously trying to get a glimpse of him and elbowing each-other in the game of "You first!" "No! What kind of a mug do you think I am? YOU first!" Finally one Adelie hungrier than the others, dives, the others lean forward and peer over the edge and if no Leopard appears, follow in a great rush. Sometimes there is a Leopard waiting and there is a snap and a "squawrk" and the poor penguin is gone. Leopards do not like the taste of feathers and they snap their heads back and forth until the skin is quite torn off and eat the rest.

A Leopard Seal,>>

Leopard Seal

The other poor Adelies are quite aghast, "Oh my goodness, did you see that?" "Absolutely terrible, that horrible thing was just WAITING!" and they waddle off to another edge.
Young Leopards will eat krill until big enough to get teeth into a juicy Adelie or crabber. However they do not come ashore much, mainly staying out in the pack and in winter migrating north as far as the Cook Islands.

Our doctor was once down at the ice-edge and saw this unusual seal with it's snake-like head and was looking at it interestedly, when the Leopard swung round and clomped teeth into his arm, luckily protected by layers of anorak and clothing. A companion happened to have a pistol in his hand and promptly shot it. A female biologist was drowned by one "Over the other side" and another biological person had one clomp on his leg. His foolish companion had left his six-gun behind but was wearing eight-spiked crampons. A few kicks and the Leopard let go! (so would you have!) Definitely not a seal to sit on or be friends with. Leopards are yet another reason for carrying an ice axe (or a .357 Magnum) when near the ice-edge. Killer whales also regard you as potential dinner – and have even bigger teeth. If a person is on thin ice, Killers have been known to come up underneath and smash the ice. A six gun is not much use in such a case and a quick-firing 2 cm cannon is rather heavy. I have considered carrying a Mk5, 4 sec percussion grenade or two! Alternatively run like mad for thicker ice. Ponting escaped that way!