The National Zoo's Antarctica Expedition is sponsored by the National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs.
All photographs depicting Weddell seals were taken under NMFS Permit No. 763-1485-00 issued under the authority of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
November 2, 2006
I have finally taken a few pictures of us working with the seals. It’s been LONG days, and hard work, but we are finally getting the hang of it. Weddell seals are big, strong animals, but for the most part incredibly docile. You can get within a few meters of about 80 percent of these seals, and they will merely raise their heads to see what is going on. One thing that helps is they have really horrible vision above water, and probably do not see us clearly. This is especially apparent in the pups, which crawl up to you and taste your boot before they realize you are not their mother. We have processed animals weighing more than 500 kilograms—that is well over 1,200 pounds of muscle, fat, and teeth. So, even though these animals are quite calm, they have the potential to be really dangerous. I was thrown through the air a few days ago when one of them got hold of my boot. Luckily I was wearing my huge, thick rubber boots, and the seal’s teeth did not penetrate into my flesh. Regardless, it was eye opening to see that, with the mere flick of her head and neck, a mother seal could toss me like a rag doll.
To "process" a seal, we first capture it using a head-bag and pole net. Much of the time I have been a "head-bagger," meaning I run up and place a bag over the head of the animal, then hop on its back and strap two ropes around the flippers to secure the bag. This works amazingly well, and it is somewhat like riding a bucking bronco when a seal gets going. Once the animal has calmed down, we take a blood sample and inject it with the isotopes that will eventually tell us about metabolism and energy turnover. After that, we suspend the seal on a tripod and winch contraption to get a weight. Then we release the animal. On future recaptures, we will milk them and take more blood samples to measure isotope levels and obtain various other physiological indicators
Smithsonian Ice Camp
Watch a Slide Show of Us Weighing a Seal