Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Turk’s Head

NSF Polar Program

U.S. Antarctic Program

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.




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The Vicinity
November 21, 2006

Turtle Rock from about half a kilometer away

Antarctica is not the easiest place to travel around, but we are privileged to be able to move freely about the Hutton Cliffs area where we are camped. The other day, Rich and I went for a three-hour walk/climb from our campsite to Turtle Rock, a distance of about four kilometers. It was a beautiful day, so the walk was quite enjoyable with little wind and the temperature around 10˚C. As we approached Turtle Rock, it seemed to shrink, though the pressure ridges around it grew making the approach a bit of an ordeal. We had to constantly probe the snow for hidden cracks.

As we got closer, we realized there were quite a few seals in the Turtle Rock colony. Though there were many moms and pups, there were also more males here than at our Hutton Cliffs colony, which is predominately females and pups. At Turtle Rock, the ice holes seals use to get to the water are quite steep, much like woodchuck holes, whereas at Hutton Cliffs the holes are quite shallow and easier for the pups to get in and out of.

When Rich and I arrived at the foot of Turtle Rock we decided it would be worth a climb. Luckily the climb was quite easy—even in cold-weather boots equipped with stable-icers we were able to make the summit in about ten minutes. The climb had its moments as the “mountain” was all scree and for every step forward we’d slide back half a step. But we made it.

Dan on top of Turtle Rock

Sitting atop Turtle Rock was amazing and we had really beautiful views of Mt. Erebus and Castle Rock. The rocks all around us were also amazing—they were all volcanic and contained interesting mineral formations, which we admired before beginning our decent. The walk back was quite cold as the wind had picked up and the sun was less warming. We arrived back at camp hungry and ready for dinner!

Mom and pup at south end of Big Razorback

Our trip inspired the group and the next day, after finishing our fieldwork, we all headed out on snowmobiles to view three other seal colonies in the vicinity: the one we had seen the previous day at Turtle Rock and two others at Big Razorback and Turk’s Head.

Big Razorback

We began our trip heading toward Turtle Rock. The road was quite bumpy, and some in the group were none too happy with the rough ride. After exploring Turtle Rock, we backtracked to the Hutton Cliffs road, and proceeded in our vehicles to the Cape Evans road where we turned north/northwest. After several kilometers, open water at the tip of the Erebus Glacier Tongue forced us to detour and we eventually turned east toward Big Razorback, where the only other sea-ice camp is located.

Even though the wind was blowing so hard we could barely stand up, walking around Razorback was fascinating and the formations were breathtaking. The seal colony here is different too. It is very large, numbering around 75 individuals, and there are many pups and more single adults than we have at Hutton Cliffs. There were also many more dead seal pups here for as yet unknown reasons. On average about 15 percent of Weddell seal pups die before they are weaned, and it’s possible that our Hutton Cliffs colony has an exceptionally low mortality rate this year.

Seals in front of Turk’s Head

From Big Razorback we headed out in a northeasterly direction toward Mt. Erebus and Turk’s Head, the most stunning of the formations. The amazingly colored rock that is Turk’s Head towered above us and had a particularly interesting ice-ridge at the base. After I remembered to take off my snowmobile goggles, I spent a considerable time staring in awe at the surroundings. After spending so much time immersed in white snow and ice, these black, brown, and red colors were almost a sensory overload! After exploring the colony, we hopped back on our snowmobiles and headed back to Hutton Cliffs in what was an enjoyable, though slightly windy, ride.

Dan Boritt
Smithsonian Antarctic Ice Camp