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On the Ice with Our Scientists Post #1

May 09, 2024

NOAA Fisheries scientists conduct several regular surveys and field projects on seals that make their homes on Arctic sea ice to gather information to be used to manage these seal populations.

A seal with dark black hair and a distinct white ribbon pattern resting on an ice floe in the sunshine with its head up and looking forward to the left. An adult male ribbon seal (Histriophoca fasciata) rests in the sunshine on an ice floe in the Bering Sea. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Josh M London Photo taken while working under authority of NMFS Research Permit #23858

Journey to the Ice Seals

The “ice-pushing” R/V Norseman II (Support Vessels of Alaska, Homer, Alaska) set sail from Dutch Harbor on April 15 with a team of scientists determined to better understand the health and ecology of ice seals. It took nearly a week for us to complete our transit to the sea ice near St. Matthew Island, where we have the best chance of locating ribbon and spotted seals.

Scientist wears a mustang suit while using binoculars to look at sea ice
Research scientist Skyla Walcott surveys the sea ice for seals from the bird box of the R/V Norseman II (SVA). Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Kyle P Kolda

To avoid being battered by 50 knot winds, freezing rain, and large swells, we hunkered down on the south side of St. George Island before making a run to the sea-ice edge. Sheltering from the storm didn’t stop the boat from rocking however, and I spent most of the week in my bunk, or “lair” as we came to call it, bogged down with seasickness. It all paid off when we reached our destination midday on Friday April 19. The excitement of seeing the ice cured my nausea and brought an air of anticipation to the rest of the team. Our boat was surrounded by large flat white pancakes of ice, and the horizon was no longer a deep rolling blue, but rather a thin white line that met a pale red sunset. The night was cold and mostly quiet despite the occasional thud of a pancake ice floe hitting our hull. 

an all white bird with black legs perched on a raised portion of an ice floe with other ice floes in the background
Ivory gull (Pagophila eburnea) perched on an ice floe in the western Bering Sea. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Josh M London

Situated in a large polynya, we used our first full day near the sea ice to deploy our capture boats and complete an initial gear check. A crane on the upper deck of the R/V Norseman II lowered our inflatable boats into the water, and after loading our gear we made our way along the outer edge of the sea ice. Although we saw plenty of ivory gulls, there were no pinnipeds in sight. We instead used this opportunity to practice our capture technique. Seals are deceptively fast on ice, so we need to stay stealthy and swift in order to work with them. We have to crouch low and put our boats in idle until we’re in range for a capture. The boat driver then accelerates quickly and the catcher leaps from the bow onto the ice with a net in hand. We continued practicing until the fog told us it was time to make our return to the R/V Norseman II.

Three people using binoculars look at sea ice through windows on the bridge of a research vessel
Researchers (from left to right) Stacie DiRocco, Jessica Lindsay, and Heather Ziel survey the sea ice for seals from the bridge of the R/V Norseman II (SVA). Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Skyla M Walcott

With the sea ice, came the ice seals! On Sunday April 21, we took turns scouting for pinnipeds from the pleasantly warm bridge of the R/V Norseman II and the exposed observation deck known as the “bird box”. When word came from the bridge of a seal shaped object located on the ice just below the horizon, I ran up to the bird box with some other team members to get a better look. We brought out the scope and confirmed our first ribbon seal sighting of the trip! From our binoculars she was a small dark round blip in an endless sea of white and blue, but through the scope we could see the remarkable black and white bands indicative of an adult ribbon seal. Shortly thereafter, a second ribbon seal hauled out right next to the first for a brief interaction, and quickly scanned its surroundings before returning to the water. Temperatures in the bird box were a brisk 20° F with winds exceeding 15 knots, yet we stayed outside to observe her stretch and move about the ice for over half an hour while other team members launched a UAS to get a closer view. Unfortunately, a dense curtain of fog rolled in low and fast which rapidly diminished our ability to scan the ice, so the drone was recalled. With low visibility and winds picking up, our operations for the day ended. Confirmation that we are in the right habitat for ice seals was reassuring, and we’re aiming to get better drone imagery and capture some ice seals in the coming days. 

A man dressed in an orange float coat looks through scope that is pointed out onto the sea ice
Scientist from the University of Alaska Anchorage, Kyle Kolda, observes a ribbon seal through a scope from the top deck of the R/V Norseman II (SVA). Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Skyla M Walcott
Two men standing next to an inflatable boat on an ice floe. One man on the right is looking at a handheld flight controller while piloting a small drone. The second man on the left extends his arm and grasps the small drone in flight. The second man is wearing a helmet, eye protection, and protective gloves.
Researchers from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center's Marine Mammal Laboratory, Peter Mahoney (left) and Gavin Brady (right), catch a small uncrewed aerial system (UAS) while on an ice floe in the Bering Sea. The small UAS is used to capture imagery from directly above seals that can be used to measure their size and evaluate body condition. UAS operations are conducted under authority of NMFS Research Permit #23858 and NOAA NIF #N24-17. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Josh M London

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Last updated by Alaska Fisheries Science Center on May 09, 2024