Meet The Unlikely Data Collectors Of The Antarctic

With mounting evidence that the Southern Ocean is changing, scientists needed to collect temperature and salinity data at a wide range of depths from the ocean around Antarctica. The problem is there is no easy way of doing this, and it is near on impossible for a human being to do. So the question is, what were the scientists going to do? Step up the Weddell Seal!

Inhabiting some of the coldest and darkest waters within the sea ice, these seals were not only already collecting this data, but they are the southernmost naturally occurring mammals on Earth. The research technique has also been used on the Elephant seal which can exceed the diving depth of a Weddell seal and reaches up to 2,400-metre depths.

Otherwise Unobtainable Research

At first, cladding the seals with these sensors was meant to show new and more detailed information about the ocean currents and the changing climate of the Southern Ocean, with the seals being about to track ocean change in real time. So far the research has shown that freshwater from the ice shelves is beginning to suppress the creation of bottom waters which drive heat around the planet. As the densest and coldest water masses in the world, Antarctic bottom water is involved in the movement of the world’s oceans. The research suggests that with the ice shelves melting due to the constant climate change, the amount of freshwater is increasing and stopping the formation of this important, dense bottom water.

Without the seals, collecting this data and finding out what was happening to the ocean currents hundreds of metres underwater would have been very difficult for scientists. It may have also been too late to discover the problem and develop a solution which, thanks to the Elephant and Weddell seals, is now a distinct possibility. Not only have scientists been able to discover a lot about the ocean's environment, but the data collected has also revealed a unique insight into the lives and habits of the seals themselves.

A Lesson In Seal Behaviour

Image Credit Clive R. McMahon

Apart from revealing to marine biologists just how deep these seals can dive, the research has also shown where and how they hunt for food. It has been found that a majority of the seals stay in the same area for days or weeks, diving and feeding in the same spot. Only a small portion of the seal population would roam across wide areas of the sea to hunt. The project, which is largely government funded and is in collaboration with several Antarctic programmes from countries including France, United States, Britain and Norway, now collects 70% of its oceanographic profile data via seals.

If you want the chance to spot these amazing seals for yourself in their natural environment, our range of expedition cruises can offer you the chance to do just that. Contact us today to discuss the different options and book the adventure of a lifetime.

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