Week 2: Let the Elephant Seals (almost) Squish You!

Mar 03, 2019

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, there sometimes comes a moment where someone yells “SEAL!” and everyone scatters. That happened this week.

I only went in twice for my second week, but we definitely covered some ground and a ton of new procedures.

On Monday, we did two procedures on two females, and it took like six or seven hours. First Rachel, my advisor, injected the seals with a sedative, ketamine (since it wasn’t into a vein it was called “intra-seal” or IS, that always got me laughing). Then we waited for the seals to stop moving. The quantity of sedative was enough to kill a human (I think it was around 3 point something or 4 point something CCs). Important distinction, the seals weren’t unconscious, because they would’ve stopped breathing and died (although they can hold their breath for like two hours, but, you know, better to not make them hold their breath for so long). Once the sedative had kicked in, we moved towards the seal, careful to ward away all the other females and males who were very interested in our progress.

We worked to take girths (plural this time, unlike the weanlings, for whom we measured a girth right under their flippers, around the widest part, but on adults, we took around ten different girths, enough to have a thorough understanding of the seal’s body type), lengths, ultrasounds (used to determine the thickness of blubber; we took an ultrasound at each site of girth measurement), blubber samples (which you can imagine as essentially a metal straw being stuck into the side of the seal, then the end being clamped and pulling out a string of blubber; we gave the seals lidocaine injections at the site of the sample), blood samples (five tubes that are the same size used for humans, which isn’t a worry because elephant seals have insane volumes of blood, like one of the highest blood/weight ratios in the animal kingdom), whisker samples (cutting off a whisker), and finally weights (for which we used a special, really strong scale, in the same general method as with weanlings).

In addition to the measurements, before weighing, we attached two tags (satellite tags) to the seals (who were chosen because they would soon leave to sea): one on their backs and one on their heads. The tag on their back was a depth sensor, and the one on their head was a satellite tag (not a GPS tag, because those take too long to connect and too much battery, but rather an ARGOS tag, which are more energy efficient but less accurate). The accuracy of their satellite position didn’t matter too much because a margin of error of a few dozen miles was nothing when they travelled thousands to the Aleutian Islands. The seals were basically dissociated during the procedure. You could imagine them as basically high out of their minds (not too far off because ketamine is used as a recreational drug). We had to stay after the procedure was done until the seals woke up, because if a male came over and tried to mate with the sedated female, he’d kill her, most likely by breaking her spine or collapsing a lung, because she’d be unable to wiggle around to a more safe position underneath the multi-ton males.

It took a really long time to do the procedures, but in the end, there were no problems and no seal chases. Not yet, at least 😉

On Thursday, we did the same thing as on Monday, but we only had time for one procedure, because the tide was rising really fast and we couldn’t locate another target female. The one we did do, however, went the same as the others earlier in the week, except for the fact that we didn’t take a blubber sample. We did almost get squished by three males charging at us from three different directions. I noticed that one was sneaking up on us from behind (top right of the drawing; the brown blobs are seals, the black circles are people), right after we’d finished all our data collection and were just waiting for the seal to wake up. I called out “SEAL!” and we ran away from the charging male, towards the sedated female. As we did that, a second male (bottom right of the drawing) started charging us, from a different direction. Imagine there being a triangle, with the female (shown in center of drawing) and us in the center, and one side facing behind us. The first male came from the point to our back right, the second from the point to our back left. We ran straight, when the alpha male (shown on the left of the drawing) of the harem started charging straight at us (not the female). We were trapped, and I was stuck between a charging alpha male and a steep sand back to our right (marked by “Oh shoot!”). I ran and jumped and made it out.The alpha male chased away the other two males, but then he figured that while he was by the female, he might as well try to mate with her. We couldn’t let that happen, so Rachel ran at him with a blue tarp that for some reason scares the living daylights out of elephant seals. She whacked him in the nose with it several times and he bit the tarp a few times, but eventually he started flopping backwards away from the female, and fell back asleep. Keep in mind, these aren’t your harbor seals or sea lions. This alpha male was as tall as me standing up when it was only reared back on its back flippers. It must’ve been 15 or 16 feet long and close to 5,000 pounds. It was enormous. It was an intense situation, and one of those times were we just dropped everything we were doing and ran. Rachel told me that there’d be some times when she says “run” and I have to do exactly that. This was one of those times. The first male to flop at us actually damaged some blood samples we’d collected, and went straight over all of our pelican cases.

It was an adrenaline-pumper, but there was no real danger of being seriously injured. There was space to run, and I noticed with enough time to react. I think that if I hadn’t noticed, we’d’ve had an issue.

I hope you all enjoy my MS Paint drawing 😉

6 Replies to “Week 2: Let the Elephant Seals (almost) Squish You!”

  1. Ivana B says:

    I love your drawing! Please be careful out there.

  2. Samyukta I. says:

    they’re strong thicc bois

    1. Alex S. says:

      strongg bois

  3. Helena Vervoort says:

    You will have stories to tell for years to come! This is all very exciting and I am very curious what all you will be finding out from the blood and blubber samples you collected. Do you have an idea what will be done with those?

    Dr. Vervoort

    1. Alex S. says:

      I’m not sure about the blubber samples, those are for someone’s project. The blood samples we worked with after the field day was over, and separated the blood into different layers by weight of cells. I believe there is ongoing research on the red blood cells of elephant seals, because they are so unique (bigger & better than humans’), and I saw that there were a ton of samples stored in deep freezers, so I figure that the researchers there are doing something with them… I’ll ask when I head down tomorrow 🙂

  4. Sameena C. says:

    wouldn’t it be fun to say you got squished by an elephant seal tho. Alex doing some real scientist stuff out here

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