Saturday, January 31, 2009

Last Chance for E Seals

"E Seal" is Palmer slang for Southern Elephant Seal. In this part of Antarctica we also have "Leps" (Leopard Seals), "Chinnies" (Chinstrap Penguins), "S**t Chickens" (Sheathbills), and about a million acronyms (the USAP, United States Antarctic Program, just loves acronyms, plus Palmer has it's own station-specific collection). Of course I have developed my own affectionate terms for the local wildlife. These include: "Little Stinkers," (Adelie Penguins), "Big Stinkers" (E Seals), and some very impolite words for one particular Skua that dive-bombed my head every time I visited Old Palmer Island.

Anyhow, the E Seals seem to have a bit of a bad reputation. Some people even refer to them as filthy and disgusting. I admit, sometimes they do emanate a very unpleasant aroma (I'll refrain from detailing why, in case you were thinking about eating while reading this), and they do often snort and fart loudly while snoozing on the shore. On the other hand, E Seals can be very cute (just look at the picture of a young male above!), they have the most charming smiles - especially when resting, they are willing recording and photography subjects, and they make some truly outrageous sounds. From the very first time I encountered them I have been fascinated by the E Seals. Therfore this is a post in praise of Palmer's Southern Elephant Seals, and here are a few stories from my time with them...

1. First Encounters
My introduction to E Seals occurred on one of our early zodiac outings. Oona, Jon Brack and I motored over to "The Cove" (AKA "Lover's Lane," "Sheathbill Cove" or "Jeff's Unnatural Obsession") at Old Palmer Island, a hidden circle of sheltered water surrounded by two giant melting pieces of glacial ice which were once part of the Marr Ice Piedmont. As we turned off the zodiac's engine and slowly drifted across the water a glacier calved in the distance and deep alien bellows and cries began to emerge from the far end of the cove, echoing between the 30-foot tall walls of ice on either side of us. There, in the water, a couple of dark shapes tumbled and splashed. Several more large creatures lay side-by-side on the shore.
Ah, so these were E Seals... Their calls and interjections, so foreign from my own voice (and indeed most of the sounds I have ever worked with), instantly drew me to them. Quickly I pulled out my Edirol point-and-shoot recorder and started taping. After a few short minutes the mysterious sounds ended abruptly and much too soon to satisfy my now burning curiosity. Suddenly I wanted to learn all about these strange beasts, and I was desperate to hear more of their vocalizations.

Thus began my quest to record the E Seals, which I must admit became a bit of an obsession. Having captured a short sample of the seal's rowdy voices I was determined to record them again, and to get longer, better-quality audio of them with my fancy Sennheiser microphones. Plus, who knew what other weird and wondrous noises they might make... My mind reeled with the exciting possibilities.

I began making frequent trips out to Old Palmer Island, hoping to hear the raucous howling again, but to no avail. Each time I journeyed out to record the E Seals I found them fast asleep. It was miraculous how close I could get to the seals as they slumbered (this resulted in several fine recordings), and their snoring and deep-breathing were interesting noises in themselves, but these were not really the sounds I was searching for. To make matters worse, a friend at the station told me that E Seals vocalize underwater as well, when they are playing in the ocean. Now I was just dying to hear what that would sound like! During my first three weeks at Palmer Station again and again I returned to "The Cove," looking for E Seals swimming in the water, but I always found them piled up on the shore, totally conked out.

2. Night of the E Seals
During this time I had also been wanting to do some camping. After all, how could I go all the way to the bottom of the world and not sleep out, at least for one night? Also, I must admit, I've always possessed a secret desire to have my own island and now here was my big chance to be the only human on an island in Antarctica. But, being Antarctica, it was particularly important (and desirable, especially for recording) to have a good weather window in which to camp: two days in a row of no precipitation and calm winds. Even in the heart of Antarctica's summer this is not a common occurrence. Each morning I eagerly consulted the forecast, hoping for a friendly prediction. Finally the weather gods smiled and I saw my chance. So one balmy evening, a few hours before sunset, I was dropped off on Old Palmer Island.

Shortly after the zodiac's motor faded into the distance, and before I even had a chance to leave my drop off point and head across the island, I heard it: the faint bawls and bellows, splashes and sputters, of E Seals in the water! And this time it wasn't just a couple of them cavorting. I peered around the rocky outcropping and there they were: over a dozen Southern Elephant Seals, sparring in pairs in the shallow water. The combination of their playful martial dances and eerie roars was mesmerizing. I watched, and listened, and recorded their sounds for an hour or two. I could hear other seals farther away as well, both E Seals and some other kind that produced high-pitched barking sounds (it was probably a fur seal). Often a dialog seemed to be taking place between the different groups and I wondered what they were conversing about.

Now these seals I was observing were not the ones in "The Cove," which was all the way over on the other side of the island, and as time went by I got to wondering if my sleepy cove buddies might also be romping in the water. It was now getting rather late in the day, maybe around 10pm, and dusk was settling in. My camping gear lay, ignored and still in my pack, on the ground in front of me. I wanted to rush right over to "The Cove" but common sense kicked in and I forced myself to put up my tent first. From my campsite in the middle of the island I could hear the cove seals frolicking. "Oh please," I thought, "don't stop before I can get over there!" Twenty minutes later, my home-for-the-night in order, I ran across the darkening island.

There was still plenty of action going on in the cove. E Seal heads popped up and tails disappeared below the surface. Sounds of splashing and breathing traveled across the flat water to me and my microphones. Occasionally a pair of seals would face off, their torsos rising out of the water as they roared and wrestled. Others somersaulted and turned circles, while a few sleepyheads dozed upon the shore. All these sounds bounced off the ice cliffs, which amplified them in the still night. Wow. Here's a small sample of what I heard.

I didn't think the experience could get any better, until I noticed that once in a while strange gurgling tones were rising up from near my feet. I was standing next to one of the decaying ice cliffs and at first I thought these sounds were just some odd permutation of a glacier meltwater stream. However, they were occurring very infrequently. In fact I only heard them a handful of times during the several hours I stayed at the cove that night, and this made me wonder if perhaps they were not being generated by the glacier at all. After the third or fourth time the unusual burbling happened suddenly it dawned on me: these were the underwater vocalizations of the E Seals. They were traveling across the cove through the water to the ice, which was then reflecting them up into the air right next to me.

I stayed as long as I could, recording hours of audio, until at some point in the dead of night my toes felt like ice sculptures and I began to worry about frostbite. And then, the merriment still underway, I carefully made my way back to the tent and my not-so-warm sleeping bag. As it turned out, I needn't have been in such a hurry to reach the cove. The E Seals kept at it all night.

3. Last Chance Seals
I don't know why it hadn't occurred to me before I camped out that the E Seals might be nocturnal. Duh, of course they were! And now the fact that they slept all day made perfect sense. I'd be tired too after frolicking in the ocean all night long. I was very happy with the audio recordings I got that night. They just might be the best recordings of my entire trip and I can't wait to have the time to listen back to them all. I only had two regrets about that night: I was so transfixed with the sounds I had heard that I had taken no images (photo or video) at all of the E Seals playing in the water, and I had not been able to force myself to stop recording in the air and switch to recording with my hydrophones underwater (the air sounds were just too good, I didn't want to miss any of them). Thus, I wanted to go back to "The Cove" at night one more time and try to fill in these two small gaps.

Unfortunately I didn't have a lot of days left at Palmer. Suddenly time was short and there were so many things I wanted to record and experience before my stay came to an end. I searched in vain for another good weather window for camping. Today was my second-to-last day at the station and sadly now I know I will not be camping again here. The Gould is arriving tonight. I must pack and get ready to move onto the ship, and soon I will be heading home. Nevertheless I still thought it might be possible to catch the E Seals one final time, on an evening zodiac outing right at the very end of boating hours (9:45 pm these days).

So Louise (read her blog from Palmer Station here) and I set out after dinner. Our call name for the foray was "Last Chance Seals." It was a lovely, quiet evening. Normally in these conditions I would have expected to hear some noises coming from Elephant Seal Rocks as we loaded up the boat. Hmm, there was nothing. Maybe it was too early. No matter, we still had some time. First we cruised over to "The Cove" where it turned out that the waters were empty and the E Seals snored away onshore. Louise suggested we peek around the corner. We found no E Seals there, but a curious Leopard Seal swam right up to us and passed under our boat a few times. It was the closest I ever got to a Lep. Pretty amazing. Here's a short video clip of the Lep.

Next we motored over towards Humble Island where another group of E Seals usually congregates. They were strangely absent, but again we encountered other seals. This time two little fur seals came out to meet us and proceeded to flip and somersault a few feet from our boat. Yippee!
We tried a couple other E Seal haunts, but never found any in the sea. We didn't even see many on land, so I wonder where they all were. Maybe off eating somewhere? Still, the evening was beautiful, the company was great, and as the sun approached the horizon and Louise and I headed back to the station, I was glad I had gone out. I had my last chance seals, they were just not the ones I thought I was looking for that night.

And so I will have to be content with the recordings that I already have. This is fine, really, because they are very exciting and I am eager to work with them. Soon I will be leaving the realm of the E Seals, but I will always think fondly of them. Long may they sleep in piles upon the beach, gambol merrily in the sea, and grunt, howl, gurgle, belch and fart!

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