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> May 23, 2006 – Super Scientist, Gay Sheffield
post May 30 2006, 06:14 PM
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Member No.: 23

Date: Tuesday, May 23, 2006

I had another adventure today, besides the whale sighting, and I also need to introduce you to another one of the scientists on board the Healy.

I was able to venture out on the largest of the three smaller boats kept on the Healy. This boat was different from the bright orange, rigid-hull inflatable craft that Patty went on yesterday. The two, bright orange, rigid-hull inflatable boats are called Healy 1 and Healy 2. I was allowed to ride on Healy 3, the LCVP. LCVP stands for Landing Craft Vehicles and People. It is a 37-foot aluminum boat with an enclosed cab and a small ramp at the front that folds up for transport and folds down for transferring vehicles and people.

It was an awesome experience to take a boat ride away from the ship. I was able to see the ship in another perspective. In order to board the Healy 3, we had to climb down the side of the ship using a long, rope ladder that is sometimes referred to as a Jacob’s ladder. It was scary, but nothing was going to keep me from boarding that boat!

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5/23/06 – The landing craft is actually lowered down from the deck to the water by a crane located on the fantail of the ship. I had to climb down the ladder you see in this picture in order to board the landing craft. I held on for dear life and took it one step at a time. What an adventure just to board the boat!

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5/23/06 – Not only was it awesome to capture photos of the Healy from the air, it was equally awesome to capture photos of her from the water in the landing craft. I feel very lucky to have been able to see the Healy from this vantage point.

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5/23/06 – She looks clear from here, but just a few minutes later a thick fog rolled in. We lost sight of her for most of our expedition in the landing craft.

The purpose of our mission on the landing craft was to look for seal pups for Gay Sheffield. Gay is a wildlife biologist and she works for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. She has a bachelor’s degree in environmental conservation from the University of New Hampshire, Durham and a master’s degree in marine biology from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. She has been working with and studying marine mammals since 1988. Gay is looking for seal pups to place transmitters on them so that she can learn about their dispersal patterns, migration routes, and diving ecology. She wants to know where seals spread out, where they migrate, and how deep and how long they dive. A lot of this information is unknown to scientists.

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5/23/06 – Gay Sheffield is a wildlife biologist who works for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. She spends much of her time on trips like this one to collect data. She was telling an animated tale of her experiences in the field to Mikhail when I took this picture.

Gay spoke very favorably of the satellite transmitters she uses. They weigh just a few ounces and are glued onto the seal’s fur using a very thin layer of epoxy – a type of very strong glue. They are temporary and do not restrict the growth or movement of the animal. When the battery electrodes are activated by sea water, the transmitter sends a signal to a satellite and then the company that runs this service sends an email to tell the user where the transmitter signal has been coming from each day along with the depth data. When the seal molts, or sheds its fur, in the spring, the transmitter falls off with the old fur. The seals naturally grow a brand new coat to replace the old fur.

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Transmitters like this one are used by wildlife biologists to track and learn more about the location and diving behavior of marine mammals. This transmitter is smaller and lighter than the camera that I used to take the photo. It has an antenna that extends a few centimeters beyond the edge of the picture.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the federal agency that oversees the limited hunting of marine mammals, which can only be harvested by Alaska Natives for subsistence food use with the additional stipulation that no meat can be wasted. The data that Gay collects can be helpful to this agency when it develops policies concerning marine mammals. Gay is an employee of the state of Alaska, where a significant proportion of the population are of subsistence hunters, so the data she collects is very important to the people in her state that depend on seals as a primary food source.

We spotted two bearded seals on our boat ride today, but Gay says they were sub-adults, or juveniles, not pups. They would have gotten away before we could net or catch them, so she did not get to place a transmitter during this boat ride.

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5/23/06: The Latin name for a bearded seal is Erignathus barbatus. It is classified as a mammal in the suborder of carnivorous marine mammals called pinnipeds. It is in the family of earless pinnipeds called phocids. (Phocids have ears, but no outer ear structure like sea lions.) They are closely related to sea lions and walruses, which are in different families of the same order.

I learned a lot of information about bearded seals (and other ice seals) from Gay and from the Guide to Marine Mammals of Alaska by Kate Wynne. Seals have similarities to both land and marine mammals. Seals can swim and dive like dolphins, but they have to haul out on the ice to mate, give birth, and nurse. Seal pups are not immediately ready to swim like dolphins and whales are. Bearded seals like the broken pack type of ice. On average, an adult may weigh around 500 to 600 lbs and can be around 7 feet long. The babies are around 4 feet long when they are born. Bearded seals eat a diet similar to walruses; they feed on benthic creatures that sit on the surface (epifauna) of the sea mud while walruses muck around for the benthic creatures that are in the mud (infauna). Bearded seals are opportunistic, as most creatures are, so it is difficult to say they eat specific things. They have also been known to eat the fish that rest on the mud and can swim after the fish if they start to get away.

Bearded Seal Taxonomy
Kingdom = Animalia
Phylum = Vertebrata
Class = Mammalia
Order = Carnivora
Suborder = Pinnipedia
Family = Phocidae
Genus = Erignathus
Species = barbatus

I get the distinct impression that Gay really likes being out in the field collecting data and also likes the interaction and relationships she has developed with the members of subsistence communities. So, I asked Gay about her favorite part of her job. She said that she does love those things I mentioned before, but she actually loves it the most when the different user groups of marine mammals (people who study, hunt, manage, and make policy) communicate and share information with one another for the benefit of all involved.
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