Elephant seals research with gorgeous photos and ice climbing were highlights this week at Casey.

Ice Climbing

Last Sunday, after a week of hard work we were all ready to break free for some outdoor fun.  The field training officers had picked out a site to do some ice climbing at Thala Valley, between the station and the wharf area.  Many thanks to Adrian (polar engineer), Maso and Johan (plant operators) who made a large trench over summer as part of site amelioration works in Thalla Valley — the trench works very well as an ice climbing wall!

The event proved to be very popular and so the group was split into two teams.  We had great weather for photographs and even saw little groups of penguins wandering up and down the track all day.  But before we started climbing we had to don crampons, harnesses and remember how to tie a double figure of eight before we were eventually issued the all important ice axes.  Next up was the totally counter-intuitive task of shoving my toe into a waterfall of ice, digging my axe into the mountain and trusting (a) the rope on my harness was secure  (b) my axe would hold me (c) my forearms wouldn’t give way and (d) I could fight the fear of all the above.  I tried to bring back dusty memories of doing this years ago in the French Alps but this way harder, colder and more difficult.  The FTO’s said they deliberately picked an “easy” spot - but, apart from Seamus who ran up all the faces like an ice spider, the rest of us found it pretty challenging.  So it was a great feeling of accomplishment to finally get to the top of the anchor whilst along the way being asked to stop, pose and wave for the paparazzi down below.  Although for anyone who had a fear of heights this was ill advised.  Despite my enthusiasm, my technique was rusty and I was quietly told by FTO Ian  “err... best if you have 3 points of contact at all times”.  Point taken.  Seriously.  Once everyone had lots of practice we watched the experts do an easy scale up and seemingly float back down.  I loved it and can’t wait for another session - which has already been promised!

Elephant Seal Research

As part of the Integrated Marine Observing Systems tracking ‘Marine Apex Predators of the Southern Ocean’ project, the seal research team has been based down at the Browning Peninsula about three hours Hagg drive from Casey Station.

Living in the Browning hut, this year the team consists of ecologist Dr Iain Field from Macquarie University, Dr Andy Doube the team veterinarian, and French-Australian PhD Cotutelle student Karine Heerah.

While there Iain, Andy and Karine have been out and around the local beaches and wallows looking for seals that have been seen in previous years and for some seals to track over the winter period. Over the past two weeks, a number of previously seen seals have now been sighted again as adults. This is exciting as there are few life history records of adult male southern elephant seals.

They have also been putting out a few tracking devices on some juvenile seals (3 to 4 years old) who weigh around 500kg. Although the trackers have only been out a short while they already providing some interesting insights into the foraging behaviour of these seals who are diving down to around 1000m over the Antarctic continental shelf and slope.

It is expected that in the coming months these seals will make a return trip to either Macquarie Island or to Iles Kerguelen/Heard Island, and probably swim over 10,000km during the winter period.

The team have had great support from the station including field training, transport to and from Browning Hut, technical assistance and catering provisions.   It is with satisfaction we can rest easy in the hut each night after a long day with enough good food and vistas to last until departing Casey on V5 and returning to Hobart mid April.