Last Friday after dinner I decided to take a walk up the glacier to see if there was any open water to be spotted in the area. It was supposed to be close to a full moon, and I thought that there might be some interesting lighting conditions to use to take some photos of the station. I’d gotten distracted by some work stuff so by the time I got geared up it was already getting pretty dark. I was listening to the final couple of chapters of the new Harry Potter audio book on my mp3 player, and wasn’t really paying a lot of attention to the stuff around me. Up ahead on the trail was a big dark shape, and since it had been windy the past few days I figured a trash bag had somehow escaped and gotten away from station. I was going to put a rock on it to hold it in place till I got back down when it suddenly started growling and lunging at me. It turned out that it was a HUGE Weddell seal that looked like it was just in the beginning of labor.
Apparently it’s fairly common this time of the year for Hero inlet to become a nursery for Weddell seals, but to have one come this far inland was very unusual. I followed her tracks back to the sea ice and found two more Weddell seals on the other side of the harbor. They were all looking pretty miserable, and kept making these noises that sounded like something between a growl, a moan, and a howl. One would do it, and then the other two would reply. It was kind of like they were all in some seal Lamaze class, encouraging each other to breathe!
By this time, it was pretty dark, so I headed back to station to tell the others what I’d found. The next morning, I was out there as soon as possible. The seal on land was still there, looking even more miserable than before. She was getting very defensive about her territory, growling and lunging as soon as I entered her personal zone of safety. I quickly backed off, and left her alone to her labors. One of the other seals on the sea ice had apparently given birth during the night, but unfortunately for me she was on the other side of the inlet, and I didn’t have time to hike up the glacier just then.
Later on after work, I wandered back out to see what was going on. The new mother was looking pretty tired and unhappy. We’ve got these birds around called Antarctic Sheath-bills that are the worst opportunistic scavengers you’ll ever see. Normally they hang out around our sewer outfall taking advantage of our leftovers, but now they were harassing the new mom, trying to pick off all the afterbirth from both her and her newborn. I climbed the glacier to get over to their side of Hero inlet, and managed to get some decent photos of mom and baby. The infant was asleep, and facing the wrong way, so unfortunately these aren’t my best shots. On the way back to station I stopped by the original seal one more time to check on her, and noticed that she seemed even more miserable than before.
Sunday afternoon I finally got around to wandering out to see her again, and it turned out that sometime in the last 18 hours she’d given birth. Mom and the newborn were looking happy and healthy. I couldn’t believe the size of the infant…no wonder the mom looked so miserable! Both of them were extremely active, playing with each other, and fighting off the sheath-bills. This youngster still had the umbilical cord attached, and every so often Mom would nibble at it to see if she couldn’t get it off. I hung around and watched them playing for an hour so before heading back home to see how the pictures came out.