Weddell Seals in the Ross Sea 2016


Now Archived: PolarConnect Event with teacher Alex Eilers and the and the research team studying Weddell Seals in Antarctica. You can access the archive of this event by visiting the PolarConnect Archives.

What Are They Doing?

A Weddell seal near McMurdo Station, AntarcticaA Weddell seal near McMurdo Station, Antarctica (Photo by Alex Eilers)

The team will travel daily to Weddell seal haul out sites on the sea ice near McMurdo Station. While on location, the team will find female seals that they had handled approximately two months earlier, and recapture the females to assess changes in their health, condition and behavior over the summer months. To do so, the seals will be captured and sedated. Once sedated, the seals will be weighed and measured (length and girth), have blood and tissue samples collected, and their molt status assessed. In addition, imaging ultrasound will be used to determine if the females are pregnant, and -0 if so - the size of the fetus will be measured. They will also take thermal images of the seals to see how much heat the seal is losing to the environment. Time-depth recorders that had been deployed earlier in the summer will be recovered, and the diving and foraging behavior of the seals during the past two months examined. The team will return the next season in an attempt to relocate the seals and determine if the seals have pupped.

In addition, the team is doing range-wide surveys of all the seals in the area to determine the timing and progression of the molt (when it starts, how long it lasts). During each survey the molt status of all seals seen is recorded, and the status referenced back to the timing of pupping and reproductive activities to determine if females that finish lactation earlier start molting earlier.

The project's overall goals are to learn more about what drives the timing of a seal’s critical life history events – such as breeding and molting – and how disruptions in that natural cycle by changes in climate and environment might affect the world’s southernmost mammal.

Where Are They?

McMurdo Station, AntarcticaMcMurdo Station, Antarctica (Photo by Robin Ellwood) While in Antarctica, the research team will be living at McMurdo Station, the U.S. Antarctic Science Center. McMurdo is the capable of housing up to 1,258 residents, the largest community in Antarctica. McMurdo Station is on Ross Island, a volcanic island (with the southernmost active volcano, Mt. Erebus) south of New Zealand in the Ross Sea. McMurdo Station has its own science labs, engineering centers, dormitories, galley (kitchen), and even a US post office.


St. Patrick’s School I was lucky enough to stop by St. Patrick’s School in Greymouth. I had a chance to learn a phrase from the Te Reo language while I was there. In New Zealand, you might hear the phrase ‘kia ora’. This phrase translates to mean ‘be well’. People use it when they say hello, good bye, and thanks! This phrase was everywhere, even on my hotel key card! The students shared lots of great information with me while I spent time with them. One place they suggested I go was a little off the beaten path. Hokitika Let’s hop over to Hokitika! This town in New Zealand has branded...
Pancake rocks
St. Francis of Assisi I got a Warm welcome on my journey to Auckland New Zealand. The day was filled with presentations for the year 5-8 students at St. Francis of Assisi. In my lectures, I always talk about what it’s like to live at McMurdo station. I mentioned how I eat all my meals at the cafeteria in McMurdo station. That’s when I learned that schools in New Zealand don’t usually have cafeterias! Instead, the students told me everyone brings a packed lunch from home. Where I’m from, every school has a cafeteria, I never even considered that kids in New Zealand might not know what a...
Catholic Cathedral College While in Christchurch, I got a chance to visit the students at Catholic Cathedral College. I learned that this school can trace its roots back to the mid eighteen hundreds, that’s nearly 200 years ago! The school may have been around for a long time, but the students were young and excited to tell me all about the place that they call home. What a beautiful building! Can you imagine getting to go to school here. Photo credit: Buildings and Art: I asked these students where they liked to go in Christchurch and they told me about...
Sea Lions at Kaikoura
New Brighton School New Brighton school was full of eager young minds! Did you know, they don’t call their grades the same things we do? We say ‘I’m in fifth grade,’ but in New Zealand, they say ‘I’m in year five’. So, I’m going to practice what I learned. I taught my program to 52 students in years 5 through 8. I also taught 54 students in years 3 and 4. I focused on a footprints theme while I was teaching at New Brighton. We also had fun trying on my famous coat, Big Red! Big red earned its name. Just look at how huge this coat is on my friends at New Brighton! Photo credit: Alex Eilers...
Christchurch Botanic Gardens
St. Joseph's School Hello Again! I have gotten back home to Memphis safe and sound. I have had some time to unpack, relax, and soak in the warm Memphis sunshine. After leaving Antarctica, I thought it would be great to share my school program with a few of the schools in New Zealand. Some wonderful schools opened their doors to me. Since I was unfamiliar with New Zealand, I asked the students ‘what to do’ or ‘where to go’ each day after my presentations. And let me tell you, their advice was better than any advice a travel agent could give! The students at St. Josephs were eager learners. I...

Expedition Resources

Project Information

11 January 2016 to 18 February 2016
Location: McMurdo Station, Antarctica
Project Funded Title: The Cost of a New Fur Coat: Interactions between reproduction and molt in Weddell Seals in Erebus Bay, Antarctica

Meet the Team

Alex Eilers's picture
Pink Palace Museum
Memphis, TN
United States

Growing up in Chillicothe, Illinois, Alice Eilers dreamed of becoming a teacher. Ms. Eilers began her schooling at the University of Mississippi, receiving her undergraduate degree in Elementary Education in 1990 and completing her graduate degree at the University of Memphis six years later. In 1995 her dreams of becoming a teacher became a reality and she began her teaching career at the Pink Palace Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. Ms. Eilers is currently the Manager of Education and has had the pleasure of teaching a variety of subjects including astronomy, natural and cultural history to area Pre-K through 8th grade students. Ms. Eilers has also been involved in number of national teacher professional development programs. In 2008, she was selected to participate in a research project studying Leatherback Sea Turtles through the NOAA Teacher at Sea Program. Ms. Eilers is in the MESSENGER Educator Fellowship Program and has also participated in the UMASS-STEM Polar Connections Program.

Jennifer Burns's picture
University of Alaska
Anchorage, AK
United States

Dr. Jennifer Burns' research focuses on understanding how the age and physiological status of juvenile marine mammals influences their diving and foraging capacities, and on how differences in rates of physiological development impact life history traits. Burns currently has an active research program focused on understanding whether the rate and extent of neonatal physiological development is closely correlated with the onset of independent foraging. In her research, Burns uses a wide variety of analytical tools including computerized dive recorders, satellite telemetry and GIS techniques, as well as several more hands-on techniques such as measuring heart rate and respiration patterns, energy use, and animal condition and health status.

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Latest Comments

Thanks for the comment Janet! Yes, the New Zealand outreach was a huge hit. Many Thanks! Alex
Wow! I love all the wood art, especially the hand! That's almost creepy. Anyway, it looks like your extra time in New Zealand doing outreach was very successful! Thanks for sharing! Janet
Very cold! And from what I remember, I believe the water temp is around -1.8C + or -. I've written it somewhere in a journal. If you fine it I'll send you a postcard! You also might be...
Yes - It is absolutely beautiful! There is no need to send a thank you - we were very happy to send the postcards. Your gracious comments are thanks enough! All the best! Alex Eilers