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Volunteering on a Seal Capture Trip
My First Pair of Xtratuffs
Upon boarding the M/V Steller I was promptly informed to be careful of the seals.
"They'll telescope," warned the skipper, Dan. "Just remember their head can move two feet away from where it is now to bite you – and their body won't even move."
By a circuitous series of events, I found myself invited on a seal capture trip as a volunteer, recording data for Alaska Department of Fish and Game scientists. We’d all be living and working aboard a research vessel in Endicott Arm, a glacial fjord 40 miles south of Juneau, Alaska, where active tidewater glaciers calve icebergs into the water. Smaller inflatables (Zodiacs) and skiffs would be used for the actual captures and to shuttle the seals to the M/V Steller.
On May 2, Jack Kreinheder and I flew out to Endicott Arm to join the Harbor Seal Research Program group on the M/V Steller. He had been asked by his friend Dr. Gail Blundell, an ADF&G wildlife biologist and head of the program, if he would like to volunteer as a seal restrainer. She needed men (or women) strong and heavy enough to restrain harbor seals, which can sometimes weigh over 300 pounds, while blood, tissue and other samples were taken and various instruments were attached to the seals (see the accompanying article). A restrainer was allowed to bring along a spouse or partner to help with lighter tasks. That would be me.
And I would need to buy a pair of Xtratuffs. I’d never owned a pair, despite having been born and raised in Juneau. As kids, we’d always gotten the cheap black rubber boots with the red strip around the top. As an adult, I'd always wanted a pair, but never felt I really needed them. Now I owned my first pair in men's size 8. I was ready for seals.
Armed with my new boots and a camera, my mission was to be useful, take as many picture as possible without annoying everyone, and to avoid the pointy end of the seal.
The flight to Endicott Arm was surreal. The pilot pointed out goats, but I found the color of the water and the icebergs riveting. We landed in Endicott Arm and were picked up in a Boston Whaler – a stable, flat-bottomed skiff – by John Wells, a wildlife conservation technician from in Anchorage. “Forget Yellowstone, it’s got nothing on this,” he said, opening his arms expansively.
With Dan’s warning in mind, I learned I would be assisting Gail – right now – with data collection: handing over blood vials, readying sample bags, recording data, and loading punch tags. I settled gingerly on the teeny camp stool, surrounded by a tray of blood vials, a large Ziplock bag stuffed with more tiny vials and Whirl-paks, containers of Betadine gauze, alcohol gauze, plain gauze, a sterile tray of stainless steel implements, a Sharps container for discarded needles, and a multi-tiered tackle box filled with replacement items – all of which need to be positioned carefully to be accessible. I also had a little plastic book with a data sheet and a pencil.
"First we take blood; the tubes are in order," Gail said. "Here, put all this stuff here," she said, dumping the Ziplock bag items onto a fold-out tray on sample station tackle box. "Put things back in the Ziplock as we finish them."
She positioned herself at the back of the seal and yelled, "Poke" to the seal restrainer on the front of the seal, and plunged the needle in. The seal thrashed and snarled. I froze. "The vials!" she said. Oh, right. I handed them over. Blood gushed into each one. Vial after vial after vial. "Don't forget to record the blood time. OK, now the valium," she said indicating a large needle, before grabbing it herself. She plunged. The seal quieted.
"Now D20—the big one there; don't forget to record the time," she said, not pausing in her work. The big needle plunged with little fuss from the seal, as the valium had already taken effect.
Gail shaved a little patch of the seal’s pelt with a disposable plastic razor. "The bags for hair samples. Rip the top off and open them with the tabs." She waited while I fumbled. My latex gloves seemed to stick to everything. And so it went. Through the blubber samples, the anal swab, the feces sample, the flipper tags, the PIT tag, the plucked hair, and the whisker sample. Items are checked off as they are completed; measurements written as they are called out – length, maximum girth, axial girth (bust) and hip. Yes, seals have hips. Some of the needle containers are recycled, some are not.
Some samples go into the freezer, the rest down to the lab. A cheat sheet was posted for me above the freezer. The first seal samples catalogued each day meant digging through the freezer to find all the sample collection containers, as much to my surprise, the samples shared freezer space with our food. My latex-gloved fingers numb and burning, I would paw through Costco bags of frozen vegetables or grated cheese searching for the small receptacles containing blubber samples, viral swabs, or blood vials. Notably, the large Ziplock bag of fecal samples was always on top, next to the corn dogs.
I was later informed that my awkward fumbling with blubber samples in the freezer was nothing compared to an earlier trip where someone accidently spilled a big bowl of meatballs and sauce into the freezer all over all the samples.
The seals – even the angriest of them – are as cute and round as Disney illustrations. It is vital to fight the urge to pet them. One little butterball was too short for Jack to restrain and still allow enough room at the other end for the scientist to draw blood. I was asked to lean against its side and hold its flipper in. Its flipper felt like a child’s soft little hand. There was a quick pressure, like it needed my reassurance that everything was OK, but it was just tensing up to try to bite me.
There is a pause after collecting data from the seals, where Dr. Lori Polasek from the Alaska Sea Life Center takes ultrasound readings. She hopes to show, with data she’s collecting, that ultrasound, which is fast and non-invasive, can be as effective as a D20 injection for measuring body fat. "Wow, that earlier one was thin," Lori announced. I was astounded. “Thin?” I asked, remembering a little fatty whose blubber layer was too thick for the standard-sized needle to penetrate for a successful blood draw. "Well, thin for seals is kind of relative I guess," she responded.
There is an art to setting up the data collection site. Do not to set it up right away and worry about where to place things. While there is a planned area for where the seal will be processed, things seldom work out that way -- the seal might thrash and squirm itself slowly around the deck area, and all the data collection implements will need to travel with it, or maybe the seal restrainer will be bucked off and crash into the data collection setup.
Jayson Owen, a volunteer seal restrainer, was bucked off his seal and crashed into the data recording site, scattering everything. The seal was free! Shock, disbelief, and yes – a bit of elation – washed over me, as I stood on my teeny camp chair in a corner holding the blood vials and data sheet aloft like a foolish cartoon character who has just seen a mouse. He and Gail wrestled the seal back under some semblance of control and the bloodwork continued. Jayson sustained a black eye, a scraped cheek, and a bite hole in the heel of his boot.
Each morning, the day’s assignments are posted, with a list of names underneath. I am always assigned to the little Whaler, which taxis the captured seals from the Zodiacs to the Steller. I have five layers of clothing under my XL Mustang suit. I am constantly hungry. Gail says it's the cold, and that she eats about three times as much as she would otherwise and doesn't gain any weight. Sweet. I put another Reeces in my lunch bag, and vow, that today, I will not drop my lens cap into the seal juice on the bottom of the little Whaler again.
On May 5, Jack is finally assigned to a Zodiac with Jill. Usually names are listed without fanfare under certain tasks. “Notice, they’re the only ones with ‘and’ between their names. Jack and Jill. I couldn’t resist,” said Gail. “It had to happen sooner or later.”
I have foot warmers in my Xtratuffs. Shawna Karpovich, a physiologist, assures me that foot warmers do not work in Xtraftuffs. “They don’t get any oxygen,” she said. I am thinking they don’t get any oxygen in my ski boots either but they still keep my feet warm. We drift through the icy slush. My feet slowly numb and burn with cold. I guess my foot warmers aren’t getting any oxygen. Later, back on the Steller, I peel them off my socks and put them in my coat pocket. Soon they are blazing. It’s time to process seals. I’m hungry again. I wonder what’s for dinner. Maybe corn dogs?
Evenings on the Steller, after dinner, Lori, Shawna, and Jill Prewitt, also from the Alaska Sea Life Center, are downstairs in the lab with hours of work still to be done. Offering to help, I am assigned to transfer serum into teeny sample tubes with a pipette. Thankfully, a cheat sheet is procured for me. They trust me to get this right. It’s been a long day. My brain is fried. I feel needed.
The next morning, drifting through the ice flow with Jill and Chaz Baki, a volunteer restrainer who is a caterer in his other life, we wait for news of a seal pick up. As we gaze around, a seal with a head mount pops up here and there, swimming around a capture net. "Doesn't he remember what happened to him yesterday after he swam into the net?" asked Jill. The radio crackles. "You will not believe this. There are three seals with head mounts on, hauled out right in front of us," John announces calmly from a zodiac. He pauses before continuing, "I wonder if they are outcasts now."
Later, back on the Steller, a big seal lay silent in his pen all afternoon – the last in line for processing. I volunteered to record data, Chaz strapped on kneepads to restrain and we peered into the bin. "He's awfully quiet," I said. "He's been saving it up all afternoon," Chaz replied.
We start. This seal had been resting under the heat lamp all afternoon, which means lots of bleeding at all insertion points – initial poke, blubber samples, valium, D20, flipper punch. Blood-saturated gauze pads piled up as Jill collected samples and I recorded data. The seal twisted and squirmed in the slick blood. Jill soldiered on, visibly distressed. "Oh, honey I am so sorry I have to do this," she said, patting it’s back, before punching out a skin sample and inserting a flipper tag. I handed her the anal swab, then she inserted a gloved hand for the fecal sample. A horrible smell permeated the tent. "Oh, no, you know what happens after this! The perfect end to my day,” she said, sighing and peeling off a feces-covered glove.
The world of field camp is insular; not many people do it well. The harbor seal researchers do it well. The permits, the funding, assembling the laboratory, coordinating staff schedules, flight schedules, allowing for weather delays or data collection snafus – they had it down. There was always a plan B, or C, or D. Things just get done.
The morning I was scheduled to leave, after five days on a boat with 12 adults and one bathroom, I hadn’t showered or brushed my hair in five days. I was still wearing the same pants. The inside of the bathroom door now sported haikus (hai-poos) about the long wait for the bathroom and the incorrectly tied knot that allowed the little Whaler to release and float away. As much as I was looking forward to entering my real life again, I felt a little cheated -- like my big adventure was being cut short.
When the seals are released, they always pause before entering the water. It’s the four-foot drop from the deck. They look left, right, down, and back, sometimes over and over again. They always look back. Then they slowly tip, tip, tip, and slip into the water. As we headed out with Gail in the big whaler to meet our Tal Air flight, the morning sun glinted off the ice. Even with a float coat, I was freezing. I looked back. The crew had gathered on deck, waving.
Amy Carroll is a publication specialist with the Division of Commercial Fisheries in Juneau, Alaska.
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