Mummified seals

We are almost done with our third camp near Joyce Glacier/Lake Buddha and plan to move to our final camp at Hidden Lake on Monday [editor’s note: sorry, a bit late posting this one]. As it is now Thanksgiving back in the States, it seems appropriate to think about how great the trip has been so far. With the exception of a few very windy days, the weather has been beautiful; we have even had a few days above freezing! We are currently camped below the Royal Society Range, easily one of the most beautiful mountain ranges I have ever seen; they rise to almost 14,000 feet above the Ross Sea (sea level). We’ve skated across the pristine ice of frozen lakes, walked on massive glaciers, flown through the Transantarctic Mountains in helicopters, had abundant tea and food that is better than I ever could have hoped for while camping in Antarctica, and have collected over 400 samples.

Despite how well things have gone, we are dependent on lots of warm clothing, propane, and helicopter re-supplies. Life on land in Antarctica is about as harsh as it gets. As a testament to this, we have seen only 3 different kinds of lichen and 1 moss in the month that we have been here (and we have gone many days without seeing either). We have not seen any animals. As we get further into summer, seals, penguins, and orcas will become more common sights in the sea around Ross Island, but life on the mainland will not change much.

image1 (6)The absolute strangest thing we have seen has to be the mummified seals. Over the last several weeks we have seen several dozen mummified seals, dozens of miles from the sea. On the steep, boulder-strewn talus slope above our current camp, we found about fifteen, over two thousand feet above sea level.

It is thought that these seals are mainly young seals that become disoriented when they surface through the ice shelf in poor weather. The result is that they wonder until they starve/freeze, occasionally far inland and thousands of feet above sea level. Because of the dry, cold airimage2 (4) and lack of scavengers, seals that die on land are preserved until the harsh weather literally breaks them apart.

Sometimes we see them from afar and sometimes we stumble on them unexpectedly behind boulders, around corners, or in small depressions. Even having seen so many, each new one we stumble across is a surprise that immediately distracts us from our thoughts. We are not allowed to touch them, because they provide an extremely rare source of nutrients for the microcommunities in the area, but hopefully some of our pictures can convey this eerie feature of our experience.

~Rob for the Antarctica360 team

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