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Roughing it

sunny 14 °C

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Sleepy seal pups

Oh, man. I knew from the start of this whole business that I was moving to Australia to do research and that long field seasons on an uninhabited island were part of it, I was looking forward to the challenge. I did a couple week-long stints in summer. I wrestled some seals and fell in some burrows and did what I could to prepare myself for “really roughing it”, but there’s just no way of knowing what it’s like until you’ve been stuck for three weeks on that 1 km-square rock full of seals.

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A juvenile white-bellied sea eagle soars overhead.

Some things honestly weren’t as bad as I expected. For example, your sense of smell adjusts after a few days in a seal colony, so that even when you’ve gone two weeks without a shower, your own odour is a rather refreshing alternative to the seal stench clinging to everything else. I also didn’t end up with dread locks, surprisingly. On the downside, I did wake up one morning to find a spider in my pants, but hey, that’s life. The weather was remarkably kind to us, we had several sunny, seventy-degree days, and only one wind/rainstorm, the rest of the time my three layers of insulated underwear were more than enough to keep me as cosy as a chubby seal.

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That one storm, however, was a doozy. It hit overnight with gusts up to 40 knots, strong but not unusual for Bass Strait, so we’d battened down the hatches and felt prepared. Unfortunately my tent chose that particular evening to volunteer for retirement. Despite being fully pegged and secured, I woke up to rather more sunlight than I was accustomed to. One of the poles at the entryway had snapped clean in half and torn a metre-long gash in the rain fly, luckily on the opposite side from the wind so that I remained warm and dry. We only had a ten-minute break between rain showers to try and cobble it back together with gaffer tape and adhesive, but it did hold for the remainder of the trip.

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Antechinus find an impromptu meal in our tent.

Despite the generally calm weather, I was plagued with research problems. First one of my boat drivers had to go on emergency leave, and then we were notified of a recall on the boat gas tank which grounded it for the remainder of the trip. I had hoped to get 20 runs; after three weeks I had 6. That’s how it goes for field biologists – you’re always at the mercy of a chaotic number of variables, you just have to hope for the best and plan for the worst. For me it means another 3-6 weeks on the island in July and August.

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One of the boats participating in my study, with excited tourists on board.

Something I love about my lab is that several different projects will be going on at once, and when you’re in the field you’re not only doing your own project but you are getting your hands dirty in everyone else’s. This trip I was helping deploy and recover tracking devices and video cameras on females, anaesthetise seals, and take blood samples. Catching adult females is quite a bit more difficult than the run-and-grab pup catching I’m used to. It takes a lot of stealth (belly-crawling through the colony inch-by-inch to approach a seal from the downwind side), coordination (running over uneven ground with a large net), strength (holding the 150+ lb. seal in the net once you catch it), and quick reflexes (not getting bitten).

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The boys begin their stealthy approach.

Being that I’m not particularly gifted in any of those areas, I usually opt for the all-important job of keeping an eye on the target and carrying all the drugs and equipment. I did manage to catch a half-grown female in a net by myself at the end of the trip, I was very proud of myself. Seal nets are quite like glorified butterfly nets, but long enough that when a seal runs forward into it, its whole body will fit inside. The closed end is just narrow enough to trap the head and then the open end can be twisted closed behind the flippers so that the seal can’t back out. After that, someone’s jumping on to pin it down, because net or no, seals are remarkably good at finding ways to bite.

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One of the highlights of the entire trip for me was also this: I got to milk a seal. I’ve never milked a cow, so I didn’t realize what an oddly relaxing and satisfying feeling it gives you, doing the milking. Seals don’t exactly have udders, so it requires some manoeuvring and deep-tissue massage that makes it all the more satisfying an accomplishment when you get a decent sample. That’s a scientific sample, mind you, it’s not like we were just tired of powdered milk and decided to switch it up.

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The boys show me how it's done.

In any case, I had a pretty good trip but was never happier to get home to my shower and warm, clean bed. My housemates, however, were not as happy to see (and smell) me until after I got out of the shower.

Aussie slang of the week: barrack (verb, to support a team or side), ta (informal thanks), ratbag (noun, obnoxious/untrustworthy person)

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Posted by JuliaInOz 23:29 Archived in Australia

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