A Peek at the Hectic Lives of Antarctic Seals

This morning we woke up to find an Antarctic fur seal napping on the rocks about a hundred yards from our front door. It was a welcome surprise—we had seen fur seals on our visit to Livingston Island on January 1, but this was their first visit to Palmer this season. They tend to show up at Palmer each year during late summer, and their appearance is a sign of the season moving on.

Photographer Chris Linder rushed out to catch the furry animal on film, although he didn’t really need to rush. It was still in pretty much the same spot tonight at 9:00 p.m. We’ve now seen the five main Antarctic seal species within just a few miles of Palmer Station—and the main thing we’ve noticed is these animals are good at lounging. Their lives may be hectic under the water, but once they “haul out” on rock or ice, it’s mainly snoring and the occasional scratch of the head. Click through the slideshow to get introduced to each of the five seal species:

A Seal That Isn’t a SealRulers of the Pack IceThe Better to See You With“Nature’s Snakes” A True AntarcticanLoud, Lounging ElephantsA Minor DisagreementWho Goes There?

Here’s a short recording of the group of southern elephant seals that were napping in photo #6 in the slideshow. The background hiss is the sound of the seals breathing in and out as they sleep. From time to time you’ll hear abrupt snorting sounds that are either rude or humorous depending on your point of view.

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  1. Ms. Dunbar January 21, 2015 at 10:56 am #

    Thank you for the awesome recording of the seals sleeping. We were wondering if the penguin tagging team has lost a tag because the penguin ended up on a seal’s dinner plate.

    • Hugh Powell January 22, 2015 at 11:01 am #

      Hi Ms Dunbar – Donna Fraser told me that as far as they know they have never lost a tagged penguin to a leopard seal. Sometimes they put tags on penguins to track where they go in the winter. Eventually those tags stop transmitting and the team does not know whether that’s because the battery died, the tag fell off, or possibly the penguin died – but adult penguins are pretty good at avoiding predator so it’s pretty unlikely that a leopard seal would be responsible. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  2. Linda Librizzi January 21, 2015 at 2:58 pm #

    Funny seal sounds!
    Does the whole area echo those sounds?
    When do the baby pup seals lose their fur?

    • Hugh Powell January 22, 2015 at 1:37 am #

      Hi Linda, Glad you liked the seal sounds. There are some even louder sounds they make, but we didn’t get them on our recording because the seals were asleep. I haven’t heard these sounds echo yet, but they do carry a long way, like from one island to the next. I believe that the pups first molt about a month after they’ve been weaned by their mothers. Thanks for your questions – Hugh

  3. Manuel School 28 January 21, 2015 at 3:30 pm #

    Are there any other habitats around the glaciers among where the penguins hibernate?

    • Hugh Powell January 22, 2015 at 1:33 am #

      Hi Manuel – Penguins don’t hibernate. They stay active all year round. Adelie penguins move north and follow the edge of the pack ice during the winter. Gentoo penguins tend to stay on land near areas of open water during winter. Thanks for your question – Hugh

  4. Camila January 21, 2015 at 6:22 pm #

    How can you tell the difference between a male seal and a female seal without getting too close?
    – Camila from LMS

    • Hugh Powell January 22, 2015 at 1:35 am #

      Hi Camila – it’s quite difficult to tell the difference but a trained biologist can separate males and females by looking for reproductive anatomy on the underside of the seal. Thanks for your question – Hugh

  5. Harry Carter January 22, 2015 at 12:23 am #

    Hello to all the scientists at project converge . I am a Lincoln school student . I am in extraordinary fascination with this whole study that you noble men and women are doing down in Antarctica . I have many questions for you all but the one I really want to know is , If a ice berg moves threw your 2,5 radius and moves some edges of land around how detrimental could it be toward your study ? Also how would you begin to remap the area ?

    • Hugh Powell January 22, 2015 at 1:24 am #

      Hi Harry – Icebergs are big and powerful and they do drift a lot, but they can’t move the land around. The bigger problem actually is tracking where icebergs go and trying to keep them from hitting our gliders or other instruments in the water. Dr. Kohut and Dr. Oliver keep an eye on “problem” icebergs and estimate their locations using a compass. Thanks for your question and I’m glad you’re enjoying our blog. – Hugh

  6. Abigail January 22, 2015 at 4:37 pm #

    Can you tell if a seal is really a seal without getting close ?

    • Hugh Powell January 22, 2015 at 6:52 pm #

      Hi Abigail – it’s pretty easy to recognize a seal, although sometimes we see oblong rocks that look like a resting seal—and seals rest so much that they do sometimes seem rocklike! If you’re asking whether it’s hard to tell an Antarctic fur seal (related to sea lions) from a “true” seal, then yes, but you need to take a close look. They have external ears, longer fur, and hind flippers that they can pull forward to use almost as feet. This makes them a lot more agile on land than “true” seals. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  7. Jared January 23, 2015 at 5:44 pm #

    How long do the seals stay there?

    • Hugh Powell January 26, 2015 at 8:52 pm #

      Hi Jared – the five species of seals in this post all behave differently and have different patterns of migration. The Weddell seals tend to stay near Antarctica year-round. The other species tend to follow the edge of the sea ice or head out into open water, so they tend to go northward as winter approaches. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  8. Jared January 23, 2015 at 5:48 pm #

    Do you tag the seals?

    • Hugh Powell January 24, 2015 at 10:27 am #

      Hi Jared – None of the scientists on our project does any seal tagging. There are other biologists who do study seals, although they’re not here right now. We actually saw an elephant seal with an orange tag on its tail flipper, and the birding team used binoculars to read the band number so we could report it back to those biologists. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  9. Martha Delaney January 23, 2015 at 6:38 pm #

    The fur seal looks skinny. Have you seen others? If so, were they similarly skinny?

    • Hugh Powell January 24, 2015 at 10:26 am #

      Hi Martha – We have seen only a few other fur seals, back on New Year’s Day when we visited Livingston Island. Fur seals are smaller than most of the other seals around here—they’re way smaller than the elephant seals, especially. But I think they’re about normal for their species. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  10. Andrew January 24, 2015 at 10:43 pm #

    Hi, I am one of Mrs. Hester-Fearon’s 8th grade students. How close was Chris Linder able to get in order to take pictures of the Antarctic seals? In general, how do the seals cope with human presence (considering an Antarctic fur seal was found approximately a hundred yards away from the base at Palmer)? Thank you for answering my question on a previous entry and stay safe!

    • Hugh Powell January 26, 2015 at 8:50 pm #

      Hi Andrew – Chris stayed a few dozen yards away from the fur seal—these animals have a reputation for being cranky, and Chris didn’t want to disturb it or cause it to charge after him. It worked – the fur seal basically just lay there and napped while Chris took his photos. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  11. Kashish January 25, 2015 at 9:23 pm #

    I really liked the article you wrote of the seals. I learned many facts that I did not know. I also did not know that there were so many different types is seals in Antarctica. I found it amazing to know how seals live in such a icy and cool place. The sound recording and the pictures in this article were really cool. I hope you find more great research.

  12. Hunter Tramel January 26, 2015 at 3:51 pm #

    Are their any animals you have seen that you are afraid of?
    For example were any of you scared on the zodiac when you guys were working with the whales?
    Have you guys ever when you’ve gone down to the Antarctic come across a polar bear?
    Did it have cubs?
    What gender was it?
    If so how did both you guys and the bear react to each other?

    • Hugh Powell January 26, 2015 at 8:09 pm #

      Hi Hunter – I always get a little scared when I see leopard seals circling underneath our zodiac – though it’s pretty rare for them to attack. I was also a little unnerved by the humpback whales surfacing so close to us a couple of weeks ago. There’s not really anything else here to be afraid of. Polar bears do not live in Antarctica. They live only in the arctic. Thanks for your question – Hugh

  13. Caroline January 27, 2015 at 2:14 am #

    What seal species have you seen the most of?

    • Hugh Powell February 2, 2015 at 12:04 pm #

      Hi Caroline – The most common seals we’ve seen have been the southern elephant seals. Thanks for asking, Hugh

  14. Grace January 27, 2015 at 9:33 am #

    These blog posts and photographs are spectacular! I was wondering-what are the differences between sea lions and seals? I hope you are having a great time down there.

    • Hugh Powell February 2, 2015 at 12:03 pm #

      Hi Grace – Thanks for reading. Seals have very thick layers of blubber to keep them warm, whereas sea lions have a warmer fur coat and less blubber. Sea lions also have external ears that you can see. Seals are less mobile on land than fur seals, because they can’t move their hind flippers around to push with, the way sea lions can. Seals have to wriggle and push with their front flippers, whereas sea lions are much more agile. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  15. Carly January 27, 2015 at 5:02 pm #

    I really enjoyed this article about seals!
    That was awesome listening to the seals sleeping.

  16. Gabriel January 28, 2015 at 6:28 pm #

    Hello, I am Gabriel from LMS. I would like to know if the seals fur has anything to do with its aerodynamics in the water or does it just keep them warm?

    • Hugh Powell February 2, 2015 at 11:32 am #

      Hi Gabriel – That’s a great question, and I do not know the answer. The fur of Antarctic fur seals definitely helps keep them warm, but the other species of seals mainly stay warm from the blubber that lies under their skin. I don’t know if the short fur of seals helps much with either warmth or streamlining. Thanks for asking – Hugh