Elephant Seals Are Helping Scientists and the Human Race

My husband and I love going to Ana Nuevo on the Northern California Coast. It is a sandy hike to a spot that could be an exclusive lounge for fat, lazy elephant seals. You can almost imagine them smoking specialty cigars and ordering scotch on the rocks. Some look as if they’re dead to the world but raise a fin now and then. Then there are the frisky pups that are scooting up and down the beach. Seals move awkwardly on land, dragging their stomachs forward with their fins. However, in the water they are highly mobile, and a female may travel as much as 9,000 miles per year. Some from Ana Nuevo have swum to Japan. This ability inspired scientists who study Earth’s oceans at great expense to harness elephant seals. One research apparatus called a rosette costs $40,000/day to run.

Scientists are interested in temperature, salinity, depth, and movement of currents, and despite sophisticated equipment the results are limited considering the desire to  map our vast ocean systems. Such mapping is important to understand consequences and predictions of climate change and weather, in particular, severe storms. Now, elephant seals with tags on their heads cheaply transmit ocean conditions data to satellites.  It is a most clever idea, but I wonder who has the job of attaching a bonnet to a humongous seal.

Scientist Mike Fedak says it’s impossible to collect the data any other way, although other marine animals are also utilized. He described utilization of his first seal, he called Mrs. Nasty, as like having magic binoculars. Over time the head tags have vastly improved in terms of miniaturization, energy efficiency, information compression, and hardiness. Biologists must love what they are learning about marine lives underwater.

A large part of the problem in understanding our ocean water is that the situation is not static. At our poles water freezes and melts on a regular basis, but not the same amount from year to year. As water freezes it discards its salt becoming lighter, sinking, and absorbing oxygen, thus impacting ocean currents. Scientists call it bottom water and understanding it in the Antarctic is absolutely critical to understanding global climate.

Source: Fall 2022 issue of Sierra magazine

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