Animals as Antarctic Explorers

Our project grew from the desire for better understanding the oceanography in the Atlantic part of the Southern Ocean. We improved our own knowledge of the behaviour and habits of Southern Elephant Seals, and of the environment in which they live, during the SEaOS project and we gained a better insight into the life and biology of the Southern Elephant Seal.

Southern Elephant Seal In the process of the SEaOS study, elephant seals have begun to teach us more than we might have anticipated. In studying the journeys of these natural explorers of the Antarctic, we have recorded information about more than habits, depths, and distances. We have also expanded our understanding of the connection between the ocean, global climate dynamics, and the influence of human activities. However, while some questions were answered, new questions emerged and we were more curious at the end of the SEaOS project than we were before.

Using the data obtained by SEaOS, we were able to map the frontal mean positions within the Antarctic Circumpolar Current in the years 2004 and 2005 and compare them to previous work. The striking feature here are the more northerly positions of the Subantarctic Front, the Polar Front and the Southern ACC Front between South Georgia and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge compared to their historical mean positions. A recent paper argued that the observed warming of the Southern Ocean is anthropogenic in origin, and related to a southward shift of the ACC caused by an increase in zonal winds. By extending the data obtained by SEaOS we will determine if a northward shift of the ACC has occurred in recent years. We will do this by obtaining unprecedented quantities of subsurface oceanographic data, which is more reliable for determining the ACC positions than satellite data.

MEOP SAVEX will happen during the fourth International Polar Year (IPY) , following those in 1882-3, 1932-3, and 1957-8. The IPY is a large scientific programme focused on the Arctic and the Antarctic from March 2007 to March 2009 and will involve over 200 projects, with thousands of scientists from over 60 nations. During SAVEX we will share our valuable oceanographic data freely to support all other projects.

However, the data obtained by the seals are also used within the MEOP (Marine Mammal Exploration of the Oceans - Pole to Pole) project. So it's a win-win situation and we are getting an amazing data set about the ocean's properties and how the animals' feeding habits react for example to changes in their environment Thus, elephant seals will not only work as oceanographer, but also as biologist increasing our knowledge of their behaviour in Antarctic waters.

Truly, they are Antarctic Explorers!