Posted by: pointreyesscience | June 18, 2010

A day in the aquatic rodeo

I take a wide stance in the boat, tensing up my muscles like a farm-cat stalking a gopher. I dangle the orange-and-white buoy at my side. A good toss will go a long way toward proving my field chops.

Scientists with Moss Landing Marine Laboratories tag a red-coated harbor seal on Tomales Bay. Photo credit: Elizabeth McHuron.

I get the signal and huck the buoy with all I’ve got. It goes about six feet. So do I. Off-balance, I fall flat on my butt. Just as I regain my footing, we lurch to a stop on a sandbar, and I tumble into the prow. Everyone’s out of the boat and onto the sand before I can get up again.

The buoy marks the end of a massive net. We’ve spread it across a school bus-sized length of beach in Tomales Bay—a popular sunning spot for harbor seals. The net goes taut as we start to pull. Soon, five seal heads pop out of the water. As we tug them back to land, the seals slap the sand with their flippers and snort like cartoon bulls. This is my introduction to the extreme sport of seal wrangling.

Today, I join about 10 researchers and volunteers to help in the long-term monitoring of Point Reyes’ harbor seal populations. Jim Harvey with the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in Moss Landing, Calif. has been tracking the behavior, feeding habits and health of these grunting creatures for many years. Back at our makeshift research camp, we weigh and measure the seals, clip dog tags to their flippers and take blood, blubber, mucus and whisker samples for later analysis.

Research Associate Liz Wheeler from The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif. also gives the seals a shave. The hairs we collect from small patches may help Wheeler and Harvey to learn why harbor seals have started to go ginger. Most harbor seals are gray-and-black but over the years, scientists have noticed a number of rust-colored individuals mixed-in. These redheads look elegant, but their coloring may hint at a hidden danger to the species. The team thinks that exposure to toxins may turn an ordinary seal’s fur red. In Moss Landing, researchers will test the follicles we collect for selenium and other metal poisons.

On our way back home, I sit in the boat feeling more seal than human. My back is mottled from an uneven sunburn, my lips taste like saltwater and I smell like fish. I’m invigorated, but I relish the thought of my wool socks back on shore. It’s good to have dry feet.

-Daniel Strain

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