Weddell Seal Project History
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McMurdo Sound in Antarctica’s Ross Sea was named for Lieutenant Archibald McMurdo who sailed on the HMS Terror in 1841 and charted the area. This ship was under the command of British explorer James Clark Ross. In 1902 Robert Falcon Scott established a base close to where the current U. S. Antarctic base, McMurdo Station, is located today, and built Discovery Hut which still stands adjacent to the McMurdo ship harbor at a spot known as Hut Point.

The region of McMurdo Sound is probably best known because of Robert F. Scott who started his quest for the South pole from Ross Island in 1912. Scott and his party spent the winter there prior to setting out for the South pole on his famous attempt which ended in tragedy. At that time many Weddell seals occupied this fast ice region, as they do today. Scott and his party killed many seals at that time, which were used for their food and also to feed their dog teams. Some of the effects of this harvest are perhaps evident today because Weddell pupping colonies do not exist where the Scott parties initially found many seals.

In 1963, Ian Stirling was connected to the New Zealand Antarctic Program and began a study for his Ph.D. thesis work on the Weddells of McMurdo Sound. Weddell seals Research camp on the sea ice of McMurdo Sound circa 1970were known to return to traditional pupping colonies each year to give birth and breed, and were highly approachable. Stirling tagged adults and pups to identify them over several years and collect data on their movements, survival, and reproduction. In 1968, Don Siniff, along with other scientists and students from the University of Minnesota, traveled to McMurdo Station and began to study Weddell seals. When Ian Stirling finished his work for his thesis in 1970, the team from the University of Minnesota continued to study Weddells at McMurdo, and through the years turned these beginnings into a long-term effort that continued the tagging work begun by Stirling. These efforts have resulted in very long-term records that follow individual Weddells over their lifetime. This database covers a time period for long-lived mammals that is unique in the scientific community.

The initial motivation for the Weddell seal study at McMurdo by the University of Minnesota group was to use newly developed radio transmitters to gain insights into behaviors such as haul out patterns, seal movements, and mother-pup interactions. In 1968 radio transmitters were placed on seals at Hutton Cliffs, a seal colony about 8 miles from McMurdo Station. The signal from these transmitters was recorded when the seals were on the surface of the ice, but was not receivable when the seals were in the water below the ice. Thus, recording of these signals gave a 24 hour activity pattern, and produced data on the amount of time seals spent on the surface versus in the water. 1973 Weddell seal researchers outside hut on the sea ice of McMurdo Sound

The picture on the right is from 1973. All of these individuals have gone on to have successful careers in various fields of ecology. From left to right in the top row are Don Siniff, Bob Hofman, Doug DeMaster, Dick Reichle, and kneeling are from left to right Ron Kirby and Ian Stirling. More...

This brief history has been adapted from
an unpublished manuscript by Co-PI Don Siniff.
Historical images courtesy Don Siniff's Weddell project archive.
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Weddell seal images and recordings obtained under NMFS Permits 1032-1917 and 17236. Website copyright © 2016 All rights reserved.