Lost gray seal research gear recovered from NS waters – 4 years later – Halifax
Rare and expensive research equipment has been found in the Atlantic Ocean after going missing in 2017, and it may hold valuable information about the behavior of gray seals on Sable Island.
The object is a small digital camera that was attached to the fur of a gray seal, which went missing after a male gray seal from Sable Island traveled in the Atlantic Ocean with the camera on back and didn’t come back with it.
It was recently discovered by two anglers in their surf clam catch on Banquereau Bank, an area 400 kilometers east of Nova Scotia.
“We have studied gray seals for decades and they are very docile. They come back in a very predictable way to reproduce,” said Sara Iverson, principal investigator of this project and scientific director of the Ocean Tracking Network (OTN) at Dalhousie University.
But this gray seal did not return as expected and the camera, which cost nearly $10,000, was lost.
OTN investigator and DFO biologist Damian Lidgard said the camera was built to withstand the extreme conditions at sea that make them so expensive.
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He said the reason they put the camera on a male seal at the start of the program instead of a more reliable female is that the females don’t do much on land for three weeks during the breeding season, so they couldn’t get any footage.
“These young males, they land, they roam around the island and they hang out at sea. So you grab one of these males, stare at the camera and they’ll be back in a few days,” Lidgard said.
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“In this particular case, it’s really bad luck that the male we chose decided not to come back. And then I spent three, four weeks a day hoping that this male would come back. He never did,” he added.
Lidgard explained that it is extremely difficult to study the foraging behavior of an animal that spends most of its life at sea, and this camera can help change that.
“I would much rather be able to see the animal and see what it is actually doing than making assumptions,” he said.
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Iverson said the team has now opted to only deploy the cameras on pregnant women. However, Lidgard said it was still important to track male seals to understand their behavior.
“We know there is a very high percentage chance that (female seals) will come back. And the breeding season in January,” Iverson said.
The team also put small radio transmitters on the seals so that when researchers arrive on the island in January, they can use them to locate the animals more quickly.
University researchers have been studying and tracking gray seals since the early 1990s.
“We actually have a huge dataset and it’s really unique. It’s probably one of three species in the world that has been so carefully tracked,” Iverson said.
So far, more than 90% of the time, the team has been able to recover the cameras where they were refurbished and redeployed.
“That’s still the hope, so with this particular camera…it’s been sent back to the manufacturer. They will try to extract all the data that is still on the camera and then refurbish the battery and we could theoretically redeploy it,” she said.
She said she and the team were eagerly waiting to see what data could be extracted from it.
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