Part of the show Stars, Cosmology and the Beginning of the Universe
A team of oceanographers led by Mike Fedak from the Sea Mammal Research Unit at St Andrews University in Scotland have recruited a new breed of assistants to help them study remote polar waters - seals. Traditionally, studies of the oceans, which can help in weather prediction and monitoring for climate change, are made by towing probes behind ships in order to measure salinity, depth and water movements. But researchers tend to be limited to studying areas where ships are going already, so some regions, such as the Antarctic, are more difficult to access than others. Mike Fedak and his team have solved the problem by producing a small fist-sized wearable probe and transmitter which can be attached to an elephant seal's head. These animals dive forty times a day to depths ranging from 300 to 800 metres to hunt for fish and squid. As soon as a seal resurfaces, data collected by the probe during one of these dives is transmitted to a satellite overhead which relays the data, together with the position of the animal, to the waiting oceanographers. The team initially tested the devices on two beluga whales in Norway before conducting a larger three-year trial, which concludes in January and involves 70 elephant seals from four breeding areas around the Southern Ocean.