In January of 2018, Mystic Aquarium veterinarians, stranding staff and researchers joined colleagues from Tufts, MIT, UConn and IFAW among others, and headed out to Monomoy Island off Chatham, Cape Cod to gather health data on grey seal pups. Among the swabs and samples collected to screen for influenza, blood samples were taken for immune function testing and genetic research to be carried out by Mystic Aquarium researchers.
To access the island, field teams are boated over from Chatham by NOAA personnel, with launch being highly dependant on winds and waves. After postponing the trip twice due to high winds, we finally got the go ahead on Wed morning. The boats launched from Chatham around 10:30 with 8 people including three people from Mystic, 3 from Tufts, 1 from UConn and 1 from IFAW. The exit onto the island was tough! In higher than normal tides, and increasing winds, we had to anchor and hold the back of the boats to unload gear and people. It certainly isn’t a trip for those not willing to get cold, wet and tired. Still, we all made it to shore and headed towards our accommodations, a NOAA maintained lighthouse, with no heat or electricity. This year the lighthouse turned out to be partially renovated this year with some drywall going up and windows installed in the upstairs rooms. In order to keep warm and cook, propane heaters are brought out, and a small generator is brought to provide electricity to run lab equipment and charge electronics.
After lunch and a little bit of settling in, we geared up had a short briefing and headed out to start sampling seals! By the end of January, the majority of the grey seal pups are fat and happy, which make them a little more challenging to handle. It was great to be back out in the field, and I was excited to get started, but slowly over the course of the day I started coughing more and more and felt a bit flu-ish myself by the end of the day. Once we were back in our make-shift laboratory in the lighthouse, we spun down the blood samples for immune function testing and serology in a small field centrifuge, I took some swabs of myself (lol) and went to bed early.
Woke up early for the tradition of sipping coffee while watching the sunrise from the dunes. It was a beautiful morning and promised to be a good day. Breakfast was the traditional monomoy surprise, which consists of toasting bagels in front of the propane heaters, then adding egg and cheese or peanut butter. But the true surprise is the inevitable crunch of sand that comes at an unknown bite during consumption.
Our aim was to sample 10 seals, and we hit that goal, plus sampled two dead animals, and a bonus small animal with an apparent wound that was cleaned before the animal was released.
I was still not feeling great and crashed around 8, so did the centrifuge. It’s not fun being sick in the field, but you know you love what you do, when you rally to be outside in freezing weather for 8 hours sampling seals.
As it was a snowy and windy morning, we delayed going out to sample. About mid morning we headed out to see if there were any seals close to the lighthouse, and we found one rather quickly. While searching over the dunes for our next subject, we saw a pup rolling in what looked like a carcass. On closer observation, it was a dead gull, likely a black back. So in the interest of examining cross species interactions, particularly with the flu being known to be carried by birds, we sampled both the seal and the gull. To celebrate, Milton and I took a sled run down one of the dunes
We headed back to the lighthouse to get out of the wind for lunch. Then continued sampling and worked up four more pups in the afternoon. I was starting to feel a little better, but went to bed early just to be safe.
I felt so much better! This is the morning we found out if we were getting off the island, or were fated to be stuck for another 3 days due to incoming weather. When we received no word all morning, we decided to gear up and sample some seals. With one foot out the door, we finally get word that a boat is coming for us, and it is a mad scramble to change, pack and hike it down to the beach with one bag of essential gear each and the samples. Boat driver Randy, was our hero! It was about as challenging to load the boat and get on it as it was to unload on the first day. I had to hold the boat in place in the waves.
Photo: Milton Levin
Once he had four of us safely on the docks in Chatham, he headed back for the rest of the team! It was an icy cold ride! But we all made it safely back.