THE HUNTER'S BREATH
On Expedition with the Weddell Seals of the Antarctic
by Terrie Williams, Ph.D.

Publisher:  M. Evans

Pub Date:  March 2004

Format:   Hardcover

Brief Description
Recently named one of the top 50 Female Scientists in Discover Magazine
, Terrie Williams, Ph.D. follows a group of dedicated scientists (including herself) as they go to the end of the earth to study the most enigmatic mammal known to man -- the Weddell Seal.  Along the way, they must fight extreme cold, solar radiation, and dehydration
(see below for Full Description)

 

 

Full Description

(excerpt from the proposal)

         To survive in the Antarctic, you must be humble to nature. Each day is lived with the possibility of a potentially lethal blizzard, exposure to frostbite, or of a fall into a bottomless crevasse. Extreme cold, intense solar radiation, high winds and dehydration drain the body. Ice shifts quickly and unpredictably, demanding a trained, wary eye to ensure each step. Freezing temperatures coupled with low humidity make your body crave high caloric foods and water in a continuous battle to stave off hypothermia and dehydration. Constant light in the summer and continuous dark in the winter play games with your mind. On the coldest, driest and windiest continent on earth, there is scant room for error.
         Yet, in the midst of these seemingly impossible conditions lives a mild mannered species of phocid seal. Large, oblivious to humans, and mysterious in its underwater habits, the Weddell seal is so well adapted for life on and under the ice that it is the only wild mammal able to reside year-round on the permanent ice shelf in Antarctica. For this reason, our scientific team sought adventure and Weddell seals, in the frozen steps of Antarctic explorers from the previous century.
         Our scientific conundrum was a simple one: how do Weddell seals survive in the Antarctic? More specifically, how do they hunt for food in such an inhospitable environment? As primary predators in the polar ecosystem, Weddell seals have to locate, stalk, chase, capture, kill and digest prey in order to survive. Although these are the same tasks routinely confronted by any big predator, including African lions or wolves, there is one major difference: the seals have to accomplish all of these behaviors while holding their breath. Imagine an African lion inhaling once and then tearing across the Savannah in pursuit of a zebra, and finally tackling, fighting and killing its prey before taking another breath. Imagine running a 10K race on just a single breath of air. During every foraging trip, the Weddell seal accomplishes this and much more. For as the seal hunts, it travels to great depths in freezing, dark water where the hydrostatic pressure is so high that it squeezes the animalís lungs to a fraction of their normal size. Water temperatures are so cold that the fish they pursue use cellular antifreezes to keep from turning into ice, and humans would survive only minutes of exposure.
         The seals also perform one other envious feat: they explore places beneath the Antarctic ice that are impossible for humans to follow. Tortuous ice caves on the underside of glaciers and the bottom of icebergs that are frequented by seals are far too dangerous for human divers or remotely operated robotic vehicles.
         Frustration borne out of our inability to observe what the seals encountered on their dives and our ignorance concerning how their bodies withstood the challenge of an Antarctic lifestyle heightened our scientific curiosity. We wanted to join the hunt. Finally, in 1997, miniaturized video technology caught up with our desire to follow the Weddell seal, and we began the journey of a lifetime.

*

         THE HUNTERíS BREATH takes the reader on an expedition to one of the harshest and most remarkable places on earth, Antarctica, to study the hunting behavior of an extraordinary underwater predator. Following the expedition through its 5th field season, THE HUNTERíS BREATH allows the reader to experience the challenges, successes and failures of a team of young researchers as they struggle to survive and conduct science in a remote camp on the Antarctic sea ice. This particular field season was chosen due to extraordinary manmade (the September 11th terrorist attacks) and natural (the calving of an enormous iceberg) forces that impacted the expedition. These events served to heighten the emotional and physical hurdles encountered, and provided many parallels with the 1914 Shackleton Endurance expedition.
         Written chronologically, the chapters describe the initial days and preparation for the ice, the excitement of working with 500 kg wild Weddell seals and the challenge of living in close quarters with eight exhausted expedition members. In all, the expedition was comprised of eight adventurers: seven men and one woman (me). I am one of the very few women who has been going to Antarctica since the 1980s; back then, there were so few women headed to the ice that we were simply considered "small men" when it came time to suit up.
         Unlike the early expeditions, this is about modern exploration. Armed with computers, miniaturized video cameras and satellite tags, the team explores the under ice haunts of the Weddell seal. Technology is pitted against nature as microcomputers and video cameras deployed on the wild seals take the scientists and readers to the bottom of the Ross Sea where alien looking plants and animals live. For the first time, humans are able to dive with the seals to submerged ice caves beneath Antarctic glaciers where other secretive seals hide. Part of the thrill of the book is in the discovery of something that no one has ever seen or experienced before.
         The concept for THE HUNTERíS BREATH was born in fall 2001 when I was on my sixth Antarctic expedition. I began a weekly journal that was posted on my university website to bring the expedition and its scientific rewards and failures into the classroom for teachers and school children to experience. The site was very successful Ė written up in USA Today, and awarded a Highlights for Children award. However, the interested audience was much larger than I anticipated. Adults that had heard about our expedition on NPR and in other media flooded me with e-mails saying they wanted more.
         Our work was featured on NBC Dateline, NBC News, CNN, ABC News, on the Discovery Channel, in the IMAX movie "Dolphins," and Iíve conducted interviews for National Geographic, Rolling Stone Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Discover Magazine, and Science Magazine. My work on the Weddell seals of Antarctica will be featured in a PBS Nature television special (January 2003), National Geographic Television International (2003), and an article on women scientists in Discover Magazine (November 2002).
         Antarctica is hot. Recent interest in the expeditions of Scott and Shackleton, and news of giant icebergs splitting from the Antarctic ice shelf have sparked a general curiosity about the coldest, most remote place on earth. How do animals and people survive under such harsh conditions? What does the skin do when exposed to Ė70oF temperatures and the growing ozone hole? Most people will never be able to visit Antarctica or meet a Weddell seal nose to nose to answer these questions for themselves. There are no tourist packages or hotels where we work. However, THE HUNTERíS BREATH brings Antarctica to everyone.


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