Nfld. & Labrador

How far can a young seal swim? Scientists aim to find out

DFO has placed satellite tags on 12 "beaters" — named for the way young seals swim by beating their flippers in the water — to track their movements over the next year.

Satellite tags placed on 12 'beaters' — named for the way they swim by beating the water with flippers

Young harp seals are known as 'beaters.' DFO has placed satellite tags on 12 newly moulted beaters to be able to track their movements in the ocean. (Garry Stenson/DFO)

Twelve young harp seals won't be doing anything in secret off our coast for next year or so.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has placed satellite tags on a group of "beaters" — named for the way young harp seals swim, by beating the water with their flippers — they found near Cape Ray.

Research scientists want to find out when beaters start to dive, how deep they go and how far they swim off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Garry Stenson, head of DFO's marine mammal section in Newfoundland and Labrador, says there's little known about the movements of young seals.

The satellite tags will provide information about when beaters learn to dive, how deep they dive and how far they swim off the coast. (Garry Stenson/DFO)

"It also helps fill in our gaps as to what happens to the younger seals, to fit that in with what we know about the older ones," explained Stenson.

Scientists already know that adult seals spend their winters in the waters in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and in the waters around Newfoundland. In the spring and summer, they migrate north to the Canadian Arctic.

Data on water temperature collected

Stenson says the seals move quickly during their migration and frequently dive to great depths.

"Quite amazingly … harp seals are quite good divers. Even though they're what we would consider to be a medium-sized seal they're capable of going down over 700 metres," explained Stenson.

The tags will offer more than just knowledge about young seal movement, they'll also collect data on water temperature, which can then feed into oceanographic models.

DFO scientists already know quite a bit about the movement of adult harp seals. Adults winter in waters in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and around Newfoundland and Labrador. In the summer they migrate to the Canadian Arctic. (CBC)

"It helps the oceanographers get a better understanding of the environment and how it's changed over time and how things like climate change could be affecting the waters that we have around us," said Stenson.

Stenson says the satellite tags will work continuously for the next 13-14 months and don't dramatically impede the seals' movement of the seals.

"It could cost them a little bit of energy but it's relatively minor. The amount of information that we and our understanding not only of the animals but of their environment … is invaluable compared to the small costs that the animals have for carrying them."

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About the Author

Jane Adey

CBC News

Jane Adey hosts CBC Radio's The Broadcast, and has worked for many other CBC programs, including Here & Now, Land & Sea and On The Go.

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