Seasonal, oceanographic and atmospheric drivers of diving behaviour in a temperate seal species living in the high arctic
The harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) population in Svalbard marks the northernmost limit of the species’ range. This small population experiences environmental extremes in sea and air temperatures, sea ice cover and also in light regime for this normally temperate species. This study deployed Conductivity Temperature Depth Satellite Relay Data Loggers (CTDSRDLs) on 30 adult and juvenile harbour seals in 2009 and 2010 to study their foraging behaviour across multiple seasons. A total of 189,104 dives and 16,640 CTD casts (mean depth 72 m ± 59) were recorded. Individuals dove to a mean depth of 41 m ± 24 with a maximum dive depth range of 24 – 403 m. Dives lasted on average 204 sec ± 120 with maximum durations ranging between 240 – 2,220 sec. Average daily depth and duration of dives, number of dives, time spent diving and dive time/surface time were influenced by date, while sex, age, sea-ice concentration and their interactions were not particularly influential. Dives were deeper (~150 m), longer (~480 sec), less numerous (~250 dives/day) and more pelagic during the winter/early spring compared to the fall and animals spent proportionally less time at the bottom of their dives during the winter. Influxes of warm saline water, corresponding to Atlantic Water characteristics, were observed intermittently at depths ~100 m during both winters in this study. The seasonal changes in diving behaviour were linked to average weekly wind stresses from the north or north-east, which induced upwelling events onto the shelf through offshore Ekman transport. During these events the shelf became flooded with AW from the West Spitsbergen Current, which presumably brought Atlantic fish species close to shore and within the seals’ foraging depth-range. Predicted increased in the influx of AW in this region are likely going to favour the growth and geographic expansion of this harbour seal population in the future.