Abstract

Arterial blood nitrogen tensions of free-diving Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddelli) were measured by attaching a microprocessor-controlled blood pump and drawing samples at depth to determine how these marine mammals dive to great depths and ascend rapidly without developing decompression sickness. Forty-seven samples of arterial blood were obtained from four Weddell seals during free dives lasting up to 23 minutes to depths of 230 meters beneath the sea ice of McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. Peak arterial blood nitrogen tensions of between 2000 and 2500 millimeters of mercury were recorded at depths of 40 to 80 meters during descent, indicating that the seal's lung collapses by 25 to 50 meters. Then arterial blood nitrogen tensions slowly decreased to about 1500 millimeters of mercury at the surface. In a single dive, alveolar collapse and redistribution of blood nitrogen allow the seal to avoid nitrogen narcosis and decompression sickness.

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