Understanding the responses of animals to the environment is crucial for identifying critical foraging habitat. Elephant seals (Mirounga leonine) from the Kerguelen Islands (49 degrees 20'S, 70 degrees 20'E) have several different foraging strategies. Why some individuals undertake long trips to the Antarctic continent while others utilize the relatively close frontal zones is poorly understood. Here, we investigate how physical properties within the sea ice zone are linked to foraging activities of southern elephant seals (SES). To do this, we first developed a new approach using indices of foraging derived from high temporal resolution dive and accelerometry data to predict foraging behaviour in an extensive, low resolution dataset from CTD-Satellite Relay Data Loggers (CTD-SRDLs). A sample of 37 post-breeding SES females were used to construct a predictive model applied to demersal and pelagic dive strategies relating prey encounter events (PEE) to dive parameters (dive duration, bottom duration, hunting-time, maximum depth, ascent speed, descent speed, sinuosity, and horizontal speed) for each strategy. We applied these models to a second sample of 35 seals, 20 males and 15 females, during the post-moult foraging trip to the Antarctic continental shelf between 2004 and 2013, which did not have fine-scale behavioural data. The females were widely distributed with important foraging activity south of the Southern Boundary Front, while males predominately travelled to the south-eastern part of the East Antarctica region. Combining our predictions of PEE with environmental features (sea ice concentration, water masses at the bottom phase of dives, bathymetry and slope index) we found higher foraging activity for females over shallower seabed depths and at the boundary between the overlying Antarctic Surface Water (AASW) and the underlying Modified Circumpolar Deep Water (MCDW). Increased biological activity associated with the upper boundary of MCDW, may provide overwintering areas for SES prey. Male foraging activity was strongly associated with pelagic dives within the Antarctic Slope Front where upwelling of nutrient rich Circumpolar Deep Water onto surface water may enhance and concentrate resources. A positive association between sea ice and foraging activity was found for both sexes where increased biological activity may sustain an under-ice ecosystem. Variability of the East Antarctic sea ice season duration is likely a crucial element to allow air-breathing predators to benefit from profitable prey patches within the pack ice habitat.
2015. Vol. 137, 52-68 p.