By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent
"They're only smaller ones, about a ton and a half each," John Loines, of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), said of more than a dozen of the blubbery seals lying on a beach by the hut on Lagoon Island on the Antarctic Peninsula.
"You're not supposed to interfere with the seals. So I just make myself a nuisance and hope they'll move on," he told Reuters. "It can be intimidating but they usually do move."
A few of the seals belched loudly and snarled as he climbed carefully up onto a wooden platform supporting the hut -- built as an emergency refuge -- and waved a stick before examining the damaged outdoor wooden steps, probably cracked by a seal.
Only a few of the seals bothered moving. Some rolled over and dozed off again on the beach, beside an iceberg-strewn bay. Large males, which have a nose shaped like a short trunk, can weigh up to almost 3 tons and measure about 5 meters (16 ft).
"Stuff here has to be weatherproof and sealproof -- if one of those decides to lie on anything it will squash it flat," he said.
Loines, aged 56 and who once worked as a carpenter, took measurements and then returned to the British Rothera research station 4 km (2.5 mile) away by boat to design a fix for the steps. Loines now manages a scientific laboratory at Rothera.
The harsh climate and remoteness of Antarctica, a frozen continent bigger than the United States, vastly complicates even the simplest of tasks.
"If you think something back home will take an hour, here it takes two," said Athena Dinar, spokeswoman for BAS. "You don't have the same spare parts, you don't have the same tools -- you have to be much more creative."
Scientists are in Antarctica largely to study the environment and climate change. Temperatures on the Peninsula have risen by up to 3 Celsius (5.4 Fahrenheit) in the past 50 years -- the fastest rate of warming in the southern hemisphere.
Loines said that elephant seals are generally docile, except for big males that competE at mating season. But he cautioned that some seals might lash out if you get between a seal and the sea.
"I don't think it's malicious, it's just that you'd be in the way," he said.
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