My maiden voyage to Alaska

The 2018 Steller sea lion research cruise

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December 11, 2018
Burlyn Birkemeier

Biologist

 

This year, a team of NOAA scientists completed a re-sight trip by boat from the eastern Aleutian Islands to the Gulf of Alaska. The purpose of a re-sight trip was to survey Steller sea lion rookeries and haulouts for previously marked animals, similar to Steller Watch citizen scientists who look for marked animals in remote camera images. This year, after many years of working at the Marine Mammal Laboratory, looking through more than 200,000 remote camera images, I finally had the opportunity to go into the field and see Steller sea lions in person, for the first time.

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On July 12, I met the other three women who would compose our team at the airport, on our way to Dutch Harbor via Anchorage. I had heard many horror stories of canceled flights and stranded researchers trying to make their way to Dutch Harbor, so I braced myself for the worst case scenario when we arrived to Anchorage. My first surprise was that the only gate for passengers travelling to Dutch Harbor had no TSA, and upon checking in, every passenger was weighed with their carry-ons before getting on the plane. As we waited for our flight, we watched the crew load luggage onto the plane, wondering if ours would make it. Lucky enough, it was smooth sailing and we arrived in Dutch Harbor on our first attempt, luggage and all, just in time for dinner. We stayed the night in the only hotel in Dutch Harbor. The next morning, we got up bright and early to get the gear ready and hauled over to the M/V Pŭk-ŭk, our research vessel and home for the next two weeks.

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Once aboard the Pŭk-ŭk, we wasted no time and set off for our first site. I took in the first views of the beautiful green cliffs and incredible wildlife—as well as the onset of nausea (sea sickness!)—as we entered the Bering Sea. The weather was too bad for us to survey that day, so it wasn’t until the second day that I saw my first Steller sea lion. The first skiff survey was at Tanginak, a lower priority site home to a mere 12 sea lions. Our team donned large mustang suits for warmth and flotation, climbed down into the skiff from the Pŭk-ŭk and observed the sea lions while the skiff driver navigated our boat back-and-forth in front of the site. We used stabilizing binoculars to look for marked animals and conducted counts while we slowly moved closer to the site in a zig-zag fashion, so as not to disturb the sea lions. Once we were sure we had a thorough look at each sea lion, we returned to the Pŭk-ŭk.

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DSC01639It was on our second day of surveying when I was the first person to spot a marked animal, an exciting and personal feat. After that, finding them became much easier. On day three, we visited seven sites but only needed to get in the skiff for a closer look at three of the sites. Cape Morgan (Akutan Island) was the first large rookery I had visited, with over 1,000 sea lions. Larger sites, such as this one, took a couple hours to survey, and despite the cold and rain, I enjoyed every moment. My favorite site was Billings Head (Akun Island), a large rookery tucked into a cove at the base of a massive bluff. The water was so clear you could see to the bottom. Some curious sea lions would come and investigate the skiff, while we rapidly called out the brands of the many marked animals we were seeing to the data recorder. The remainder of the two weeks continued the same fashion, doing multiple surveys some days, and other days, remaining on the boat and not surveying because of bad weather or because we were travelling between sites.

DSC01591.JPGBy the end of the two weeks, we had surveyed 29 sites. All but five had sea lions, and four we surveyed multiple times. Multiple trips to larger sites like Cape Morgan or Billings Head gave us chances to see new sea lions that were out foraging during our previous visit. In total, we observed 98 different marked individuals, many of which we saw more than once. One male was even present at Billings Head and then the next day we saw him at Cape Sarichef (Unimak Island), which are 50 kilometers apart! We also saw six dead sea lions (unknown causes) and, sadly, two entangled animals (packing bands). In addition to Steller sea lions, we saw sea otters, harbor seals, northern fur seals, a pod of humpback whales feeding, and even heard the calls of one very lost California sea lion. While we could have had better weather—we were unable to work due to poor weather a total of 5 days—it was still a productive trip.

The data we collected will help us better understand Steller sea lion survival, movement, and reproductive success of this endangered population. The information we collected, in addition to the data collected from Steller Watch, will help us understand the potential causes for decline of this fragile population.


I began working at the Marine Mammal laboratory for an internship in 2014 analyzing Steller sea lion remote camera images. I completed my senior thesis project on sea lion pup birth timing for my Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences degree at the University of Washington, where I also earned a degree in Biology. After graduating, I was contracted to continue my work at the Marine Mammal Laboratory analyzing remote camera images. I am currently a research biologist with the University of Washington’s Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean (JISAO) at the Marine Mammal Laboratory where I analyze high-definition videos from camera tags placed on Northern fur seals to study feeding rates, prey availability, and foraging success. 

December 1st: ~48

Sea Lion of the Month

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Our Sea Lion of the Month for November is an animal that we saw during our research cruise! This month’s featured sea lion is ~48 and I suspect you will see him on Steller Watch images, if you haven’t already. This male was marked at Gillon Point on Agattu Island on June 23, 2011 which makes him over 7 years old! When he was marked he weighed about 71 pounds (32.2 kg) and was just over 3.5 feet (109 cm) long and almost 2.5 feet (79 cm) around his torso, just below his flippers. As a seven year old, he could be nearing sexual maturity but he’d still be too small to compete for a breeding territory.

 

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This sea lion has been seen him at Gillon Point during our summer visits and then otherwise he seems to be partial to hanging out at Cape Wrangell on Attu Island. Since 2011, we have seen each year during our annual research cruises, except for this past summer, in 2018. He has definitely been seen A LOT in past remote camera images up to year 2014. The reason we haven’t seen him in 2015 or later is because we still need your help to look through our backlog of remote camera images! Hopefully we see him again next year and maybe someday he will have his own breeding territory! Let us know in the Talk forum if you happen to see him in the remote camera images.

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Our last sighting of ~48 during the 2017 research  cruise. Look at that mane of thick fur coming in!

Curious about other pinnipeds (seals and sea lions)? Check out our neighbors in the Pacific Islands to the south, the monk seals of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. The Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center features their own Monk Seal of the Month!


We will share the story of one marked sea lion each month. Be sure to check our Sea Lion of the Month page on the 1st of every month to learn about our featured Steller sear lion. You may nominate a sea lion by submitting their full mark on the Sea Lion of the Month nomination forum. Thank you all for your nominations! 

The Aleutian Island Struggle

The 2018 Steller sea lion aerial survey struggle is real

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November 14, 2018
Katie Luxa
Biologist

 

Earlier this summer, NOAA scientists partnered with NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center to conduct our annual aerial survey of Steller sea lions in Alaska. You can check out this post to read more about our aerial surveys.

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Overhead view of the camera system installed in the NOAA Twin Otter. Photo credit: Katie Luxa

Our trip began in Anchorage on June 19, where my co-workers and I met the pilots, mechanic, and – most importantly – the Twin Otter airplane that would be our office for the next three and a half weeks. The first order of business was to install our survey equipment: an array of 3 digital cameras mounted in the belly of the plane and a computer that controls the mount system.

The next task was to plan the flight to our first destination. Despite our ability to cover a lot of ground in the Twin Otter, Steller sea lion sites are spread out over more than 2,500 miles of coastline and weather conditions aren’t always favorable enough to fly safely and capture high-quality images. For these reasons, we split sites into two survey areas: Southeast Alaska and the Gulf of Alaska are surveyed in odd-numbered years and the Aleutian Islands are surveyed in even-numbered years. This year, an Aleutian Island survey year, flights would be based out of Dutch Harbor (Unalaska Island) and Adak Island.

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Dutch Harbor is approximately 800 miles southwest of Anchorage; it is the #1 commercial fishing port in the United States and was featured in the TV show “Deadliest Catch”. Adak is another 440 miles west of Dutch Harbor, and is the site of a US naval air facility that closed in 1997. At its peak, there were up to 5,000 troops and their families living in Adak – they even had a McDonald’s! Our area of highest priority was around Adak and so we hoped to start the survey on a high note and visit those sites first. Unfortunately, the weather forecast didn’t look great, so we headed to Dutch Harbor instead.

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Aerial view of Adak (most of the homes in the image are empty). Photo credit: Katie Luxa

Once we settled in Dutch Harbor, it was time to start planning survey flights. We use an app called ForeFlight to upload a list of GPS locations for known Steller sea lion sites and draw a route from point to point; the route can then be shared with the pilots, who use the same app in the plane. Depending on how close the sites are to one another and how many passes are needed to photograph the sea lions, it’s possible to visit more than 30 sites in a single flight. We try to come up with a few potential flights each day, because being flexible is key to a successful survey.

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Discussing that day’s flight options in Adak. Photo credit: Ben Hou

And, boy, this year was all about flexibility! We had unusually poor weather, including many days with low “ceilings” (height of the cloud layer) or gusting winds that made it impossible for us to fly. And when we were in the air, we often spent our survey flights “hunting and pecking” for sites that weren’t covered by fog. Despite our weather difficulties, though, we were still able to survey over 130 sites and take over 13,000 photos!

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Bogoslof Island is a breeding site for both Steller sea lions and northern fur seals. The steam rising from the island is due to recent volcanic activity. Photo credit: Morgan Lynn

There were also some true highlights on this year’s survey. As Katie mentioned in an earlier post, we surveyed Bogoslof Island, which was completely transformed by a series of volcanic eruptions starting in December 2016. Compared to our aerial survey in 2016, the island had more than tripled in size and was still steaming! Bogoslof is one of the few places in Alaska where both Steller sea lions and northern fur seals breed, and it was amazing to see them there again, after such dramatic changes to the landscape.

Through the fall and winter, we’ll continue the important task of counting sea lions in this year’s images – and keep our fingers crossed for fair weather in 2019!


I’m a research scientist with the University of Washington’s Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean. I study food habits of Steller sea lions and northern fur seals, as well as Steller sea lion population abundance and survival, at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. I’ve worked at the Center since 2008. I received my undergraduate degree in Marine Science from the Southampton College of Long Island University and my Master’s degree from Western Washington University.

November 1st: >38

Sea Lion of the Month

 

^38_20170629_2_resize.JPGWe’re back from our summer field season and our Sea Lion of the Month for November is an animal that we saw during our research cruise! This month’s featured sea lion is >38 and I suspect you will see him on Steller Watch images, if you haven’t already. This female was marked at Hasgox Point on Ulak Island  on July 2, 2013 which makes her 5 years old! When she was marked she weighed about 76 pounds (34.6 kg) and was just over 3.5 feet (111 cm) long and almost 2.5 feet (76 cm) around his torso, just below his flippers. She was a pretty healthy sized pup and when we saw her this summer, still looked healthy.

 

SLM_extent.pngThis sea lion has been seen at Hasgox Point by scientists during each of the research cruises since she was marked in 2013. This means you have probably seen her in images from Ulak Island! Our observation of her during the 2018 cruise was an amazing milestone, she had her first pup (as far as we know)! It’s pretty exciting to see this sea lion grow up and now have a pup. Hopefully we see her again next year with another pup. Let us know in the Talk forum if you see her in the Steller Watch images!

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This is >38 observed by scientists in 2014 when she was a 1 year old!

Curious about other pinnipeds (seals and sea lions)? Check out our neighbors in the Pacific Islands to the south, the monk seals of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. The Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center features their own Monk Seal of the Month!


We will share the story of one marked sea lion each month. Be sure to check our Sea Lion of the Month page on the 1st of every month to learn about our featured Steller sear lion. You may nominate a sea lion by submitting their full mark on the Sea Lion of the Month nomination forum. Thank you all for your nominations! 

And we’re back!

The Steller Watch team is back from our 2018 summer field season

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October 5, 2018
Katie Sweeney

Biologist

 

The Steller Watch team is back from a busy field season and we’re hard at work processing and analyzing data that we have collected over the summer. We had a couple of research cruises and an aerial survey to study Steller sea lions in Alaska this past summer.

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There was also field work to study northern fur seals! Over the next few months me and some of my colleagues will be sharing more in-depth stories about these trips and results. But, for now, I’ll just give you a brief summary of what we were able to accomplish to study Steller sea lions.

Western Aleutian Island Research Cruise:

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During our annual research cruise on board the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service R/V Tiglax  we focused our efforts in the western Aleutian Islands, boarding and disembarking from Adak, Alaska. Weather was quite a challenge this year but we did quite well despite the fog and wind.

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We were able to visit the highest priority sea lions sites to look for marked animals, conduct counts, and do drone surveys. We were also able to access all of our remote cameras to collect over 330,000 images! There were three sites where we went to shore to work up pups in order to help assess pup condition in this area of concern. We handled almost 150 pups–phew! They were heavy…

NOAA Twin Otter Aerial Survey:

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During the time we were on the R/V Tiglax in the western Aleutian Islands, our aerial survey team, including NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center pilots and mechanic were surveying the area from the Delarof Islands to the east, along the Aleutian Islands. During our cruise, we had challenging weather and the fog and wind caused a lot of problems for our aerial survey team, as well! They didn’t get as many days of flights completed as is possible during a ‘good’ weather survey year, but despite the spotting nature of surveying, they were able to cover a lot of ground!

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They even got to check out Bogoslof Island, which is an island that had been erupting pretty consistently in the previous year! Check out all of those fur seals, sea lions, and marine birds.

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Eastern Aleutian Islands & Gulf of Alaska Resight trip:

Like the other two Steller sea lion projects, we encountered some difficult weather during our resight trip, as well. It didn’t keep us down! This was the first trip I’ve been on where we had a scientific crew that was all women! We were able to accomplish a lot of work in the Eastern Aleutian Islands and spotted many marked sea lions. Once we moved into the Gulf of Alaska, currents and winds slowed us down a lot which meant we had to focus our efforts on getting back to Homer in time to get home.

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Steller Sea Lion Field Camps (Cancelled):

Unfortunately, this year the Marine Mammal Laboratory were unable to run the two annual Steller sea lion field camps. This is the first year since early 2000 when the field camps have not been conducted.

What’s next?

We returned with over 330,000 images and guess what? We still need your help to get through these images on Steller Watch. While we were away, you all did a great job completing 55% of the classifications in the Presence of Marked Animals workflow! We have a new set of images that are now live in or Presence or Absence workflow. Thank you Steller Watch team for your continued help and support!


I have been a biologist in NOAA Fisheries Alaska Fisheries Science Center studying Steller sea lion population abundance and life history for over 10 years. I am an FAA certified remote pilot and have been flying marine mammal surveys with our hexacopter since 2014. I earned my B.S. in Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington and my Master in Coastal Environmental Management at Duke University. 

It’s that time of year!

We’re heading out for our 2018 summer field season

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June 19, 2018
Katie Sweeney

Biologist

 

Well, Steller Watch team, it’s that time of year again! We are gearing up to head out for our summer field season to Alaska to study Steller sea lions. While we are away, we will not be present on our Project Blog or the Talk Forum. Our current workflow will still be live while we are away! We are hoping to be almost complete with this current set of images very soon since we plan on coming back in the fall with a whole new set of images!

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We have several Steller sea lion trips happening this summer, very similar to last year: a research cruise to the western Aleutian Islands, a traditional aerial survey, and a resight cruise to the eastern Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska. Unfortunately, this year we are not able to do our field camps. This will be the first time since our field camp effort began a couple decades ago that we will be unable to do field camps (except for in 2006 when field camps were on hold due to a law suit). Other science groups from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center are heading out this summer for field work, as well.

Western Aleutian Island Research Cruise:

This year’s cruise is very similar to last year. We will be on board the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s R/V Tiglax for about two weeks surveying between Attu and Adak Islands. During this trip we will be conducting count surveys by boat, land, and air with our drone. We will also be looking for marked animals at all the sites we visit and visit those sites with remote cameras to collect more images for Steller Watch! We will be doing some work with pups to collect data to help figure out more about pup health in the Aleutian Islands. Finally, there will be a couple whale biologists on board with us to help look for whales in the area, including killer whales.

NOAA Twin Otter Aerial Survey:

Since 2006, NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center has operated a NOAA Twin Otter for the aerial survey that will go from the Delarof Islands to the western Gulf of Alaska. This means they mostly operate out of Adak Island and Dutch Harbor. We even hope they’ll be able to check out Bogoslof Island, a volcano that erupted for over a year and has more than doubled in size. Will we see Steller sea lions, northern fur seals, and sea birds?

Eastern Aleutian Islands & Gulf of Alaska Resight trip:

We are not able to do field camps this year but luckily we are able to do a resight trip to look for animals that were marked on Ugamak Island, just last year. During this trip, we will just be visiting sites to look for those newly marked one year olds and marked adults beginning around Dutch Harbor and ending in Homer, AK.

A HUGE thank you to those of you who have contributed to Steller Watch! We’ll be back in the fall with many, many more images to share! 


I have been a biologist in NOAA Fisheries Alaska Fisheries Science Center studying Steller sea lion population abundance and life history for over 10 years. I am an FAA certified remote pilot and have been flying marine mammal surveys with our hexacopter since 2014. I earned my B.S. in Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington and my Master in Coastal Environmental Management at Duke University. 

June 1st: ~57

Sea Lion of the Month

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The Sea Lion of the Month for May is one that was nominated by one of our Steller Watch team. This months’ sea lion is a bit of a master of disguise. In several images, his mark has looked like ~80 or ~50 but, we finally have him figured out, now! Our sea lion for June is ~57. This male was marked at Gillon Point (Agattu Island) on June 24, 2013. When he was marked he weighed about 54 pounds (25 kg) and was almost 3.5 feet (107 cm) long and over 2 feet (64 cm) around his torso, just below his flippers. He was a bit of a smaller pup but now he is almost 5 years.

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At first, we only saw ~57 at his birth place. But many of you have reported seeing just around the corner of the island, at Cape Sabak. Mostly, we have been seeing him from the remote cameras, as well. Keep an eye out and let’s see if we can find him on any sites?

Curious about other pinnipeds (seals and sea lions)? Check out our neighbors in the Pacific Islands to the south, the monk seals of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. The Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center features their own Monk Seal of the Month!


We will share the story of one marked sea lion each month. Be sure to check our Sea Lion of the Month page on the 1st of every month to learn about our featured Steller sear lion. You may nominate a sea lion by submitting their full mark on the Sea Lion of the Month nomination forum. Thank you all for your nominations!