Sea Lion Summer Camp

Living and working at remote field sites in Alaska

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April 22, 2017
Katie Luxa
Biologist

 

Have you ever wanted to get away from it all? No phone, no internet, no car, no electricity. Just you and a little cabin in the wilderness…and a few thousand noisy neighbors.

Each summer, NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center sends observers to field camps on two remote islands in Alaska: Marmot Island, near Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska, and Ugamak Island, near Dutch Harbor in the eastern Aleutian Islands. Observers spend about 10 weeks on the islands where we are responsible for monitoring Steller sea lions hauled out on beaches. Every day, we scan the beaches for marked animals, count the sea lions on land, and record behavioral observations. These data provide a fine-scale look at two Steller sea lion populations and, in conjunction with other field studies and the remote images you’re helping to examine, contribute to our understanding of this species across its range.

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So how do we get to a Steller sea lion field camp on an uninhabited island in Alaska? By helicopter, of course! But our journey really begins in Seattle. Field camp observers go through a week-long training in Seattle where we learn about Steller sea lion biology, data collection, and the responsibilities involved with living in a remote shelter on a small island with only 1 or 2 other people, away from it all. In many cases, this is also our first opportunity to get to know one another – communication and cooperation are vitally important when working with a team in remote location for over two months.

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After training, we spend 3 days in the town nearest our assigned field camp (Kodiak or Dutch Harbor) to organize equipment which includes our rain gear, datasheets, cameras, etc. We also complete one of our most daunting tasks: buying 2 months’ worth of groceries. On deployment day, the helicopter transports us – along with all of our food and gear – to our temporary island homes. I also like to hum the Jurassic Park theme to myself as we land. Once we have unloaded, we get straight to work and by the end of the day, we will have set up our composting toilet hut (no indoor plumbing here!), solar panels, water filter, propane cook stove, cabin heater, and put away all of our food. It’s still light outside, but the clock reads 10:00 pm. Welcome to the land of the midnight sun!

The next day is dedicated to setting up our observation sites so we can start collecting data. Depending on the camp, the site may be just a few minutes’ walk away over wind-blown tundra dotted by wildflowers or at the end of a 2-mile hike through dewy meadows and moss-covered Sitka spruce. These are some of my favorite places on Earth. No matter how close the observation site is, though, we always make sure we’re prepared: datasheets and extra pencils, a camera with charged batteries, binoculars, a satellite phone, a VHF radio, a Personal Locator Beacon for emergencies, extra layers of clothes, bear spray (for those on Marmot Island), and plenty of water and snacks.

We use the same observation sites from year to year; these spots were selected because they allow us to safely observe sea lions without disturbing them. Our goal is to go the entire 10 weeks without the sea lions realizing we’re there. The sites range from about 350-1,000 feet above the beaches, so we use anchor systems and wear climbing harnesses each time we approach the cliff edge.observation-site As soon as we’re clipped into the anchor system, we’re ready to get comfortable and watch the hundreds of sea lions on the beach below.

Within a few days, we settle into an easy rhythm of data collection and camp life. We get to know the daily patterns of the marked animals. We witness fierce battles over territories. We watch sea lion pups learn to swim. And we live happily ever after. That is, until it’s time to decide who gets to empty the composting toilet.

Want to see how field camps operate in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands? Check out this blog by fellow biologists from the Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center about monk seal research in this other remote Pacific Island chain.


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 for just over six years. 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.

April 15th: ~84

Sea Lion of the Month

So many of you nominated ~84 for Sea Lion of the Month! This sea lion is also fondly referred to as ~♥ because at certain angles the number looks like a heart. As many of you know by now, the ~ (tilde) symbol means this animal was born and marked at Gillon Point on Agattu Island. This sea lion is a male and when he was marked on June 25, 2013 he weighed about 83 pounds and was almost 4 feet long!

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Here you can see ~84 hanging out without his mother. This image was captured on June 15, 2015.

From the remote camera images, we observed ~84 and his mom stayed at his birth site, Gillon Point, only until early July. It’s likely that his mother took him to another site nearby. When females go to sea with their pups, the pup will usually ride on its mother’s back.

We didn’t see them again until they showed up in the remote camera images at a nearby site: Cape Wrangell on Attu Island on October 2, 2013. He was seen regularly at Cape Wrangell for the rest of 2013 and into 2014. We even saw him here during our research cruise in the Aleutian Islands on June 23, 2014! And of course, many of you have been seeing him on remote camera images captured at Cape Wrangell. It seems he likes this spot!

84Interestingly, one of our biologists on the Steller Watch team noticed his mother nursed him until at least May 18, 2015. Juveniles do start foraging for fish at a fairly young age but they will still supplement with their mother’s milk for as long as she will allow. When females stop letting their juveniles nurse, we call this weaning. Have any of you seen him suckling from his mother in the images? If not, this is a good indication that he was weaned so he’s on his own. Females do this so they can have enough energy support their new pup on the way. It’s quite a lot of work to forage for enough fish for yourself and to produce milk for your pup!

Females are able to have a pup every year, which we see quite often, especially in the eastern population. Out here in the Aleutian Islands, we tend to see females stay with their offspring for longer periods of time. Often up to two years and sometimes even up to three years! On occasion, we even see a female nursing both a newborn pup and her juvenile born in the previous year or two. This juvenile is likely weaned shortly after the pup is born since supporting two offspring requires too much energy, or food and foraging time.


Great news: We will now share the stories of two marked sea lions (instead of just one) each month! There has been so much interest to hear the stories of marked sea lions that we need to kick it up a notch. Be sure to check-in on the 1st and 15th of every month to learn about our featured Steller sear lion. As always, you may submit the mark of your nominees to the Sea Lion of the Month forum. Thank you all for your nominations! 

Low, slow, and good to go!

Taking flight to count Steller sea lions means covering 2,500 miles on a deadline

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April 11, 2017
Josh Cutler
Biologist + Information Systems Specialist

 

For most of the year, Steller sea lions in Alaska spend their time alone or in small groups spread across the expansive waters and shores surrounding the state. But every summer sea lions converge on land in large groups to give birth, mate, and rear newborn pups. For researchers this period is a fantastic opportunity to count every sea lion on shore and estimate the population.

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The opportunity comes with high stakes. We must conduct the counts within a three week window. The timing has to be just right to ensure females have given birth, but, wait too long and the the animals will disperse again for the year, making counts impossible.

We must conduct the counts within a three week window.

On top of the time constraint, Steller sea lions are spread across 2,500 miles of Alaska’s southern coast, through the Aleutian Island chain. That is a lot of ground to cover in a short time frame. So, in addition to our ship-based survey, we also take to the sky. With help from NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center team, a few scientists fly over Steller sea lion sites, allowing us to conduct the survey efficiently. The airplane we use is a Twin Otter and we mount a large camera in the belly of the plane so we can capture images as we fly over sea lions. The motto of this Twin Otter aircraft? Low, slow, and good to go! Which means we can fly low and slow and capture high resolution images.

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Me at the camera mount controller with two scientific observers at the front bubble windows.

Flying in the Twin Otter is nothing like flying in a commercial plane. The fuselage is just big enough to fit six people and our equipment; the ceiling is too low to stand. We wear flame-retardant flight suits for our safety. And we get to fly low and slow through some of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

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Biologist Katie Luxa at the bubble window.

The team consists of two pilots, one field mechanic, and three scientists. One scientist operates the mounted cameras from a computer station near the back of the plane. The other scientists look for sea lions through bubble windows on each side of the plane and help the pilots navigate to make sure our cameras capture all the animals. My favorite position is at the bubble window — I often see whales, walruses, active volcanoes, and glaciers, and I occasionally find new Steller sea lion sites.

Most days start with scientists and pilots meeting to discuss the weather forecasts and if it’s looking good to safely travel through the terrain. Alaska’s foggy, rainy and cloudy summer days often ground us due to low visibility. When the weather is good, we can fly all day. We spend nights in towns along our survey track: Sitka, Homer, Kodiak, Dutch Harbor or Adak.

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Perfect conical volcanoes peaking through the ceiling of low fog.

At the end of the survey, two scientists independently count every sea lion in each aerial and ground photo. Counting the animals allows us to make estimates about the total population. Using yearly figures we can also track population trends. Despite the challenges, we do the work because it is vital to monitoring Steller sea lions’ overall health.


I am a research scientist with the University of Washington’s Joint Institute for the Study of Atmosphere and Ocean (JISAO) and have worked at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center for six years. I develop data systems, conduct manned and unmanned aerial surveys, and often conduct field work for various Steller sea lion and northern fur seal studies. I received my undergraduate degree from the University of Massachusetts and my Master’s degree from Sonoma State University.

We’d also like to know what you’d like to hear about. Head to our Talk forum to post a Question for Biologists and your question could be selected for a future blog post!

April 1st: M625

Sea Lion of the Month

We partner with Russian scientists to study the entire western stock of Steller sea lions that extend beyond the boundaries of the United States. They monitor and maintain up to 50 remote cameras at known sea lion sites to look for marked animals.

For April, we are featuring a Russian born sea lion, M625 as our Sea Lion of the Month. She’s a popular sea lion—many of you have submitted her to our Sea Lion of the Month Nomination. She has quite the story to tell! She was born and marked on Medny Island, Russia on June 27, 2004 and weighed 64 pounds. Medny Island is a part of the Commander Islands which is located just over 200 miles northwest of the Aleutian Islands, Alaska (United States).

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M625 is 11 years old and lying next to her pup in this image captured in summer of 2015 on Cape Wrangell (Attu Island).

During her younger years, Russian scientists recorded observations of her at numerous sites on Kamchatka Peninsula. She returned to her birth place on Medny Island and gave birth to her first pup on June 13, 2010, when she was six years old. The following two years, she was observed throughout the Kamchatka Peninsula with her offspring. In 2014, she returned to Medny Island again and birthed her second pup on June 11, 2013 (when she was 9 years old). She wasn’t observed in 2014 and then only seen once in Russia in 2015 . . .

April.jpgHere is where her story gets interesting. Scientists spotted her at Kozlova Cape on Kamchatka Peninsula on May 26th, 2015. The next sighting of her was captured by our remote camera on Cape Wrangell (Attu Island, US) on June 9, 2015. This same day, she gave birth to her third pup which means, in just two weeks, she traveled over 430 miles and give birth on Cape Wrangell! Aren’t these animals amazing?

We have only processed images from this site captured up to the end of June 2015 so keep an eye out for M625 and her new pup! Many of you have already been seeing her repeatedly in the images. Here’s a link to a great image reported by a fellow citizen science where you can see her with her pup (right side, middle)!


Great news: We will now share the stories of two marked sea lions (instead of just one) each month! There has been so much interest to hear the stories of marked sea lions that we need to kick it up a notch. Be sure to check-in on the 1st and 15th of every month to learn about our featured Steller sear lion. As always, you may submit the mark of your nominees to the Sea Lion of the Month forum. Thank you all for your nominations!