Low, slow, and good to go!

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

biopic

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.

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Author: Steller Watch

Blog for Steller Watch, a Zooniverse.org Project https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/sweenkl/steller-watch