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!