Off we go!

It’s time for the 2019 field season!

ksweeney

June 1, 2019
Katie Sweeney

Biologist

 

It’s that time again! We are about to set out for another summer field season to collect data on Steller sea lions and northern fur seals in Alaska! We’ll be conducting several trips to the field on ships, land, and aerial surveys to collect aerial images for counting individuals, ship- and skiff-based counts, sightings of branded sea lions and tagged fur seals, collect remote camera images, brand more sea lion pups out west, and deploy and reterieve more camera tag videos on fur seals. A busy summer indeed! Check out the map below (and check out the link in the caption to download the full version!) to see all the field work the Alaska Fisheries Science Center will be doing this summer.

Expected 2019 field work conducted by the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. NOAA Fisheries.
Expected 2019 field work conducted by the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. Full-resolution version can be downloaded from the NOAA Fisheries website found here!

We will miss you and while we’re away our trusty moderator will be present when he can on the Talk Forum. Thank you all for your efforts throughout the year! We’ll see you when we return in September!


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. 

Since when does NOAA study polar bears?

We used our new drones and cameras to collect images to help improve polar bear detection during our ice seal surveys!

ksweeney

May 16, 2019
Katie Sweeney

Biologist

 

restingbear.pngThis post may come to a surprise to you. You may find yourself thinking, “I didn’t think NOAA studied polar bears…” Well, you’d be right! The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with monitoring and managing polar bear populations, and other marine mammal species such as, manatees, sea otters, and walrus (and I bet they would have jurisdiction of the Steller sea cow, as well, if it wasn’t extinct!). The Fish and Wildlife Service also manages numerous terrestrial species. NOAA monitors and manages the other marine mammal species and commercial fish species. 

Those marine mammal species include ribbon, spotted, ringed, and bearded seals, also referred to as “ice seals.” The method that the Polar Ecosystem Program here at NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Laboratory uses to survey these species is with fixed wing, occupied aircraft. These seals can be pretty spread out throughout the sea ice, and therefore challenging to find. They have a special camera system that is equipped with three cameras that capture standard, visual images (like those you take with your cell phone or point and shoot camera) and three thermal cameras. These are similar to the ones we used during our northern fur seal surveys, last year.

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Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Since these surveys are conducted over sea-ice to look for ice seals, it only makes sense to also look for polar bears at the same time. Polar bears prey on certain ice seal species and heavily depend on sea-ice so there is overlap of habitat between all of these species. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA are collaborating on developing these surveys to better detect polar bears, as the current method does great detecting ice seals, but not polar bears. To help, I was fortunate enough to go on a trip to Ontario Canada to visit the Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat to test out a new camera and answer some questions to help the lead biologist figure out how to better detect polar bears.

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Olympus point and shoot and UV camera (red lens on upper left). Credit: NOAA Fisheries

This new camera is a UV camera which means the UV light that the sun emits is captured in the image. Polar bears absorb UV light so they show up as black whereas clean snow and ice, reflect UV light and shows up white. This sort of camera and imaging capability would come in handy to detect black bears when polar bears do not show up well in visual images (think: white bears against white snow and ice) or in thermal images (think: well-insulated younger bears that just went for a swim and show up as ‘colder’ and can be confused with dirty snow and ice ‘hot spots’).

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Visual image (left) and UV image (right) with red arrows pointing to polar bear. Credit: NOAA Fisheries
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Visual image (left) and thermal image (right) with red arrow pointing to polar bear. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

BearWhile in Canada at the Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat, we were able to fly over the five polar bears at the bear habitat with our new hexacopter drones, the APH-28s. One hexacopter had the thermal camera (FLIR DUO Pro R) which also has visual image capabilities. The other system had a regular point and shoot camera to collect visual images and the new UV camera that was built at MML. This opportunity allowed us to answer important questions to greatly improve our future survey methods.


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. 

Hot images may help find hidden fur seals

We use drones to survey Steller sea lions but what about northern fur seals?

ksweeney

January 16, 2018
Katie Sweeney

Biologist

 

Here is something you may not know: the Steller Watch team also studies northern fur seals! We have a blog post about an interesting research project on northern fur seals but I would like to share another project with you all that I’m working on with this incredible species.

But, before I dive in, I’d like to share a little bit of background information about northern fur seals. This species ranges throughout the North Pacific Ocean and similar to Steller sea lions, they gather during the summer breeding season however, unlike Stellers, they only gather at a handful of locations in California, Alaska, and Russia.

In Alaska, where our program primarily studies northern fur seals, they gather on the Pribilof Island Archipelago and Bogoslof Island. We’ve mentioned Bogoslof Island in our last two blog posts (here and here) as this island erupted over 50 times in a 9-month period in 2017. Fortunately, the eruptions seem to have caused little, if any, displacement of the wildlife and there is a lot more real estate for these northern fur seals to spread out as the population on this island has been increasing since the mid-1990s. Contrary to the increasing trend of northern fur seals on Bogoslof, we are seeing continued declines in the populations that inhabit St. Paul and St. George Island (in the Pribilof Islands).

The northern fur seal drone project was featured on the UAS Program website and we wanted to share it with you, here!

Advanced UAS Sensor Development for Marine Mammal Monitoring

In 1963, NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Laboratory (MML) began to use the mark-recapture method of shear-sampling northern fur seal pups to estimate pup abundance. Presently, these surveys are conducted every two years on St. Paul and St. George Island (Pribilof Islands, Alaska). These trips require up to 22 people to be stationed on the islands for up to three weeks and the presence of scientists on the rookery creates disturbance (authorized by a Federal permits: NMFS/MMPA 14327 and IACUC ANW2013-3).

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With the help of the UAS Program Office, MML has been collaborating with NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center (AOC), National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service (NESDIS), Mystic Aquarium, Aerial Imaging Solutions, and GeoThinkTank (Figure 1) to work on developing a UAS-based approach for conducting northern fur seal abundance surveys.

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MML has successfully implemented unoccupied aircraft systems (UAS; i.e., drones) to supplement annual Steller sea lion abundance surveys since 2014. Given the size and relatively more distinct coloration from their background, using a high-resolution mirrorless camera has worked well for capturing images of Steller sea lions (Figure 2). The challenge with developing a similar approach for northern fur seals has been deciphering small black fur seal pups from the black boulder substrate common in the Pribilof Islands—northern fur seals are much harder to count in images!

APH-HL-CF2.jpgWe have a few objectives for our project to get us closer to our goal: (1) assess a heavy-lift hexacopter with longer flight times and ability to carry heavier payloads, (2) evaluate imaging capabilities of a thermal sensor for northern fur seals, and (3) conduct an on-the-ground assessment of the feasibility of multi-spectral imaging for distinguishing northern fur seals from their background.

In August of 2018 during the shear-sampling surveys on St. George Island, we were able to test the APH-28 hexacopter  (Figure 3) (Aerial Imaging Solutions) mounted with the FLIR DUO Pro R thermal sensor and conduct aerial surveys of a small rookery (Figure 4). We completed redundant surveys of this rookery with this thermal sensor and also with a high-resolution mirrorless digital camera. We will soon count northern fur seals from these two sets of imagery and be able to compare the counts to our traditional ground-survey estimates.

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During this same trip, we worked with GeoThinkTank to collect spectral measurements using a handheld spectroradiometer (loaned by NESDIS) of northern fur seals (pups, adult females, and a deceased adult male) and the substrate (rocks, grass, driftwood, etc.) (Figure 5). Collecting measurements like these is a normal procedure for plants and other substrate (e.g., for calibrating satellite imagery), but as far as we know, has never been done for wildlife.

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5_Mystic Aquarium_sm.jpgCollecting these spectral measurements in the field in Alaska was made easier by our preliminary trip to Mystic Aquarium in May of 2018. The Mystic Aquarium allowed us the opportunity to collect more measurements of northern fur seals (from animals far more cooperative than those we encounter in the wild) and in a more controlled environment to help us streamline our methods for the harsher field conditions in Alaska (Figure 6). These spectral measurements will be used to model a virtual northern fur seal rookery environment to run various aerial survey simulations. This will allow scientists to test various bands beyond the typical four bands customary to off-the-shelf multi-spectral UAS sensors. If optimal bands are identified and multi-spectral imaging is found to be effective, this will guide our next steps towards developing a custom UAS-mounted sensor.

Assessing optimal imaging capabilities will guide sensor selection and further development of an observing system. Once we have a handle on the best sensor payload option, we can explore which UAS platforms would be most effective for abundance surveys, and eventually replace and improve upon the current traditional survey method.


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. 

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.

And we’re back!

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

ksweeney

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.

Pup work

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

ksweeney

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. 

Gearing up for the field season

We heading off to Alaska and we will be back in August!

ksweeney

June 6, 2017
Katie Sweeney
Biologist

 

The office has been humming with energy lately. It’s that time of year, the field season is just around the corner. Spring and summer are busy times at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. This is the time of year when the Center conducts the majority of its field work. Weather in Alaska over the winter isn’t conducive to getting work done, though summer weather offers no guarantees, either!

While we’re away, we will be putting the Steller watch project on hold starting June 20th. Since we won’t have internet while we are in Alaska we can’t respond on the Talk Forum but don’t worry! We’ll be back in August with many more images and stories to share with you all.

Some of the Center’s research trips this year include bottom trawl and hydro-acoustic groundfish surveys, marine mammal aerial surveys in the Arctic, harbor seal vessel surveys, Cook Inlet beluga aerial surveys, and vessel surveys to deploy passive acoustic recorders to record marine mammal sounds. Along with Steller sea lion surveys, our program will also conduct several studies on northern fur seals.

We have four Steller sea lion trips planned, similar to our efforts in 2016. And like all the field work at the Center, these trips require a lot of preparation. It is a coordinated effort to ensure we have everything we need since we will be isolated in very remote places and can’t just run to the store if we forgot something. Here’s a little background about each of our Steller sea lion trips:

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One of our featured bloggers, Katie Luxa, has been working with other biologists to accomplish the large task of packing and preparing gear to be shipped up to Alaska to our remote field camps. They have also been preparing the week-long training class for the seven biological observers who will be living on two uninhabited islands (Ugamak and Marmot Islands) for almost two months. The field campers will live in rudimentary shelters with limited electricity, no internet or cell phones, and no running water. They will be perching above sea lions, going unnoticed to collect data on marked animals and sea lion behavior.

Research cruise

One of the trips I will be participating in will be our annual research cruise on board the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Research Vessel (R/V) Tiĝlax̑ (pronounced TEKH-lah; Aleut for eagle). For two weeks, 13 people from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center will call this 120 foot vessel home. Every summer, six skilled USFWS crew members operate this vessel, a vital platform, for nearshore research along the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

During our trip, the primary goal is to study sea lions to collect population counts, service our 20 remote cameras and download images (more images to come for our citizen scientists team members!), look for marked individuals, and mark individuals for on our ongoing research project. Along with sea lion biologists, there are two fish biologists who will dropping an underwater camera near sea lion sites to get a better idea of the available prey. There will also be two killer whale biologists on board looking for killer whales and other species of whales.

hexacopterTo prepare for this trip, I’ve been working with our other remote pilots to test out our new camera mount, called a gimbal, mounted to our hexacopter (or drone). The gimbal mount ensures that the camera will always point directly down and over the sea lions no matter how much the wind causes the hexacopter to tilt. I’m excited to see these mounts in action! We also have a new person on our team who you heard form in our last post about the NOAA Corps. LTJG Blair Delean will be heading up to Alaska with us for the first time to help with hexacopter surveys.

Aerial survey

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Biologists (and featured bloggers) Lowell Fritz, Josh Cutler, and Katie Luxa will be heading out on the annual aerial survey. The team will meet up with NOAA Aircraft Operation Center flight team and Twin Otter aircraft in southeast Alaska. They will survey along the coastline, capturing images of sea lions hauled out on land at known sites.

The aerial survey team assembled and tested our camera mount that holds three cameras; it will be installed on the NOAA Twin Otter. Now we know it’s working fine, I’m packing up all the gear to ship to Alaska.

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After the aerial survey and research cruise, Katie Luxa and I will meet up in Dutch Harbor (Unalaska Island) for our final survey. We will be on board a small boat for six days, checking out nearby sea lion sites for marked animals.

While we’re away, we will be putting the Steller watch project on hold starting June 20th. Since we won’t have internet while we are in Alaska we can’t respond on the Talk Forum but don’t worry! We’ll be back in August with many more images and stories to share with you all. Thank you all for your contributions classifying so many images before we head out. It’s been a joy to share our research with such dedicated people and we are so happy to have you as apart of our team!

Wish us calm seas, clear skies, low winds, and many sea lions!


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.