August 15, 2017
I was one of the seven researchers who lived on a remote Alaskan island to study Steller sea lions during the 2017 summer breeding season. These field camps are important for studying behavior and vital rates (like survival and birth rates) of Steller sea lions across their range – much like what you’re doing on Steller Watch! People always ask me what it’s like to spend two months on a remote island in the Aleutians. I can honestly say that it’s some of the best months of my year!
I have just returned from my fifth summer at a Steller sea lion field camp and was stationed on Marmot Island for the first time! Picture a cabin in the middle of moss-covered woods, situated a couple hundred feet back from the beach, next to a fresh water lagoon. Can’t get more picturesque than that! Now imagine you get to wake up to birds chirping every morning and while you sip your coffee on the deck, fox kits (baby foxes) wrestle a few yards away and deer graze a little way off. Doesn’t sound too bad, huh? Those days make up for the times when the weather refuses to cooperate (heavy rain or strong wind) and fog obscures even the lagoon from view.
I was stationed at this cabin with one other field camper. Each day, we completed a four-hour shift at a Steller sea lion rookery (breeding site). A two-mile uphill hike is required to get to this site which, depending on the day, can be amazing. However, care must be taken to avoid devils club, a spiky monstrosity, and cow parsnip (also known as pushki), which contains a photosensitive chemical – it reacts with the sun and can cause blistering or skin discoloration. Machetes are sometimes required, especially in the beginning of the season, to clear the path and we take extra precautions to avoid coming into contact with pushki “juice”.
Once at the site, we sit about 500 feet above the sea lions, with harnesses and climbing ropes clipped into an anchor system to ensure our safety. Our location allows us to observe the sea lions without disturbing them. Using binoculars and spotting scopes, we observe and record behavior of marked sea lions, as well as any other marine mammals in the area (e.g., killer whales), disturbance events (e.g., caused by rock slides), or sightings of Steller sea lions entangled in fishing gear and other marine debris.
Most days, these shifts fly by since watching Steller sea lion behavior never gets old to me. There’s always cute pups suckling or playing together; juveniles bouncing around the rookery, sometimes sneaking milk from females who are unaware; females giving birth; and males fighting to keep their territories. Having done this project for many years, I get to see the same animals every day and sometimes across multiple years. This allows me to get to know these individuals and makes collecting data exciting. What always amazes me about these animals is their hardiness and their ability to survive in harsh sub-arctic conditions!
One unique thing that I observed this summer was a female nursing two juveniles! It’s rare for sea lions to have two dependents, though having a juvenile and a new pup is more common on Marmot Island than Ugamak Island. However, I have never seen a female nursing two juveniles. That’s a lot of milk that she has to supply each of them. That means that this female must be very healthy, which is a great sign!
At the end of the day, if it’s cold or raining, we light a fire in the wood stove to dry our field clothes and gear and get cozy inside our cabin. Our evening entertainment consists of watching the fox kits play or suckle mom, observing eagles or kingfishers perched around the lagoon, or maybe even just curling up with a good book by the fire. It’s nice to get away from the rush of normal life for a while. I count myself lucky that I get to study Steller sea lions from such an amazing location and I hope to continue this work for many years in the future!
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 am currently working towards my M.S. at the University of the Pacific studying elephant seals and their hormonal reactions to stress. I earned my B.S. from the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). After undergraduate school I worked at the Ocean Institute and at UCSC’s Cognition and Sensory Systems Lab. I have worked at the Marine Mammal Laboratory’s summer field camps for the last five seasons to study Steller sea lion behavior and life history.