Getting away from it all . . .

Returning from two months away at a remote field camp

authorpic.jpg

August 15, 2017
Molly McCormley

Biologist

 

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.

IMG_3953.jpg

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”.

Image credit: Koa Matsuoka, NOAA Fisheries

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!

IMG_3896.jpg

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!

IMG_3891.jpgAt 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.

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:

Remote field campsobservation-site

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

2_Otter

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.

Re-sight trip2014_akutan_cape-morgan_resize

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. 

Sea Lion Summer Camp

Living and working at remote field sites in Alaska

Katie.jpg

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.

helo-with-gear

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.

food-shopping

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.