Sea Lion Summer Camp

Living and working at remote field sites in Alaska

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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.

I spy with my binoculars…

A typical day on our research cruise looking for sea lions.

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February 23, 2017
Katie Sweeney
Biologist

 

I am so excited for the launch of our Steller Watch project on Zooniverse! It’s a privilege to share our research with you all.

I’m leading the Steller Watch project but work with a team of colleagues at NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center. I primarily work on Steller sea lion population abundance and monitoring. I did my undergraduate work at the University of Washington and earned my Master’s from Duke University.

In the About section of the Steller Watch project site, we explain that the images you’re viewing and classifying were captured from our automated remote cameras. The pictures are helping us get a clearer picture of Steller sea lion presence and behavior year-round. These remote cameras supplement our field work visits.

What’s it like to be out to sea in the far western reaches of the U.S. to survey sea lions?

Every year, we conduct a ship survey in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska to survey Steller sea lions and check up on the remote cameras. We spend weeks at sea visiting known sea lion sites to count the animals and look for the few marked individuals. 

What’s it like to be out to sea in the far western reaches of the U.S. to survey sea lions? Well, when we approach a known Steller sea lion site, the captain of the research vessel navigates offshore from the location to ensure the sea lions don’t smell the ship’s exhaust. Steller sea lions have poor vision, but they have an excellent sense of smell.

From that vantage point, the team of biologists grab binoculars and look for Steller sea lions from the ship’s wheelhouse. Depending on what we see, our program leader, Tom Gelatt, makes the call to pack into the 16-foot inflatable skiff to get a closer look.

When we get the go ahead, I make my way down to the gear room, grabbing my rubber boots and flotation suit — a big orange onesie — which could save my life if I fell into the frigid waters of the North Pacific Ocean. The other biologist also suit up and one-by-one we carefully climb down the ladder into the skiff.

scis-off-to-resight

Once settled, we make our way towards the site. The skiff driver stops a bit offshore to make sure the sea lions haven’t detected us. That gives me time to pull out my data book, binoculars, and camera with a telephoto lens. I’m ready to capture a picture of any marked animals.

Next comes the fun part. We sit and watch. And then we watch some more. Sometimes we may have to stay out for three hours to ensure we’ve had a good look at all the sea lions. Even in rain or high winds we scan each animal, focusing our attention to their left sides (the side that has the markings) looking for the few marked individuals.

26_20150623_resizeWhen I scan and spot a marked sea lion I grab my camera and snap pictures. Then I record the observation in my data book including details like age, sex, and behavior of the marked animal. For example, if it’s an adult female, does it have a pup nearby or suckling?

Watching these massive animals is a wonder. When we are certain we have seen all we can, we head back to the research vessel. After taking off all my gear, I’ll grab a cup of hot cocoa and take a seat while we transit to the next site, in the back of my mind, always hoping the seas will stay calm.


If you’re interested in reading about our 2016 research cruise, check out my blog from last summer. For more information about all of our Steller sea lion field work, we have an interactive story map describing our efforts in 2016.