March 1st: ~26

Sea Lion of the Month

Our very first Sea Lion of the Month is ~26! She’s the ‘cover girl’ featured on the About  project page. This sea lion was one of the first to be marked in 2011, when this project began. She weighed 67 pounds and was a little over 3.5 feet long—a very healthy pup!

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We have seen her quite often in our remote camera images and in person during our research cruises in 2012, 2013, and in 2015—when we took the picture above.

marchShe seems to be staying local, near her birth place at Gillon Point (star, map left) on Agattu Island. We have also seen her  at Cape Sabak (on the same Agattu Island) and nearby on Alaid Island (circled stars).

We didn’t see her during our summer 2016 research cruise but don’t worry, it seems she can be elusive since we didn’t see her in 2014 either. She would be just over 5 years old which means the next time we see her, she could have a pup. Keep an eye out for her in the images!


If there is a sea lion you keep seeing and would like to know more, head to the Sea Lion of the Month Nomination forum to submit the full marking and we will try to feature that sea lion and share what we know of their story on the first of the month.

I spy with my binoculars…

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

ksweeney

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.

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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.