Seattle Aquarium mammal biologist, Julie Carpenter recently assisted NOAA scientists from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center with their annual research in the Pribliof Islands of Alaska, which are home to breeding colonies (or rookeries) of the northern fur seal. By collaborating on the research and actually participating in it side-by-side with the field researchers, Julie gained firsthand experience and knowledge of the research techniques and the technical challenges of working with the wild population, making her uniquely suited to bring a deeper understanding of this work back to the staff and visitors of the Seattle Aquarium. Through this collaborative relationship, our hope is to continue to educate people about the critical population studies being conducted annually in these far-off islands and the many issues surrounding the Pribilof fur seals. Learn about Julie’s experience in the Pribliof Islands in this six-part blog series.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t start field work in the morning as the crew didn’t have their luggage. However, this was the perfect opportunity for me to explore and find my fur seals! Two National Marine Fisheries Service educators, Lisa and Pam, were also assisting in pup tagging and had been on the island for a week, working at the school with northern fur seal curriculum they had developed with the St. Paul School and the St. Paul tribal government. Since they were already settled in, they offered to show me around a bit! We first visited the tribal office, then the City Hall and the radio station (that’s right, the Pribilofs get one station and that’s their very own 91.9 serving St. Paul and St. George.) Then we went to an amazing beach on the northeast part of the island, past rolling hills and several lakes. As we climb down the dunes I’m immediately captured by arctic fox paw prints which are all over the sand. My eyes are then drawn to the water where dozens of northern fur seal pups groom their fur and play in the surf!
As we walk the beach, Pam and Lisa point out the eroding cliffs that are littered with small objects protruding from the sand. Bones! Hundreds of them. Mostly fur seal, but they tell me that some are Steller sea lion and even walrus bones.
They were told that this part of the island was used for decades as an area where animal carcasses were deposited during the commercial harvest, which ended on St. Paul Island in 1984. I can’t imagine all the bones that must be buried under years of eroding beach due to the wind and waves.
Then they took me to an “observation blind” (a small structure created to hide your presence from animals so you can observe them, ideally without their knowledge) at Reef Rookery, one of 14 northern fur seal rookeries on the island. This was amazing! Fur seals everywhere! Moms were nursing pups, pups were playing, males were herding females and random fur seal heads would pop above the grass as we walked by. And the sound…unforgettable!
By 2pm the luggage had arrived and the crew was ready to go. We headed to Reef Rookery on the southern tip of the island. We tagged pups for future identification and gathered about 40 blood samples to determine what antibodies were present in the blood, indicating which diseases are evident in the population. To do this, the crew had a couple people walk and then crawl ahead of the group into the rookery. The goal was to herd pups out of the rookery to a fenced area so that we could handle them one by one. We set up 3 stations on the ground to gather our pup data as quickly as possible to curb any stress that might be added by taking too long. The crew had clearly been doing this for years (and warmed up with the 1800 pups they tagged the week before on St. George Island!). They were like a well-oiled machine. So quick and efficient, it was hard to know where I could help as they were so good at everything and left no gaps to fill. However, they were great at letting me participate and gain some wild fur seal handling experience. One thing I’ll say is that no matter how much I knew I needed to be gentle and not pull away when bitten (my gear should protect me from their teeth) it was very hard to override my instincts to jerk away. I immediately learned the first time I did (and was quickly corrected) that this action can actually hurt their young teeth. Yikes! You mean I’m supposed to let them hang on? So feisty yet so fragile.
I was beat and luckily only came away with a few bruises on my thighs (don’t worry, I’ll spare you the photos). Tomorrow is a full day of pup tagging!
Stay tuned for the next blog post, where Julie continues to learn how to tag northern fur seals on the Pribilof Islands. To learn more about northern fur seals, come visit the Aquarium!