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.
I couldn’t believe it. After months of preparation and anticipation, I was on my way to the airport, to begin my trip to the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea. This will truly be an amazing adventure for me to experience the extreme climate and unique culture of these remote and unique islands! I boarded my plane heading to Anchorage, Alaska at 8am. Upon arrival, I set off to find my connecting flight aboard PenAir – the only passenger airline serving the Pribilof Islands. As I boarded the second plane (a much smaller plane with only 33 passenger seats) a woman handed me earplugs as I climbed the stairs. I and four other people sat in the first two rows. We put in our earplugs to protect our ears from the propeller noise as they started as we were finally ready to fly to St. George Island – one of four Pribilof Islands. Of the four other people on the plane, three were local kids flying home to St. Paul Island (population of about 500) who I ended up running into around town later that week. As we prepared to land on St. George Island (population about 80), I felt completely taken back by the remoteness of the island located in the middle of the Bering Sea. After the plane landed, all five of us were allowed to exit the plane to experience an unusually warm (~60°F) and sunny day on the tarmac. Most of the passengers waiting to board the plane to St. Paul Island were the fur seal scientists from National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a division of NOAA. They had just finished flipper tagging about fur seals on St. George Island and were heading to St. Paul Island to continue pup tagging and studies focused on fur seal disease, health and condition. We boarded without most of the luggage due to the planes small size (which I learned is not uncommon on small planes that travel to remote islands). In 20 minutes we were touching down on St. Paul Island.
St. Paul Island is roughly the size of Bainbridge Island and is beautiful with unique geology that gives it rolling hills of grass and volcanic rock scattered about. Not a tree to be seen. It has a small town on the south end where NOAA staff housing is located and where I spent the week. We went to town to buy some groceries to supplement the “freshies” (perishable fruit and veggies) I brought from Seattle as fresh food was expensive and can be difficult to get on the island. We were immediately approached by local kids looking for people to talk to. I met a local girl who had also befriended Patty, a fur seal keeper from the New England Aquarium who was also lucky enough to assist in NMFS’s fur seal research a couple of years ago. I received a tour of staff housing as well as the laboratory and equipment storage. We gathered our gear for the next day which included thick and heavy rain wear, glove liners, leather gloves, welding gloves, gauntlets to cover our arms, and of course, rain boots. All the gear was meant to shield us from the cold and wet weather that St. Paul Island usually experiences as well as protection for fur seal bites. I am warned of pup bites and told you can’t fully avoid it… but believe it or not, that only added to my excitement of the fur seal research. I definitely had some interesting dreams that night.
Stay tuned for the next blog post, where Julie begins her search for northern fur seals on the Pribilof Islands. If you would like to learn more about northern fur seals, come visit Commander, Woodstock and Al at the Aquarium.