Northern Fur Seals and The Pribilofs, Part Five

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.

Day 5

Today while the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) scientists got ready for a second day of capturing pups on Zapadni Reef, I set off to meet with students from the school to give a presentation about the Seattle Aquarium, our three fur seals, and how the information gathered from the seals on their islands helps educate millions of people who visit the aquarium each year. I went in at 8am with NMFS educators Lisa and Pam and watched student presentations on Aleut history by some of the teens. We had about an hour before my presentation so they took me to another observation blind on the far side of Zapadni Reef near a sandy part of the island where sub-adult males are known to haul out. Once in the blind, we spotted an arctic fox sitting on the edge of the rookery.

Arctic fox at Zapadni Reef.
Arctic fox at Zapadni Reef.


We also saw fur seal pups gracefully porpoising by the dozens in several different directions just off shore. I had never seen such continuous displays of that behavior.  Since they usually travel off shore to hunt, this was likely just pup play behavior in the surf. I could’ve watched for hours…

Seals porpoising
Seals porpoising in the distance at Zapadni Reef blind.


Back at the school I gave my presentation to the 7th and 8th graders (14 total). Over half of the students had been to the Seattle Aquarium!  I was amazed to learn that each year the 5th grade class has a field trip off the island which has included Hawaii, Florida and Monterey Bay. They were such a great group of kids and I enjoyed telling them about the fun “behind the scenes” information. I even showed them a video taken by a visitor of me ever-so-gracefully falling in the fur seal exhibit (I had to laugh at myself). They asked to watch it three times.

One of the students offered to be my volunteer for the “Training Game”, a demonstration of how animals are trained using rewards. The other kids decided they wanted me to “train” their classmate (who was waiting outside the classroom door so he didn’t know what behavior I would attempt to teach him) to groom his head like a fur seal does with its rear limb. I laughed and said it wasn’t likely that he would be able to stretch his foot up to his head to scratch it, but I compromised and said I would see if I could get him to scratch his head like a fur seal, but with his hand, not his foot. My trainee, a good sport, got on the floor after some heckling from his classmates and acted like a seal. He offered several random movements but when he moved his hand I rewarded him with the point of my finger and said “good” so he knew any motion of his hand toward his head was what I wanted. Within a minute he was scratching his head, or close enough…either way, I think it drove home the point that communicating and training animals is difficult. Animals are amazing at communicating with such subtle cues while we rely heavily on words.

I also showed them pictures of the Seattle Aquarium’s NASA and NOAA kiosk located near the Northern fur seal exhibit. Several of the students recognized Dr. Jeremy Sterling who was pictured in my presentation, standing at the kiosk and pointing out squiggly lines on the large screen indicating where tagged seals had traveled throughout the North Pacific Ocean in search for food. One of the students asked if we placed satellite tags on any of the animals while I was helping out on the rookery (not this year). I explained how much information was collected from a single animal’s journey. They were just as amazed as I am and asked if they could see any information right now, real-time. Hopefully someday!

Dr. Jeremy Sterling
Dr. Jeremy Sterling, one of the Northern fur seal researchers, pointing out how far a fur seal travels in one year to find food.


In the next post, Julie spends her last day in the Pribliof Islands of Alaska. To learn more about northern fur seals, come visit the Aquarium!

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