St. Paul: Log #6 - Running with Scissors

Do you remember when you were little and your parents would tell you to never run with a sharp object in your hand? Well, that rule definitely does not apply during pup shearing on St. Paul! Out here you have a pair of sharp sheep shears strapped to your hip and when a group of pups are gathered together and the signal (it usually looks like that hand gesture from Neo in the Matrix... got the visual?) is given you move as fast as you can over wet, slippery rocks to get to them. The picture below gives you an idea of the topography that we deal with out on the rookeries.

The Gorbatch rookery - rocks, rain and rubber boots..... what a combo.

The goal each day is to shear the selected number of pups as quickly and accurately as possible so that we can remove ourselves from the rookery and allow the bull males and their harems to come back up to their territory. So in this situation, running with scissors is recommended (safely, of course). Let me tell you, never before have I felt so uncoordinated! As I try to keep up with everyone else heading to the group of pups there is a constant thought on repeat in my head... stand up, don't fall, stand up, don't fall. I was so grateful to have knee pads on! :)

I asked plenty of questions prior to this trip and felt fairly prepared to head to AK but the one thing I wish they had told me was to go to the gym... A LOT! This is quite a work out. We start our day at 9AM and finish when we get to the end of the rookery. For the next two days those rookeries are Reef and Tolstoi. Some days will be shorter than others but everyday is both energetically exhausting and exhilarating. Everyone helps each other out though, so if you haven't sheared enough pups and someone else has finished, they will shear one for you. This is a team effort with a common goal: Find out what is happening to the Northern fur seal population.

One of the highlights of the day is lunchtime. No, not because I get to sit down. It is because we eat right out on the rookery. We usually move up to the haul out area and find a place where the sub-adult males are not snoozing. However, it is close enough to them to observe their behavior and take some pictures. Here I am with a few young males relaxing in the background. I may be tired but pauses in the day like this one give me a chance to reflect on why I am here and how amazing these animals are, and that is enough to push through the afternoon.



St. Paul: Log #5 - Shearing Part 2

Once suited up for pup shearing (see Andrew in his awesome attire below) we go out on the rookery and Rolf (our other fearless leader) shows us how to properly hold the pup during the shearing process.

Andrew in full shearing attire

When we train the volunteers in the marine mammal department, we have a three times rule: The first time you watch, the second time you do the task with a trainer and the third you do it on your own with the trainers there to answer any questions. Well, out here there isn't time for all that. So you watch once, and the second time you go pick up a pup and give it a whirl.

There is definitely a learning curve to this and handling the pups is not as easy as the experienced people make it look! They are wiggling three week old fur balls weighing anywhere from 12 - 15 lbs. They have very sharp teeth and a lot of attitude for newborns but they are still very delicate and sooooooo cute! You hold the pup between your legs so that their flippers are secure and the top of their head is accessible and then you can begin the shearing.

Left: Fur seal pup with sharp teeth! Right: Fur seal pups walking around on the rookery

The goal of the shearing process is to remove a small section of guard hair, the dark fur, from the top of the pups head. This reveals the light brown or peach layer below known as underfur (see picture below) and enables the researchers to accurately count how many pups were born this year. We will go to all fourteen rookeries over the course of the next six days and shear a total of 10,000 pups with the hope that this will equate to 10% of the total pups born this year. This number is based on how many pups were born two years ago when this same shearing and counting process was done... more on that later.

Fur seal pup after the shearing

My group is being led by Carey and is made up of Bob, Dave, Andrew and myself. Bob has been doing the NSF pup survey since the 90's but Dave, Andrew and I are all brand new volunteers this year. With the help of an experienced group of people who will move the males and females away, we sheared pups on Morjovi, Vostochni, Gorbatch and Ardiguen over the course of the first three days. Each rookery is slightly different with a change in topography including rock size, cliffs, beaches and number of animals. This requires a lot of experience so that we navigate the terrain and move in and around the animals in a safe manner, both for us and for them.

Bob, Sarah, Carey, Andrew and Dave—The best shearing team on St. Paul. (I'm part of the team too, of course, but I had to take the picture.)

It requires a ton of energy to shear 150 - 175 pups per person per day not to mention navigating the rocky terrain the seals live on and by the end of each day I am wiped out but still have a smile on my face because this is an amazing place. And thankfully this is just the beginning. :)

A view of the Morjovi rookery


St. Paul: Log #4 - Gear Day and the Start of Shearing

At the start of the day, we are all given a briefing about our jobs and individual responsibilities as we begin the 2010 Northern fur seal pup survey. The most important thing that we all need to remember is to be "switched on" (a term used often throughout our trip by Rod, one of our leaders) at all times while on the rookeries.

Unlike the New England Aquarium fur seals, the fur seals on St. Paul are NOT trained and that needs to be kept foremost in our minds (especially by a certain marine mammal trainer) as we move onto their breeding ground. This is not a situation where you can walk up to Baranov and give him a morning scratch or open up the hallway door and have Ursula keep you company in the food room. These are males holding onto breeding territory for months and females who are very possessive of the pups that they have just given birth to within the past month. With that being said... I am so excited!

We load into the trucks and make our way to the first of the rookeries where we will begin the shearing. Today's destination is Morjovi. It is one of the two rookeries on the northeast point of the island. The map below denotes all of the rookeries on St. Paul and I will be referring to it often as we begin our survey around the island. We have to go to every rookery to count the pups.... no small task.

Rookery sites on St. Paul Island. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

As the trucks make there way up the road I can feel my excitement rising. To see a Northern fur seal in the wild is something I never imagined having the chance to witness. Our caravan of trucks (fifteen people in total) makes its way through all sorts of different topography until we head through a bunch of sand dunes...

Sand dunes on St. Paul

and then as the road levels out... there they are. Northern fur seals everywhere! I couldn't get my camera out fast enough!

Sub-adult males

Knowing very little about wild fur seal behavior, I was told that the area in the picture is where the sub-adult males (or SAMs) as well as the older males who were not able to hold territory spend the breeding season. This is not considered part of the rookery since no pups are born in this section so it is usually referred to as haul out. There were so many animals there... I could not believe that I was seeing this many fur seals all in once place. Having a small group of fur seals at NEAq seemed like a lot but nothing compares to this!

Male Northern fur seal with harem and pups

My paparazzi moment over, it is time to gear up for the first day of shearing. Check out the picture below to see my fancy garb. Pretty nice huh? :) The weather here can be very unpredictable so we wear multiple layers as well as thick rain gear for an outer layer. Along with that we have a very stylish waist belt that holds a holster and shears that we will use to mark 10% of the pups born this year. We wear gauntlets on our arms to protect us when picking up the pups for shearing. They may only have baby teeth but they are still sharp! And then we wear thick gloves with liners underneath.

Fashionable shearing attire

Here we go!


All images and video taken during this research study were authorized by the Marine Mammal Protection Act Permit # 14327.


St Paul: Log #3 - Off to St. Paul

Back to the airport I go, luggage and freshies in tow. At the Anchorage Airport I met up with a majority of the researchers and volunteers with whom I will be joining for the next three weeks. Everyone in Boston has been speculating about the size of the plane that will take me from Anchorage to St. Paul so I tentatively peeked out the window to see what is in store. I was quite pleased to find a really nice jet waiting for us (see below). It had ten rows for about thirty passengers. The only problem was that the plane was full... of both people and luggage. Most of our luggage got bumped to the next flight so that we could all get to St. Paul that evening.

My ride to St. Paul

The plane was still pretty heavy though so we made two stops along the way to refuel: one at King Salmon and the other at Cold Bay. Check out this Google map to see where we traveled along the way.

View Trip to St. Paul in a larger map

After a safe landing, it's time to head to Staff Quarters. The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a division called the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). NMFS owns a few buildings on the island that are utilized during a variety of research studies. For the next three weeks it will be ground zero for the biennial Northern fur seal pup survey. Fifteen scientists and researchers are about to move in and call Staff Quarters home. I hope they are ready for us!

Staff Quarters

On the right in the Staff Quarters pic there is a white building which contains the lab, offices and all of our gear. I will become very familiar with this building in the coming days. The main building (the one to the left in the picture above) is the living quarters. We pull up to the door and head inside. There are small apartments and individual bedrooms with enough room to hold over twenty people. Here is a picture of my room complete with a map of St. Paul (hopefully this will prevent me from getting lost :)

My room

Once unpacked, we received a brief intro and then had a potluck dinner complete with chocolate cake with chocolate icing for dessert. Yum! Now it's time to hit the sack. Tomorrow we have to be up and ready to go at 9 a.m. for our first day of work with the seals! (Which is the stuff you really want to see anyway, right?) Stay tuned!


The Boys of Summer

Ah summer, when a young man's thoughts turn to, well, napping. Once breeding season is over, male Northern fur seals begin to molt. As they lose their old fur and acquire a new coat, their appetite decreases and they start to drop much of the extra 100 pounds or so that they gained in the spring. As many of us can attest, losing weight is hard work. Just check these guys out.

~ Jenny



St. Paul: Log #2 - Preparing for St. Paul

50 lbs of apparel: Check
30 lbs of dry goods: Check
20 lbs of produce: Check
20 lbs of electronics: Check
Getting it all to St. Paul: ?

Packing for a three week trip is no easy task (especially when you over pack even your daily lunch). But it is really important to be sure that I have all of the essentials. St. Paul is a 40 sq. mile island with a population of less than 400 people. That, combined with difficult weather conditions, makes it difficult to rely on the store for fresh food stuffs. So it is often times better to send dry goods ahead of time and bring your produce, or "freshies" as they call it, with you on the plane. Also, if I forget something in Boston, it could take more than a week for it to arrive in St. Paul so I need to think carefully about the items I want to bring. I definitely have to pack cameras to record all of the amazing things I hope to see, enough gear to keep me warm and dry while we are out doing the field research, and... and... this is going to be a problem.

Lots of luggage

Well, I am finally packed and ready to go. I have sent my dry goods off ahead of time and now have to drag 90 lbs of luggage with me to the airport. First stop Anchorage, AK. I am on a US Air flight that is packed but have a pleasant person to talk with next to me, which really helps when the flight is 7 ½ hours long!

Heading to Anchorage, AK

The view is beautiful along the way. Blue sky above and, towards the end of the flight, snow-capped mountain tops below.

Blue skies and...

Snow-capped mountains

Two movies, two meals and one nap later I have finally made it across the country to Anchorage. There is a four hour time difference and we land at 8 p.m. when in Boston it is actually midnight.

It is an amazing drive to the hotel with mountains replacing the Boston skyline.

Anchorage skyline

By the time I check in it and get to my hotel room it is almost 9:30 but there is no sign of the sun going down. During this time of year, Alaska has almost 24 hours of sunlight. Better try to get some shut eye though because tomorrow is the big day... I'm off to St. Paul!



St Paul: Log #1 - Time to pack!

The New England Aquarium has given me an amazing opportunity. Over the course of the next three weeks, I will be able to observe Northern fur seals first hand in the wild! I will be joining a group of researchers from NOAA to take part in their biennial Northern fur seal pup survey on St. Paul Island, AK. The picture below will give you a better idea of exactly where I will be.

Located in the middle of the Bering Sea, we will be spending 21 days on this remote island assessing the status of the Northern fur seal. During that time I will be writing a blog to keep you up to date on what I am doing and seeing. For now though, I better go pack!

- Patty


Friday Morning with the Fur Seals

At the Fur Seal Exhibit, the morning routine is fast paced for the training staff. Between 8:00 and 9:30 am we: Prepare 150 pounds of fish and squid for the seals, collect exhibit water samples for analysis, start the laundry, get dive gear ready, start hosing the seal poop from the exhibit deck, SCUBA dive to scrub the exhibit floor, and start the vacuum for yet more seal poop. Phew.

The fur seals have, shall we say, a more relaxed routine. Everyone starts waking up around 8:00 am. Some take until 10:30 to complete this task. Others jump up to greet the day and are ready for conversation. These pictures show Roxie relaxing in the sun and Taz looking like she wants at least another hour to snooze.



This video below shows Ursula resting while making a rarely heard clicking sound.

Roxie is up and has a lot to say in this video. To me, her first vocalization sounds like a honk while the third and fifth sound like she is saying "Hey". I guess we'll never know.

Finally, Erin helps JD wake up with an invigorating neck scratch.

- Jenny