The North Pacific Universities Marine Mammal Research Consortium is an international group of universities dedicated to helping the sea lions. Led by Dr. Andrew Trites, scientists from the University of British Columbia have a special opportunity: they get to work closely with the Aquarium’s sea lion trainers to do studies that would be impossible to carry out in the wild. This relationship between scientists and animal trainers to get insight into the disappearance of Steller sea lions is a unique part of the research program. Check out the Consortium's website for the latest research updates.
The North Pacific Universities Marine Mammal Research Consortium is an international group of universities dedicated to helping the sea lions. Led by Dr. Andrew Trites, scientists from the University of British Columbia have a special opportunity: they get to work closely with the Aquarium’s sea lion trainers to do studies that would be impossible to carry out in the wild. This relationship between scientists and animal trainers to get insight into the disappearance of Steller sea lions is a unique part of the research program. Check out the Consortium's website for the latest research updates.

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.

Go behind the scenes at the Vancouver Aquarium with Marine Mammal Trainer Gwyneth Shephard. Follow this link.

Angel: Hi, my name is Angel. I’m one of the volunteers at the Vancouver Aquarium, and today, I’m going to interview Gwyneth, one of the sea lion trainers. So come with me.

Angel: So what is like a typical day for you?

Gwyneth: Okay, well first thing, we come in in the morning and go down to the food room, the marine mammal food room, and we help sort some fish out, and then we weigh all of the animals’ buckets individually. We have to be very accurate with the food amounts we feed the sea lions because they are involved in research. So then once we have all our buckets made out, we usually head out front first, to the display pools and we’ll try and do a session with Tag, and if we have females out there, we’ll do some sessions with the females out front. And then we come into the back area and work all of our sea lions back here through mostly research behaviours. Then downstairs, wash the buckets, fill them up again, and then do the same thing over again a couple more times during the day. So right before lunch, we stop and sit at the computer for a while, and type in all our records, what the animals ate, how much they weighed that day. And at the end of the day, again we sit down at the computer, and type in our afternoon sessions.

Angel: And how do you communicate with them?

Gwyneth: The communication is actually, I think, one of the most interesting parts about working with the Steller sea lions. We use voices and our hand signals, which is kind of fun, because most everybody on the team right now actually started out working with the whales and the dolphins, and whales and dolphins can’t hear our voices. But the sea lions can actually hear our voices so we can communicate with them a lot.

Angel: So where do they come from, and why are they here?

Gwyneth: All the Steller sea lions that are here right now came off Port Hardy and Cape Scott area, and they were brought in for the research project because Steller sea lions are in such rapid decline in the wild. So basically, the Consortium decided that they wanted to help do some research on captive sea lions to see if they could help figure out the problem in the wild.

Angel: So if somebody wanted to be a sea lion trainer, what do they have to go through, or what kind of education do they have to get?

Gwyneth: Basically any kind of degree is always a good thing. Yeah, Bachelor of Science, animal psychology, zoology, marine biology, pretty much anything. SCUBA diving is also a really good asset to have. mostly people volunteer first, so the staff gets to know you, and you get to see when postings come up, and also just so we know that the new people do have an idea of what the job really entails because I think sometimes, people think a training job is very glamorous but there is a lot of kind of grunge work, cleaning pools, and making buckets. And any animal handling experience, working with animals at any point in your life, even dogs and cats, whatever, they always look at that, and in a good way too.

Angel: Do you have a favourite part of the job?

Gwyneth: I think when you’re training something new, like the communication, when you’re really trying to get across to them. When they understand what you’re asking them for, they get really excited and very vocal and, “Oh I figured it out.” So that’s, I think, my favourite part. They’re a lot of fun to work with. I shouldn’t make it sound like it’s too tough. It’s a lot of fun to work with them. They can be frustrating some days, but other days, they’re just a blast. So, all in all, it’s fantastic.

Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.


One of the most important things to the trainers when it comes to their animals is making sure that they’re healthy. The Steller sea lions at the Aquarium are weighed every morning and measured 2 or 3 times a week to see if they have grown or lost weight.

But sea lions are really big animals. The female sea lions at the Aquarium weigh about 200 kilograms each, and our male sea lion, Tag, weighs almost 700 kilograms. That’s more than two grand pianos! If they don’t want to hop onto a scale or lie flat for several minutes to get measured, there’s no way to force them.

So how can you get a 700 kg sea lion to do something? You can’t. He has to agree to do it.

A matter of trust

The trainers build a relationship with the sea lions by spending a lot of time with them. When you spend 8 hours a day, 365 days a year with someone, you get to be pretty good friends! Because the Stellers trust the trainers, they’re open to trying out new things even if it might seem strange to them – like getting onto a Read More
One of the most important things to the trainers when it comes to their animals is making sure that they’re healthy. The Steller sea lions at the Aquarium are weighed every morning and measured 2 or 3 times a week to see if they have grown or lost weight.

But sea lions are really big animals. The female sea lions at the Aquarium weigh about 200 kilograms each, and our male sea lion, Tag, weighs almost 700 kilograms. That’s more than two grand pianos! If they don’t want to hop onto a scale or lie flat for several minutes to get measured, there’s no way to force them.

So how can you get a 700 kg sea lion to do something? You can’t. He has to agree to do it.

A matter of trust

The trainers build a relationship with the sea lions by spending a lot of time with them. When you spend 8 hours a day, 365 days a year with someone, you get to be pretty good friends! Because the Stellers trust the trainers, they’re open to trying out new things even if it might seem strange to them – like getting onto a scale or lying still for an X-ray.

The behaviours that the sea lions learn aren’t just fancy tricks to impress an audience. They're necessary to the continuing research on sea lion biology and physiology. They also keep the sea lions mentally stimulated and physically active, which leads to a stronger bond between the trainers and the animals.

Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre

Aquarium Vet kissing a Steller sea lion

Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.


Watch how Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Trainers work with captive Steller sea lions! Follow this link.

Vancouver Aquarium Presents
in conjunction with The North Pacific Universities Marine Mammal Research Consortium

Introduction:

Over about the last thirty years, Steller sea lions have declined about 80 percent in Alaska, where most Steller sea lions are found. The population in British Columbia and southeast Alaska is still pretty healthy, but the majority of the population has simply disappeared in Alaska. And scientists have been putting in a huge effort to try to figure out exactly why they’re disappearing or why they’re dying or why they’re not being born. And the research here at the Vancouver Aquarium and with our captive sea lions is part of a huge international effort to try to figure out what might be wrong with Steller sea lion populations.

Steller Sea Lion Research Project
A Relationship of Trust

Billy Lasby:

My name is Billy Lasby, and I’ve been at the aquarium now for about 13 years and have been lucky enough to be working with the Steller sea lions now for about 8 and a half.

A typical day for us, the very first thing we do with the Steller sea lions is weigh them. We want to get an accurate weight every morning. Every two or three days we’ll get measurements from them, so we’ll measure their lengths from the tip of their nose right to the end of their tail, but also measure their girth, so the distance around their bodies. So these are the two basic things that we do pretty much every day.

Other things that we do that are very, very important are husbandry. Basically checking over the animal, checking every inch of their body, their backs, their bellies, their mouths, their eyes, their ears – just to make sure that they’re healthy, because as well as doing really well at the research we want them to be very healthy.

We build the relationship in trust with the Steller sea lions through many, many hours of just working with them. We work with these animals 365 days a year, 7 days a week, 8 hours a day to build that trust and relationship, and just through many types of sessions.

We have the training sessions, but we also have social sessions where we actually just sit with the animals and help build that trust by having them play with us and interact with us in and around the pools.

Short trials in this chamber tell researchers how much energy sea lions use at rest.

The work that the Stellers do for us is definitely voluntary. We don’t push them to do anything they don’t want to do. Everything is heavily reinforced and they pretty much enjoy everything that we do with them.

A big part of my job is not to force these animals to do anything they don’t want to do. Everything is just worked through and everything is kept very, very positive with the animals.

Especially with the size of Steller sea lions, like females are roughly about 200 kilos and Tag [our male sea lion] is about 700 kilos. If an animal doesn’t want to do anything, we’re not going to be able to force them to do anything.

So we judge a lot of the sessions on how they’re going to react. And if they don’t want to do a session, then we’re not going to force them to do it. We take a step back and maybe try them a bit later on.

It would be very difficult to do the research that we’re doing without trainers like myself and Gwyneth [Shephard] and Troy [Neale] and Nigel [Waller] to get this research done because a lot of this has to do with the relationship. And how we work with the animals and how much we get done with the animals has a lot to do with this relationship that we do have.

The most rewarding part of my job is definitely coming and working with these guys and the relationship I do have with each individual. They’re all so different and they all react differently with myself and the other trainers. Just having that dynamic is a pretty amazing thing to be a part of.

The sea lions at the Vancouver Aquarium give researchers valuable information they cannot learn from wild sea lions.

Vancouver Aquarium
Presents in conjunction with The North Pacific Universities Marine Mammal Research Consortium

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.


Behind the scenes at the Vancouver Aquarium lies a secret place where few visitors get to go. There, researchers use a variety of cool toys and gadgets to get insight into how sea lions spend their energy. This will help the researchers determine the amount and the quality of food sea lions in the wild will need to sustain their lifestyles.

The metabolic chamber

This big blue chamber lets researchers find out how much energy Steller sea lions need just to be a sea lion. Sea lions at the Aquarium are trained to go in and rest while researchers measure the oxygen levels going in and coming out. The information lets them figure out how much energy the sea lions use to simply breathe, have their heart beat, or grow fur. When the researchers first started, they had to use a vacuum cleaner pump to operate the chamber because no one else made a flow pump big enough!

The swimmill

The swimmill at the Vancouver Aquarium is the world’s only sea lion treadmill. When sea lions go Read More
Behind the scenes at the Vancouver Aquarium lies a secret place where few visitors get to go. There, researchers use a variety of cool toys and gadgets to get insight into how sea lions spend their energy. This will help the researchers determine the amount and the quality of food sea lions in the wild will need to sustain their lifestyles.

The metabolic chamber

This big blue chamber lets researchers find out how much energy Steller sea lions need just to be a sea lion. Sea lions at the Aquarium are trained to go in and rest while researchers measure the oxygen levels going in and coming out. The information lets them figure out how much energy the sea lions use to simply breathe, have their heart beat, or grow fur. When the researchers first started, they had to use a vacuum cleaner pump to operate the chamber because no one else made a flow pump big enough!

The swimmill

The swimmill at the Vancouver Aquarium is the world’s only sea lion treadmill. When sea lions go into this small pool, two large turbines under the pool create a current for the sea lions to swim against. By changing the strength of the current and the temperature of the water, researchers can see how different conditions affect the energy of sea lions. It’s also a great way for the sea lions to exercise!

The auxiliary pool

A combination of the oxygen chamber and the swimmill, the auxiliary pool gives the sea lions a chance to move around while letting the researchers see how much oxygen the sea lions are using. The pool has some nifty features, including video cameras on the walls to show what the animals are doing and an airlock on the roof that lets researchers feed the Stellers. For these animals, sometimes fish really does fall from the sky!

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.

A Steller sea lion in the swimmill at the Vancouver Aquarium

Photo : R. Barrick

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.


Steller sea lions often have stones up to 12 cm in diameter in their stomachs! Scientists aren't sure if these rocks are swallowed by accident or on purpsoe.
Steller sea lions often have stones up to 12 cm in diameter in their stomachs! Scientists aren't sure if these rocks are swallowed by accident or on purpsoe.

Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre

You might think that your job has challenges, but Andrea Coombs and Marina Winterbottom can tell you theirs are literally crappy.

Crappy in a scientific way

Scientists need to know what Steller sea lions are eating in the wild. Since it’s hard to be there when a sea lion catches and eats a fish, they have to wait until it comes out the other end.

Picking up after dinner

In the summer, Andrea and a team of 4 or 5 other marine mammal scientists head up the coasts of British Columbia and Alaska to find the small, rocky islands – or islets – where Stellers rest. The team works over 14 hours every day to collect sea lion scat – otherwise known as poo.

It’s not a glamorous job; they have to find an islet with sea lions, sneak onto the rock while the sea lions are off feeding, and scoop up what they can. Each team member is given a pair of gloves, a tablespoon, and lots of plastic bags. These Read More
You might think that your job has challenges, but Andrea Coombs and Marina Winterbottom can tell you theirs are literally crappy.

Crappy in a scientific way

Scientists need to know what Steller sea lions are eating in the wild. Since it’s hard to be there when a sea lion catches and eats a fish, they have to wait until it comes out the other end.

Picking up after dinner

In the summer, Andrea and a team of 4 or 5 other marine mammal scientists head up the coasts of British Columbia and Alaska to find the small, rocky islands – or islets – where Stellers rest. The team works over 14 hours every day to collect sea lion scat – otherwise known as poo.

It’s not a glamorous job; they have to find an islet with sea lions, sneak onto the rock while the sea lions are off feeding, and scoop up what they can. Each team member is given a pair of gloves, a tablespoon, and lots of plastic bags. These marine detectives are really getting down and dirty to solve their mystery!

Cleaning the remains

Once the scat has been collected, it’s sent to the Vancouver Aquarium. There, Marina separates the fish bones from the stinky, organic stuff using a hose and a special water pump. She then filters out the bones with a coffee filter and a plastic knife.

Since cleaning scat really stinks, Marina first sprays it with a lemon-scented household cleaner. In the future, she’ll be using a washing machine to do the separation instead of doing it herself.

The bones are then identified to see what fish they’re from and how many of that fish the sea lion has been eating.

It’s all for a good cause

Collecting scat allows scientists to find out what Steller sea lions are eating without harming them. In the past, researchers had to look in the stomachs of sea lions, which required killing the animals first. Andrea and Marina’s jobs might stink, but they provide important clues in solving the mystery of the disappearing sea lions.

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.

Learn how scientists can tell what Steller sea lions have eaten based on the evidence they leave behind. It's a lot like panning for gold! Follow this link.

Vancouver Aquarium Presents
in conjunction with The North Pacific Universities Marine Mammal Research Consortium

Introduction:

Over about the last 30 years, Steller sea lions have declined about 80% in Alaska, where most Steller sea lions are found, and the research here at the Vancouver Aquarium is part of a huge international effort to try to figure out what might be wrong with Steller sea lion populations.

Steller Sea Lion Research Project
Panning for Gold

Andrew Trites:

This is our wet lab: it’s a place where we can do anything that is too wet, smelly, or messy to be done elsewhere. It’s a place where we are preparing fecal samples that are coming from Steller sea lion haulouts and rookeries throughout Alaska and British Columbia.

We sub-sample these for stress hormone analysis and with the remainder we bring over here to our elutriator where we can clean them up to remove the fish bones, and then determine what, in fact, Steller sea lions are eating in the wild.

This is Erin Jacob, and she is going to be putting one of our samples here into a device we call the elutriator. Essentially all the samples have been soaked in water, so they’re nice and soft, and we’ll be flushing water through here as we try to flush out anything that is water soluble so we’re left with only the hard bits. It’s a bit like panning for gold. Anything that’s heavy will stay down near the bottom, anything that’s light and unwanted will go out through the top.

What we’re interested here is in just keeping the solid bits; the bones that have come from the fish, the beaks that maybe have come from squid. Essentially any hard part that we can identify to determine what the animals once ate. And we want to reconstruct the total biomass of fish.

What we have in here are various bones that have passed through the digestive tract of the Steller sea lion. One thing that stands out are all these little beads, which are actually eye lenses. They turn out to be quite robust to digestion. And we will count all the eye lenses that are in this sample and divide it by two to determine how many fish were eaten. There’s some beaks from squid and such, we’ll go through here and identify all the different species. But the goal here is to determine number one, the species and number two, the minimum numbers of each of these species. So this will be for one sample, and as you can see we’ve got some from each site, we try to get a minimum of 70, and that way be able to say what the average sea lion was eating at this site when we went to visit it.

Scat research helps us to identify which food sources are most abundant and important to Steller sea lion populations.

Vancouver Aquarium
Presents in conjunction with The North Pacific Universities Marine Mammal Research Consortium

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.


We’re learning a lot about Steller sea lions at the Vancouver Aquarium, but research is limited by what they can show us in the pools. That’s why we took three of our trained Stellers and let them loose in the ocean.

The sea lions have a home base, which is located at a marina not far from Vancouver. But during research sessions, they have an entire ocean to move around in!

The big scary ocean

Having all that space to move around lets the sea lions give us a more accurate look at what happens in the wild, but the open water presents a lot of challenges that the sea lions and trainers have to overcome.

After growing up at the Aquarium, our sea lions aren’t used to all the distractions out in the ocean, like passing boats, different animals and strange objects. The sea lions are also asked to do things that they’ve never done before, like dive deep down into the water and stay there in the dark, out of sight from the trainers.

The power of trust

At the Open Water Project, it Read More
We’re learning a lot about Steller sea lions at the Vancouver Aquarium, but research is limited by what they can show us in the pools. That’s why we took three of our trained Stellers and let them loose in the ocean.

The sea lions have a home base, which is located at a marina not far from Vancouver. But during research sessions, they have an entire ocean to move around in!

The big scary ocean

Having all that space to move around lets the sea lions give us a more accurate look at what happens in the wild, but the open water presents a lot of challenges that the sea lions and trainers have to overcome.

After growing up at the Aquarium, our sea lions aren’t used to all the distractions out in the ocean, like passing boats, different animals and strange objects. The sea lions are also asked to do things that they’ve never done before, like dive deep down into the water and stay there in the dark, out of sight from the trainers.

The power of trust

At the Open Water Project, it is extremely important that the trainers and the sea lions form a bond. They really need to trust each other when they're out in the open ocean.

So the trainers working on the project spend a lot of their time hanging out with the sea lions. During these “socials”, the sea lions can choose how they interact with the trainers in and around their pen. Sometimes the sea lions want to play with their toys, and sometimes they just want to cuddle – they’ll lie on the trainer’s lap and put their head on his or her chest. There’s no fish involved, so the sea lions aren’t bonding with the trainers just to get food.

Vance Mercer, the senior marine mammal trainer on the project, says that he spends so much time with the sea lions that he knows them better than he knows some of his friends!

A new frontier of research

This stellar project is the only one of its kind in the world. There’s no training manual and no precedence for what Vance and the Open Water team are doing – they’re truly working at the frontier of animal training.

We’re not the only people who think that the Open Water Project is cool. Vance and the rest of the team won first prize from the International Marine Animal Trainers Association for the work that they’re doing. Congratulations, everyone!

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.

Watch as the Open Water Project receives its third research associate - a female Steller sea lion named Hazy! Follow this link.

Vancouver Aquarium Presents
in conjunction with The North Pacific Universities Marine Mammal Research Consortium

Introduction:

Over about the last thirty years, Steller sea lions have declined about eighty percent in Alaska, where most Steller sea lions are found. The population in British Columbia and southeast Alaska is still pretty healthy, but the majority of the population has simply disappeared in Alaska. And scientists have been putting in a huge effort to try to figure out exactly why they’re disappearing or why they’re dying or why they’re not being born. And the research here at the Vancouver Aquarium and with our captive sea lions is part of a huge international effort to try to figure out what might be wrong with Steller sea lion populations.

Steller Sea Lion Research Project
Hazy’s Moving Day

Vance Mercer:

This is basically just a part of a larger project that’s been ongoing at the Aquarium in conjunction with the University of British Columbia and the research consortium. They’ve been studying the decline of Steller sea lions in the wild over the past 20 years. There’s been about an 80 percent decline and we’ve been studying basically sea lion energetics.

My name is Vance Mercer and I’m a Steller sea lion trainer with the Open Water Project here at Reed Point Marina.

Today is kind of a special day because we received our third animal, Hazy, and she’s joining up with Sitka and Boni who have been our veterans of the project with us now for 15 months.

She’s going to have to learn a lot of basic behaviours; she’s going to have to learn to work off boats, work in the open water in general. It’s a big world out there; it’s not like living in an aquarium. There are a lot of other stimuli that the environment provides so she’s going to have to learn how to be a more focused animal and pay more attention to the trainers to work in the open water.

And of course the most important behaviour is the dive physiology. It consists of them diving to a predetermined depth and sitting at a target for X amount of time and releasing from that light and coming to the surface in a dome. So it’s a complex 20-minute behaviour in which we’re measuring the effects of diving on sea lions.

Day to day, initially it’s going to be learn how to live comfortably with Sitka and Boni first, and then we’re going to have to teach her loading in boats so it’s going to be a progression. Right now it’s going to be more of an acclimation to the pen and surrounding areas.

Hazy’s contribution to Steller sea lion research is helping scientists to better understand and protect her species.

Vancouver Aquarium
Presents in conjunction with The North Pacific Universities Marine Mammal Research Consortium

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.


Closeup of Aquarium trainer Vance Mercer and a Steller sea lion smiling at the open water site

Photo : N. Hendrickson

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.


On an average dive in the wild, Steller sea lions stay underwater for about six minutes. But scientists think they can hold their breath for over 20!
On an average dive in the wild, Steller sea lions stay underwater for about six minutes. But scientists think they can hold their breath for over 20!

© Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre 2006. All rights reserved.

Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • familiarize himself with the vocabulary used in biology;
  • assess human impacts on biodiversity, and identify ways of preserving biodiversity;
  • describe how personal actions help conserve natural resources and protect the environment in their region;
  • demonstrate an understanding of the dynamic nature of ecosystems.

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