Researchers from USGS, Monterey Bay Aquarium and other institutions are currently on a three-week expedition sailing Alaskan waters to study sea otters, as part of the Pacific Nearshore Project investigating coastal health. During their voyage, researchers will be sharing their shipboard life with us through journal entries that they’re sending home regularly.
Editor's Note: Photos in this post are from previous Nearshore Project expeditions or stock photos. The Alaska expedition team currently has limited data transfer capabilities and cannot send photo files.
Pacific Nearshore Project
Alaska Expedition Day 2 - May 18, 2011
Dr. Mike, Monterey Bay Aquarium veterinarian
So, here we are, the first full day out in southeast Alaska. For me, it all started pretty early, around 6:30 AM.
And, what’s the most important task for the first one up? Make the coffee!
But, the Alaska Gyre has pretty tight quarters, so one really does need to remain considerate of the rest of the team… but a towel and heavy jacket wrapped around the coffee grinder works pretty darn well to keep the noise down a bit.
The most significant part of the day for me, the vet, was to get the lab set up. Under the guidance of our master organizer, Kim, we got an exam table constructed, the medical exam equipment organized, emergency supplies close at hand, and a sample processing area created within the Gyre’s saloon. We were ready when we got the radio call from Michelle that the dive team had captured our first sea otter.
The first animal is always the most difficult. No matter how many times the team does this work in the field, you always find a few little bugs to work out. The first otter was a 69 lb. female, feisty as the dickens and not convinced that she saw the value in our work. But, after administering the sedatives, we were able to work with her quite safely (for both us and her).
She was a beautiful animal; luxurious fur, good subcutaneous fat stores, and she was pregnant (it seems adult female sea otters spend their entire adult life either caring for a pup or pregnant).
The entire process went seamlessly, she recovered within seconds after we administered the sedative-reversal agent, and we returned her to area from which she came. And, the drugs are associated with an amnesia-like effect so she won’t remember a thing -- although she’ll probably wonder where the chartreuse and aqua-blue flipper tags came from. (Editor’s Note: flipper tags are added to wild sea otters to help identify them in future observations, much like leg bands for migratory birds.)
So, now comes the sample processing. We have to centrifuge samples, harvest the serum, make labels and freeze all of the material we collected. It seems rather mundane in some ways, but we are all confident that each of these otters will provide important pieces to the puzzle we are trying to put together…
-- Dr. Mike
Mike Murray is the chief veterinarian at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and a collaborating researcher on multiple USGS sea otter studies. He serves as the Alaska expedition veterinarian.
What do researchers hope to learn from health exams on wild sea otters? Learn more about those clues here.
Top Image: Dr. Mike examines a sedated sea otter during the 2010 British Columbia expedition (Credit: Keith Miles/USGS). Bottom Image: A sea otter with a red flipper tag (Credit: Monterey Bay Aquarium).
The Pacific Nearshore Project is a multinational, multiagency project investigating sea otters as health indicators of coastal waters and marine resources from California north through Canada and Alaska. The project is led by the U.S. Geological Survey with key research partners from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Seattle Aquarium, University of California, University of Idaho, University of Wyoming and California Department of Fish and Game. For a full list of sponsoring agencies, research blogposts, otter photos, please visit the project homepage at http://on.doi.gov/nearshore