13 July, 1998
TEA/Alaska - 98
Journal Entry 4 - July 13, 1998
Sea Life Center-Site of the River Otter Project.
First day of the project. It is another cool, sunny and beautiful day with an expected high of 68 degrees. The beauty of the day reminds me of the song "Morning has broken, Like the first morning." What a difference from the blistering east coast heat during the month of July? Renee (Program coordinator-Arcus), Noa and Elisa(students from the National Science Foundation Young Scholars Program, selected to be involved with the River Otter project ) and myself, reported to the Sea Life Center at 8.30 am, a two-minute walk across the parking lot from our apartment. There we were enthusiastically greeted by Dr. Ben-David , our Principal Investigator. She escorted us to security where we were introduced and given our security passes for the duration of our assignment. On the way to the office, specific areas and rooms were shown to us that we will have access to - laundry, food prep, lab etc. The importance of cleanliness, and maintaining Department of Agriculture standards were also stressed. Method of disinfecting and sterilizing our shoe soles on entering and leaving quarantine areas were also demonstrated. This we were expected to do at all times, since shoe soles are the greatest carriers of diseases and infections ( Research areas are required to be as sterile as possible).
We then proceeded upstairs to her office where she gave an overview of the research project. We were shown the outdoor laboratory where the otters were housed, and given information of their capture, naming process, the behavioral observations that we have to note and record. We were also shown the areas on the map from where the river otters were captured. The "observation deck" was also shown to us - a large, broad surfaced table which is wedged in the corner of the room, and adjacent to a very large picture window which overlooks the outdoor laboratory. This is an ingenious and convenient set-up. We use binoculars to view the otters . So far the data that is being collected for this experiment is all baseline data as the animals are being acclimated to the experimental scenario. The experiment has specific phases as it has to fulfill specific objectives. Our direct assignment is to observe behavioral interaction of the otters and record same. Observations are made before and after cleaning the outdoor labs in the morning, during and after the morning feeding sessions, and any other time that the otters are moving around and interacting with each other or playing on their many toys.
The following additional information on the otters were given - Total # for study - 15,
Dates captured - April-May 98
Length of study - approximately one year.
Life span of otters - 8 years in the wild; 13 years in captivity. Age of otters - 4 yearlings; 7 - 2 year olds; 4 - 3 to 5 year olds (age on Dental formula)
All of the river otters were captured from Prince William Sound near to areas that were both lightly and heavily oiled during the Exxon Valdez oil spill. These otters are post oil spill animals.
These otters are fed twice per day (9.30 am and 9.30 pm) with up to 20 pounds of fish at each feeding. Their natural foods are salmon, herring, flat fish, shrimp, pollock and caplin. These fish are fed to them whole.
The daily routine is as follows :-
- Observations and recording data.
- counting the # of fecal piles in the outdoor labs (the areas where they defecate are termed latrine sites), and record the data on a specific form.
- check the IDs and record the presence of each of the otters as each emerges from the dens and come into view .
- collect all the remains of food and place in a bucket for disposal.
- Use hose and lots of water to wash the outdoor labs - avoid feces getting into the diving pool. The outdoor lab is designed to drain all that waste water into the sewer.
- empty, clean, and refill totes and water trays.
- wash the ramps and tops of the dens (astro-turf)
- remove wet and soiled towels and blankets and replace with dry ones. - feeding
- note if any new fecal piles were deposited.
- secure the labs
- continue observations from the observation deck and record behavioral interactions.
Following our morning orientation, we were allowed to take a
self guided tour of the Sea Life Center museum. This is an excellent display of Arctic marine wildlife. Natural habitats were recreated for the animals on exhibition for example - stellar sea lions, puffins and other sea birds, seals, and sea otters. Tidal zones were also recreated to imitate the natural habitats where crustaceans, echinoderms, plankton and other invertebrates thrive. There was a constant flow of visitors many of whom were amazed at what they learned and saw via exhibits, classroom activities, discovery zones (touch tanks) and public seminars. This facility was built from the settlement dollars paid by Exxon to the federal and state governments for the Exxon Valdez spill. One of the main focus of the facility is to conduct ongoing research for the rehabilitation of marine species (fish, mammals, and sea birds) that were affected by the oil spill, and to educate the public from research findings. Tourists can also get a behind the scenes tour of the research areas that are not visible from the viewing areas above. The Sea Life Center was only opened to the public in May 1998, and the only one of its kind. Additional features are proposed for the center.
We took a lunch break, and upon our return, we started our behavioral observations and the recording of these observations. It was a little difficult to identify them in order to record the specific interaction. With the aid of a sheet listing the categories of interactions, and another list of their ID markings, we soon became familiar with the names. Using the binoculars, one person observed , describing out loud what was the social interaction(s), and identifying the otters that were involved. Another person recorded the data observed. Every 30 - 45 minutes observers and recorders switched roles. With time, we became more comfortable. These otters certainly have individual personalities. They are also very curious, responding to everything they hear and see. I think they are simply adorable.
Information on the recovery of river otters in Prince William Sound is unknown. This research project is therefore very critical to the study of the recovery of biological resources following the oil spill.
After a day of more arctic wonder, we ended our session at
about 5 pm and were required to resume our day's routine at 8.30 the next morning. As we left for the apartments, everyone was commenting on the unique behaviors of the otters. This project is going to be very interesting. We had much to look forward to and much to learn. Together we decided on dinner, cooked, ate and went for a walk. Hey! it's bright sunshine, so why waste such a gorgeous day! We spotted two eagles in the nearby trees, and actually saw one swoop down and catch a fish. We also walked along Seward's shoreline breathing in all that clean, fresh, arctic air, and being totally mesmerized by Alaska's beautiful landscape. Tomorrow promises to be another beautiful and intriguing day, but before we get to tomorrow, Elisa would like to share some of her special thoughts with you.
Seward is a picturesque town,
Full of the wonders of Prince William Sound.
Who can awake to the sounds of kittiwakes,
Without rejoicing that a new day breaks?
Seward promises a unique beginning
On this fine Monday morning.
Who said Mondays were bleak,
When river otters await for me to meet?
May I take your time to share my joy?
Today I followed a bald eagle, to watch it toy
With a fish caught in its beak.
And swoop over all the seagulls, in comparison, weak!!
So today I highlight the unique and exciting ,
Only to be found in Alaska ... no other place so captivating.
Hope you liked this little poem
And can imagine how I don't miss home!!
(The lower forty-eight, that is!)
- Elisa Maldonado
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