Center For Ocean Sciences Education Excellence COSEE Alaska
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Scientists, Seals, and Pribilof Islands Students at the Vancouver Aquarium - 09.18.2009

University of British Columbia marine mammal researcher Andrew Trites partnered with Tonia Kushin and her class of 4th and 5th grade teacher in St. Paul to involve them in his project studying the effects of nutrition on growth rates of fur seal pups. For most of the school year, he “visited” the class every month via video-conference to hear the students report on what they had learned about both the ecology of fur seals and their local and cultural importance. When he came back to the village to celebrate Bering Sea Days in the spring, he said he was welcomed like a tv star. In May, the students took the field trip of a lifetime to visit him at the Vancouver Aquarium where research was being conducted on six female pups that had been captured near their village. Prior to their field trip, the students had already viewed their training and gave them Aleut names: Meechi (meaning “Ball”), Tikva (Pumpkin), Tuku (Chief), Kyoo (Berry), Aya (Friend), and Ani (Lake).
The students were required to write reports for the videoconferences and Tonia Kushin built activities about fur seals into their units throughout the year, incorporating local traditional knowledge and uses of fur seals. Tonia and her students began raising money for a field trip to the aquarium, eventually raising about $19,000. COSEE-Alaska contributed $1,000 and the Dr. Trites and the aquarium arranged free hotels and other donations.
On May 10, Tonia Kushin and fifth-graders from St. Paul arrived in Vancouver, B.C., surely Tonia emailed, “the only 5th grade trip” from the Pribilofs “to go to Canada.” They spent two days at the aquarium. Tonia sent emails every day. On their first day at the Aquarium, she wrote:
“David Rosen and Emily Bilson met us at the door, and so began our great adventure. We headed up to the Steller's (sea lion) lab and met up with Dr. Trites who has been working with us all along, and Becky (a technician who the kids also knew from many video-conferences as well as the original meeting on St. Paul where she helped inspire the kids to want to work on this project). They then took us to meet the trainers and the SEAL PUPS :) It was amazing to see in person how much the pups have learned to do in such a short time. The trainers showed us a number of moves that the pups have learned in order for them to participate in the research projects as well as allow for medical checks. The pups came over, raised flippers, went to cages or research equipment all at the proper signals! Two of the pups decided they would rather stay in their cages, but who could blame them with 12 new faces staring at them.
After seeing the trainers working with the pups, the whole class stepped on the sea lion scale, figured out we weighed more over a thousand pounds, but that a Steller's sea lion still can weigh more! Then we walked over to the cages that held the Steller's Sea Lions, and it was so cute to see virtually the whole class jump back when one of the sea lions started "talking". The kids decided that the trainers were quite brave to be right next to the sea lions like that. It was a good thing we took today to get acquainted to the animals and observe the professionals at work before we get to try a bit at the end of the week.”
The St. Paul kids ended their first day in Vancouver with a videoconference back to the St. Paul 4th graders, kindergartners and parents. In addition to their time with the seal pups, the students visited Dr. Trites’ marine mammal lab, where his graduate students showed them marine mammal skeletons; the UBC Anthropology Museum (where the students from the Alutiiq culture saw artifacts from Northwest Indian coastal cultures for the first time), and the Pacific Museum of the Earth. They also spent time with Mrs. Ciwko’s 5th grade class at Sir James Douglas Elementary in Vancouver, a school group who had just participated in a week-long aquarium education program; and took a hike through the coastal forest. On their way to Vancouver, they stopped off in Seattle and managed to pack in riding the monorail to the Pacific Science Center for hands-on science activities and exhibits (the butterfly house, Shadow Wall, and space ship ride were favorites) and the Woodland Park Zoo.
Andrew Trites is an Associate Professor and Director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit in the Fisheries Centre at UBC and also the Research Director for the North Pacific Universities Marine Mammal Research Consortium, which is based at the Fisheries Centre, and a researcher on fur seals that breed on the Pribilof Islands as part of the Bering Sea ecosystem studies (BEST-BSIERP). His work focuses on the interactions of marine mammals with commercial fisheries. His graduate students are also involved in studying behavioral and foraging ecology of pinnipeds in the wild and in constructing ecosystem and bio-energetic models in the lab.
In the Bering Sea, Dr. Trites is involved in a study of patch dynamics which looks at the places where seabirds and marine mammals feed. These places invariably turn out to have higher concentrations of food in the form of fish and zooplankton than the surrounding “patches.” For fur seals, the approach relies on tagging them on their breeding colonies, using several tags that have several sensors to allow locations by VHF radio on shore and by GPS in the ocean and to provide a finer scale set of locations that allow the scientists to reconstruct the foraging activity in 3-D. Additional sensors measure salinity, depth, and water temperature at the seal’s location. The tags allow for the collection of data as frequently as every two seconds and at a scale of about two inches. Trites and his team are particularly interested in how ocean and sea ice conditions are changing in response to changing climate and affecting the location of the patches and the time spent by seabirds and marine mammals to find them and return food to their young. Rearing fur seal pups at the Vancouver Aquarium will provide information about how the seals cope with short periods of fasting, which occur regularly in the wild, and how the energy they expend changes at different water temperatures.
Dr. Trites seems to have a knack for inspiring kids. A response to an online interview on the website of the PBS program Nature came from Rasika who commented “I love it. I think that it makes me want to be a zoologist when I grow up. I am only 10 years old right now.”

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