Subject: Info: Sea lions to track whales (fwd)

Michael Williamson (
Tue, 6 Aug 1996 15:45:49 -0400 (EDT)

Subject: Sea lions to track whales

Sea lions to track whales

 UPI Science Writer
   SAN JOSE, Calif., Aug. 5 (UPI) -- Assuming whales act more naturally
when surrounded by friends than strangers, researchers said Monday they
are training sea lions to become their spies of the deep.
   A 400-pound, 17-year-old male named Beaver and his 190-pound, eight-
year-old female sidekick, Sake, will take on the mission of videotaping
and tagging their great marine mammal pals under the ocean waters off
Monterey Bay.
   "The idea is that when you study whales by introducing artificial
things into their environment, such as man or machine, you change their
behavior," said James Harvey of San Jose State University/Moss Landing
Marine Laboratories, who is coordinating the revolutionary project.
   "But whales are used to seeing sea lions, so by getting sea lions to
be our filmmakers, we should be able to record what the whales are doing
without any undue outside influence."
   With six years training under his blubberybelly, Beaver will be the
first to scale the ocean depths on hand and acoustic command -- perhaps
as early as this winter -- aiming his video camera at his fellow sea
creatures, gathering footage of the secretive giants at work, play, love
or war, as never before seen by man.
   "We've got a biased view of what whales do because most observations
have been done from shipboard," said Jenifer Hurley of the Moss Landing
Lab, who leads a team of 25-plus behavioral trainers. "In reality,
whales spend 90 to 95 percent of their time under the sea. We need to
know what's going on down there."
   Getting unprecedented footage of whales frolicking or fighting
several hundred feet below sea level will greatly add to the small body
of knowledge about the beasts' little understood behavior, said Dan
Costa, associate professor of biology at the University of California,
Santa Cruz, where the sea lions have been in training.
   Their credentials put to shame those of human divers or mechanical
submersibles: in addition to causing less distraction, the sea lions can
descend comfortably to -- for humans -- forbidding and expensive depths,
maneuver smoothly alongside their giant compatriots and return swiftly
to the surface with their treasure trove of data.
   Beaver, the more experienced, was graduated last week from the Long
Marine Laboratory at UC Santa Cruz to a 22-by-26-foot-long, 20-foot-deep
floating pen anchored 300 feet offshore of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
   The sea-worthy spy is undergoing one to six daily training sessions
of up to half an hour each within view of the Monterey Bay Aquarium
visitors and staff. Once acclimated to his new surroundings, Beaver will
move out into the open ocean for further training. He will wear a
harness and camera pack, practice retrieving objects and tagging a model
fiberglass whale and learn to get in and out of a boat that will
ultimately carry him to his field work.
   "Sea lions respond well to training and, we think, can learn the
complex skills involved in swimming beside whales while wearing a
harness with a video camera or carrying a tag in their mouths and
affixing the tag to the side of a swimming whale," Hurley said.
   "The equipment the sea lions carry will allow instantaneous
recording of depth, time, sounds and speed of the whales along with the
video image."
   The scientists plan to use the sea lions to film 20 to 40 migrating
gray whales off Monterey Bay and the feeding behaviors of humpback
whales in the Gulf of the Farallones, off the Golden Gate, near San
   "Underwater recordings will be used to analyze diving patterns,
speed and underwater behaviors of gray whales, and depth, speed and
feeding behaviors of humpbacks," Harvey said.
   In another phase of the research, Costa and Hurley will learn more
about the natural diving physiology of the sea lions themselves: how
much oxygen the burly creatures consume during dives, how much energy
they expend, how they regulate body temperature to conserve energy
during dives.
   "We're curious to know how sea lions manage to plunge hundreds of
feet below sea level and then energetically search for food all the
while holding their breath and expending a huge amount of calories,"
Hurley said.
   "We want to know the limits of the performance of these athletes of
the sea and how they accomplish their incredible diving feats," Costa
   A clearer insight into these and other poorly understood marine
mammals will shed light on how they fit into the ocean habitat and how
their lives are affected by natural events, such as an El Nino current,
as well as by unnatural activities, such as human fishing practices, the
scientists said.