open water research with steller sea lions

The Open Water Project is conducted in collaboration with the Vancouver Aquarium. Its primary goal is to determine how much energy Steller sea lions spend looking for food. This is integral to assessing the impact that changes in types and distributions of prey can have on wild sea lions, and ultimately discovering what might be done to help the declining wild populations.

The Open Water Research Station facility opened in 2003. The first trained sea lions helped to evaluate one of the key components in the cost of foraging — namely, the cost of diving to different depths.

Trainers, researchers and graduate students shuttle animals to Burrard Inlet to conduct experimental trials from a research platform.  The animals are trained to swim into a respirometry dome that is placed on the water surface. Air in the dome is sampled to measure the rate of oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production. This allows the number of calories Steller sea lions burn while diving to be estimated by knowing how much oxygen they used and how much carbon dioxide they produced.

Using a pump and a series of pipes, Research Technicians constructed a way to send fish to preset depths. This experimental apparatus is being used to learn what decisions Steller sea lions make when diving to various depths to feed from dense or sparse patches of fish.

Training hand-raised sea lions to take part in experiments in the open ocean has been the ultimate challenge for staff. Before any research can be carried out, the sea lions have to be relaxed in their new marine environment, and be accustomed to the variety of new sights and sounds that the sea has to offer. Similarly, the sea lions have to be comfortable swimming around boats, and jumping on and off their transport vessel —the Steller Shuttle. They also have to complete various tasks while out of sight of the trainers and researchers for prolonged periods. In other words, the dual requirement of a strong bond between animal and trainer and being an independent animal is crucial for the success of our research project.

For more on the Open Water Research Station see:

New Technologies
  • Trained Steller sea lions test hypotheses and develop new approaches
Nutritional Stress?
Why did they decline?
We undertake studies to test the leading hypotheses thought to explain the decline of Steller sea lions.
Sea lion biology and ecology
Information about the ecology, biology, physiology, behaviour and population dynamics of sea lions is needed to resolve why sea lions have declined.