A Day in the Life of an Año Field Biologist

We didn’t run out of gas this afternoon, but we were dangerously close… We miraculously MADE IT all the way to Año Nuevo and back in the pouring rain without running out of gas. So as far as I’m concerned, the day was a success.

Pro Tips:
1. Always be sure to check the gas gauge in your lab truck
2. Always bring rain gear.

Despite being muddy and soggy, we went out in search of animals with flipper tags. As we walked by a large grouping of animals, Rachel happened to spot a yearling seal with a geolocation tracking tag!!! I was really excited and surprised to find a geolocator tag. I was surprised because when it rains in the field it usually complicates things: the animals tend to be so sandy that reading any flipper tags is nearly impossible and the rain also fogs up our binoculars making it even more difficult to see.  Both scenarios are not ideal when looking for a very small white tag on a very small flipper.

What really amazes me is how these geolocator tags actually work! Geolocators are capable of measuring and storing data about light levels which we can then use to calculate the animal’s latitude and longitude. So we can estimate an animal’s position when they are out and sea and we can’t directly observe them.  Most importantly, the sensors are small enough that they can be attached to a flipper tag and can collect tracking data for several years.  This technology is amazing, however,  in order to access the data from the tag we need to physically recover it!

Rachel and I were going to try to recover the tag that we found… only there was one HUGE problem. An adult male elephant seal was sleeping with his nose touching our yearling – WAY too close to recover the tag safely. Rachel and I realized we needed some back-up, so we decided to regroup and come back another day to get the tag. We started to hike out of the park (which was a GREAT decision given the sideways angry rain and the puddles INSIDE my shoes), and, as we were leaving, tried to make a mental note of where the animal was on the beach to make sure we could help other researchers find that animal later. We headed back to Santa Cruz to get some gas and warm up.

Now if you though our adventures in the field were over you might want to keep reading…

Back at the Lab:

Step 1. Dry pants
Step 2. De-sog our gear (most important)
Step 3. Hot drink (tea with milk and sugar)
Step 4. Data entry

While I was entering data that we had collected in the field that morning, Rachel started discussing the geolocator tag that we found with Patrick, a professor in our lab. Patrick suggested that we go back to Año Nuevo that same afternoon so we wouldn’t miss our chance to recover the tag. These are the most dedicated people that I have ever worked with; we decided to brave the storm once again in hopes of finding the geolocator tag. I was ready to put on my very wet boots and very damp jacket and find this tag.

SPOILER ALERT: That afternoon we did NOT find the animal with the tag….

But if you are disappointed, so was I…until…

Once we got to the beach, Rachel and I went North and Patrick went South in the hopes that one of us would find the animal with the geolocator tag.  It is always important to be in communication with your team so had walkie-talkies just in case one of our teams found that tag.  Rachel and I hiked all the way up to North Point and looked for that tag without ANY luck. It was starting to get dark and just as we were about to admit defeat, when we got a walkie-talkie call from Patrick. He was witnessing the first elephant seal BIRTH of the season. There was no way I was going to miss it. Rachel and I walked as fast as we could and when we got there, all I could do was watch in shocked amazement. I have never seen something so amazing in my life. A female northern elephant seal had just given birth to this little tiny pup right there on the beach.

I am still in absolute awe of how amazing elephant seals are, and being a part of such a dedicated research team is truly inspiring.  The BEST news is that we were able to capture it all on film. If you want to see this unbelievable video.  I hope this post has sparked some of your curiosity about these beautiful animals and makes you want to know a bit more. I certainly do.


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