Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Friday, December 11, 2009
Saturday, December 12, 2009
Sunday, December 13, 2009

December 12, 2009
Well, today is our last day in the field. We are both sad to be leaving these beautiful animals behind, but are hoping the work we have done and data we’ve collected will help them survive in the long term and improve our medical knowledge of captive fur seals. The whole team is tired after several days of hard work, but happy that it has been a successful trip. We have lots of ideas for making things even more efficient next time and starting new studies.

Our health assessment project will establish what is normal in this group of animals by doing physical exams and running tests for evidence of disease or organ dysfunction. These tests are only part of knowledge we will gain on the health and risks facing these animals. One of the biggest ways humans can impact marine mammals is by polluting the waters where they live. Chemicals we use on land like fertilizers and materials from our plants and factories get washed into our rivers and eventually end up in the ocean. In many places in the world we have identified several pollutants, like DDT, that are causing health problems in animals living in these areas. We don’t know what the fur seals at PSJ are exposed to right now, but we do know that the area is becoming more developed and a new port may be coming to the area soon. This would mean more boat traffic and likely more pollutant exposure than the animals are accustomed to now. By taking blood and hair samples, we can test for many chemical and metal residues to determine how much of these pollutants the fur seals are currently exposed to. As this area develops, we can then monitor for any increases in exposure to these toxins. Toxins have been implicated in the poor health and reproduction of northern fur seal populations and we don’t want this to happen to the fur seals at PSJ. By watching closely for these problems, we hope we can protect these animals while this area of Peru grows economically. Monitoring toxin exposures in fur seals will also help us understand contamination in the entire ecosystem, which can help us conserve other species like the penguins, as well as protect human health. For instance, mercury residues have become a problem in some of the fish species that people commonly eat.

Toxins aren’t the only way humans and terrestrial animals affect marine mammals. We also share some diseases with them. In fact, some marine mammals have been known to contract canine distemper, a commonly fatal disease of young dogs, which has caused several outbreaks of disease with very numbers of deaths. Marine mammals, like fur seals, also have their own groups of diseases which we are learning more about. This helps us not only identify disease threats to the wild population, but also helps us take care of the captive animals in zoos and aquariums. Some of the blood samples we are taking will be analyzed for antibodies (proteins the body’s immune system makes) to specific diseases. Some of these are diseases which have caused major health problems in other populations. We want to know what the seals have been exposed to now, so that if there is a problem in the future, we will know if a disease is “new” to the fur seals. A disease which has not been present in the population historically could be the most likely culprit of a major health problem.

As we were winding up the day, Mike and I took an hour off to take a swim near the house where we are staying on the reserve. We had a very special treat: several fur seals came to investigate! They are not accustomed to seeing swimmers and were, I think, intrigued by us. They were literally swimming loops around us, jumping out of the water, then diving deep, but always careful to keep a safe distance. We left fairly quickly so as not to disturb them too much, but will always enjoy the special memory. The water is also so amazingly cold (around 52°F) that we could not have stayed much longer if we wanted to! Spending a few short minutes in such cold water certainly gives you a strong appreciation for how well the fur seals are adapted to this cold marine environment.

Back at the lab we couldn’t help but relive the tale a few times! The lab work had been taking us until midnight each night, but we managed to finish by 11:30 tonight – a sweet victory for our last night at PSJ. Tomorrow we head back to Lima and in a few short days back to the United States. We are going to miss our friends here in Peru. This work would be completely impossible without their dedication and hard work. We are lucky they asked us to come help them in their quest to protect the PSJ reserve and its inhabitants.