I can’t help but feel nervous as I travel to the boat docks in Chatham, MA, the first stop on my way to Monomoy Wildlife Refuge for a field study on gray seals (NOAA permit #17670-03). As a California sea lion trainer in the Foxwoods Marine Theater, I have never participated in anything like this. Thanks to the staff and volunteers of our Animal Rescue Clinic, I had practiced restraining techniques in preparation. I was excited for this experience but knew that it was going to be physical and challenging. in preparation..
When we arrived at the docks, the 11 volunteers made small talk and introduced themselves. There were people from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, various stranding facilities, researchers and marine mammal trainers. We dressed in orange Mustang suits and waders and helped load the boats with personal gear and supplies needed for the trip. The boat ride was a chilly 30 minutes and once we got to the island of Monomoy we unloaded everything onto the beach. The lighthouse and house that we were staying in was a little less than a mile away so we had to transport everything to it by trudging through a sandy path. We made multiple trips from the beach to the house and then got ready to start the day of field work.
The MIT research scientist in charge of the project, Wendy Puryear, gathered the group together to begin looking for weaned gray seal pups. The entire group stayed together as we found the first couple of gray seals. This helped everyone get comfortable with all the different jobs that would be done, including animal collection, weight, restraint, blood collection, measurements, sampling, tagging and data collection. The first animal was collected and the more experienced people showed every aspect of the project.
The entire group rotated jobs and completed everything with a second animal. Wendy then divided the group into two to maximize data collection. The group that I was with separated and went off to collect three more pups. I took a turn with restraining, taking samples, data collection, measurements, weight and going to collect the animal. The most experienced person in our group was extremely helpful and encouraging to me as a newcomer to this work. After working with the three seals, the sun began to set and we began heading back to the lighthouse.
Once at the lighthouse, we relaxed and tried to warm up. It turns out that the building we were staying in is more insulated then it has been in the past. To me it was very cold! Additionally there was no electricity and no indoor plumbing. There were a couple of propane heaters but I continued to wear multiple layers with my hat and gloves! We proceeded to spend the rest of the night making dinner, preparing all of the equipment needed for the next day and running the samples that were collected. Everyone was exhausted by the end of the day but excited for day two.
When I woke up, my entire body ached from the previous day. I never realized how much physical strength was needed for this type of research. The entire group woke up early and watched the sunrise from atop a sand dune (thankfully distracting me from my achy body). It was windy but a great way to start the day. After sunrise we ate breakfast and prepared for another day of sampling. Wendy received a call that the boats needed to pick us up earlier than anticipated because of an incoming snow storm. We would need to return to the lighthouse and allow ourselves two hours to prepare for departure. Unfortunately, this left little time to sample. We divided into the same two groups and headed off with a goal of sampling a total of 20 seals during our two day trip.
Being that our group only did three seals as group the previous day, it was going to be challenging to get as many seals as we wanted in such a short period of time. I could not have been more impressed with the functionality of my group on day two. We were like a well-oiled machine and worked extremely well together. I personally had a goal of restraining another seal. We needed to head back to the lighthouse after collecting and sampling a total of six seals for the day, making a total of 19 for the trip.
A group of us started to bring all of the equipment back to the beach for the return while a couple of people went back to attempt to sample one more seal to achieve our goal. As some of us loaded the boats with the gear, we noticed the rest of the group making their way to the beach. They did it! They sampled one more animal making it a total of 20 seals for the two day trip!
I woke up realizing that I had slept over 12 hours but was still exhausted. Two days of fieldwork that included lugging equipment back and forth and sampling multiple grey seals was one of the most physical experiences I have ever done. But also something I will never forget. I was so impressed by the people I met on this trip and how passionate everyone was about animals and conservation. I found Wendy to be very adapting and open to everyone who volunteered to help. Despite being her project, she was incredibly accommodating to the volunteers; attempting to allow each of us to achieve our individual goals. All while ensuring the animal’s welfare, that the data was collected and that the trip was successful.