British Columbia·Photos

Future in doubt for B.C.'s unique Steller sea lion research facility

Four Steller sea lions at the Marine Mammal Research Unit in Port Moody have been instrumental in groundbreaking research since the facility opened in 2003, but now the facility is struggling after U.S. funding was cut in 2016.

Floating research centre observes massive animals in training, but is struggling after U.S. funds were cut

Yasha the Steller sea lion hungrily awaits a fish. She is one of four adult sea lions who call the University of British Columbia's Marine Mammal Research Unit home. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

On Monday, Sitka weighed in at around 226 kilograms — or just shy of 500 pounds.

The 22-year-old adult female Steller sea lion gets on a scale each morning when she's fed, shortly before a gum checkup.

She then runs through exercises with her trainer, Vancouver Aquarium senior marine mammal trainer Nigel Waller.

"All of our sea lions are a very interesting mix of extremely smart, extremely stubborn and extremely mischievous," said Waller, with one hand in a bucket of capelin fish and the other on Sitka's snout.

Sitka opens wide as Nigel Waller, senior marine mammal trainer, conducts her daily gum checkup. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Sitka is one of four female Stellers that live in Port Moody, B.C., at the Marine Mammal Research Unit, a partnership between the Vancouver Aquarium and the University of British Columbia.

Along with Sitka are Yasha, Hazy and Boni. All four have been instrumental in groundbreaking marine mammal research since the facility opened in 2003, but now the unit's future is uncertain.

"I look at us as being like 'the family farm.' We'll do whatever it takes ... up until the bitter end," said research director and UBC professor Andrew Trites.

The unit has been struggling to stay afloat since the U.S. government under President Donald Trump cut its funding by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The B.C. facility had been funded under the umbrella of Alaskan pinniped research.

'I'm not forcing a 500-pound animal to do anything,' said Waller, remarking on the Steller's great weight and stressing the importance of good trainer-animal relationships. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Since then, Trites and his team have been forced to find creative revenue streams. Proceeds from sales of Steller IPA, a beer by California's North Coast Brewing Co., go partly toward the centre, while the Disney television show Siren is filmed there, also contributing funds.

But Trites said the unit's outlook is dire and, if the situation doesn't change soon, the Stellers will have to move to a new home at the Vancouver Aquarium.

"Fortunately, the animals will have good homes and we have learned a lot from them," said Trites.

The animals are highly intelligent and able to learn a wide range of behaviours. Each has a distinct roar and personality. Their closest land relatives are bears, and their skulls are nearly identical to their ursine cousins. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

He said the research facility is one of a kind.

Situated at the end of Reed Point Marina in Port Moody, it physically floats on the water. The unit's office bobs along next to two large animal pens and a weigh station.

The four Stellers — who were captured from sea lion breeding grounds in B.C. for research purposes early in their lives — sleep in the pens to protect them from transient orcas and other dangers.

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The diets of all four animals are strictly regulated. Sea lions need to take in fresh water and get most of that requirement from eating squid. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

When they're not sleeping or playing, they're training or taking part in experiments. When released each day into open water, they're affixed with tracking harnesses, and run through a series of exercises such as twirling and handstands.

One such "learned behaviour" is to swim to the ocean floor and bring back a found item of their choosing.

Studies are conducted during the training and the four Stellers have provided deep insight into sea lion behaviours and survival techniques, as well as marine mammal ecosystems in general.

Though both pinnipeds — or 'flipper-footed' animals — sea lions and seals are quite distinct. While seals have flippers flush to their bodies, sea lions have much larger flippers and distinct ear flaps. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"Looking at invasive species coming in with ships, monitoring the health of the water ... trying to resolve conflicts between humans and marine mammals ... that's the purpose of the unit," said Trites.

He said there remain numerous threats to sea lion populations across the Pacific, not just the Stellers, which are found only along the West Coast of North America, the Aleutian Islands near Alaska and northern Japan.

Sea lion front flippers are incredibly strong and allow the animals to swim as fast as 10 km/h. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Without the facility, a unique window into the Steller's undersea world will be lost, said Trites.

"There's nothing else like this, a field station on the water. We're here on the Salish Sea. But we take it for granted," he said.

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