Michael Cameron

Wildlife Biologist, NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center


General Career and Research Information…

What is your educational background?
I received my B.S. in Zoology from the University of Washington and my Ph.D. in Conservation Biology from the University of Minnesota.

What research projects related to ice seals are you currently involved in?
a) Estimating the abundance and distribution of ice seals in Alaskan waters
b) Identifying the habitat preferences, movements, diving and haul-out behaviors of ice seals

How and where do you conduct your work on ice seals?
We conduct all of our work in the Bering and Chukchi Seas.

What tools and/or technologies do you use in your work on ice seals?
To estimate abundance we conduct aerial surveys. We usually do this from a helicopter based on an icebreaker or from an airplane based on land, but recently we started looking at using Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) to conduct the surveys. To track the seasonal movements and diving behavior of animals at sea, we use Satellite Linked Data recorders (SDR). SDRs are devices we attach to seals. An SDR device collects information on an animal’s location, dive duration, and depth. The data are later transmitted to a satellite and analyzed.

What have you learned so far from your research?
We have learned a lot. For example, we’ve learned that ribbon seals can dive to over 1,650 ft (500 m)!

How and where do you conduct your work on ice seals?
We conduct all of our work in the Bering and Chukchi Seas.

What do you like the best about your work?
The chance to get outside, travel, and see and do things few other people will ever get the opportunity to experience. I also like experiencing the moment when I figure out the answer to an interesting scientific question.

What do you like the least about your work?
I have to spend a lot of time in an office working on administrative paperwork.

What advice would you give to kids who are interested in studying science?
Math and writing skills are important, but just as important is the curiosity about the world around you and the drive to figure out all sorts of problems

General Ice Seal Information…

What types of habitats are important for ice seals and why?
By definition, sea ice is important for ice seals. In general, it provides ice seals the ability to get out the water to breed, give birth, nurse their young, and molt. It can also help provide protection from some marine predators like killer whales.

Why is it important to study ice seals?
Because ice seals live in the polar region, they can be very difficult and expensive to research, so compared to other seal species, relatively little is known about them (for example, we don't know what some species eat or where they go at certain times of the year). We do know their sea ice habitat is changing. The only way to know if or how these changes may affect the seals is to study them.

What threats are currently facing ice seals?
Interestingly, we actually don’t have a definitive answer to this question. In fact, we don’t know if ice seals are even threatened. This is because so little is known about them (see the previous question). However, it seems possible that changes in sea ice could be a threat to some ice seals.

How do native communities interact with and depend on ice seals?
Many Alaska Native communities depend on ice seals as a primary part of their diet. All four Alaskan ice seal species are harvested, but the bearded seal is probably the most important species to Alaska Natives. Bearded seals are used for food and clothing, and some people even make boats out of their skins. Whichever parts of the seals are not used for these purposes are often fed to sled dogs so that the entire seal is used and nothing is wasted.

At the Start of the 2009 Ice Seal Research Cruise…

Which cruise are you talking about here and how can kids find out more about it?
All of the following questions and answers relate to the AFSC National Marine Mammal Laboratory’s Polar Ecosystems Program Bering Sea Research Cruise, which took place from May 13 to June 11, 2009. Visit the cruise webpage for more information, videos, and photos from the cruise.

Which species of ice seals are you studying during this cruise?
We are studying primarily the ribbon seal and the spotted seal.

What is your role during the cruise?
I am the chief scientist so I am responsible for deciding where the ship will operate, what work we will conduct each day, and how to keep everyone safe.

What have you done to get ready for the cruise?
We have been preparing for months to acquire, test, and ship all of the equipment necessary to do our research. We have been studying the results of previous research in the area and learning about the distributions of sea ice. We have also been working closely with other agencies and groups to get all of the right permits and permissions necessary to do this kind of research.

What are your goals for the cruise and how will you accomplish them?
1) Capture as many ribbon and spotted seals as possible and instrument them with SDRs
2) Successfully launch the UAS and conduct aerial photographic surveys of the sea ice for seals multiple times in different weather conditions

At the End of the 2009 Ice Seal Research Cruise…

Did you successfully accomplish the goals of the cruise? Please explain.
Yes, we instrumented 22 spotted seals and 32 ribbon seals. We also flew the UAS ten times and collected over 25,000 pictures during the aerial surveys.

Have you learned anything new during the cruise? If so, what?
All ice seals molt (lose their old hair and top layer of skin and re-grow new hair and skin) once a year. We sometimes see brown ribbon seals (as opposed to the more usual grey and black) and we now think that this brown hair is actually just old hair that hasn’t molted yet.

What was the most interesting or exciting thing that happened during the cruise?
The most exciting thing is that we were able to launch and retrieve the UAS at sea and control it from up to 5 mi (8 km) away.

What follow-up research related to ice seals would you like to do in the future?
We would like to increase our sample size of seals instrumented with SDRs and further test the usefulness of an UAS for surveying the entire Bering Sea for ice seals.

What actions can kids take to help protect ice seals and their habitats?
We know the extent and cover of sea ice is decreasing in the Bering and Chukchi Seas and that this is due to warming oceans. We suspect the ocean may be warming from an increase in global temperatures that many people think is the result of increased greenhouse gasses (like CO2) in the atmosphere, so finding ways to reduce your CO2 emissions could be a great way to help protect the habitats of ice seals.

JASON Learning: A Partnership of Sea Research Foundation and National Geographic