He came for the hockey but stayed for the sea lions.
Well, that’s part of the story anyway.
Brandon Russell is a research technician at the Open Water Research Station, a site in Port Moody where important Steller sea lion research is being done. But his fascination with the ocean starts much earlier in his life. Picture a little Brandon running around in an area in Colorado that used to be an inland sea once upon a time. It was there where he found fossils and ancient shark teeth, dreaming as a kid of becoming a marine paleontologist one day.
Fast forward a decade. It wasn’t the easy access to the ocean that brought Brandon to Vancouver. At first, it was his desire to play hockey. But that plan didn’t pan out and he settled on the next best thing, studying marine biology. He eventually volunteered at the Open Water Research Station, a partnership between the Vancouver Aquarium and the University of British Columbia, and he now works there full-time. This project shows just how important it is for organizations to work together – by pooling our resources we can set out to achieve great things.
The primary goal at the research station is to find out why the population of Steller sea lions has declined in the Gulf of Alaska and Aleutian Islands. In fact, according to their website, 80% of them have disappeared. The idea is to research the relationship between the food the sea lions eat and the energy they need to grow, live and have pups. This work is being done in an open-water setting where there are no limits on how far a Steller sea lion can swim or how deep it can dive. The sea lions could in theory just swim away, but the bond they form with the marine mammal trainers keep them coming back. Brandon says as far as he knows, they’re only one of two organizations in the world doing research with marine mammals at open water sites – the other is the U.S. Navy.
He is quick to say that his job is about more than experiment design and data collection. He has to regularly drive and maintain the research boat, and he’s also a bit of a MacGyver. His duties include fixing research equipment and sometimes even creating them from scratch. “You can’t exactly go into a store and say ‘Hi, I’m doing sea lion research. Do you have a dive respiratory dome?’”
On this afternoon, the air is crisp and the sun is starting to set in the mid-November sky – a great day to spend outside with four female Steller sea lions. But winter days are not usually like this, which is why it’s a good thing that Brandon and the Aquarium’s marine mammal trainers have an “office” to retreat to. The office happens to be a converted portable that sits on the water – it sways every time a boat goes by.
It’s a constant reminder that this office – and the research that goes on here – is in a word, unique.
Learn more about the Steller sea lion research.
Watch this research from a Steller sea lion’s point of view.