Elephant seals on the beach | Megan Dotterweich

Cal Poly researchers have a new tool to keep track of the local elephant seal population. The team consisting of graduate students, undergraduate volunteers and professors use drones to conduct their research during the seals’ current mating season. 

The project began in 2017 but this is the first year they were able to incorporate drone images. The research team will begin to analyze drone images in March, once the breeding season has ended. 

Kate Riordan is a graduate student in the Biological Sciences department and is a part of this research team. Like the rest of the team, Riordan helps to fly the drones and makes sure they don’t crash. She also helps weigh the baby seals and tags them in order to track where the seals will end up.

“The purpose of flying the drones is so that we can shorten the amount of time it takes to actually count the seals,” Riordan said. 

During the breeding season, the team will go to seven different beaches, all a part of Piedras Blancas, to gather data about the seals. Riordan says that the beaches have 200-400 seals and some even upwards of 1,000 seals. Using drones allows researchers to gather data without disturbing the seals or their environment. 

The journey to be able to use drones wasn’t an easy one due to the team having to get a license to fly the drones and permission from state agencies.

In order to use the drones the team had to get permission from State Parks and had to fly the drones in front of state park officials to prove that they were reliable.  In addition, anyone that would be flying the drones had to get an aviation license from the Federal Aviation Administration. 

In order to get the government issued license, they had to study and take an aviation test. The research team also had to get permission from Cal Poly as the drones would be flying over the university’s beef unit. They also needed permission from the university to capture images of the seals and anything else the drone captures due to the project being associated with Cal Poly. 

The main goal of the project is to count the population, but Riordan said that they also weigh the weaned seals. When weighing the seals, the team will tag them with sheep ear tags.

When Riordan first joined the team there were less than 30 volunteers but the team now has over 50 volunteers. She said this is thanks to the increase of dedicated and passionate team leaders.

Heather Liwanag is in charge of the Vertebrate Integrative Physiology lab and credits the increase in volunteers to financial contributions from the Santa Rosa Creek Foundation.

“It’s really nice to see the efficiency and numbers of animals that we tag go up,” Riordan said.

Being a graduate student, Riordan was grandfathered into the team but undergraduate students can also apply to be volunteers. 

“As long as people are enthusiastic about the seals and are motivated to do the hard work that we do, we encourage everyone to apply,” Riordan said. 

For the next year, the team will continue to use the drone as well as doing manual counts of the seal population.

Applications will be available in the coming months. Anyone interested in applying or learning more information can do so on their website

“It’s a really great experience and our volunteers typically go off to really great jobs thanks to the experience they gained on Team Ellie,” Riordan said. 

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