I attended the Sitka WhaleFest banquet a few nights ago at the behest of a friend. Normally, it is not something I would go to because 1) I have no ties to the world of marine biology other than the tenuous connection of three semesters studying it and 2) it's kind of an expensive fund raiser, and I rarely have that kind of cash laying around this time of year, having spent it on the makings for Christmas presents. However, I didn't spring for the ticket, and it was a personal invitation, so what the hell. I threw on a nice skirt and a sweater, psyched myself up for the hour-long presentation on high-tech methods of tracking marine mammals, and headed out. Before I left, I fixed a polite, I-really-am-paying-attention-to-your-insufferably-dry-Powerpoint expression on my face along with my lipstick.
The big surprise, other than the icy cold grilled scallop in my salad, was that the presentation was anything but dry. It helps that it wasn't about gadgetry. The speaker, Russ Andrews, is a biologist associated with the Alaska Sealife Center, and rather than spending an hour talking about how he invents the technologies that allow us insight into the daily lives of whales and sea lions (wiretapping for the North Pacific!), he talked about Steller, which is a subject that interests me greatly. I am a sucker for stories about how natural historians in the 19th century faced immense tribulation in order to learn something about our place on this planet. Steller has the distinction of having every animal named for him ecologically threatened in some way. Scientists call it Steller's Curse. In at least two instances, the animals have been hunted into extinction - those would be Steller's sea cow and Steller's cormorant. Bummer. Anyhow, Steller was one of those guys that accomplished more in a single year than most people manage in a whole lifetime, and modern biology owes him a huge debt.
The best thing, though,was when he showed the critter-cam stuff. Basically, they glue a camera on the heads of various kinds of pinnipeds (seals and sea-lions) to get an idea of what kind of prey they're chasing and how much of it they eat. Do you know how extraordinary it is to watch realtime video footage of a northern fur seal swallowing a luminescent squid? It trumped every single thing I've seen since Obama's acceptance speech.
I now want to read up on Steller and his work. He might join Alfred Russell Wallace as one of my all-time favorite science-y guys. It will go on the bottom of the ever-growing pile of printed matter next to my bed.
Here's some footage of a Sitka legend, Old Earl. It's no critter-cam, and he doesn't do anything spectacular in this clip, but rest assured, he's a pissy dude who's been known to grab coolers full of fish off the cleaning floats.