SAN DIEGO (JANUARY 11, 1997) -- As J.J. marks her one-year anniversary under the care of Sea World of California's beached animal team, an amazing number of firsts continue to occur.
Sea lions fitted with video cameras slowly are being introduced into J.J.'s pool, researchers are designing satellite tracking devices to monitor J.J's path, and equipment drills are under way to secure a Spring reintroduction to the ocean.
For the next few weeks, two California sea lions from Northern California gradually will be entering J.J's 1.7-million-gallon pool. These sea lions have been trained the past two years to videotape and tag a free-swimming baleen whale in hopes of learning more about the underwater giants. The sea lion trainers from San Jose State University's Moss Landing Marine Laboratory are working with Sea World to desensitize their sea lions to J.J. while giving the park's animal care specialists a chance to introduce the young gray whale to other marine life before she returns to the Pacific.
To prepare for the unprecedented undertaking, Sea World's staff is working with Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute (H-SWRI) on a tracking device.
Brent Stewart, Ph.D. J.D., senior research biologist at H-SWRI, is creating transmitters that will track J.J.'s migration and provide data on the depth and duration of her dives. For 20 years, Stewart has attached similar devices to hundreds of pinnipeds in order to gather data on various species.
Scientists will equip J.J.'s back with four transmitters in a procedure similar to piercing an ear. Two rectangular, 1-pound transmitters will collect information on her location, as well as her dive depth and duration. Two smaller devices will pinpoint only the location. Two of the transmitters will be placed on her dorsal ridge in a saddle mount made of kelvar, a durable but flexible material used in bulletproof vests. The other two will be placed closer to the front of her body.
According to Stewart the energy-saving transmitters are designed to conduct 100,000 transmissions and uplink data to a satellite. The information is sent only when the marine animal comes to the surface.
"It may be possible to receive 100 to 150 information transmissions per day, but that number can vary depending on several things," Stewart said. "Factors include how long the orbiting satellite is in view of the transmitter and how often the transmitter rises above the water to successfully relay data to the satellite."
Although the device is designed to last 18 months, Stewart cautions that the projected shelf life may be misleading. "Unfortunately, once an animal is released, the transmitter may not work because of transmission cessation, mechanical failure, battery exhaustion, death of the animal or the device breaks off."
The question of how long the transmitter will track J.J. is not easily answered, according to Stewart. "I placed 24 tracking devices on monk seals in October, yet only received data from 20. Four of them did not work. But I've also had good fortune with two Weddel seals that I was able to track for 11 months and a whale shark for one year."
"With J.J., however, we're taking extra precautions and attaching double transmitters to ensure the success rate."
"We're also designing the transmitters to gather data for alternating eight-hour periods," he said. "This is important for battery conservation, reduced data processing cost and maximum life of the transmitters because once the animal is returned to the ocean, repairs to the instruments are impossible."
Data from J.J's transmitters will be sent directly to Stewart's e-mail daily by the Argos Data Collection and Location Service. Sea World representatives plan to regularly update a tracking map on the adventure park's Internet Web page so fans can easily follow her migration.
Besides perfecting the satellite transmitter device, Sea World's animal care team and Coast Guard representatives are conducting simulated drills with equipment that will be used during the reintroduction. Testing is being done on a 32-foot stretcher, which was custom made from ballistic nylon and webbing and is supported by two 32-foot-long steel pipes. The sling will be hoisted above the boat with a 20-ton cargo boom. Simulated drills will include releasing 18,000-pound buoys into the ocean. Testing will be conducted on the Conifer, a 180-foot Coast Guard buoy-tender.
"We're thrilled to be a part of this history-making event," said Chief Warrant Officer Jerry Snyder of the U.S. Coast Guard. "We've been working with Sea World for several months on the preliminary plans and we'll continue to practice these drills until everything is fine-tuned."
J.J. now measures 29 feet, 6 inches and weighs 17,000 pounds. She continues to grow at a rate of 36 pounds a day (1.5 pounds an hour) and a quarter inch in length each day.
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