Citizen Scientists around the world can contribute to vital seal research from the comfort of their own homes. SealSpotter harnesses the drone (RPA – Remote Piloted Aircraft) technology we are currently using to monitor several colonies of Australian fur seals on Victoria’s offshore islands. The high resolution images captured by the drone are then uploaded to the SealSpotter portal, ready for counting. Each image is randomly assigned and will be counted multiple times by different participants. We use the average count of each image to determine the number of seals. A video is provided before you start to explain the project and show you how to engage with the portal.
The fur seal monitoring program includes the “Annual SealSpotter Challenge” that concentrates prioritised surveys of Australian fur seal colonies into a two week super effort of counting. After the challenge has finished we load up additional surveys that can be counted by keen Citizen Scientists throughout the year.
This method of monitoring the fur seal population has replaced the traditional methods of counting the seals at the location. It provides greater precision and less disturbance and is therefore a better way of understanding the changes in population size over time.
Australian fur seals are top predators, but unlike many marine predators, they come ashore to rest and breed, where we can monitor them. Some of Victoria’s fur seal colonies can number in the tens of thousands, so the contribution made by Citizen Scientists who can count the various populations accurately and efficiently through SealSpotter is highly valued. Participants help count seals, identify pups, and also spot entangled seals caught up in marine debris such as rubbish and fishing material. In 2018 we proved that Citizen Scientists can successfully perform the counts when compared to experts and two scientific papers have been published using the data.
We are excited not only about the collection of data, but also about some of the other benefits this type of accessible research collaboration brings. By engaging with a wide range of Citizen Scientists including individuals, schools and special interest groups, we are hoping that there will be an ever increasing awareness within the community of the need to support research to better understand our natural world and improve conservation and the health of our oceans. We also hope that our collaborators (you) enjoy the experience and the birds-eye view of fur seals that are difficult to observe in wild breeding colonies.
We enjoy sharing the results through our social media and newsletters, and celebrating the Citizen Scientists that have contributed - particularly those that have made a large effort towards the count. The SealSpotter portal was developed by Phillip Island Nature Parks’ researchers thanks to generous funding from the Penguin Foundation.