You'll only find these beautiful creatures at three other facilities in all of North America—the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, the Oregon Zoo, and the Vancouver Aquarium. Two of the Steller sea lions here, Woody and Sugar, have called the Center home since it opened in 1998. They came from Vancouver and are named for Steller sea lion rookeries (breeding grounds) in that area: Woody is short for Wooded Island, and Sugar for Sugarloaf Island. Together, they've helped in more than 100 research projects. Woody has helped answer questions about how diet affects the growth and maturity of males in this species; Sugar has helped researchers test head-mounted cameras to observe wild animals foraging for food in the wild.
In 2011, three adult female Steller sea lions came here on loan from Vancouver, Mystic, and the Netherlands for a Steller sea lion breeding program. It is important work: 30 years ago, the population of this species mysteriously declined by 80 percent and never recovered. Today, these creatures are endangered in the Gulf of Alaska. The females were brought here because of Woody, who's one of only two viable males in captivity in North America. Pilot, the newest male in the breeding program will be taking over for Woody. It's a challenging process, as a Steller sea lion hasn't been born in captivity since the late 1980's. HOWEVER, in 2013 Ellie was born to parents Woody and Eden, and the very next year in 2014, her full brother, Forrest, was born!
Reproduction in Steller sea lions is an amazing process. Males will begin to gain weight in the middle of winter to prepare for the breeding season and haul out on to the rookeries in the beginning on May. These bulls can weigh over 2,000 pounds and will fight each other for the best territory on the rookery. They will remain on land until the end of the breeding season; some will go almost 3 months without eating. The females show up in the middle of May and, typically, will quickly give birth to the pup she's been carrying from the previous year. The two will bond intensely for a week, learning to recognize the other's voice; after that time the mother makes quick foraging trips into the ocean.
When that week is up the female is ready to mate. She'll typically mate with only one male; the fertilized egg is held in a "frozen stasis" known as embryonic diapause for two to three months to allow the female to recover from giving birth just a week before. Her body will determine whether she's healthy enough to handle another pregnancy; does she have a thick enough blubber layer, is she healthy enough to handle nursing her current pup and be pregnant at the same time?
Female Steller sea lions reach sexually maturity between the ages of 3 and 5 and can have a single pup every year—meaning there's only one week each year she may not be pregnant. If she lives to be 20, that could mean 14 years and 37 weeks of potential pregnancy out of 15 years!
It's a huge maternal investment, and that's the focus of the current research project. How does the female body change during pregnancy? What happens to their metabolism and their diet? The study will last several years, so check back for updates.