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Spending six weeks marooned on an uninhabited island may not appeal to everyone, but for Julia Back’s research it’s ideal. Currently in the second year of her Master of Science, research takes her to remote locations to observe fur seals. Julia is investigating the effects of boat-based ecotourism on Australian fur seals at breeding colonies in Bass Strait.
“It’s an easy topic to get people interested in, both because seals are such charismatic creatures and because of the public’s growing awareness of conservation and sustainability issues,” says Julia. She admits “It certainly takes a passion and fascination with seals to voluntarily spend six weeks on an uninhabited island.”
Originally from Oregon in the United Sates of America, Julia completed her Bachelor of Science (Biology) at Linfield College (Oregon). During her third year she discovered her fascination with seals while in the Galapagos Islands for four months. “I met these curious, intelligent animals, and I just couldn’t learn enough about them.” While there, she also worked with a vet and would assist with emergency callouts, freeing seals from entanglements caused by fishing gear and trash. “There’s no feeling in the world like saving a life, especially when you’re repairing damage that we, as humans, have caused.”
While doing independent research on seals in her final year, Julia became aware of the work Deakin’s Dr John Arnould was carrying out. “I knew I wanted to study seals, but it was the broader conservation scale of this project that really caught my interest.” She applied for a grant to work with Dr Arnould and was awarded a Fulbright scholarship which enabled her to come to Australia and pursue her Masters.
Once in Australia Julia was soon swept off to a seal ridden island. “You pack up your life for 3-6 weeks and hop on a boat out to some tiny island in Bass Strait. You hope the weather is ok; otherwise it’s a bumpy ride. You jump off the boat onto slippery rocks and haul kilos of gear up cliffs onto land. It’s incredibly isolated; you have to be suited for it, but it’s an awesome opportunity to get back to nature.”
At the seal colonies, Julia videos the seals’ initial behaviour and how they react once tourism boats arrive. “Australian fur seals are very wary of people when they’re on land; if they see or smell us they flee into the water, where they feel safe. There can be dramatic effects on behaviour and breeding success if boat visits aren’t managed sensibly.”
Julia says there haven’t been many investigations of seals’ responses to boat disturbances. Once her research is finished, Julia will suggest management guidelines for tourism operators and present this to Parks Victoria. The aim is to develop protocols for ecotourism operators that take into consideration boat size, proximity to colony and other environmental factors such as wind direction and sea conditions. “It’s important that people get to see and learn about seals in their natural environment, it gets them interested in seals and seal conservation. At the same time it’s essential that we protect this sensitive species.”
This research is being supported by Parks Victoria, Phillip Island Nature Park, and the Australian American Fulbright Commission.