As a marine biologist in Alaska, Natalie Rouse isn’t sitting in an office from 9 to 5. Some days she helps care for sick or injured marine mammals at the Alaska SeaLife Center. She spends other days working in a lab at the center, counting wild seabirds or even jumping into a helicopter to investigate the death of a whale in a remote area. She’s also doing research that may help save local northern sea otters.
“I like the adventure,” Rouse says, “and every day I learn something new.”
Rouse, 34, grew up in Nebraska but stayed in Alaska after coming for a summer job monitoring endangered beluga whales. She loved the wildlife and the lifestyle, which today includes living near Resurrection Bay (a body of water on the Kenai Peninsula in the southern part of Alaska), surrounded by snow-capped mountains. In the evenings and on weekends, she often hikes through the mountains or kayaks in the bay, sometimes among curious orcas.
Rouse divides her time between working at the center, which is an aquarium and a rehabilitation facility for marine mammals, and her sea otter research as part of a graduate program in biology at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
The research focuses on a disturbing trend: Northern sea otters in Alaska have been dying at a higher-than-normal rate over the past 10 years. In 2015, there was an “uptick,” or an especially high number, of deaths reported. Scientists say bacteria is to blame. The research project involves collecting water and mussels — which offer clues about their environment by filtering water — from different areas to determine the location of the bacteria that’s making sea otters sick.
When her research is done, probably next year, she’ll write a report and publish the findings. By then, she will have been working on this project for four years.
Sea otters are an important “indicator” species in their environment. Their health can tell scientists a lot about the health of the whole ecosystem. Furry, webfooted and aquatic members of the weasel family, sea otters are also really cute. They’re super-smart, too.
“I love how clever otters are,” Rouse says. “They’re really good at solving problems, like getting a clam out from a tight spot between rocks in the wild.”
Her research is about saving sea otters, but she says there’s more to it than that.
“It’s about knowing more about the world,” Rouse says, “and to remind us that anything impacting otters also impacts other species in the ocean and even humans. From an ecological standpoint, we’re all connected.”