By John Shakespear

Growing up in landlocked upstate New York, Patty Schilling didn’t initially imagine she’d one day spend her hours in the company of seals and sea lions.

She studied biology at Providence College, where a research project on jellyfish piqued her interest in marine life.

In 2003, she came to the New England Aquarium as a marine mammal volunteer, trying her hand at the behind-the-scenes jobs that keep our exhibits running and our animals healthy, which is “the best way to get an understanding of what it’s like to work here,” she says.

Soon enough, she joined our team as a full-time assistant marine mammal trainer, and today she is proud to be the department’s supervisor. Patty and her coworkers provide food, care, and enrichment for the fur seals and sea lions who call Central Wharf home.

Patty Schilling
Marine Mammal Supervisor Patty Schilling

Her love for marine mammals has also led her to study the vulnerable northern fur seal population, both in our New Balance Foundation Marine Mammal Center and on the Alaskan islands they call home. In 2010, she received a Cunningham Grant from the Aquarium to volunteer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researchers who study northern fur seals on the remote Pribilof Islands, where they come each summer to breed and nurse their pups.

Although there are more than 600,000 northern fur seals, climate change, overfishing, and the now-illegal fur trade have diminished the population by more than 50% since the 1950s. To determine best practices for protecting the species, NOAA researchers, with the help of volunteers like Schilling, monitor the adult fur seals and pups on the islands and use sail drones to track the fish populations the fur seals rely on to survive.

“The problem the fur seals face now is that the food that they’re eating is low in caloric content,” Schilling says. “They used to feed on salmon, which is fatty and nutritious, but salmon has been overfished in that area, so they now eat pollock and squid.”

Patty Schilling
Marine Mammal Supervisor Patty Schilling on St. Paul Island.

With five trips to the Pribilofs under her belt, Schilling is bringing what she has learned back to Boston. With funding from the Aquarium, she is pursuing a master’s degree in marine science and technology at UMass Boston, where her thesis focuses on habitat competition between fur seals on the breeding islands in Alaska.

Although attending school while working full-time can be a challenge, it’s one Schilling relishes.

“It’s exciting to see how the research on campus can connect with work that’s happening here at the Aquarium,” she says.

For instance, she is helping a team of scientists at our Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life compare the hormone levels of our well-fed fur seals with those of fur seals in the open ocean by studying their feces.

northern fur seal pup on St. Paul Island
Northern fur seal (Callorhinus ursinus) pups gather near a rock worn smooth by seals on St. Paul Island, Alaska.

She also shares her research every day when talking to visitors about marine mammals. She hopes they will leave the Aquarium considering how advocating for sustainable fishing practices and consuming fewer fossil fuels and plastics can help protect northern fur seals.

“It might seem like a small thing to reduce our consumption,” she says, “but over generations, it’s going to introduce change. No step in a positive direction is too small.”

Read more about Schilling’s travels to the Pribilof Islands in the Winter 2015 issue of blue magazine.