Helping Ducklings and Feeding an Octopus

OWU’s John Riverso completes summer research internship in Alaska

John Riverso ’12, left, and a colleague do some gull watching. Riverso is spending the summer as an intern at The Sea Life Center in Alaska. (Photo courtesy of John Riverso ’12)

For some students, summer consists of sweltering hot days spent relaxing, swimming, or getting a tan. But for John Riverso ’12, this summer is a bit more cool. Make that a lot more cool.

Riverso is spending his summer in Alaska as an intern at The Sea Life Center.

The Sea Life Center is Alaska’s only public aquarium and ocean wildlife rescue center, and is located on Resurrection Bay. Its mission is to generate and share scientific knowledge to “promote understanding and stewardship of Alaska’s marine ecosystems.”

Riverso, who arrived May 16, says, “Alaska is awesome,” and that his summer has been an experience unlike any other.

“The first thing that really struck me is how unique it is,” he says. “And I’m not just talking about the wildlife. The people here are independent and love being Alaskans.”

Riverso is working a full 40 hours a week but still making time to explore.

“I’ve always wanted to come to Alaska to see the wildlife, so I want to do a lot of that while I’m here,” he says. “I’ll probably do a fair amount of exploring around the area … although I’m going to try to get a lot of birding in.”

So far, Riverso says, he has done a lot of hiking and seen many different types of birds and animals.

“I’ve done … two trips up Mount Marathon,” he says. “I also went on a nature cruise in Kenai Fjords National Park and saw Aialik glacier along with orcas, sea otters, Steller’s sea lions, humpback whales, and seabird colonies.”

His duties at The Sea Life Center include caring for two of the center’s duck species, the Steller’s eider and the spectacled eider. Because summer is the breading season, Riverso says, he has been a part of “putting together nest boxes, candling eggs, and weighing and measuring our duckling.”

There are four species of eider, and all of them used to have a significant number residing in Alaska. Unfortunately, their numbers have declined drastically since the ’70s. This led to the Steller’s eider being listed as a vulnerable species facing a high risk of extinction in 2006, and the spectacled eider listed as threatened in Alaska in 1993.

As well as ensuring the general care of the eiders, Riverso also has taken some observations, which include physical sampling and behavioral observations to gather data used in the study of the birds. His research will help the species.

“The Sea Life Center ultimately hopes to supplement the declining Alaskan populations of Steller’s and spectacled eiders with the program,” Riverso says. “It also hopes to gain more information about these species, which are not easy to study in the wild.”

Riverso says his favorite memories include the day a spectacled eider chick hatched and the opportunity to feed “Lulu,” a Giant Pacific octopus.

“It has been really a stellar experience being a part of the whole breading-season process,” he says.

He found out about the opportunity through the OWU Zoology Department and applied “on a whim.” Besides the personal accomplishment of going to Alaska, he hopes the position will help his future career.

“Since this is my first job in my field, this will provide me with some experience that will allow me to get other field positions in my post-grad career,” he says.

Each intern is required to complete an intern project before the end of the term.

“For mine I will be constructing a fluorescent candler box,” Riverso says. “It can be used to draw blood from the developing embryo which can, in turn, be used to determine the sex of the chick.”

Riverso is one of many interns working at The Sea Life Center this summer. The center hires multiple interns because of the large amount of work that needs done. It employs approximately 105 full-time workers and also has a dedicated staff of volunteers and interns.

“Interns are mainly divided into husbandry, rehab, and interpretation departments, and I’ve met and befriended interns from all three,” Riverso says. “So far, I’ve loved everything, and had a really great time!”

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