Posts Tagged ‘Alaska’

Bumpy Bering Sea Summer

September 29, 2009

Don’t trust that twinkle in Jacques Cousteau’s eye!

Jacques Cousteau

Jacques Cousteau


Photo: Amanda M.

And, don’t be fooled by the idyllic photo that my friend Amanda M. took at her field site on Palmyra Atoll…

I’m here to remind everyone that Marine Science is not always bikinis, cocktails, warm sand, and sunsets.

(hmmm… should I have read the fine print before signing up?  Shelby, do you need a field assistant in Panama?).

There is much to be studied in the cooler latitudes, and the abundance of marine birds and mammals truly defies description.

HUWH and Shearwaters_resized

Photo: NOAA / NMML

Perhaps the greatest challenge in working at high latitudes is the weather.  Specifically, what the weather can do to you while you’re working on the ocean!

Research time at sea is always an adventure, and usually it is a grand and engaging one at that.  But it can also be tiring, physically uncomfortable, and monotonous… or even a little too thrilling!  A friend of mine that sails frequently describes long ocean crossings as “days of boredom interrupted by moments of absolute terror”.

This summer I spent another 28 days out on the Bering Sea, studying the foraging ecology of seabirds and fur seals.  This was the second and final summer of data collection for my thesis work, which is funded as a component of the North Pacific Research Board’s Patch Dynamics Study

I spent my time on the contracted vessel R/V Gold Rush, which is a 99’ trawler that spends most every day of the year working in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Seas.


Photo: L. Whitman

As you might expect, this ship is sturdy, well-maintained, and operated by a very skilled and competent crew.  Nonetheless we did encounter some ocean conditions that slowed our progress and reminded us just how small we were…

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Nate Jones

Nate Jones

Unimak Bliss – A Dizzy Dance of Birds and Whales

April 1, 2009

Nathan Jones

Nathan Jones

by Nate Jones, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

(Note:  I last posted about my Alaskan surveys  loooong ago in October, with a post about how stormy it’d been out on the Bering Sea…)

10 June, 2008: Today has been marvelous.  The storm had passed, and wildlife was everywhere! My seabird surveys are keeping me very busy, but the whales are stealing the show.

The ocean is impossibly calm, like glass; when I got up to the bridge to look out over the surroundings, it was difficult to tell even if the boat was moving – so smooth was its progress, and so monotonous is the gray sea surface.  Spotting birds today has been a treat.  Lots of little auklets, looking like buzzing avocados, their stubby wings flapping furiously.  We also have had some good whale sightings.  At least three Fin Whales… and two groups of Killer Whales have passed within viewing distance.  It’s so peaceful here today.  The ship’s engines just rumbling along, and only a very slight rocking under me to bring water to mind.

Killer Whales

Killer Whales

(Photo: NOAA/NMML)

And, then, this evening I had one of those peak life moments that I feel so privileged to experience: a feeding symphony of birds and whales

We had slowed for a trawl to try to catch some pollock (fish) to sample.  It was going on about 10:30pm, and still plenty of dim light left in the day.  Marty and I don’t survey for birds during trawls because the flocks of scavenging fulmars and gulls present during fishing exercises confound our estimates of what free-ranging birds are “normally” doing.  So, I was done for the night.


Shearwaters (Photo: NOAA/NMML)

But, we were fishing right on the north side of Unimak Pass, one of the larger gaps in the eastern Aleutian chain, and a major funnel through which water and animal life move between Pacific and Bering waters.  There is often an abundance of marine life at these Aleutian passes, so I stuck around upstairs on the bridge to see what might show up…


Birds of the Bering Sea: Shipping out of Dutch Harbor

September 1, 2008
Nathan Jones

Nathan Jones

by Nathan Jones, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

June 2, 2008.  Dutch Harbor, Alaska and the R/V Oscar Dyson – We arrived in Dutch Harbor very late, indeed.  I think it was after 1 am when I finally unlocked the door to my room.  Outside, the dusky, midsummer light of an Aleutian evening was still slowly fading in the fog.  I closed the curtains and sank happily into bed.

Boats on the bay in Dutch Harbor, Alaska (photo by NMJ)

Boats amid mountains in Dutch Harbor, Alaska (photo by NMJ)

In the morning, I had just a couple hours free to take a stroll around Dutch Harbor, but I’ll be back again more than once this season; like many of the commercial fishing vessels, most all the research ships doing work in the Bering Sea must stop to exchange supplies or crew members in Dutch.  This is a working town, in the truest sense.  And, although it’s surrounded by beautiful wilderness, Dutch Harbor itself doesn’t see too many tourists!

Nonetheless I am fascinated and engaged by the sort of raw beauty that can be found in the industry of humankind.  Although Dutch Harbor has gained an outsized, ribald reputation, I find it is also earnest, industrious, and indomitable.  There is a certain honesty in the worn deck lines, rusty rails, towers of shipping containers, and acres of crab pots: This is how fish is brought to your dinner plate.


Birds of the Bering Sea: Packing Light and Taking Flight

July 3, 2008
Nathan Jones

Nathan Jones

Editor’s note: Graduate student Nathan Jones will be spending summer 2008 aboard a research vessel studying seabirds in the Alaskan Bering Sea. During his occasional access to internet, he will send back dispatches that we will post here. This is his second “Birds of the Bering Sea” installment.

by Nathan Jones, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

May 31, 2008, 8am. Anchorage, Alaska – The sun is shining this morning in Anchorage, Alaska. Today will be another in a week of days marked by growing warmth. The mountains to the east are greening in a rush as winter snows retreat, and summertime is arriving with a certainty that is felt by every living thing.

Alaska (USFWS)

Alaska (USFWS)

At this latitude it seems like the daylight is endless, and I sit reveling in this feeling as I wait for news of my flight to Dutch Harbor. I am scheduled to fly out tomorrow on a twin engine prop that has been chartered by NOAA to carry a group of biologists to meet our research vessel, the Oscar Dyson. Dutch Harbor is a bustling fishing port, tucked in the protective, folding coastline of Unalaska Island at the base of the Aleutian Island chain. It is a major hub for all the fishing activity that goes on in the Bering Sea, and has recently been made famous by the Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch” series.

After breakfast I get the call. It is not sunny in Dutch Harbor. In fact, it is blowing 25 knots and raining sideways, with visibility down to a few hundred meters! This kind of weather might seem difficult to imagine at the end of May, but such rough conditions are not that uncommon for the Bering Sea, even in summertime. And, although Alaskan pilots are some of the most skilled aviators in the country, they are wise enough to know when it’s just too dangerous to fly. So the airport in Dutch is closed, and I will have to wait in the sun here in Anchorage, hoping for better weather…

Alaska (USFWS)

Alaska (USFWS)

June 1, 2008, 5pm. Enroute from Anchorage to Dutch Harbor, Alaska – The weather in Dutch Harbor has cleared somewhat, and we’re all ready to go! It will be a full flight – 26 scientists, sitting shoulder to shoulder – all going to meet ships to do their research on the Bering Sea. Because the plane is small we’re limited in what we can bring; most of these people have shipped their bags ahead, and are bringing less than 20 pounds each! Luckily, my coworker Marty and I have been granted an exception, because our reference books, computers, binoculars and other equipment weigh almost 30 pounds already. I have reduced my personal baggage to some basics: 22 pounds of clothes, shoes, and gear to last me three weeks. The props on the engines are turned, and begin to spin. They whir. Then they roar. I put in some earplugs to dull the noise, and the plane races down the runway and launches into the air. We’re off!

Alaska (USFWS)

Alaska (USFWS)

I’ve always been impressed when flying, and it’s a pleasure to peak out of the windows and watch the rugged, snowy mountains divided and sculpted by living glaciers that are melting into turquoise rivers heavy with silt, then spreading wide into vast stretches of wetlands that sweep to the horizons in all directions under the plane. It’s almost too immense for words. These pictures depict the landscape that I am flying over, courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

We must stop in King Salmon to refuel. This should be a routine task, but once on the ground the pilots inform us that the plane is in need of an emergency inspection; a smoke detector in the cargo hold has been lighting up for no apparent reason. It is already 8 pm, and we still have a couple more hours to fly to get to Dutch Harbor, but no one here is going to complain about any inconvenience. Better to be safe than to risk plummeting in a fireball into an untracked wilderness, I say! There’s now enough time to unfold myself and get out of the little plane to grab a sandwich from the (only) store. Better to eat now, because I suspect it’s going to be a late night…

Alaska (USFWS)

Alaska (USFWS)

Birds of the Bering Sea: A Long Journey to an Arctic “Hotspot”

June 25, 2008
Nathan Jones

Nathan Jones

by Nathan Jones

May 25, 2008. Moss Landing, California – The Bering Sea is a long way from Moss Landing, California. It’s a long way from most anywhere, actually. To begin my summer of field work, I must first fly from San Francisco, California to Seattle, Washington. In Seattle I will change planes and fly to Anchorage, Alaska. From Anchorage I’ll catch a small propeller plane and fly low over the mountains, glaciers, and the vast wilderness of Southwest Alaska to stop briefly in King Salmon, where we will refuel, and then continue on out along the foggy Aleutian Island chain to land in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. I will then board a research vessel that will motor for fifteen hours out into the Bristol Bay portion of the Bering Sea and there, at last, I will begin my work. It will probably take me three long days.

Map courtesy of NOAA

Map of the Bering Sea near Alaska (NOAA)

Humans are not the only animals that eat fish, of course! Seabirds flock by the millions to feed on fish in the Bering Sea, and also on energy-rich krill (tiny crustaceans, similar to a shrimp). These krill grow to become so numerous in summer that they form dense undersea clouds that can stretch for miles. Krill, known to scientists as euphausiids, are eaten by fish; in fact, we feed them to our own pet goldfish, in dried and flaked form! They are also the favorite food of many whales, which use their thick baleen plates to strain these tiny creatures from the water in huge, lunging mouthfuls.

Birds and whales feed together in Alaska

Because they like to eat similar kinds of food, whales and seabirds can oftentimes be seen congregating to feed together in productive areas that contain especially large amounts of fish and euphausiids. Such places are usually characterized by turbulence and the mixing of cold(er) and warm(er) ocean water. What is it about the turbulent combination of cold and warm water that attracts the euphausiids and fish?

During the next two months I will spend most of my time on the ocean. I will be taking special interest in these foraging hotspots, trying to learn more about how seabirds find and exploit them.

If you’re interested in learning more, Nate recommends the following websites:

To learn more about the North Pacific/Bering Sea where Nate will be working, check out the National Pacific Research Board, Bering Climate, North Pacific Ocean Theme Page, and Arctic Change.

To learn more about wildlife, check out these resources for marine mammals, seabirds and fish.


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