Posts Tagged ‘Bering Sea’

How to Find a Dead Whale

February 2, 2011

by Nate Jones, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

STUNNING, isn’t it?


Humpback and Shearwaters, Unimak Pass. Photo: NMML


The magnificent power, the grace,  the vigor of truly giant life.  BUT, where do whales go when they die??

And, what about all those seals, sea lions, dolphins … heck, walruses, even?!


A Walrus carcass makes it into the 300m strip transect! Turns out even veteran at-sea researchers like USFWS Marty Reedy can still be surprised by new experiences. Photo: M. Reedy

What happens to them if they die at sea, as you might expect most of them would do?  To explore this question, we might think to ask a marine scientist (naturally!).  And, of course, there are scientists that are studying dead marine mammals (you aren’t surprised, are you?).  In fact, Moss Landing’s very own Gillian Rhett is focusing her MSc research on dead whales!  Turns out, studying the afterlife of marine mammals is every bit as intriguing as chasing them in the living flesh.  Scientists are  still learning about what happens to these animals after they die, and it’s a remarkable story.


Scientists and crew (Nate Jones, among them) encounter a dead Sperm Whale, seen from flying bridge of USFWS R/V Tiglax. Photo: N. Jones

Nate Jones first saw this whale at about 2 km distance; a mysterious, looming chunk of something, floating low in the water, unmistakably immobile in the snotty tumult that is a typical Bering Sea day.  Whatever this thing was, it was large.  And probably of animal origin; there were about half a dozen gulls swarming the area, looking for a free meal.  Sure enough, a Sperm Whale carcass.

You can see how tall tales are born on the high seas!  Some of them are true…

Fishing for seabirds II

January 6, 2011

How DO marine ornithologists catch the birds they study?  Sometimes, it’s just like catching fish!

Of course, first you’ve got to find the birds.  The oceans are HUGE expanses.  They can be difficult to navigate, and birds can fly literally hundreds of miles in a single day!  Luckily for biologists, the most predictable place to find seabirds is actually on land, on a breeding colony during their reproductive season.  So, how does a biologist catch a seabird while it’s on a colony?  Amazingly, many seabirds exhibit no instinctual fear of humans while on their breeding colonies, and if they nest on flat ground then researchers can simply walk right up and touch them!

Albatross census. Photo: USFWS

In many places where birds nest on cliffs they also exhibit little fear when humans lean over from the top, just a few feet above them.  This allows biologists to employ a modified “fishing” pole, with a slip-knot noose, to grab a bird (loosely!) by the neck, nudge it off its perch, and gently guide it through the air (as it flaps in a startled flurry!), back up to the cliff top where measurements, blood draws, and other work can be done.

M. Murphy, fising for kittiwakes! Photo: N. Jones

Photo: N. Jones

How can it be that these animals, which routinely fly thousands of miles in a year, would just sit there and allow themselves to be captured on their breeding grounds?  Wouldn’t this lack of caution put the breeding birds at great risk of predation?  Yes, but… many seabird colonies are located on relatively small and terribly remote islands, and in prehistoric times, as the birds evolved their breeding habits and reproductive strategies, there were NO land predators whatsoever!  This is because many of these remote islands emerged as the tops of ancient volcanoes, which oozed and spewed and built their way straight from the depths of the oceans, and so were never associated with any parent land mass.


As such they remained for eons in isolation, free of any land predators.  Seabirds find these types of islands particularly suitable for breeding.  Without many foreign disturbances, they are left to partition the breeding habitat amongst themselves to a maximal extent.  Often, this means some VERY dense nesting aggregations!

Fishing for sea birds

December 11, 2010

Everyone knows how you catch a fish:   With a net, or with a pole, right?

NOAA ship Oscar Dyson, Bering Sea, 2010 (photo: N. Jones)

But, how do marine scientists manage to catch sea birds?  Can’t they just “fly away”?

Black-footed Albatross, NE Pacific; (photo: Bert Ashley)

Of course, most species can do just that!  So, how to get your hands on these shy creatures?  Wouldn’t it be nice if the birds just gathered in groups, like so many fishes do?

Fish aggregations recorded by echosounder

Wait …

Seabirds DO gather in groups – to nest at their breeding colonies,

Seabird colony on Buldir Island, Aleutians (photo: N. Jones)

… and sometimes at sea in large, drifting “rafts”!

Auklets (-Least, -Crested, -Parakeet), Buldir Island, Aleutians (photo: N. Jones)

…So, how to catch seabirds … hmmmm?

author Nate Jones, with a feathered friend

Icy Spring Time

June 27, 2010

Author: Nate Jones

It’s early June, and there’s still ice in the Bering Sea!  This year the seasonal ice cover has persisted late into the “spring” time.  Much later than in recent years.  In fact, it hasn’t felt much like springtime here on the water; it’s snowed (or, is it frozen fog?) on many days, and the mercury in the thermometer outside pools listlessly at about the 32F mark, even at high noon.  To be sure, the ice is melting, breaking up into pancakes, jumbled, layered, and amalgamated by spring storm waves and wind… but, sloowwly, slowly…  the water is still cold; as cold as the ice itself.  A reluctant catalyst, at best.

(ice) pancakes, anyone? It's June 2nd...

We are surveying on the R/V Thomas Thompson, a University of Washington UNOLS ship.  This is an ice-reinforced vessel, so we can push (carefully!) through this kind of cold slurry in search of oceanographic data.  The scientists on this cruise are primarily interested in measuring the physics and chemistry of the spring ice retreat, and the rich plankton communities that tend to bloom and grow during this transition time.  Like the first spring buds and shoots of green in a garden, the explosion of microscopic marine algae, diatoms, and copepods forms the base of a food web that will sustain all the fish we eat, and the seabirds, seals, and sea lions that also depend on them.  So, this is a very important time of year in the Bering Sea!

Sea Ice

Bering Sea surveys resume

May 5, 2010

Nate Jones

by Nate Jones, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

The seasonal ice is breaking up, and it’s time once again for oceanographers to motor out into the Bering Sea to check the vital signs of the rich sub-arctic.  This summer Brian Hoover and I (from Dr. Harvey’s Vertebrate Ecology Lab ) will spend many weeks observing seabirds and marine mammals while on scientific research vessels that ply the waters of the Bering, Chukchi, and Arctic.  We are participating in a large, coordinated research effort led by scientists from across the country and funded through the North Pacific Research Board’s BEST-BSIERP science plan.

Humpbacks and shearwaters feeding on the north side of an Aleutian pass (photo: NMML)

This plan applies research to every aspect of the marine environment – from the flow of currents and micro-nutrients, through the growth and transport of plankton, and on across an interconnected food web to include fish, seabirds, seals, walrus, whales, and even humans and our species’ relationship to the oceans.

Brian and I focus on marine birds and mammals for our studies.  While on these ships we will be counting and describing the animals we encounter, entering information as we observe the activity from the wheelhouse, high above the water.  This is a good location from which to appreciate the dynamism of these productive regions.  In the following four months we will be posting more pictures and stories about our studies, brining you along with us as we push through ice, buck storm swells, and glide through the glassy bliss of calm seas between.  Can’t wait!

A view from on high

Photo of the Week: Here’s Looking at – Who?

December 3, 2009

(photo by L. Whitman, submitted by and B. Hoover and N. Jones)

Counting birds is harder than its sounds when your place of observation is the ocean, not a bird feeder.  This week’s photo features Brian Hoover of the Vertebrate Ecology Lab up in Alaska looking for a clue – to what drives seabird distribution, that is.  Brian and Nate Jones, a Drop-In regular, spent several weeks on the Bering Sea this summer recording where and when they spotted seabirds, as well as gathering data on bird prey and oceanography patterns.

If you have a good caption for this illustrious researcher hard at work, submit it as a comment. We’ll post our favorite!

Just what kinds of birds might Brian be counting? Check out Nate’s previous posts on the Bering Sea to find out!

Safety at Sea

December 1, 2009

Author: Nate Jones

by Nate Jones, Vertebrate Ecology Lab

(still in the Bering Sea)   … Of course the bad weather I’ve been writing about was nothing compared to what happens on the Bering during the months of February or March, and the Gold Rush fishes regularly during that time of year, so I had complete faith in the seaworthiness of the ship and the judgment and skill of the crew.  I took comfort in that thought, and stumbled down to my bunk for what became a grueling 72 hours of bumps, rolls, and queasy stomachs.  During this stormy time the crew exchanged watches at the helm, keeping the ship pointed into the fury.

Bumpy Bering Sea

We all hoped for the best, but by the time the seas had calmed to (a more manageable?) 8-10’, the hungry ocean had damaged and ripped off much of our scientific equipment, snapping several ¼” steel bolts and ripping welds clean apart!

The Gold Rush itself weathered this storm in fine shape (wish we could say the same of our scientific equipment!), and there were no major injuries to anyone on board.  It really was quite a minor event in the context of the Bering Sea; just another blowy, bumpy day or two out on the water.

Another day at "the office" for a marine scientist

But, it impressed me and I couldn’t help contemplating darker scenarios – what happens when there is a true emergency?  What if someone had been swept overboard, or, worse yet, what if the ship itself had been damaged or taken on water and started to go down?  Such things do happen, although not as frequently now as they have in the past (coast guard regulations and improvements in technology and crew training have contributed to much increased safety).

In my next post I’ll put up some images from training exercises that are routinely undertaken to help prepare crew and passengers (scientists) for emergencies at sea…

Neal takes a dip in the Bering Sea

Into the storm

October 23, 2009
Photo: K. Benoit-Bird

Photo: K. Benoit-Bird

…Our research cruise on the Gold Rush got off to a bumpy start.  We were delayed in leaving Dutch Harbor after working to attach the acoustic equipment, rig up our nets, and wire our electronic devices into the ship’s circuitry.  All this had to be done before hitting the seas to gather any data, but it was tough to know that the clock was ticking.

So, we were impatient when we heard that the ocean would be rough, and we decided to motor out anyway and get going on our course.  As it turned out, we probably should have stayed in port, gone for beers and a hotel room, and waited for the water to calm down; We did not collect much usable data during that first 72 hours anyway!

A good sign of our impending experience was the ship’s barometer.  Keep in mind that anything under 29.92 is considered, on average, a “low” pressure event, and is likely associated with stormy weather…

Photo: C. Waluk

Photo: C. Waluk

The waves and wind slammed us as soon as we rounded the last point of land and pushed into the open Bering Sea waters.  The ship pitched and plunged, leaving us weightless, even as we braced and grabbed with our hands.  Everything that was not bolted or strapped down began to slip, slide, and slam every which way.  The Gold Rush turned into the storm, facing torrents of spray and heaving mountains of slate gray water.

Photo: N. Jones

Photo: N. Jones

Up and up we would rise, pushing through choppy, liquid cornice crests, only to plunge steeply into dark troughs.

The height of the ship's rail is approx. 15' above waterline...

The height of the ship's rail is approx. 15' above waterline...

Even the captain, Bert Ashely, who has 30 years’ fishing experience in the Bering Sea, marveled at how unseasonably rough these waters were:  seas of perhaps 12-18’, and winds a sustained 40+ knots.

Photo: N. Jones

Photo: N. Jones

Photo: N. Jones

Photo: N. Jones

Blog entry: Nate Jones

Blog entry: Nate Jones

And yet, it was the middle of summer…

This was how I spent my July 17th and 18th.

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…



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