Bobbing Around Off Nome
September 3rd, 2010 by robert

The Alaskan Enterprise bobs on unsettled seas outside the harbor at Nome, waiting for permission to dock. I use the term ‘harbor’ loosely, for how can something be called a harbor when it is completely open to gales from a particular direction? We spent last night waiting for the wind and seas to change because yesterday docking was impossible with the southeastern swell crashing into the dock. They changed favorably, but this morning Nome’s harbormaster is inexplicably mute, not answering our skipper’s request for permission to dock.

We have returned to Nome after a two-day steam through rough waters from Icy Cape, near Barrow. This unplanned detour is caused by a series of equipment failures that have imperiled the oceanographic component of this scientific mission. There have been delays and compromises from day one due to equipment problems. Yet sometimes it’s important to remember to go with the flow: on our aborted attempt to dock yesterday, as the ship eased into port, a female spectacled eider welcomed us!

During several days on the Chukchi Sea, we encountered calm seas, considerable sunshine, and a paucity of marine life that had us wondering whether ‘Chukchi’ is Inupiat for ‘Dead’. The mammal spotters did see one minke whale and various seals, and though several of my 1.5 hour bird transects recorded NO birds, there were a few birdy patches where we passed through rafts of short-tailed shearwaters or clumps of crested auklets. The mammal spotters dubbed these auklets ‘nuggets’ for their chunky bodies and the difficulty they have taking off from the water when stuffed with food. Elegantly beautiful Sabine’s gulls also passed by a few times, dazzling with their acrobatic feeding flight.

One cloudy, calm Chukchi day, I dressed warmly and went to the bow platform in search of privacy, intending to catch up on my journal. Just after settling down with my back to the light, cold wind, an exhalation exploded 50 feet away from me. A walrus sat there apparently looking at me, tusks waiving in the air. I pointed it out to the mammal folks in the bridge, and soon my privacy evaporated as camera-wielding biologists surrounded me. As quickly as they came onto the deck, other walrus arrived until there was an equal number of walrus and observers. It was quite a show.

So now we are edging towards the Nome dock, fingers crossed that we will be allowed to tie up and have a walk on firm ground.

Nope. Didn’t happen. But after another few hours the winds moderated and we were able to slip into port. The sense of relief was palpable. Everyone’s hopes were dashed when we came so close to land earlier, and then turned back into the teeth of the gale. So as mooring lines were making fast, a line formed as we all were ready to leap ashore.

I hiked into town searching for an internet connection with IPA (India Pale Ale) service. Alas the beer was flowing, but the bytes were not. Internet was down, disappointing almost all of my shipmates, who coincidentally arrived at the same Airport Pizza. After a couple of hours reveling in shoreside distraction, I walked the two miles back to the ship. It was an empty, quiet ship. I relaxed while calling my boys and watching the spectacled eider bobbing contentedly on the gentle harbor swell.


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