Bobbing Around Off Nome
Sep 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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Through The Bering Strait
Aug 27th, 2010 by robert

The Alaskan Enterprise sits broadside to the modest wind, sunshine pouring in through the windows of the bridge. We are off the coast of Kotzebue, making an unscheduled stop to pick up crucial sampling equipment that was shipped overnight from Seattle, to replace a faulty, fundamental component of the research effort. A semi-rigid dinghy was dropped into the whitecaps, and three women scientists dressed in bright orange Mustang suits climbed in and sped off towards town, 15 miles away. As we drift waiting for their return, many of the thirteen people remaining onboard are spread around the boat looking for the best cell connection. Strangely, nine miles out in the Chukchi Sea, there is cell phone coverage, and people have the unexpected ability to call loved ones.

This is not the first equipment-related delay for this cruise. We spent two extra days in Nome while two enormous winches were welded to the deck. My time hotel-bound led me to one of the darkest American experiences: watching television. On the edge of the Bering Sea, I had access to hundreds of the same stations that afflict people throughout the country. In a nearly futile effort to find news or better news (The Daily Show), I had to scroll through dozens of stations offering unbelievably trivial, mindless and mind-numbing garbage. If what people watch is a reflection of who we are as a nation, no wonder we are in trouble.

The Alaskan Enterprise is a 151-foot ship constructed in 1978 for the Bering Sea crab fishery, but for the last few years it has been chartered by various scientific endeavors. Our cruise has two main scientific threads, staffed mostly by NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency) staff scientists. All the equipment delays have been caused by the problems besetting the oceanography team that wants to measure physical and biological parameters of this northern sea. There is a great rush to investigate the ecology of this region because of the enormous push to open it to offshore oil exploration and production.

The largest team on this cruise is a group of marine mammal biologists looking for whales, especially right whales. Several of the team visually survey for whales and other mammals, using enormous, pedestal-mounted binoculars they call Big Eyes, which allow them to identify whales at the horizon, six miles away.

I’m free to use a second set of Eyes for birding, but have yet to try them. The rest of this team deploys acoustic buoys and constantly monitors sounds to pick out whale songs and calls from miles away. So far many more whales have been heard than seen, including blue and fin whales, and orcas.

And then there is me. I’ve been added as a token bird surveyor to gather data on seabird distribution in these northern waters, for an ongoing Fish and Wildlife Service project. When the boat is moving, I do transect surveys using a set protocol. So far the density of birds has been low, and I have gone hours without recording a single bird on a transect. Yet there are occasional patches of birds that provide good fun. Yesterday there were many pomarine jaegers, often seen hassling black-legged kittiwakes to make them drop the minnows they had just caught. Both tufted and horned puffins are seen regularly, and there have been quite a few parakeet auklets and red-necked phalaropes floating in the middle of the sea.

Yesterday we passed through the Bering Strait, passing close to the Diomedes islands. Looking at Russia across the water, I thought of a just outcome for Sarah Palin. Once her glamor fades and that vacuous politics collapses, she should be given a house to live in on Little Diomede, so she could contemplate Russia from her front door for the rest of her empty life.

The skiff is returning to the ship, and we shall see if they succeeded in getting the parts needed to repair the oceanographic device. If so, we head back to sea on a zigzag track towards Barrow. Perhaps there I will see some interesting high-arctic gulls!

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Upcoming Cyber-isolation and Seabirds
Aug 20th, 2010 by robert

I am on the wing, heading north in a couple of days to join a NOAA marine mammal expedition in the Bering and Chukchi Seas, as a volunteer seabird observer. My role is to record seabird abundance while the ship, the Alaskan Enterprise, travels from station to station along an extended cruise that begins in Nome and ends in Dutch Harbor. Word has it that there is no internet available on the ship, and I may not have an internet connection for four weeks, beginning Monday 24 August. For anyone interested, below is a map of the cruise, and here is a little more information about it. I hope to be able to see some interesting gulls, ducks and, with great luck, a short-tailed albatross. As I always say, any day with an albatross is a great day, but a short-tailed day would be extraordinary!

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