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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