Nora Deans, Bering Sea Project
With a background in journalism and marine science, she has worked with scientists for thirty years to communicate about the ocean. Read her Bio
In March, the sea ice was the farthest south it's been since 1976. The plot above shows BESTMAS model-simulated Bering ice thickness and satellite-observed ice edge for March 2008. Courtesy BEST-BSIERP scientist Jinlun Zhang
Healy “Aloft-Con” records hourly images of the ocean ahead of the ship. A list of images is available here. Note: All times are GMT; image file names ending in times between -1800 and -0600 show images made during the day. See more images
Upon arriving at a station, a helicopter might leave the ship in search of wildlife, researchers would core ice, sample water, sample the sounds in water, deploy sediment traps to study what was in the water, obtain samples from the bottom of the ocean, and keep equipment -- and themselves -- from freezing in the frigid temperatures and brisk winds that are common in the Bering Sea.
At left is a diagram of the scientific research going on aboard and around Healy (courtesy US Coast Guard) See a larger version of this diagram
As the cold seas warm,
scientists plunge in to find
where the fishes go.
Haiku by Nora Deans
Right: Scientists and Healy crew take time out for a group picture on the ship's fantail. (Christian Morel)
For days, scientist Jim Lovvorn from the University of Wyoming searched for flocks of a very specific sea duck in the northern Bering Sea. Flying out in the ship's helicopter, he ranged fifty miles in all directions, checking areas where the birds had been seen in the past.
The wind nearly blew us over as we walked the short distance from the bridge to the Helo Control room. Perry Pangowi and I joined whale biologist Sue Moore, who was listening to signals from a sonobuoy she’d just deployed in the ship’s wake. She was listening for whales among the bearded seal calls and walrus “tapping.”
Not long before, we’d seen bowheads. First their blows, then Sue saw a head come up out of the water in a lead on the port side. In the dusk, it was getting hard to distinguish ice from sky, except for the darker patches of open water.
Just before the bowheads made themselves known, a flock of 10,000 or so spectacled eiders flew low over the ice. Walrus kept popping their heads up in the water a safe distance away, checking us out before disappearing under the ice.
We’d passed a walrus carcass at the edge of a lead earlier. Blood on the ice suggested either a predator’s kill or a scavenger at work. In the distance, a snowy owl fed on something dark at the edge of a lead, too far away to make out any details.
We were in a polynya (right) southeast of St. Lawrence Island, a hotspot of sealife. What would the seafloor reveal about the abundance of food here? As we came to a full stop, Lee Cooper’s and Jackie Grebmeier’s benthic teams set to work to find out, despite the 1-degree temperature, 30-plus knot winds, and darkness of the Bering Sea night. (photo: Craig Kasemodel/PolarTREC)
Standing on the bridge in the clear evening light, US Fish and Wildlife seabird observer Elizabeth Labunski saw something almost dead ahead. A large bearded seal? We all grabbed binoculars, and quickly realized it was a walrus, our first glimpse of one on the ice.
As we drew closer, the walrus seemed to grow concerned but there was no open water in sight for it to escape. USGS walrus biologist Chad Jay said it was most unusual to see one away from water on the ice, and thought it might be a male, since they sometimes go off on their own after the breeding season.
As we passed within 600 feet on the port side, the male inflated the air sacs around the back of his neck, as if to warn us off. They will use those for buoyancy in the water, but Chad had not seen one do that on land. We wondered if perhaps he had hauled out on the ice and become stranded when wind pushed the ice pack together, closing off the lead. Once we passed, Healy’s wake gave the wayward walrus the opening it needed to slip back in the icy water, and flee the big red threat. (photo: Elizabeth Labunski)
A simple white message board in the Science Lab on a lower deck is a vital communication tool for researchers spread out over a 420-foot (120-meter) ship. Initiated in 2002, the bridge soon dubbed it the Board of Lies, but regardless of its reputation, webcams all over the ship focus on it 24 hours a day.
You can log on to your intranet email from your stateroom and find out the latest about the plan of the day, or if there’ll be a science lecture in the lounge at 1900, or the most popular question with the least reliable answer -- when we will get to the next station?
The talk at breakfast swirled around the beluga sightings from the bridge just before 6 a.m, (pitch dark, but clearly that wasn’t ice leaping out of the leads). Number two topic of conversation –- the estimated time of arrival at our first station. Our progress is slow, ten knots at best but often slower in the thick ice and gusting winds. Healy’s boxy shape acts like a sail -– she’s designed for breaking ice and doing research at sea, not speed. We seemed to make steady progress in the night but this morning, we’re ramming and backing again.
We’re not yet to St. Matthews as hoped, so ETA to station is in the wee hours of the night. Chief Scientist Lee Cooper and Co-Chief Jackie Grebmeier will conduct their tests as soon as we’re stable against the ice, relieved in a way not to compete with the logistics involved during the daylight when everyone else is trying to get off the ship in “man buckets” or in the helicopter. They’ll be able to lower instruments and bounce video cameras off the bottom on the starboard side in the peace and quiet of the cold northern Bering Sea night.
Science on the high seas takes an unbelievable amount of planning, coordination and equipment, particularly for the chief scientist. The moment we boarded, everyone went to work setting up the science lab, finding and unpacking hundreds of boxes of sensitive gear, and testing finely tuned instruments so that once we’re “on station,” no moment will be wasted. Some worked long into the night.
At first light, some of us joined the seabird observer on the bridge, and film crews interviewed scientists and the crew before the action begins. Planning meetings were held to work out details of helicopter flights to find walrus and eiders, as well as protocols for ice time off the ship for those studying ice algae, optics, or listening for whales -- all to be under the surveillance of the polar bear watch team.
We were west of St. Paul in the Pribilofs, when the call rang out on the bridge, “ice to starboard!” At first it parted easily in front of us, with lots of open water between patches of pancake ice. Thicker ice dampened the swells, and by afternoon, we were backing up and ramming the ice again and again to break open a channel, all the while being pushed west by strong winds. It’s slowed our progress and we won’t make our first station near St. Lawrence Island till Saturday evening.
Now, as I write in the Science Library, the ship is bouncing along through several feet of ice. It’s rather like riding along too fast on a rutted country road, but noisier. We watched for first ice all morning, rolling side-to-side in 35-knot winds, with swells from the starboard. Thick fog surrounded us, broken by the lights of trawlers appearing like ghost ships, then disappearing again. Snow blew sideways and swirled in eddies around the ship.
Cruise participants gathered for an outreach event at the Museum of the Aleutians. At right, lead scientist Lee Cooper and NPRB Executive Director Clarence Pautzke answer questions. Many thanks to Reid Brewer, Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program agent and assistant professor at UAF, for organizing the evening event. (photo: Craig Kasemodel/PolarTREC)
In the pre-dawn hours Thursday morning, we watched tugs dwarfed by Healy guide her to the dock in Dutch Harbor. Cold winds picked up as the crew winched up piles of gear brought by researchers, graduate students and two film crews. We were eager to be off. The helicopter landed on deck and was battened down in the hangar since high winds and storm seas were predicted farther north. Healy had taken a beating in the Gulf of Alaska, so once repairs were made, we pulled away from the dock at 1700 hours. As we ran through “abandon ship” drills on the flight deck, I was sobered by the remoteness of the stark snowy isles in the distance, and the slate sea ahead.
Wind picked up in the night, blowing open the window in my room at the Grand Aleutian Hotel. It's dark and cold with reports of 60 knot winds and blizzard conditions near the "Pribs," or Pribilof Islands. We're supposed to depart at 1600. One of the scientists, Rolf Gradinger, says the ice is farther south this year -- the farthest south it's been since 1976. So perhaps we'll get that cold year the scientists want for this study right off the first field season. At least that means we'll hit the ice soon as we cruise north, which should dampen the rough seas. I'm reading a great book that follows a similar cruise track made in 1881 -- John Muir's Cruise of the Corwin.
The first BEST-BSIERP cruise of 2008 covered hundreds of miles through some of the most extensive pack ice seen in years. Scientists braved late-winter winds and storms to collect oceanographic data, tag walrus, locate spectacled eiders, listen for whales, and more.
Right: Entire cruise track of HLY0801. The red line shows the route of the vessel to and from Dutch Harbor, in the Aleutian Islands at the bottom of the image.
At the top of the image, the island to the northeast of the stations is St. Lawrence Island.
The small island group to the south of the stations is the St. Matthew Island group; these islands are uninhabited by people.