On October 27, the snow-dusted peaks of Dutch Harbor appeared in the distance and I knew that the expedition was coming to a close. Cruising through the Southern Bering Sea, there were many birds including fulmars, albatross and a variety of gulls soaring indicating that we were back in the prolific waters of the Bering Sea. The abundance of fishing vessels on the radar indicated that we were in the midst of crab fishing season and that we were nearing “civilization.” Until the 26th when we entered the crab fishing grounds, there were no other vessels in any proximity to the Healy for weeks. As we pulled into Dutch Harbor, I was struck by the beauty of the Aleutians with mountains rising out of the water protecting this vital Alaskan port. It is a truly beautiful place with eagles soaring and otters frolicking. The sun came out illuminating the mountains. After passing Priest Rock, we turned and could see the low buildings of Dutch Harbor and Unalaska. Upon completing a successful mission, we returned to port and felt dry land for the first time in four weeks.
The view from the airport parking lot before flying home…Goodbye Dutch Harbor…
After a four-day steam through big stormy seas, we are finally approaching Dutch Harbor and should arrive the afternoon of the 27th. I am using this time to finish up some work and pack up all of my equipment. All of the scientists are also packing and the lab is beginning to look barren as we are all getting ready to head home.
It is nice to be back in the Bering Sea with abundant birds flying by the ship. In the Arctic Ocean, I was amazed by the dearth of bird life which only highlighted how extreme and harsh the conditions are so far north, but once we passed through the Bering Strait, the bird life became much more abundant.
We are in our final transit day to Dutch Harbor and we are witnessing the Bering Sea in all her glory with rough seas and strong winds. It is magnificent to see the Bering Sea like this with waves going every which direction and a fierce wind blowing. We are getting into Dutch tomorrow afternoon and enjoying every minute of this display of power. Although being rocked about is a little tiring.
A wave behind the stern of the ship…we have a following sea…a VERY big one at that!
October 23rd was another rough day up here in the Arctic Ocean with high winds and big swells making operations difficult. It also marked the end of the scientific mission as it was time to begin our transit back to Dutch Harbor. The transit to Dutch will take about four days of steaming west through the Chukchi Sea, south through the Bering Strait and then south through the Bering Sea to Dutch Harbor. We are hoping for some calmer seas, but it looks like storms are in the forecast.
Click Photo Above to Play Video of the Seas…
Sure enough on October 24th, I woke up to everything in my cabin sliding around and the momentary fear that I had not secured all of my cameras and equipment. Knowing that the seas were going to build, I had put everything away but when those big rollers hit, flashes of flying cameras and computers went through my mind. In the morning, we saw 50 Knot winds and 15-18 foot swells. With all decks secured, I was forced to watch the power of Mother Nature from the bridge and aft control room. It was intense with water sloshing over the fantail and up to the first deck of the boat. Throughout the day, the seas and winds calmed a bit and hovered around 25 knots as we approached the Bering Strait in the evening. We passed back south of the Arctic Circle and will enter the Bering Sea during the night.
The key to getting research accomplished both in the field and in the lab is a good team. Dr. Jeremy Mathis has put together a stellar group of young scientists in his Ocean Acidification Research Center (OARC) at University of Alaska-Fairbanks. I am having the pleasure of working with and learning from two of his current students while on board, Jessica Cross, a PhD student, and Stacy Reisdorph, a Masters student. Jessica and I sat down for a little chemistry lesson last night before she went on watch and I learned all about her research and her path to studying ocean chemistry…
Jessica takes a water sample after a deep cast
The USCGC Healy has become like a second home to Jessica as she has spent, in the past two years, more than 200 days aboard sailing mostly in the Bering Sea in order to collect data for her PhD research. A few years ago, when Jessica was a freshman at Rhodes College in Tennessee, she would never have imagined herself studying chemistry, let alone oceanography, as her first passions were books and writing. Now entering her fourth year of her PhD, she can’t imagine doing anything else and shows giddy excitement for ocean chemistry and endless enthusiasm for her work. Spending all of those days at sea after her initial coursework gave her a thorough understanding of basic oceanographic concepts and she explains how there is no better way to learn than to be at sea with other scientists who are willing to share their knowledge and experience. In the short time I have been at sea with Jessica, it is clear that she knows how to get work done efficiently and enjoys collecting samples for not just her own research but for the lab as a whole.
Jessica’s work focuses on ocean acidification in the Bering Sea as part of the Bering Ecosystem Study project (BEST). (Note: GOE participated in a BEST cruise in April/May 2008 in the Bering Sea…see Bering Sea Ice Expedition for more details) Jessica has been collecting and analyzing water samples from the Bering Sea for Dissolved Organic Carbon (DIC) and Alkalinity in order to determine the pH (measurement of acidity) of the water. Armed with this knowledge, she then can figure out the carbonate saturation state that is vital to the shell-building animals of the ocean, and in the Bering Sea in particular, the King Crab. The Bering Sea is a particularly interesting system, as is the Arctic Ocean, because of the variety of water mixing from river outflows, deepwater upwelling, surface water and ice melt creating an acidic environment in its natural state of equilibrium due to these various natural inflows of carbon dioxide. The question for the present and the future, is whether the increased anthropogenic carbon dioxide, and in turn the decreased pH in the Bering Sea, will affect the animals’ ability to adapt to their changing environment? Jessica seeks to quantify these changes and her excitement for the work is contagious.
Today was another beautiful day on the Bering Sea with the sun shining and relatively calm seas. It is another transit day so we are moving quickly northward to our first sampling stations which we should reach by Wednesday afternoon. With St. Lawrence Island behind us in the early morning, we continued to cruise observing birds and seeing lots of whales and a walrus! Very cool.
King Island in the Distance next to a snow squall
In the late afternoon, in the distance loomed the Diomede Islands, marking the middle of the Bering Strait. Ever since I can remember, I had wanted to see the Bering Strait and here it was right in front of me with Russia to the west and Alaska to the east. We had perfect weather to see far into the distance with a few snow squalls dotting the horizon. As we came upon the Diomedes, it became hard to imagine how people can live in this super harsh remote environment, but there are small communities living on both islands. With Fairway Rock glinting in the sunlight, we passed the Diomedes and through the Bering Strait with the occasional bird and whale cruising by. It was a beautiful afternoon and hard to imagine that I am actually here.
Fairway Rock in the Sunshine with Little Diomede Behind
Shortly after, we crossed the Arctic Circle officially entering the Arctic and are that much closer to our study site. The day ended with a beautiful sunset over Russia and a sky filled with stars and an orange half moon. It is getting colder and colder as we head north. I am very excited to get the science started tomorrow!
The sun setting over Russia as we pass through the Bering Strait
The seas calmed down a bit or rather the wind subsided and we are in huge glassy swells, all in all a nice day on the Bering Sea. We are transiting so not much is happening. I spent a good deal of time on the bridge watching passing birds and whales. Transit days are good days to catch up on work and to get organized because once the sampling starts, it gets very busy very quickly. The day ended with a beautiful sunset and the continued big swells.
At 1600, it was time to cast off the lines and head out into the Bering Sea, and apparently some rough weather. In the safety of Dutch Harbor, the weather seemed fine although a bit rainy, but beyond this safety, the Bering Sea was living up to her reputation. There is always a strange feeling when the ship leaves the dock and you know that there is no turning back. It is hard to describe, something between nervous and excitement, anticipation of the unknown…perhaps that is what is best about going to sea.
Heading out to Sea
So with that, we were off, leaving port to begin our journey north to the Bering Strait and into the Arctic Ocean. It will be around a three-day steam to our first stop where we will pick up a mooring before heading through the Bering Strait. Hopefully the weather will not be terrible. We are trying to skirt in between two low pressure systems that would bring some rough weather. But right out of Dutch, the Healy started rocking and rolling and we started feeling the fury of the Bering Sea with 40 knot winds and some big swells. Hopefully it will calm down a bit…
I am sitting in Anchorage as I write this post having just arrived here this afternoon. I am on my way to join Dr. Jeremy Mathis of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and a team of scientists aboard the US Coast Guard Cutter Healy on an expedition studying the effects of climate change on ocean chemistry, particularly ocean acidification. I am flying out to Dutch Harbor tomorrow where we will board the ship and head North through the Bering Strait and into the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. It should be a great expedition!
Watch a new video from the Bering Sea Ice Expedition. “The Journey” is a synopsis of the expedition; experience Gaelin’s exploration of St Paul Island before landing on the Icebreaker Healy in a helicopter and venturing into the ice-covered Bering Sea. I hope you enjoy it.