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…
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…
Flying to Dutch Harbor is always an adventure. I have only flown out of Dutch once before so I kind of knew what I was getting into. A few things to worry about when flying into Dutch, the number one being getting your baggage and the next the sketchy landing with a cliff on one side and water on the other; apparently a vast improvement from what it was before. To address the first issue, when I got to the airport in Anchorage, I begged and pleaded with the woman at the counter to make sure my bags got on the plane. My two duffels were filled with everything I could need to work and live for the next 4 weeks aboard the Healy and without them, it was going to be a long month. I also knew that I was on the last flight in for the day, so this was my shot to get my gear before setting sail. Finally when I told them I was getting onto a ship, they put big “Must Ride” stickers on my bags…so I wasn’t crazy for worrying as they were well aware of the problem of bumped baggage. I was already carrying about 40 lbs of gear on me between my pelican case with cameras, hard drives and a backpack with cameras, my computer, etc…Being at sea is unlike anything else because if you don’t have something with you, well you won’t have it until you get back home. It makes keeping the weight of your gear down difficult.
After negotiating the ticket counter and my bags, telling them my weight and having my carry-ons weighed, it was time to anxiously wait for the flight with nervous anticipation of my bags making the flight. I was not buying the “Must Ride” sticker. The plane to Dutch is a small prop plane and they cram the seats in…the plane is old and rickety and uncomfortable, but I am on my way to Dutch. The captain comes on and informs us that all of the bags are on the plane, that’s a relief, but because we took all of the bags, we have to make some fuel stops, first in King Salmon and then in Cold Bay. Knowing that my bags are on the plane is a relief as now I know I have all of my gear, and I am always into seeing new places…although the idea of not taking enough fuel is not the best feeling in the world.
So with a brief fuel stop in King Salmon, the pilots decide we don’t need to stop in Cold Bay and we land safely in Dutch. The view from the plane is beautiful. Dutch Harbor is beautiful, a large harbor surrounded by green mountains. We got very lucky with the weather as it was a beautiful day whereas the day before, the wind was howling and it was miserable. Sure enough my bags made it on the plane as did everyone else’s including all of the science party’s bags from the earlier flight. Step Two down, all of my gear and I made it to Dutch!
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.
It is always bittersweet when an expedition comes to an end.From start to finish, this expedition was filled with the excitement of the unknown and the magical, from flying into the fog of St. Paul to frolicking on the Bering Sea ice.I am very excited about all of the work I accomplished and look forward to editing and putting everything together to share, but at the same time, I was not ready to come back to the bustling city.
A tremendous amount of amazing cutting edge science was accomplished and I look forward to seeing how all of the scientists collaborate to make the project come alive and gain a more complete understanding of the Bering Sea ecosystem.
I want to thank all of the scientists who allowed me to follow and learn about their work, and the crew of the USCGC Healy.In particular, I would like to thank Dr. Carin Ashjian, the chief scientist of the expedition, and Captain Lindstrom.It was a fantastic expedition and I look forward to many more in the future.
Stay tuned for video, photos and links to publications!
Weather is often a big problem for flights out of Dutch Harbor this time of year so I was expecting to wake up to rain and wind in the morning but it was sunny and the wind seemed calm.This boded well for our departure. I had heard stories throughout the cruise about the Dutch Harbor runway and how you have to take off between two volcanoes and bank a turn and on and on, but this did not concern me.I was in “go mode” so I was ready to begin my voyage home.
Before heading to the airport, I had breakfast at a local restaurant, Amelia’s.It was certainly a hearty breakfast and it was delicious.One very nice thing about being off of the ship is the ability to choose what you eat.I had a waffle with strawberries and whipped cream.Everything served there looked amazing and smelled great too.It is definitely a place not to miss if you end up in Dutch Harbor.The other thing Amelia’s is good for is getting the scoop of what is going on in town and in our case the airport.It turns out that one flight from the day before was canceled so all of those passengers were going to be trying to get onto my flight.With that, I headed to the airport early to check in and make sure I got my seat.
Like the flight to St. Paul, we were flying in a small prop plane but unlike our flight to St. Paul, this flight was packed and there was not an empty seat.The plane came in late and we were then informed that we would have to make a stop in King Salmon for refueling as we were carrying a heavy load.That is not the exact words one likes to hear before boarding a plane.The cast of characters waiting in the airport was what one would expect, other than the scientists, there were fishermen and other salty characters still in their rubber boots.
Finally the plane arrived and we boarded.I was sitting next to one of the “salty characters” who still had his fishing boots on and smelled of bait. The weather held and we got out, made our fuel stop in King Salmon, and arrived in Anchorage about two hours late.This was fine for me as I had a long layover in Anchorage.
Upon landing in Anchorage, the unknown part of the journey ended and I was back on my way to the bustling streets of New York where I could only reflect on what an amazing feeling it was to be on a ship in the Bering Sea.
Once checked out of the ship, I headed to the airport to rent a truck to explore the area.I rented a F-250 pick-up that was held together with ratchet straps and some duct tape.As I was leaving the rental agency, one of the men working there, told me to make sure to put it in four wheel drive if I got to any questionable spots in the road.This certainly was going to be an adventure.
I was off on my adventure exploring Dutch Harbor with two other members of the science party who wanted to join.I drove down every road until it was impassable stopping along the way to enjoy the views of the water.There are a few things that stand out in my mind about Dutch Harbor: crab pots, fishing boats, bald eagles, and potholes.The roads are rough and nearly all are lined with crab pots; often there are eagles perched on top of the crab pots; and the roads were filled with potholes that I seemed not to be able to miss.
The sun ducked in and out for the rest of the afternoon.We went along the water and stopped to check out some tide pools where four otters were frolicking nearby.The tide pools were filled with chitons, mussels, barnacles, snails and different species of seaweed.We enjoyed the vistas from this spot and then piled into the truck to continue down the road where we encountered the rental car guy changing someone’s tire.That made me a little nervous but I figured I would just be a bit more careful of the potholes.We came to a black sand beach with little waves gently rolling in and an outflow of water feeding into the bay.I continued along until the road got narrow and windy and then I hit a snow embankment.I had to back down this road with a sheer cliff on one side and a hillside with a drainage trench on the other.Needless to say we made it and it was worth it because the view from the top was stunning.
There was a single lane road to the right which we decided to head up to see what was there.About a mile up the road, we found horses!They were grazing in a meadow with the rain falling and the wind building.
Then we headed back towards the town of Unalaska.There is not much in Unalaska.The one infamous bar in town was recently shut down leaving only two bars, one at the hotel and one at the airport.This is big news in a fishing town.I drove up to the top of one of the hills to get an overview of the town.The setting is beautiful and it must be spectacular in the summer.It is mud season now so everything is on the grey/brown side.There is a Greek Orthodox Church in Unalaska much like the one in St Paul.
After a long day of exploring, we headed back to the hotel to wind down from the day and reflect on a great expedition.Flying out of Dutch Harbor is supposed to be an experience so I have that to look forward to tomorrow afternoon.