I decided to go to sleep last night for a little bit and wake up at 0530 for a net tow at 0600. Science happens around the clock on a research ship. Most scientists work in shifts, one group taking the night shift while the other takes the day shift, noon to midnight or midnight to noon.
I make my way on deck in the darkness and it is snowing lightly as the nets are being deployed. The nets are filled with phytoplankton making sorting through the animals difficult. Along our way in the open water, we came to area of high productivity for the first time in the cruise. All of the scientists were keen on sampling it. The net tows along with all of the plankton brought up krill, copepods and a variety of other zooplankton. Zooplankton is a key link in the food chain between the phytoplankton and larger fish. The research being done on this cruise is focused on how the various levels of the food chain interact in the Bering Sea and how the ice affects these interactions. The plankton collected in these tows will be used for various experiments from krill growth to copepod feeding rates.
“Net Tow in the Snow”
Later on in the morning, the benthic scientists (they study the sediment on the bottom of the sea floor) deployed what is called a multi-core. This multi-core takes multiple cores of the bottom sediment and brings it up to the surface without disturbing the layers. Once the cores are gathered, various experiments will be performed on them. The multi-core team will spend hours carefully processing these samples (I will highlight this research in an upcoming post.)
After the station was finished, we began transiting to our next station. The seas are rough but the Healy cruises along smoothly with only a gentle roll. The sun tried to peak out in the late morning and I continued to explore the ship.
The weather lifted a bit and the helicopter was able to start the transfer process from the ship. We eagerly awaited its arrival and hoped that the weather would hold long enough for all of us to get out. The helo holds three passengers with some cargo so we had to make three passenger trips and perhaps a few more with cargo.
We got word that the helo was on its way and we waited in the airport hangar for its arrival. Out of the fog, we heard the roar of the blades as the chopper landed. A few people off-loaded and our first group boarded and flew off. I was on the third trip so I was eagerly waiting the transfer. Finally I donned my mustang suit, a flotation suit we use for work on deck, and the special helmet. We loaded up the cargo and buckled ourselves in and flew off and over St. Paul. We had beautiful views of St Paul and its rugged coast as we flew below the low ceiling of visibility. The waves were crashing on the shore and the wind was howling but in a few minutes we were approaching the ship and beginning our landing on the helo deck. We had finally boarded the Healy to begin our work.
Once we were on board, we collected our belongings and began a tour of the ship. The USCG Healy is a huge ship, 420 feet in length. There are five decks and an overwhelming number of passageways. The ship is so large that I was issued a pager immediately upon boarding so that I could be reached if needed. All of the personnel have a pager for contact.
You can check out the ship at:
You can also see images of the bow from the “aloft cam” on the bridge of the Healy here:
After the tour, we met in the science lounge for a safety meeting where we were told what to do in case of emergency and the ins and outs of the ship. We found out where the life rafts are located and the survival suits. It is the Bering Sea so it is very cold and safety is very important.
We then had a science meeting where we met all of the scientists (there are about 50 scientists on board doing all kinds of amazing work) and the chief scientist, Dr. Carin Ashjian from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told us the plan for the rest of the cruise. We have some very exciting things in store. We will stay in open water for a few days and then up north into the ice. The first sampling station was coming up at 0300.
We woke up to snow and wind this morning which makes the transfer via helicopter questionable. We will try to raise the ship via radio and see what today will bring. Patience is important. Our scheduled transfer is to begin at 0900.
The wind is howling and the fog is thick so 0900 comes and goes with no helicopter in sight. We will now begin waiting to see when (and if) we will get out today.
1000 comes and goes and still the conditions are well below the minimum for flying. We will now begin hourly checks with the ship to determine when the transfer will happen. If the weather will not permit the helicopter to fly, we may take small boats. The small boats are zodiacs and given the winds and freezing rain we are experiencing, this does not sound like a fun option.
It is 1400 now and we are still sitting in St Paul waiting for the weather. The small boats are looking more and more likely. The Bering Sea and its weather is living up to its reputation. It is cold, brutal, and persistent.
A few more hours pass and fortunately the weather lifts and the chopper is on its way. It should be an adventure. We are going to begin the transfers shortly.
Because of the unpredictable weather in St Paul, we had to leave an extra day to ensure our arrival in St Paul on time to meet the ship on Sunday so we have today to explore the island. St Paul is a birders mecca in the summer when there are nesting birds and fur seals covering the shore, but late winter/ early spring here is a different story. It is snowing this morning and is a bit blustery so hopefully the weather will break a little so we can do some exploring.
At noon, we head to the crab plant for lunch. We eat in a cafeteria where the workers from the plant eat and some of the fishermen who just brought their crab in are eating. The TV is blaring CNN during the meal. It is cafeteria type food and is served with a smile. Everyone on St Paul is very nice and helpful. After eating, I check out the crab being off-loaded from one of the boats. In the office we find out that the boat brought in 117,000 pounds of crab. The offloading will take hours. Like inside the plant, the offloading is done methodically.
We then set off on our quest to see the island. Many of the roads are too snow filled to pass but we wind our way up to a bluff where the vistas of the Bering Sea are spectacular. It is freezing, raining, hailing and extremely windy but we trudge on up a path to the highest point. There are birds soaring by the cliffs where the waves are crashing below onto snow-covered banks. We walk down onto one beach and I put my hand into the Bering Sea for the first time. The water is frigid and stings to touch. The sand is dark and volcanic. It is quite beautiful. On our journey back to the hotel, we spot some reindeer on a ridge and go up a road to check them out. Apparently reindeer were introduced to the island in the early 1900s and their populations have fluctuated since but they still roam the hills. I was thrilled to see them grazing up on the ridge while I was climbing through snow banks to get a closer look.
Back at the hotel, it is time to head back to the crab plant for dinner. Tomorrow the Healy will come in close to shore and we will do the personnel transfer and get aboard the ship for the duration of the research cruise. We are scheduled to leave at 0900 via helicopter so it should be an adventure to get to the ship. I am anxious to get on board and head into the ice.
Once settled into the hotel, we piled into our borrowed truck and headed into town to check out the store and the crab processing plant where we were going to be eating our meals for the next two days. Town was three miles from the airport down a dirt road with snow-covered fields on either side. Once in town, I was struck by the weather beaten houses and starkness of the landscape. There were crab pots piled alongside the road and in town, there were boats of all sizes on land waiting for spring so they could be put back into the water. We pulled up to a large warehouse which was the crab plant and explored the area. I got my first up close look at the Bering Sea and felt the frigid sea spray while standing along the shore. The water was green and the swells were large as they broke along the rocky shore. It was cold and windy with occasional rain and snowflakes falling. While we were standing on the rocks, we looked over and all of sudden an arctic fox popped up and looked at us inquisitively. He was nestled into the rocks and we had clearly woken him up. He scurried off but not in a particular hurry.
After looking around some more outside, I had the opportunity to go into the crab plant and check out some opelio crab (snow crab) being processed. I was super excited to see the crabs that many of us watch being caught in Deadliest Catch up close and to see the operation at work. It was pretty amazing the speed which everything happened, from picking the crabs, to cooking them, to packaging them for freezing. It was quite an operation. Outside, crab boats were being unloaded with heaping baskets filled with crabs getting taken out of the hold. Usually the crab season has ended by this time of year but the winter has been one of the worst in forty years according to the locals and the ice came further south than normal so the season has dragged on and crab are still coming in. This gave us the opportunity to see the crab, but the processors and fishermen are ready for the season to be over as it is has already lasted a month longer than usual.
That was enough of an adventure for the day and we are all getting acquainted with one another. It sounds like this group of scientists is planning some interesting work so I am looking forward to hearing more about it and sharing it with you.
After packing up my gear, I headed to the airport in Anchorage to begin my journey to St. Paul in the Pribilof Islands, a group of islands in the middle of the Bering Sea. I met a few other scientists who were also meeting the ship in St Paul in the airport. The plane to St Paul was a small propeller plane. Boarding the plane was interesting as there was no security and we just walked on to the plane which was on the rickety old side. The passengers on the plane were two additional passengers and us. It was a beautiful day in Anchorage so we were on our way. The flight time was to be three hours across Alaska and on to the Bering Sea. About halfway through the flight, we passed over the coastline and were flying over a frozen Bering Sea. The patterns of ice were beautiful and we were all filled with anticipation of what was to come.
Three hours into the flight, as we were all anticipating an on time arrival, a rarity in the Pribilofs as the Bering Sea is known for its inhospitable weather, the pilot came over the PA and announced that the weather was not good enough to land and that we had enough gas to circle for one hour before going to Plan B. I didn’t know what Plan B was but I was hoping not to find out. After 45 minutes, we continued our decent into the fog to St Paul. We were going down and down with no ground in sight until we were about 100 ft off the ground and I spotted a few breaking waves beneath us and then we touched down. It was certainly an interesting landing.
Once we landed and looked around, we all were wondering where we were. All we saw was white with tufts of grass here and there. Would there me a terminal? We then pulled up to a hangar and that seemed to be the terminal. We deplaned and then found our luggage in a neighboring building that turned out to be the King Eider Hotel where we would make our home for at least the next two days until we made it to the ship, hopefully on Sunday.
If you want to check out where the ship is in the Bering Sea, follow this link to the USCG Healy’s website where the ship’s position is logged:
This is a map of the cruise plan of where samples will be taken during the cruise:
Here are some images of the sea ice coverage currently in the study area. It is early spring now so the ice should begin to recede. I am currently in Anchorage where it is a balmy 30 degrees Fahrenheit. I have been looking at the ice images in order to anticipate what lies ahead. (The images are from the Alaska Ocean Observing System.)
The white indicates where there is ice coverage. This is a satellite image much like a sea surface temperature map or productivity map.
The open water is very rough so the ship is likely to stay in the ice where it will be calmer because the ice dampens the swell.
On March 29, fifty scientists set out from Dutch Harbor, AK as part of the International Polar Year (IPY) aboard the United States Coast Guard Cutter Healy to try to elucidate the effects of climate change on the Bering Sea Ecosystem. The second cruise of a six-year, $50 million study funded by the National Science Foundation and North Pacific Research Board, HLY0802 (cruise number) is focused on the animals and plants at the base of the food chain.
The Bering Sea is one of the world’s most prolific bodies of water providing more than half of the seafood caught in the United States. The productivity of these waters is largely influenced by seasonal sea ice. These waters are home to King Crab, Alaskan Pollack, Cod and many other commercially valuable species.
I am looking forward to joining the ship on Sunday in the waters off of St. Paul in the Pribilof Islands in the middle of the Bering Sea.
The weather forecast looks interesting for the upcoming days, rough and windy.
I am one week away from departing New York for Alaska and the Bering Sea. This means a tremendous amount of preparation and organization. I am making spreadsheets of gear, charging batteries and ensuring that I have back up equipment and chargers. Currently the gear I am taking consists of two high definition video cameras, two digital SLR cameras with multiple lenses, my favorite camera, a Mamiya 7II medium format camera, a computer, tapes, memory cards, etc, etc, etc. This will all be packed into a waterproof case and a backpack with waterproof zippers. Hopefully they will let me on the plane with all of the gear.
I have not thought about the clothing I will need although I must make sure to pack my hard hat and steel toed boots for working on deck and then loads of warm clothes.