Map of the Cruise Track (courtesy Healy Map Server)
After an exciting two days in the ice, it was time to head south to our next sampling area at the mouth of Amundsen Gulf. Half of our transit was in thick ice so the ship rattled and shook all night as we broke through the ice. There is nothing quite like being on an ice breaker as it is very loud as we go through the ice and as we hit larger pieces of ice, the hull rattles and sounds as if it is going to break. It is quite an experience and unlike anything else. At around 3am, we hit open water and could then move faster towards our next stations about 240 nautical miles away.
Like the previous two days, we are sampling at the mouth of one of the straits of the Northwest Passage. For centuries, explorers had looked for ways to navigate these waters to find a faster way to reach Asia for trade, although never successful in this mission due to ice blocking the passage. Much like these explorers of the past, we are looking for modes of passage to the Atlantic but instead of searching for trade routes, we are looking for the pathways with which Pacific water is entering the North Atlantic. During the summer, Pacific water takes a one-way journey to the Arctic Ocean through the Bering Strait and the question is: how does this Pacific water get to the Atlantic Ocean? Does it find the long sought after pathway through the Northwest Passage or does it find another route? We are hoping that sampling in these two straits will reveal the answer to this mystery or at least add some insight into this complex system of water movement. One thing is certain, the global “conveyor belt” of ocean circulation is certainly more complex than we once thought.
Sea Smoke rising off the water in the early morning near Amundsen Gulf
After a beautiful sun-filled day sampling in the ice that included a sighting of a polar bear, we reached the northernmost point of the cruise, just two nautical miles offshore of Prince Patrick Island on the north side of M’Clure Strait at 75.42 degrees North. It is very cold up here with temperatures hovering around 3 degrees Fahrenheit, -13 degrees F with wind chill! Despite the cold temperatures, I spent much of the day outside, going inside only when I could no longer feel my fingers enough to hit the shutter on my camera. We finished our sampling line just as the sun set and the moon rose over Prince Patrick Island. It was another stunning day in the Arctic!
Sunrise in M’Clure Strait
Sampling in the Ice
Prince Patrick Island, the North side of M’Clure Strait
After we finished sampling, it was time to head south through the ice to our next sampling area at the mouth of Amundsen Gulf. The moon was shining brightly reflecting on the ice as we steamed south and said goodbye to a fantastic two days in the ice!
Steaming South out of the ice…
Whenever I come on expeditions, everyone wants to know what animals I have seen. Here in the Arctic Fall as we find ourselves so far north, we have not seen many animals except for a few birds and the occasional seal. Today while in M’Clure Strait, we saw the ultimate arctic predator, a POLAR BEAR! As we steamed between stations towards Prince Patrick Island, there he was cruising all alone on the ice-covered sea; so beautiful and majestic. In this super harsh environment, this bear survives in all its glory. I feel very privileged to see a polar bear in its natural habitat, the sea ice. The bear looked up at the ship and, not phased by us, went on walking…So incredibly beautiful!
Just cruising on the vast sea ice
The day started out much the same way as the day before ended, with us steaming. But within a few hours, we were beginning to see newly forming pancake ice! There is nothing on this earth that is as beautiful as sea ice and if I needed reaffirmation of that, I got it today as we steamed through endless pancake ice to our next station inside M’Clure Strait. As we approached Banks Island and the promontory that marked the opening to the Strait, the ice became a bit thicker and there was a quiet excitement to be sampling in this new and exciting area so far north.
Ice with Cape M’Clure in the distance
We continued around Cape M’Clure and into the Strait where we were going to sample, getting only 700 meters from shore for our first sampling station. The sun was shining and it has to be one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. With pancake ice forming before our eyes and yellow glowing cliffs, we watched the sun set over the cliff as we positioned the boat. Truly a magical spot and to think about how few people have been here and the explorers that came here so long ago blew my mind. Then it got dark and the moon was out and shining brightly, reflecting on the ice. Only one word can describe this place: stunning. Hard to put into words, but very special…as one person said, we are in a remote and special place…I couldn’t say it better…
Looking into the Strait: Cape Crozier
Out of the Strait: Cape M’Clure
Larger Pancake Ice as we headed to our sampling station
At our sampling station, only 700m from shore
The sun setting behind Banks Island
A beautiful Arctic night
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.