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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. 

As part of the BEST-BSIERP (Bering Ecosysystem Study-Bering Sea Integrated Ecosystem Research Program) project, I was invited aboard to chronicle the expedition.  Follow along on this journey through the ice-covered Bering Sea and learn about what scientists are doing to understand the effects of climate change. 

stationsonly_1_27-225x3001This is a map of where samples will be taken during the cruise.


April 8: Preparation

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.  

I am looking forward to joining the ship on April 18 in the waters off of St Paul in the Pribilof Islands in the middle of the Bering Sea. 


gear-300x225Some of my gear.

April 17: Anchorage

I arrived in Anchorage where it is a balmy 30 degrees Fahrenheit anxiously anticipating my journey to the Pribilof Islands where I will meet the Icebreaker Healy.  I have been looking at the ice images in order to anticipate what lies ahead.  The ice coverage is much farther south this year than in past years but it is early spring now so the ice should begin to recede.  

bsea-amsre_sea_ice-map-300x225 The white indicates where there is ice coverage.  This is a satellite image much like a sea surface temperature map or productivity map. 


The weather forecast looks interesting for the upcoming days, rough and windy. 



April 18: Journey to St Paul, Pribilof Islands, Bering Sea

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 into 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. 



The Hotel which is also the airport terminal.


April 18: Exploring St Paul


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 opelia 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 to have the season be over with as it is already 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 and sharing it with you.  

April 19: St Paul

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. 

 stpaul_0641stpaul_0083The Crab Processing Plant

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 super 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.  

April 20: St Paul…Waiting…


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.  

April 20: Landing on the Healy

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.  

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.  

April 21: Open Water and Sampling

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. 

 healy_0011New 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.)

 healy_0065The Multicore


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. 


April 22- Deep Station

We spent most of yesterday afternoon and evening transiting to our next station where we arrived around midnight.  It is a deep station in about 3500 meters of water so all of the sampling times are long as the instruments make their way through the water column. Sampling has continued into the morning with two deep multi-cores happening.  Once the second multi-core is up, we will transit to our next station, also a deep station before heading north and hopefully back into the ice.




As is customary on research ships when working in a deep-water area, all of the researchers and crew decorated styrofoam cups to send down on the instruments to the depths of the Bering Sea where the pressure is so great that the cups compress dramatically.  It is the best souvenir to bring home from a research cruise.  I write the date, cruise number, location, and a few other details on my cup and put it with the other cups to send to the bottom of the sea. 



I am looking forward to adding these to my collection. 



April 22- Sediment Traps and Science Meeting

We are still in open water working at a deep station.  The weather is beautiful with calm seas and bright sunshine.  Yesterday some of the scientists deployed a floating sediment trap that drifts in the sea for about 24 hours until they go and retrieve it.  After completing the multi-cores, we head off to find and recover the sediment trap.  This involves a small boat being launched over the side and an elaborate plan to get the instrument back on deck with samples intact.  The weather was on our side for this retrieval and it went off without a hitch.  However, I would not have wanted to be in the small boat which was getting tossed around in the big seas. 

 healy_0535Retrieving the Sediment Trap

The evening continued to be beautiful with flocks of gulls and other small birds flying around the ship. Then it was time for the science meeting to determine where and what we were going to do next. 



All of the scientists convened in the science lounge to discuss the plan.  Most of the transect work and time specific samples had already been collected and we had a few days to work with before we needed to head up to our next definite sample site so the question of what all of the scientists wanted to do was the topic of the meeting.  Carin Ashjian, the chief scientist, began by going over what we had accomplished on the cruise in the past few days and then outlined the options for the next few days.  After compiling the input of all of the principal investigators, it was decided to look for an area of production where there could be a lot of phytoplankton and then head north to look for the ice edge.


We should get into the ice sometime tomorrow evening so I am very excited as it has been a few years since I have been in a frozen ocean. 


The Multi-Core Team – Studying the Dynamics of the Sea Floor

I have spent the past two days learning about the multi-core, a state of the art benthic (sea floor) sampling device.  The multi-core is unique in its ability to preserve the sediment water interface while sampling.  This is a critical zone for the exchange solutes between the bottom and the water.  Nutrients, dissolved gases, and other elements collect in the bottom sediments and their interaction with the water above is one important element of the research being conducted by the researchers on this cruise. 


healy_0120Bringing the multi-core back on board after collecting sediment cores at 3500 meters below. The winch and A-frame do most of the work but the crew on deck must guide it in gently to not disturb the samples or damage the instrument.

Dr. David Shull from Western Washington University and Dr. Al Devol from the University of Washington lead the team along with their graduate students Emily Davenport and Heather Whitney.  They are studying how the sea ice and its melting are affecting the processes on the sea floor, specifically where the organic matter accumulates and the effects that the burrowing animals, such as tube worms and clams, have on the nutrient supply to the overlying water.  They use the multi-core instrument to collect their samples which they then analyze to get profiles of nutrients within the layers of the sediment.  They measure nitrate, nitrite, ammonium and nitrogen gas, key components of the nitrogen cycle, to learn about the nitrogen levels in the sediment along with oxygen, silicate, phosphate and radon which Dr. Shull refers to as the “magic gas.” 

By collecting the information about the gases and nutrients, the researchers hope to unravel the mystery of how the ice melt and presence of more organic matter in the water column affects what is on the sea floor.  Will a larger food supply from increased ice melt and the following increase in mud-dwelling organisms increase or decrease the amount of nitrogen in the water just about the sea floor?  These are the big questions that this group of scientists are trying to answer. 

Why is this important?  The Bering Sea has a remarkably productive benthic system. From clams and tubeworms to King Crab and Pollack, the exchange of nutrients from the bottom to the waters above is a key component to the food web.  It is important to understand what are the limiting nutrients in the Bering Sea and how they affect ecosystem structure.  Looking at what is in the water column and what ends up on the bottom and how it interacts with the sediments and its eventual return to the water column is of vital importance to our understanding of exactly what is happening here.  In our world of climate change, the affects that more or less ice will have on the system is of vital importance to gaining insight into what the consequences of changes in the ice will have on the entire system in the future. 

 healy_0274The multi-core can take up to eight samples each deployment.  A good sample has clear water on top of the sediment and the interface between the sediment and the water should be undisturbed.

healy_0141Dave Shull examines a core.  This is a good sample as the water above the sediment is clear. 



Emily Davenport and Heather Whitney extrude the core and take samples to process later.  The core is carefully sliced in order to sample the various layers of the sediment.


April 23: ICE!!!

As we made our way through water sampling stations, we all anticipated the approaching ice edge.  We were heading north so it was just a matter of time and we all hoped that we would come to it during the day.  The day was cold and started out calm and cloudy but by midday the sun was shining although it was still quite chilly and the wind began to pick up.  There were gulls and other small birds around the ship as we cruised north at 15 knots.  The water temperature was dropping indicating that we were getting close to the ice. 

Shortly after dinner, the bridge made an announcement over the pipes (loudspeaker) that the Healy would be in ice in ten minutes.  I quickly gathered up my cameras and headed out on deck and up to the bridge to see the approaching ice edge.  It was beautiful with the sun shining.  Large and small pieces of ice bobbed in the water.  The ship cruised right through and it was quite beautiful.  We did some sampling and then turned south and out of the ice to follow our research transect.  We should return to the ice sometime tomorrow.  Hopefully the sun will still be shining and we will get into thicker ice.  


April 24: Ice and Sun

I started the day photographing some net tows in anticipation of learning about the mesozooplankton (copepods, krill, etc) grazing experiments being conducted by a team of scientists on the ship.  I stayed out on deck for quite a while while various plankton was collected along with some bottom grabs of mud.  It was quite chilly at about 25 degrees Fahrenheit with a stiff breeze.  The swells were sizable but not too bad.  The water temperature was hovering around -1.7 degrees Celsius which is just above the freezing point which is lower than the freezing point of freshwater. 



Shortly after we headed back north and were in the ice!  I was sitting at my desk and started hearing the crunch of the hull breaking through the ice at which point I looked at the images available from the bridge and saw that indeed we were surrounded by large islands of ice intermixed with slush.  It looked beautiful and endless so I headed outside to see it for myself.  (My desk area is in a lab without any portholes so it is easy to lose track of what is going on around me.)  The sun had come out and it was shining on the endless white undulating sea.  I headed up to the bridge to get a better vantage point at which time someone spotted some seals on a ice patch.  They were in the distance but it was still nice to see a seal or two.  Hopefully it is only the beginning of the beautiful things that are to come.  We remained in the ice for a little while and then just after dinner we were back in open water.  There is something amazing about crossing the ice edge.  The swells roll in seeming to go under the ice and the wake of the ship pushes the ice aside with ease. 



Now it is about 10:00 pm and it is still sunny with some clouds.  The sun sets at 11:30 so I am hoping to see a beautiful Bering Sea sunset.  It has been cloudy every other evening that I have been out here so I am anxious to see a setting sun. 



Scientist Profile: Dr. Carin Ashjian, Chief Scientist


Yesterday, I had a chance to sit down with the chief scientist, Dr. Carin Ashjian, a zooplankton ecologist from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, to find out more about the mission of the cruise, her role as chief scientist of the expedition and her research. 

The mission of the cruise is to determine the importance of the ice and the seasonal melt on the ecosystem in order to determine how different ice conditions affect the ecosystem.  Essentially, the scientists want to know how important the ice is and what would happen if there was no ice at some point in the future?  On this cruise, the researchers are looking mostly at the base of the food chain, the phytoplankton, zooplankton, sea floor gas exchange and animals and some physical oceanography to put it all into context. 

With twelve projects going on and forty-six scientists on board, there is a lot to manage and Dr. Ashjian must make sure that everyone gets the samples they need to complete their projects.  This is quite a challenge!  Many of the projects are time dependent or location specific so a careful plan is key.  Unlike in the laboratory, variables change at sea so while a cruise plan may seem perfect while on land in the planning stages, sea conditions, weather and in the Bering Sea, the ice, may force the original plan to be changed.  Improvisation and flexibility is the key but any changes must be made within the parameters of the project.  For example, one team is studying krill and their samples must be collected at night.  For this reason, we must be at the sampling location around 3am or the work cannot be completed in the dark.  (The sun has been setting at 11:30 and the days are getting longer and longer.)  Much of the work is collaborative so the samples must be taken at the same location.  For this reason, most of the sampling is completed in the middle of the night.  Dr. Ashjian is responsible for discussing the cruise plan with the Captain, officers and crew and making sure that everything runs smoothly. 

In addition to the multitude of responsibilities associated with being chief scientist, Dr. Ashjian is conducting her own research on copepods and other dominant mesozooplankton (highlights coming soon).  She adds that this is one of the most challenging jobs she has had.  Thus far, all of the scientists are learning a lot and collecting samples to analyze when back in the lab. 

Our next course of action is to look for areas of high production near the ice edge and continue sampling before heading north to do a specific transect in the ice on Sunday.  

April 25


Today has been a slower day.  The sun is shining and the sea is calm.  It was a beautiful morning with temperatures around freezing here in the open water.  We are heading towards the shelf edge to do some benthic sampling before heading back to our process station to assess any changes on our quest to find productivity and a possible phytoplankton bloom near the ice edge.  It is a relatively quiet day on the ship with some samples being processed and others collected.  Birds were hanging around the ship as we were on station with the multi-core in the water.  We are in 500m of water so the sampling took a fair amount of time. 

I took this opportunity to sit outside and look out at the Bering Sea and think about how beautiful and calm it is out here today and how quickly the weather out here can change.  However, the weather maps indicate that a high pressure system is coming through so hopefully that means nice weather for the next few days. 

As the day continued, the clouds took over the sunny sky and the sky became dreary.  The seas remained calm.  We are doing a zigzag pattern for our stations now and came into a productive area in deeper water. 


I stayed up to see the net tows which happened around 1am.  I was anxious to see what kind of critters were in the water.  There were three net tows at this station and sure enough, there were lots critters in the water: copepods, krill, pteropods, polychaete worms and some little fish, among other critters too small to identify.  The water is mostly filled with copepods which are small crustaceans.  We are now headed north to our next station and tomorrow I will find out where we are going next.  We should be back in the ice by Sunday so I am looking forward to that!  

healy_1278The krill sampling team and the marine science technicians bring in the bongo nets in the darkness.

healy_1292A bucket teeming with copepods, krill and other plankton. Without a microscope, it looks like thick red/orange soup.

Studying the Bugs of the Ocean, the Copepod Team


Out in the cold and dark early morning the zooplankton ecologists wait for a net tow to come up from the depths in order to collect krill and copepods for their experiments.  Once the net comes up, they put the “bugs” into coolers and get ready to go into the cold room to sort them.  The cooler is teeming with krill, copepods, Clione (a type of pteropod), amphipods and other varieties of critters.  I follow them into the cold room where they divide the plankton and begin sorting through to get the dominant species to run their grazing and other experiments.  Dr. Carin Ashjian from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Dr. Bob Campbell from the University of Rhode Island, with the help of Phil Alatalo and Donna Van Keuren, lead the team which is conducting experiments about the grazing impacts of the mesozooplankton and the fecundity of the animals. 


healy_0874Deploying the ring net used to collect the copepods and krill needed for the team’s experiments.

Their first set of experiments focuses on the grazing of the dominant species of the mesozooplankton, particularly copepods and krill.  The mesozooplankton plays a key role in nutrient cycling in the ocean as they provide a key link between the primary producers (phytoplankton) and the larger animals.  Their waste settles to the sea floor providing key nutrients for the benthic system.  They sort the animals and place individual species into jars with seawater collected from the depth where the animals live.  The water is tested for the beginning concentration of chlorophyll which indicates how much food is in the water at the beginning of the experiment.  The jars are then placed in various wraps to emulate the light conditions they would have at depth and they are placed in an incubator of ambient seawater for 24 hours where they rotate and mix constantly.  After this period, the jars are brought to the cold room which is kept at -1 to -1.5 degrees Celsius, where the animals are removed and put into dishes and the water is divided into various bottles for analysis.  The water will then be tested for chlorophyll concentration to quantify the changes to biomass.  The animals are then dried and packed away to be analyzed for carbon content once back on land.  In this way, Dr. Ashjian, Dr. Campbell, et al are able to quantify the role the mesozooplankton plays in the trophic structure (food web). 

 healy_0936Phil Alatalo sorts through the sample for animals to use in the experiments.



healy_1351On the bow, the incubators hold the samples for 24 hours in ambient sea water with constant agitation

Their second experiment is looking at fecundity in females, counting the number of females with eggs, counting eggs and measuring rates of hatching.  The females are collected and put into the  “bug hotel” which I am told has a total occupancy of 120 copepods and is located in the cold room where they check in for 24 hours at which time their eggs are counted and a sub-sample is taken for the hatching studies.  These studies seeks to determine the timing and magnitude of reproduction in relation to what the copepods are eating, is it a function of lipid (fat) reserves, the presence of ice algae or other algal species?  These studies can then give the scientists an index of individual growth and food limitations on this growth.  

healy_0937Dr. Campbell carefully picks female copepods out of a sample to put into the bug hotel for their egg studies

healy_0940Dr. Campbell puts a tray of female copepods into the bug hotel for the egg growth experiment.

The copepod team provides key information to the understanding of a key element of the ecosystem.  By sampling in different areas from north to south in the Bering Sea and at various depths and ice coverage, the team is analyzing the effects of the seasonal ice and what could happen if it is not here. Where will the carbon go if the sea warms and there is less ice, to the mesozooplankton or to the benthos (sea floor)? 


healy_0469Dr. Ashjian and Dr. Campbell remove the animals from the experiment jars in order to preserve them for analysis of carbon in the lab.  The water is siphoned out for chlorophyll concentration studies.



April 26- Owls in the Bering Sea?


In the fog, we were steaming to our next station in the morning.  We are in the southern part of our cruise again so we are out of the ice, but we are heading north so we should be back in the ice shortly.  One of the first orders of the day was to collect the sediment traps that had been deployed yesterday.  The scientists deploy the sampling device for 24 hours at which time it floats along in the currents until it is retrieved the following day.  (More to come on this.)  The seas cooperated and were very calm for a successful retrieval. 

A little while later, I received a page from the bridge telling me that there was an owl flying around the bridge.  AN OWL?  I went up to the bridge and I had missed the owl.  I was reassured that he would come back because owls don’t belong in the Bering Sea and he would want to come back to the shelter of the ship.  A few minutes later, he flew back into view and we had a great look at him.  He looked very tired so we hoped that he would land on the ship to rest.  Indeed he did, landing first on a small railing, then on the A-frame, and finally on the bow where he hung out for a while.  The bird researchers determined that it was a short-eared owl.  This little guy was far from home but it was very cool to see him.  Definitely the highlight of the day.  

April 27: Sunday on the Healy


It was a foggy snowy day on the Healy yesterday as we steamed north towards St. Lawrence Island and the northernmost section of our cruise.  In Sunday tradition on the Healy, lunch was a barbeque on the helo deck.  The big grill was pulled out on deck and the rest of the food was served in the hangar.  It was pretty neat to be having a barbeque in the middle of the Bering Sea surrounded by ice as we were cruising along. 


We are in pretty heavy ice now and the one thing that strikes me is how fast the Healy can move through the ice.  We were steaming at 13 knots yesterday and blasting through ice like it was nothing.  The views from the bridge were beautiful despite the lack of visibility.  The sea of white melted into the white sky with seals dotting the ice from time to time.  It was a very nice Sunday.  


April 30: Ice Station, Ice Coring in the Sunshine

On Monday, we reached the northernmost point of the cruise track and we were in thick ice.  This meant that it was time to get off the boat and do an ice station.  The ship pulled into the ice and “parked” in order for the scientists to disembark and begin a sampling station on top of the Bering Sea ice. 

Before heading out onto the ice, the Captain held a briefing to tell us the procedure for sampling in the ice.  We had to wear special dry suits, Mustang MSD900s in case we fell in.  These proved to be challenging to put on but very warm and relatively comfortable for our day on the ice.  Other than that, he told us that a rescue swimmer would be out on the ice, a polar bear watch person would be on the ship and another would be on the ice with a rifle in case a polar bear charged.  We are generally too far south to see polar bears but they need to follow procedure.  Of course, the bear would not be shot as this is only a precaution.  If a bear was spotted, we would have to hurry off the ice and let the bear pass through. 


After suiting up, we heading down the brow and out onto the ice with all of the gear.  There were a few different research teams heading out to sample and we all found our sampling spots and began work.  I was helping Dr. Ned Cokelet and the team from NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle.  The team is looking at the physical and chemical properties of ice in order to determine how these parameters affect the organisms that live in the ice (phytoplankton, ice algae and other microscopic critters live in the ice). 

We set to work to find a good sampling spot and did a preliminary core to check on the thickness of the ice.  It was about 30cm thick and it looked like they picked a good spot.  The team set out to take two cores with a specialized auger and drill out a series of brine holes to different depths.  The two cores are cut into 10cm segments which will be tested for temperature while out on the ice and then salinity, chlorophyll and other nutrients back on board the ship.  In this way, the team can get temperature profiles of the ice and profiles of the nutrient and chlorophyll distribution of the ice.  The ice is not solid but has brine pockets throughout with varying salinities and levels of nutrients and chlorophyll.  The brine wells are dug to various depths and the water that fills them will be tested for salinity, nutrients and chlorophyll as well.  This will tell the team what is happening in the ice from a physical standpoint. 


Dylan Righi supervises Gaelin Rosenwaks taking a core in front of the USCGC Healy.  This core will be analyzed for the ice algae growing on the bottom.  


Rolf Sonnerup and David Strausz carefully pack and label samples from an ice core.  

The samples and information from the PMEL group are important segments in understanding how the sea ice affects the overall ecosystem as it fits into the broader questions of the Bering Sea Ecosystem Project. 


David Strausz, Dylan Righi and Ned Cokelet measure the depth of one of their brine wells before sampling the brine for salinity and other nutrients.  

After the sampling was completed, we had time to explore the ice and enjoy a little sunshine while atop the Bering Sea!  It was amazing to be walking on top of one of the roughest bodies of water in the world.  Not only that but it was sunny and warm (well for up here).  The rest of the crew was also allowed off the ship and everyone enjoyed an afternoon on the ice playing kickball and just relaxing on what felt like something solid even though we were floating on top of the sea.  Viewing the ship from below on the ice made quite an impression and it was interesting to get another vantage point. 


The crew enjoys some time off the ship after the science sampling was completed.


I tried to move the ship.  It was too big. 


A beautiful sunset capped off a beautiful (rare) “sunshiney” day in the Bering Sea.



Sediment Traps and Small Boats

healy_1717The sediment trap buoys adrift in the Bering Sea

Over the pipes, an announcement to get the small boats ready for launch came over in the early afternoon.  It was time to retrieve the sediment traps that had been deployed the previous afternoon.  Floating and drifting in the Bering Sea for 24 hours while the ship went about its other business, the sediment trap’s beacon had emailed the researchers, Roger Kelly from the University of Rhode Island and Jonathan Whitfield from the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, the current location of the instrument.  The bridge had the bright orange buoy in sight and Roger Kelly was in the boat with the Coast Guard crew ready to retrieve it.  This is easier said than done.

Deployment is simple enough as the collection tubes are set up and lowered into the sea after which the bright orange buoys are attached and lowered followed by the buoy that resembles a lobster buoy with a light on top and the satellite beacon.  After the instrument is carefully deployed, it drifts about in the sea for 24 hours collecting sediment that falls from the surface.  The traps are deployed in deep water (over 300 meters) and usually on the shelf break where there is a high degree of productivity. 


The small boat making contact with the instrument and towing it towards the ship.  Roger Kelly tends the buoy line.

Retrieval is more complicated.  The small boats are launched into the rough waters of the Bering Sea where the crew must reach the trap and tow it closer to the ship where the winches can be used to bring the samples up carefully.  Once the buoy is reached and towed, a line is thrown from the ship and secured to the trap, which is then carefully brought in.  The great skill of the small boat operators and marine science technicians with the direction of the scientists makes the process go smoothly (most of the time). 

healy_1453The instrument is about to come aboard as the small boat grabs a tender line from the ship. 


healy_1426The tubes with the samples are carefully collected by Jonathan Whitfield and MST Tiffany Wright for analysis.

On the most recent deployment, I was out on deck for the retrieval of the samples.  When the first sample came up, it was filled with copepods and other critters.  This was the surface sample where we would expect the animals to reside.  The sediment sample collects in the bottom of the tube.  This sample is then filtered and processed both on board and back at their lab to determine the amount of organic carbon in the water column.  Once processed, the scientists are able to determine which organisms are contributing to the material which is made up primarily of animal waste and dead matter. 

healy_1528The surface collection tubes sometimes capture animals from the water column.  In this tube, there are copepods and a ctenophore (comb jelly) amongst other small critters.

With the information learned from the sediment trap samples, the scientists are trying to put together pieces of the carbon cycle in order to find the flux of particulate organic carbon from the surface water into deep waters.  Upper waters will draw down carbon dioxide into the water and convert it to organic carbon via photosynthesis.  This carbon will then sink to the sea floor and could in turn draw down more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere which would be good for some of our problems but may cause harm to marine organisms.  This project is seeking to find a baseline of what is happening in the system now so that in the future we will be able to measure the changes in carbon export in our changing world. 



Healy Marine Science Technicians (MSTs)

healy_1415MST2 Tiffany Wright recovers the sediment trap and carefully hands the samples to the scientist.

The science conducted on the ship is dependent on the successful deployment of the marine sampling equipment from the multi-core to the sediment trap to the plankton nets to the CTD.  While the operation and positioning of the boat at a sampling location is conducted up on the Bridge, the Marine Science Technicians (MSTs) play a vital role in the work conducted by the scientists on deck.  They help to deploy and recover all of the sample collecting instruments and enable the scientists to complete their experiments.  They are an invaluable resource to the science party. 

The job of an MST in the Coast Guard is usually a land-based job, but two ships have MSTs, both of which operate in the Arctic.  The Healy is unique in that her mission is to contribute to the advancement of science and our understanding of Arctic and Sub-Arctic oceanography.  When I spoke with MST1 Rich Layman and MST1 Eric Rocklage about the being an MST aboard the Healy, they had nothing but positive things to say and told me how much they enjoyed the direct contact and involvement with the science being conducted on board.  Working with the science party and out on deck with the sampling instruments provided a unique opportunity in the Coast Guard and the science party values their hard work and dedication tremendously.  The MSTs are truly an important element in getting the science accomplished aboard the Healy.  


LTJG Stephen Elliot and MST1 Chuck Bartlett assist scientists deploy the multi-core, a sea floor sampling device.



MST1 Rich Layman straightens the winch cable before deploying the MOCHNESS, a multiple net sampling device designed to collect plankton samples at various depths.



MST1 Eric Rocklage prepares the CTD to be deployed.  He must make sure that the ice does not interfere with the cable. 




MST3 Tom Kruger retrieves a Van Veen Grab which is sent to the bottom to collect mud and the critters living on the sea floor. 


Pelagic Bird Surveys


A Glaucous Gull, one of the more common species in the Bering Sea, follows the ship as we steam to the next station.

In my opinion, the luckiest researchers on the ship are the ornithologists, Kathy Kuletz and Liz Labunski from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, who stay on the bridge from sunrise to sunset conducting bird surveys.  They don’t miss a bird, seal, walrus or beautiful vista as they identify and log all of the birds and mammals we encounter along the ship track.  The objective of their research is to contribute to the North Pacific Pelagic Seabird Database which has data starting in the 1950s!  By cataloguing what is in the Bering Sea at various times of year and under various ice conditions, they add valuable data to this tremendous resource for all researchers to use.  They have more than twenty cruises planned for this year and more in future years!  In addition to adding to the database, Kathy and Liz, as part of their BSIERP (Bering Sea Integrated Ecosystem Program) study, will correlate bird densities with the oceanographic and fisheries data collected on this cruise and the others they will sail on. 

Liz has been aboard the USCGC Healy since the beginning of March and has observed that there has been low diversity of the bird species; perhaps because of the heavy ice the Bering Sea is experiencing this year.  The dominant species have been the Common Mure, Glaucous Gull, and Black-Legged Kittiwake.  In addition to these species, they have observed Black Guillemots, Slaty Backed Gulls, Ivory Gulls and a variety of other species.  It never ceases to amaze me that no matter how far from shore I can be and in seemingly freezing icy condition, the ship always encounters birds.  Kathy and Liz use a specialized computer program which correlates the exact GPS location with their observations so that their distribution data is very accurate.   With this data and the oceanographic data collected on the cruise, they hope to gain an understanding of how large scale changes to the Bering Sea ecosystem may affect the populations and distribution of sea birds. 


Liz Labunski, always with binoculars in hand, spots a pair of ivory gulls flying around the ship.  These birds are not commonly found in our survey area but farther north.  They blend in perfectly with the sea ice making them hard to follow.  


A small flock of Black-Legged Kittiwakes rests on a small chunk of ice along the ice edge.


May 4: The Ice Edge




Today was our last day in the ice as we approached the ice edge.  The ice was broken up and seemed slushy with more substantial patches mixed in.  On those patches, seals, sea lions and birds rested.  The marine life in these waters is incredible.  We have been looking for whales and albatross here in the open water but have yet to see them.  Perhaps we will encounter them on our steam to Dutch Harbor beginning tomorrow afternoon. 

The research on the cruise is winding down and most of the scientists are packing up their gear with the exception of the hydro team which is collecting water samples every ten miles along the 70m isobath on our way back to Dutch.  It is exciting to be back in open water and we are hoping for good weather for the remainder of the cruise.  


A herd of walrus lounge on an ice floe.  


This Bearded Seal was sleeping on the ice as we passed on the ship.  He is molting so his color pattern was mottled and very interesting.



Seal Pups on the ice.  The mother will head into the water as the ship passes and the pup will remain on the ice where their coat keeps them relatively camouflaged.


By far one of the most beautiful animals I have ever seen, a Ribbon Seal rests on the ice during a snow shower.


A Stellar Sea Lion was resting on a small piece of ice in mostly open water.  


May 4: The Final Survey Stations

It is very early Monday morning here on the Healy and we are finishing up our survey of the 70m isobath and packing up to head to port.  Yesterday was filled with finishing up experiments, packing, and getting ready to hit open water.  A low pressure system that we have been watching to the south is heading north towards us so that could mean big seas for our transit to Dutch Harbor.  Because of the impending weather, much of the packing that would be done today had to be completed yesterday in order for everything to be secured for high seas.  I am in the process of packing up all of my cameras, chargers and other gear so that nothing gets damaged if the ship gets tossed about.  The Healy is a very smooth riding ship and we are only expecting 15-20 foot swells so it should not be too dramatic.  (I hope.) 


In the meantime, we are doing CTD casts every ten miles to complete our survey of the area.  A CTD is a conductivity temperature depth recorder and is the primary tool used by oceanographers to determine the physical parameters of sea water.  Sensors on the instrument measure temperature, salinity, and depth while bottles on the rosette structure collect water samples at various depths.  This water can then be tested for dissolved oxygen, organic and inorganic carbon, and other nutrients.  The CTD gives us information about the physical properties of the water column so that the biology (the animals) can be put into a context of their environment.  An invaluable tool, nearly all of the scientists on board sample the water from the CTD and/or use the physical data obtained by the hydro team.  (# of CTD casts done).  One has been conducted at every station and along specific survey lines. 

We are scheduled to be finished with science and sampling sometime this evening when we will begin our transit to Dutch Harbor.  







The CTD, Conductivity Temperature Depth Recorder, comes up from 70m where it collected water samples every 15m on its way back to the surface.




healy_3300John Casey from the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences filters water from a CTD cast.  He is looking at carbon ratios in the water 


May 5: Our Final Day at Sea- The Journey to Dutch Harbor




I woke up to calm seas and a stunning morning despite the weather forecast.  We are cruising at 15 knots between stations and have almost completed our entire survey which included over 200 sampling stations.  There have been passing whales, birds and occasional ice floes with seals and sea lions resting in the open sea.  It feels like the Bering Sea is smiling upon us as we cruise towards Dutch.  I am nearly finished packing and am hoping for a beautiful sunset for our final night at sea. 



A few hours later, our beautiful calm day turned into a rough Bering Sea evening.  We are in some of the biggest seas that we have seen since starting our voyage and it seems that it is building.  We had no wind this morning with 1-2 foot seas.  Within an hour, the seas have built and the wind is blowing at 22 knots.  The Bering Sea has shown up to say hello before we disembark.    

May 6: Arriving in Dutch Harbor




Our trip to Dutch Harbor was all but comfortable.  We had 45 knot winds with 8-10 foot swells.  Because of our course and the necessity of arriving in Dutch at 0900, the ride was particularly uncomfortable as we were in the trough most of the night.  Sleep was not really a possibility plus I was anxious not to miss pulling into Dutch Harbor as I heard it was quite beautiful.

I woke up to fog and rain so it would not be clear for our entrance into Dutch.  Regardless I wanted to be up on the bridge for the docking.  Entering the harbor was beautiful with snow-capped mountains jutting out of the sea.  The fog hung low on the mountains with rain falling as the pilot boat came to greet the ship for assistance in the docking.  An hour or so later, we were moored to the dock and the brow was going down.  We had arrived in port and could get back on dry land.  It was time to leave the ship that had become our home for the past few weeks and begin exploring Dutch Harbor and Unalaska. 



The USCG Cutter Icebreaker Healy moored in Dutch Harbor. 

May 6: Dutch Harbor and Unalaska

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.  

May 12: The End of the Expedition




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.