Transmission Location: At sea, 21 miles south of Punuk Island (sample station NEC2), south of St. Lawrence Island. Lat/Long: 62deg 42 min N/168 deg 38 min W (grid 62.70). Time: 0834. Temperature: 1.0 dgF, Wind: 24 mph from NW. Wind Chill: ?22 dgF. Scattered clouds, 30% cover. Sunrise: 9:07 AM, Sunset: 9:22 PM. Ice: New ice, small floes, 1-2ft, high ridges. Note: large group of ~30 walrus on large floe ice edge, in and out of water. Ship’s log by Tom Litwin, scientist profiles by Tom Walker.
Flying into Gambell, the Bering sea and Russian Siberian coast beyond. Photo Credit: Tom Litwin
This afternoon our participation in the Healy mission will end and we leave our science colleagues behind to complete their work. After spending two weeks with my ship mates I have gotten to know many of them. We share news from home, how the day’s work went, what our kids are doing, and how our careers led us to this ship sailing in the ice-covered Bering Sea. We have much in common, but no two stories are the same, each path has its own twists and turns. Science is our commons. The work of the Healy’s scientific party is based on traditions, a logic, and methods developed by Western science over of centuries. I’m walking thought the main lab while we are on station and marvel at the intense effort that goes into the data gathering. With a wind chill of ?22F some people are struggling to unfreeze hoses, others warming cold, stiffened hands that have lost feeling. Guiding and supporting these raw, frenetic tasks are carefully developed proposals, hypothesis testing, and use of sophisticated analytical tools. Equally important, in this challenging environment, is the commitment by the researches to the scientific method and belief the work is important to advancing scientific knowledge.
Washing sediments, ?22 degrees Fahrenheit wind chill. Photo Credit: Tom Litwin
I’m making my way through the different research and crew areas, saying goodbyes, exchanging email addresses. This leg of the journey ends, with bags packed we head to the to the flight hanger to begin another. The helo will return shortly with Chad Jay and Tony Fischbach who are 15 miles away, on the ice, putting radio transmitters on walrus. The call for Fight Operations sounds, the helo lands, and in a flurry the flight deck crew prepares the helo for our flight, bags loaded, and we’re up, heading northwest for Gambell Village. Below us in the open water between massive ice floes are thousands of spectacled Eider. The Healy, our home for two weeks, grows smaller and the mountains of St. Lawrence Island grow larger.
The view into Gambell is striking. This Yupik community of 650 sits on Northwest Cape of St. Lawrence Island, pointing north to the Bering Strait just 140 miles away. The helo turns into the landing site and suddenly before us are the Being Sea, imaginary International Dateline, and the coast of Russia just 36 miles away. St. Lawrence Island, Sivuqaq in Yupik, has seen big changes: it is a remnant of the Bering Land Bridge that connected Asia and North America about 15,000 years ago.
Returning from the hunt, Gambell village, St. Lawrence Island. Photo Credit: Tom Litwin
In the span of a 30 minute flight two worlds converge. The Yupik’s on St. Lawrence also have a very long history that has shaped how they live and what they know. Like the scientist aboard the Healy, the Yupik’s collective knowledge has also produced a culture and understanding of the environment. In Yupik there are 98 words that describe different types of ice conditions. Their traditional knowledge keeps them safe in a very harsh environment and puts food on the table. At the center of their subsistence lifestyle is the walrus, an important source of food for the community. There is concern and worry in the community that changing ice conditions will result in declines or even loss of the walrus in their waters. This is exactly the situation that biologists Chad Jay and Tony Fischbach are trying to understand. What the future holds neither the biologists nor subsistence hunters can say.
Pacific walrus in the ice south of St. Lawrence Island. Photo credit: Andrew Trites
Coming Next: See our PBS NOVA Vodcasts that feature the USCGC Healy and many of the people and places discussed in this On Thin Ice-IPY series. Thanks for following the series!
Scientists of the Day: Chad Jay & Tony Fischbach, Walrus Biologists
Walrus biologists Chad Jay(l) & Tony Fischbach(r). Photo Credit: Tom Litwin
It’s a long way from Utah’s high deserts, where Chad Jay, 51, was raised, to the frozen Bering Sea. “Way back in grade school, I was interested in wildlife, especially marine animals,” Chad explains. “One of those youthful interests that somehow stuck. Maybe it was because of my mom, who loved animals and kept every kind of pet. You name it. We had it. Horses, dogs, geese, rabbits, even a raccoon.” In high school, Jay joined the swim team and worked as a life guard. “I always loved being in the water,” he explained. Inspired in part by childhood hero, Jacques Cousteau, he got his scuba certificate at 15. Last summer, like most everyone else, he marveled at the performance of Olympian Michael Phelps. “That was incredible,” he said, “but it was a combination of effort, dedication and genetics. It was more than just training. Even if I had trained like he did, I still wouldn’t have been able to swim like that.” In Anchorage, where he lives with his wife and two children, Jay’s “water sports” are skate-skiing and ice hockey. On winter vacations he and his family escape to Hawaii’s sun and surf.
Chad Jay is a research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey at the Alaska Science Center in Anchorage. As an under-graduate he studied fisheries at Utah State University where he met his wife, a New Zealander, who was attending on a basketball scholarship. He earned his PhD in fisheries science at Oregon State University and began working with marine mammals in 1995. “In our work we are trying to document how walruses respond to changing sea ice and how that change impacts their prey,” Chad explains. On the ice, he uses a crossbow that fires a specially-designed, but otherwise harmless, arrow that attaches a small radio-satellite transmitter to the back of a walrus. These tracking devices reveal changes in ice cover, feeding times, and general movements. “We’ve spent much of the last 13 years trying to perfect a transmitter that we can use without drugging and handling the animals,” Jay explained. Ironically, the primitive crossbow delivers the space-age technology. Because walrus live in an inhospitable and almost inaccessible realm, gathering vital data has been a slow process. “It has taken an incredible amount ot work to get these collaborative studies going,” he explains, “but we are beginning to get results.”
Making the approach. Photo credit: Andrew Trites
Jay’s colleague, Tony Fischbach, 43, grew up on the outskirts of Green Bay, Wisconsin, where he spent much of his free time outdoors. He joined the Sea Scouts and learned to sail on Lake Michigan. He says the martial art of Tae-Kwon-Do taught “discipline and an appreciation for other cultures.” Tony owns a small 21’ yawl and does a lot of camping and kayaking. Ska-Cubano music is his favorite kind of music, “but being married with two kids, ages one and three, I don’t have a lot of free time. Changing and washing diapers are major activities.” Even though he lives in downtown Anchorage, Fischbach gardens, and raises bees and chickens. Rather than a charismatic marine mammal, like a dolphin or whale, Tony’s favorite animal is the wrinkle-nosed bat. “Once you’ve seen those strange faces,” he chuckles, “you don’t need to watch any more sci-fi movies.”
Tony, a wildlife biologist, also works at the Alaska Science Center. He majored in molecular biology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and obtained his Master’s Degree in Tropical Ecology at the University of Texas. Under a Fulbright Scholarship he also studied at the University of Bayreuth, Germany. He came to Alaska in 1994 with the Student Conservation Association and a year later joined the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s polar bear research team. “I am very proud of a paper I wrote addressing the effects on polar bears of retreating sea ice,” he said. “That paper raised global awareness of the danger to polar bears caused by climate change.” Aboard the Healy, Fischbach is half of a two-person team tagging walrus in an attempt to better understand their natural history. “I didn’t get this job because I was good with a crossbow,” he laughs. “Understanding how to use math in biology is critical, with teamwork and communication vital to success. I’d tell anyone, if you want to make the commitment to science, take lots of math.”
Focus on Walrus
Pacific walrus in the ice south of St. Lawrence Island. Photo credit: Andrew Trites
The Pacific walrus, Odobenus rosmarus, is resident in both the Bering and Chukchi Seas. Both sexes have enlarged upper canine teeth, called tusks, which are used for social displays and defense. Walrus have very large heads with square snouts covered by stiff whiskers, called vibrissae. At birth, calves weigh from 100 to 150 pounds and are approximately 4.5 feet long. Adult females weigh about 1900 pounds and adult males about 2,700 pounds with individuals to 3500 pounds. Immersion in cold water restricts blood flow to the skin which causes walrus to turn a pale, almost white color. When “hauled out" for warming, walrus skin turns from white/pink to red to brown. Early naturalists thought the color change was due to sunburn rather than re-warming.
Feeding dives in the relatively shallow Bering Sea are of short duration, but a walrus is capable of diving to over 900 feet (300 meters.) On the bottom, while propelling itself forward with its huge hind flippers, a walrus roots through the mud with its snout, its sensitive vibrissae feeling for clams and a variety of other invertebrates. Rather than chewing up the whole clam, walrus suck out the soft, edible parts and discard the shells. In prime feeding areas, a walrus may consume more than 50 clams during a single seven minute dive, part of a daily food intake of 100 pounds.
Between feeding trips, walrus “haul-out” on sea ice or on land. Sea ice provides a resting platform, access to offshore feeding areas, and some protection from predators, which include polar bears, killer whales, and humans. In the winter months, virtually the entire walrus population occupies the pack ice, primarily southwest of St. Lawrence Island. As the ice begins to retreat in spring, the herds move northward. By summer, most of the population has migrated through the Bering Straits and into the Chukchi Sea. In October, as the sea ice rapidly develops, the herds move back south. Current estimates place the number of walrus at about 190,000. Because of the ice retreat, some researchers have little doubt that the population trend is downward.
Pacific walrus on ice. Photo Credit: Andrew Trites
The extent of summer sea ice on the Chukchi Sea has decreased sharply. Over the last 10 years, the Chukchi was ice-free for periods of from one week to as much as 80 days, a sharp contrast to previous records. Chad Jay says that the ice sheet in the Chukchi Sea has been retreating steadily farther north each summer, to the point where it now moves off the continental shelf entirely and ends up over the deep arctic basin, in waters too deep for walrus to forage. As a result, females and calves have been forced to abandon the ice in midsummer and follow the males to land. The journey leaves them emaciated and easily panicked. Once on land, walrus are vulnerable to predators and disturbances. Walrus truly are living on thin ice.
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Thursday, 26 March 2009 14:16
Two Worlds, One WalrusWritten by Tom Litwin: On Thin Ice
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