September 4, 2006
Just got back from an amazing day. I spent the afternoon with Craig George, a biologist who is an authority on the bowhead whale. He has been in Barrow for about 30 years. I met him the other evening, but by chance we ran into him at the grocery store this morning. He was headed out in his boat to Cooper Island a tiny island on the east side of Elson Lagoon, and since we weren't going out on the Annika Marie (the weather was supposed to be bad) I asked if I could tag along. As we were about to leave BASC we got a call from Sue, our group's whale observer. She was out flying and had spotted a bunch of bowheads. Carin and crew decided to go out and try sampling near the whales to see what they were eating; I decided to go with Craig anyway. He also wanted to go check out the whales and shoot them with a special bow and arrow, which takes off a small chunk of skin, and fat that can be biopsies.
On our way to Cooper Island we met up with the Annika Marie, just as they were bringing aboard the plankton nets. We then boated through thousands of short tailed shearwaters.
After taking care of Craig's errand on Cooper, we radioed the Annika Marie to get their location. After a fast 20-minute ride we joined up with them where they were sampling. Nearby, half a dozen or so of the whales Sue had seen were actively feeding. We drifted in the area watching the whales. With binoculars and a large camera lens we had an incredible view of their huge broad backs and their distinctive crest by their blowhole. Occasionally would see their 25-foot wide tails. Even from hundreds of yards away we could easily hear the loud whooshing sound as they surfaced to breath.
Everyone was excited because these were the first bowheads seen this fall. They were all huge, Craig estimated 60 feet. He said that the first whales seen every fall are all huge. Later in the afternoon a couple of other Inupiat I talked to said they don't hunt these first whales because they are so huge it is very difficult to haul them to shore and butcher them. They prefer to hunt whales that are about 30 feet long.
The sun was shining and the seas were glassy smooth. Craig was amazed, as he had hardly ever seen the weather so perfect out there. He decided not to biopsy the whales, so after awhile we left and headed back to town.
Back at BASC, Sue was thrilled. From the plane she had seen about 20 bowheads, a polar bear by a pool of bloody water on an ice flow, and some walrus. This is really the day they have been looking for, to be able to collect water data, phytoplankton and zooplankton samples from an area where whales are actively feeding. As Sue exultantly exclaimed, we've waited seven years for today!!!!
Question of the day: Of the animals that were seen today, which would you prefer to see in the wild?