June 29-30, 2009
60° 04.80 N
Tuesday started out like any other day. I was down in the lab by 07:00 to check the days schedule on the Board of Lies, had breakfast at 07:15, and was sampling from the 08:15 CTD cast before the coffee even hit my system. Filtrations were completed by noon and the still calm Bering Sea permitted the quick recovery of the sediment traps at 12:30. Back in the lab after lunch, I assisted Pat and Matt in filtering the trap solutions, measuring their salinities, and cleaning up the trail of labware that was left in our wake. This took the majority of the day.
At 22:00, I was sitting in the galley reading Into Thin Air, the John Krakauer book about the deadly Everest expedition of 1996, when Colin Smith, a marine tech from The University of Washington, walked quickly by and muttered something about a walrus following the ship. I dropped the book, followed him downstairs and back out onto the fan tail and sure enough there it was. About 20 meters off the stern was a large walrus, bobbing up and down in the water. It swam closer to the ship, looking us over. Then, apparently deciding we had nothing to offer, it changed direction and disappeared back into the fog. Nobody expected to see a walrus out here. Normally found much closer to either land or sea ice, this one must have been a straggler, slowly making its way north. I have since added walrus to my list and checked that off too.
Today was another slow day. The last of the sediment filtrations were finished up by mid-morning and my only remaining responsibility was to take a small sample of surface water from all of the CTD casts on the W line that we are now running. The salinity of the water here near the surface is very low, running between 29 and 31 (normal open ocean water has a salinity closer to 34) due to the large influx of fresh water from the spring ice melt that has yet to mix with the rest of the water column. There is a well-established relationship between salinity and the activity of U-238 in normal ocean conditions, but in order to make sure this relationship holds true in the hyposaline conditions that can occur on the Bering shelf, samples are taken back to URI for further analysis.
With some time on my hands, I started to organize my photos. It will be nice to have something ready to show people when I get home. The techs have created a folder on the ship's network drive for people to upload their photos for sharing. I am looking forward to seeing everyone else's pictures and hopefully I can grab some that have me in them. If I am looking through my camera then I am not in the picture and I would like to have some proof that I was actually here. Before dinner I made my way up to the pilot house to talk to the sea observers, Brian Hoover and Sarah Jennings. Brian is a grad student at the Moss Landing Marine Lab (affiliated with the Cal State System) and Sarah works for Washington Sea Grant as an assistant research scientist. Both, however, are temporary employees of the US Fish and Wildlife Service for the summer. The USFWS places observers on as many ships as possible, both research and commercial fishing vessels, to conduct bird surveys in the Bering Sea. Years of data give the USFWS baseline data and insight into changes in bird populations and distribution. Sarah informed me that one of the many problems facing conservationists in the Gulf of Mexico right now is the lack of these long term data sets. She said it will be very difficult to determine the effects of an oil spill if bird distributions are not previously documented.
Brian and Sarah have become quite adept at identifying the subtle differences that separate one species from another, but if all else fails, several guide books (both in print and digital) are within easy reach. They work from 8-11 every day, while the light permits easy identification of the birds passing quickly by. In contrast to what happens several decks below, their work takes place when the ship is transiting between one station and the next. Since the accuracy of the survey depends on not counting the same birds twice, they only record sightings while the ship is in motion.
On the surface, 65 nautical miles from the nearest piece of land, the Bering Sea might seem to the casual observer to be one, large, homogenous habitat for birds but this could not be further from the truth. It is under the surface that counts, said Brian. Seamounts, submarine canyons, continental breaks, and current patterns have as much of an effect on bird distributions as distance from land. As a result, different bird populations and abundances are documented as the ship traverses back and forth across the Bering Shelf. Since sea birds are considered an apex predator in the Bering Sea ecosystem, they are an integral part of the big picture. These surveys hope to link bird distributions with prey availability and hopefully determine what factors are contributing to the variances.
One favorite sea bird amongst the crew is the jaeger, appreciated for its behavior rather than its appearance. While able to forage for itself, it prefers to rely on other birds to find food for them. The jaeger's strategy is to chase and harass the other bird until it either releases or regurgitates its prey. I fail to see why this one is a favorite. Unfortunately though, my newly acquired bird identification skills will be quite useless at home. Fulmars, murres, shearwaters, puffins, jaegers, kittiwakes, and all of the other species that I have seen over the past two weeks have native ranges that do not come anywhere close to New York.