September 2, 2009
We went further south than 80° 00 N last night. For the first time, there was actually a sunset and a sunrise, where the sun disappeared below the horizon. The sky never really got dark - it was like a constant twilight. As we continue zigzagging further south over the next 2 weeks, this should become more common with maybe even periods of darkness - that will be a real change.
When I'm not watching computer monitors, I spend a lot of time on the Bridge because of the great view. Almost any time of day or night, people are there steering the ship, monitoring the ice conditions, taking in the scenery, or observing marine mammals. Two people, Justin Pudenz and George Neakok, have been hired by different organizations to monitor the wildlife (seals, bears, whales, and birds) seen near the Healy.
Justin Pudenz works for a group called MRAG (Marine Resource Assessment Group) Americas, which is contracted through NOAA. His job as an observer is to document the number, types, and behavior of any marine mammals that are observed within about 4 miles of the ship. He also notes the ambient (local) conditions, such as time, weather, sea state, and visibility for each sighting. His presence on the ship is required for the expedition to be allowed to run seismic tests and some of our other experiments.
George Neakok's job is also to record marine mammal interactions. He is a member of the local Iņupiat community and is hired through BASC (Barrow Arctic Science Consortium) to provide information to the borough wildlife group, to the whaling commission, and to local tribal meetings. A life-long hunter, George has the uncanny ability to spot seals resting on the ice or sticking their heads out of the water from miles away - whenever I think I see something, it usually turns out to be an ice chunk.
Throughout the trip, the observers have spotted 41 seals (ringed and bearded), 5 polar bears, several bowhead and gray whales (before we reached the ice), and a variety of birds. The testing hasn't seemed to affect the behavior of the bears - 2 of them have followed fairly closely alongside the ship for about 45 minutes. When either of the ships spots bears within 1 kilometer (.6 miles), they either shut down the equipment or alter the course to not disturb them. Seals are a bit more skittish, but it's difficult for the observers to tell whether our activities make them submerge or the fact that a noisy, 400+ foot ship is breaking ice in the vicinity - George reports that the seals submerge even when he is out in small boats. Regardless, the job that these two do provides vital data for their organizations, as well as long-term records about the populations of local wildlife.
One of our other activities today was our official "Polar Bear" Initiation. According to tradition, any time a person sails across, or is on a ship that is beyond, the Arctic Circle, they may be inducted as "Polar Bears." After silly skits, some calisthenics, and a visit with King Neptune, the Queen, and the Baby Neptune, we were officially made members. On the Healy, anyone aboard can wear a blue Coast Guard cap/beanie/toque (if you're Canadian), but only Polar Bears may wear a red one. In honor of the festivities, we had a barbecue in the hangar for dinner.