Saturday, August 16, 2014

ACES Family Science Day

 Today was a special day for the ACES team, instead of sampling, we hosted a Family Science Day for kids and adults alike. It involved fun activities to learn about local creatures as well as a talk going into a bit more detail on our research. It was a great success, and here are some pictures from the event.

Sam George showing some local children how to test the water salinity of our touch tank’s water using a refractometer.

We setup several microscopes with specimens of local plankton so that the children could see what their beloved whales are eating. Needless to say the words “eeeewww” and “that’s creepy!” were thrown around a lot, but the kids really enjoyed it and so did we.

Local whale biologist Craig George brought out his inner child to come join the fun. He was most impressed by the whale lice and large copepods. At one point I actually heard him say “I am coocoo for cocopods!”

Here, Sam is showing some kids all the live fish and other critters that we had in our touch tank. This was a great hit! So much so that I couldn’t even get close enough to get a picture of the animals themselves..

In the past 2 weeks the weather has been very bad, with winds above 30mph most of the time. This has push in lots of plankton, and sea birds are in a complete frenzy along the beaches to pick out whatever they can find. A local hunter was kind enough to let me take a look at the stomach contents of an Arctic Turn so that we could find out what they were eating, and we allowed to locals to take a look for themselves. This image shows three Krill or Mysiid shrimp that had recently been eaten by the bird.

Team In-Seine posting infront of all of the flounder coloring contest entries.

A closer look at entries, these kids really did a great job at coloring these in, so the library agreed to hang them in their kids area so that all their friends could come by and see them.

And here are the artists preparing their masterpieces to win the contest. The winner’s drawing will be post on the next blog, and they will also receive one of our ACES long-sleeve shirts and a mystery prize!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Team In-Seine

I apologize for the long wait! Barrow is not known for its fast or reliable internet, and unfortunately I haven't been able to get online for well over a week now... but I have lots of pictures!
I have tried to tell my friends from Florida how bad the mosquitoes are on the North Slope of Alaska but pictures always fail to show how bad. This picture only shows a couple dozen sitting on Sam’s head, what is not shown is the swarm of hundreds that are buzzing around our heads at any given time.
On our way out to our furthest site “Monument” we came across a couple washed up dead gray whales. At first, these washed up animals can be rather alarming as they are quite common. If we found washed up marine mammals this often in Florida, that alarmed feeling would be justified, but here the water is so cold that decay occurs very slowly and the same animal may wash up on several beaches before it fully decays; this creates the illusion that there are far more dead whales out there than there really are.

In both cases, these whales were clearly attacked by Orcas, one of the Gray Whales very few predators. These scars that were all over the body are often mistaken for polar bear scratches, but they are actually killer whale teeth marks. Inside of these wounds you’ll notice hundreds of crustaceans, commonly known as whale lice, these critters are parasitic and feed on the skin of the whale.

NOAA ecotoxicologist, Sarah Allen, came to join us to collect baseline hydrocarbon data. Here she is setting up her passive samplers in the water column. This data will be invaluable in proving injury to nearshore ecosystems in the event of an oil spill.

While deploying one of Sarah’s passive samplers two local children were curious what we were doing and asked if they could help. We were more than happy to get Sadie and Jenny to learn a little bit about our methods and the extra sets of hands were appreciated.

A bag full of Arctic Sculpin (Myoxocephalus scorpioides). These are the sculpin that I will use for the isotope incorporation experiment at Florida International University. I have enough now, and will be preparing to ship them back to Florida alive in the next few days.

This week we had a mysterious appearance of millions of black pteropods. These creatures are commonly called the angels of the ocean as they have wing-like structures that they use to fly around the oceans. Most people don’t realize that these are actually a type of snail, and the wing is a modified foot. This picture shows the team digging through the countless pteropods trying to find the fish hidden underneath.

In order to better understand foodweb dynamics in our sampling sites, I am collecting plankton using a 0.5m diameter 500 micron net towed behind a boat, as well as stacked sieves to collect the smaller plankters. After I filter the water, I flush the particles off of the sieve mesh and collect the runoff. This concentrated mixture of plankton is then run through a Fluid Imaging FlowCAM, an instrument that takes a magnified picture of every particle that passes through it. This allows us to quantify the types of plankton that are available for fish to eat.

One of the great things about the design of our RV Nanuk is that all of the electronics are raises high off the water. Even if a large wave hits it, the pontoons can become completely submerged by the wave and it will not affect the electronics that are high and dry.

We have been struggling to catch Arctic Cod in our seines, trawls, and other sampling methods, but luckily for all the predators out there, we know they are there. This was the stomach contents of a Dolly Varden Char caught in a local’s gillnet. I counted 11 Arctic Cod that had not been digested and the remains of many more. Other than Arctic Cod, this gut was also filled with predatory hyperiid amphipods. This information will be invaluable when I try to piece together the food web.

This is our “from land” surveying convoy, geared up and ready to survey. The red ATV is loaded with our seine net on the back, an outboard motor and a data sonde on the front. The middle ATV tows a trailer filled with coolers full of gear, a plankton net, emergency gear, and a 8ft zodiac strapped on top of it. And the ATV on the right is towing another trailer carrying the USV Nanuk that is used for acoustic surveys. Further more, the lead and tailing drivers both carry a shotgun loaded with sabot slugs just in case we have to defend ourselves against polar bears. This is not a likely occurrence, but its best to be prepared.

Our team posing in front of the “Hollywood” sampling site. This site was names because of the houses seen in the background that were featured in the movie “Nanook of the North”.

This is by far the most awkward catch we have seen. A very large hermit crab that has tried to shove itself into the tiniest shell. This goes to show how little choice there is for these creatures in Barrow, there are not many snails to steal shells from. One thing that is really cool is that its exoskeleton had a copper colored iridescence that can be seen on the chelipeds (claws) in this picture.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

changing things up a bit

This week we changed things up a bit. Since Kevin Boswell and the rest of the crew were in town this week, beach seining wasn’t our only activity. The aim is to use as many different sampling techniques as possible at the same time so that the data can be compared and contrasted; in order to accomplish this we had to give Kevin one of our ATVs to move his autonomous acoustic sampling boat to the sampling location. Ann reaped the benefits of this change as she laid down in the boat as a trailered it to the site!

Pulling the seine net out of the water is hard labor but it’s relatively easy compared to the following portion: we have to get on all fours and crawl around on the net looking for all the juvenile and larval fish. This may sound easy but they are very hard to spot, for example, try to spot the larval snailfish in this image on the bottom; it looks a lot like a see-through tadpole and the easiest way to spot them is to look for eyes. These larval snailfish are definitely the winners of the “Most Adorable Arctic Fish Award”… just look at that face!

Next in line was the acoustic survey. Here, Kevin and I are looking at the data to figure out the best place to put the boat in the water. This is also a great opportunity to thank one of our sponsors: Costa Del Mar Sunglasses. If you still don’t understand why people spend more than $10 on sunglasses, you have simply never worn a pair of Costas.

The RV Nanuk is so easy to drive that anyone who has ever played a video game can do it. Here is one of the local biology interns, Yosty Storms, driving the Nanuk for the first time and collecting valuable data for us.

Trailering all this gear through the gritty sand can be hard on our gear and it helps that I am a self-certified mechanic. The wheels on our trailer had started seizing and I decided it was time to change the bearings, and boy was I right! The picture on the right shows me holding a good bear next to the remains of the bearing that was currently on the trailer.

We ended the week with a radio show on KBRW, the local Barrow radio station. This was a great opportunity to let the public know a little bit about our work and what kinds of knowledge they can expect to get from it.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Boats and boats and boats!

This week, my advisor Kevin Boswell, fellow lab-mate Adam Zenone, and Chunyan Li from LSU joined the party. Here, we were conducting acoustic surveys at the North Salt Lagoon with two Unmanned Surveying Vessels, one equipped with 4 types of sonars, and another with an Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (ADCP).

These two panoramic shots show how variable the conditions in the Arctic can be. They were taken one day apart, the first shows a cloudy, windy day with icebergs littering the beach and the second shows a beautiful, sunny day with most of the ice pushed off of the beach. We prefer the latter as the ice makes it very difficult to beach seine.

Meanwhile, back at Florida International University our intern Tim Jelavich is taking care of my sculpins that will be used in an isotope incorporation experiment that will help us better understand changes in dietary composition of wild sculpin over time using stable isotope analysis.

In order to keep Arctic fish alive in Florida we have to use a special aquatic system that uses two 3kW air conditioners to cool water down to as low as 4°C.

I have mentioned how pretty the ice is several times; please forgive me because it won’t be the last. My favorite ice is the blue ice, the locals say that this blue ice is multi-year ice, though I am not sure if there is any science to back this up. All I know is it is beautiful!

This year we have added offshore trawling surveys to our sampling regiment. Here you see Ann Robertson from the beach seining team having a conversation with JJ Vollenweider from the offshore team. This boat, named Launch 1273, was contributed by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and will be an invaluable asset to this project!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Week 2: the ball is rolling!

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but pictures cannot do this scenery any justice. Looking out over these icebergs never gets old. It’s amazing to think that there are animals that thrive in these freezing conditions... when this particular picture was taken the water was a balmy -0.92 degrees and we still caught fish in our net!

In the Arctic, weather conditions can vary greatly on an hourly basis, so it is important to collect data on the environmental conditions at every single sampling event. Here Ann is using a handheld anemometer to measure wind speed.

After we set our nets, we try to measure and release the fish as fast as possible. Unfortunately, some of our catch have to be sacrificed for the greater good, but this healthy, plump (probably full of eggs) fourhorn sculpin will hopefully live out its live to the fullest after being released by the gentle hands of our intern, Samuel George.

Here is an underwater picture of that fourhorn sculpin right after we released it. For bottom dwelling fish like sculpins, their best defense against predators is camouflage, and I can certainly see why it is difficult for a predatory bird or fish to spot one of these!

Sometimes when we get a large haul of fish in our net we simply put all of it into one big ziplock bag and bring it back to our field station to process the sample with a hot cup of tea. On this particular haul we caught well over 100 larval sculpin that were less than 2cm long, these fish are hard to measure in windy conditions as they sometimes blow right off of the measuring board. Here Sam is getting a bag ready to bring it back to the Arctic Research Facility (ARF), our home base for the summer.

Now, Barrow is not exactly known for its sport fishing opportunities, but there is no wifi or cable tv to watch at the ARF, so if the wind isn’t blowing too hard and all the field work is complete for the day, I like to take advantage by spending it outside on the Elson Lagoon trying my luck. So far in the last two summers I have not caught a fish, but I swear I hooked one once! I am determined to catch a fish this year, so stay tuned for a picture of a big fat salmon! And if that doesn’t work out at least I am getting some good fly casting practice…

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Warm Freezing Welcome!

A year has passed and Arctic Circle has given me a warm welcome with a brisk 32 Fahrenheit breeze chilling my pampered Florida skin. Upon leaving the airport, the first thing I did was rush down to the Chukchi shore to be greeted by miles of crystal clear, flat-calm water peppered with ice bergs that are beginning their summer journey up the coast and around Point Barrow to wherever the Alaska Coastal Current will take them. There is no feeling quite like knowing that no human lies within my line of sight for thousands of miles; it is great to know that places like this still exist in our overcrowded world!

On day two, the summer showed itself for the first time this year with a lovely 65 Fahrenheit day with almost no wind and more mosquitoes than anyone would ever wish to encounter. Luckily, these Arctic mosquitoes, unlike their Floridian cousins spent more time buzzing around my head than trying to drain my blood, which is good since they are about three times as big!

By day three Sam and I had our gear reorganized, Ann arrived, and we were ready for our first day of sampling. As always these first days are the most exciting which was evident from our joyous reactions to even the slightest catches of fish. Nevertheless, these small catches provide us with important information on how these fish communities develop as the summer continues; we expect the abundance will increase over time as it did last summer.

The second sampling day ended with a bittersweet surprise when a local wildlife biologist received a call about 14 yellow-billed Loons that had been spotted stuck in a local fisherman’s gill net. These birds are endangered water birds and often get tangled in nets when they dive underwater looking for fish to eat; if they are not freed they will often drown. That was the bitter part…

We geared up and headed to the net with this local biologist to watch her and her crew save these birds from certain death. This may sound like a simple task but these birds are a not-so-gentle reminder that Polar Bears and hypothermia are not the only things to worry about in the Arctic. They do not understand that you are trying to help, so when you approach them they fiercely jab their dagger-like beaks directly at your eyes, hoping to disarm what they believe is a predator… needless to say, thick gloves and eye protection are a must!

Of the 14 birds, 4 had already passed away, but with patience and team work we were able to release the other 10 with minor wounds… that was the sweet part! This is a great example of why it is important to check your gillnets on a daily basis--nobody wants to be responsible for killing a beautiful animal like these Loons!

After our successful rescue mission at the top of the world, we felt like we were really on top of the world! Here is Ann having a zen moment with yoga at the tip of Point Barrow… good times!

Stay tuned for more updates as the summer continues!