Wednesday, August 27, 2014

From the cold... back to the scorching hot

The field season has come to an end and I am back in the blistering heat of the Miami sun, but I still have a number of cool pictures to share with you.

Snowy owls used to be very abundant in Barrow, so much so that the Inupiaq village name Utqiagvik actually means "place where they hunt snowy owls". Nowadays they are not as common but we were lucky enough to have one guarding a nest every day about 100 meters from the ARF.

Here is another snowy owl hanging out in the middle of town, sitting on top of a gas line blow off valve... oh the irony...

In the middle of the summer we had 2 weeks of terribly windy weather that made sampling most of our stations impossible. This panoramic shot is taken from the middle of the spit that leads to Plover Point facing parallel to the Beaufort coast. It shows the Beaufort Sea of the left and the Elson lagoon on the right, and as you can see the waves had gotten so big that they went all the way over the spit and into the lagoon. This is aparent from the smooth surface left behind by the crossing water.

Apparently turbid water does not affect the Beluga Whales ability to catch fish though, near Plover Point we found a pod of well over 50 whales feeding on something that we will never know (though it was probably Arctic Cod as we caught lots of them at a nearby site that same day). This extra curious whale came right up to the beach to take a better look at me. This behaviour is called pilot hopping and allows whales to see what is going on above water, its much more common in other whales and I was pretty lucky to see a beluga do this, let alone capture it on camera.

This spotted seal was being necropsied by a North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife biologist. The pelt was still in good condition so it was removed and given to a local native Alaskan. 

This is the only 8ft zodiac I know of that is powered by a 175 HP yamaha. We towed this boat all the way to Cooper Island at speeds well above 30MPH so that we could pull a few seines out there and pay George Divoky ( a visit.

Cooper Island is an old Naval establishment. This island is often referred to as the golden island because its sediment is a gold/bronze color which is quite unique when compared to the other sediments in the area which are predominantly brown.

When the Navy left, they left behind a great deal of debris which Black Guillemots have since started using as nesting sites. George Divoky has been monitoring this breeding colony of Guillemots for 40 years now, and has provided incredibly important data for understanding how global climate change will affect the Arctic regions.

Over the years, the naval debris has fallen apart and no longer provided suitable protection for raising young guillemots, especially with hungry bears roaming the island. George has modified these hard cases to provide a nesting cubby for the guillemots, it also allows him to easily access the birds to weighing and measuring. Here we see George measuring a chick, and a nest filled with fourhorn sculpin that have been delivered to the chick by the parents.

We were told that there were lots of polar bears in the area and it seemed likely that I would finally see my first polar bear.

We didn't see one on the island, but on our way back we finally saw one near Plover Point, only a few hundred yards away from where we often sample. This was a rather small bear (6-7ft) and was munching on a piece of whale carcass on the beach.

Back on the mainland, our Family Science Day Coloring Contest deadline had past. After much deliberation we chose this flounder as the winner! The winner was 12 year old, Ida Kilapsuk.

Here is Ida receiving her prizes, an ACES team shirt and a huge flaming hammerhead shark kite.

 This was too expensive to purchase and too beautiful to not share. this is a carving made from a full walrus tusk, it is just stunning!

On a trip down to monument we came across this little Arctic Fox, he was just hanging out at the top of the bluff watching us drive by.

To our surprise, when we got to monument, there was another polar bear on the beach! (photo credit goes to Yosty Storms). 

Here is the same bear swimming away (against the current). They are surprisingly fast!

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.