21 March, 2001
Tidbit of History/Background
Kate Wynne's book, Guide to Marine Mammals of Alaska defines mammals as "animals that breathe air through their lungs, are warm-blooded, have hair (at some point during their life), bear live young, and suckle their young."
She goes further to say that "marine mammals are thought to have evolved from terrestrial ancestors to aquatic life through unique physical adaptations. Marine mammals have adapted to the extreme temperatures, depths pressure, darkness, and density of the medium they live in. "
The highlight of the day was a ride in the helicopter. The pilot, the helo mechanic, Michael Simpkins one of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and I went up in one helicopter. In the other helicopter were the pilot, the helo mechanic, Lisa Hiruki-Raring, the other NMFS scientist, and Gay Sheffield with Alaska Fish and Game.
Our ride was planned for the morning but the flights were cancelled due to wind. We met again in the hanger at 1:45 dressed and ready to go. Mike Simpkins was briefed during that time regarding details of the flight.
Dressing for the trip was quite an undertaking. I wore the chief's clothes. I started with a one-piece dry suit, which was lined. Next came the one-piece flight outfit. It completely covered my feet and had a rubberized type band around the wrists and neck. In order to put it on, I began by putting my feet in and pulling it up to my waist. Boots went on next, enabling me to stand more securely. I put my head through the neck and inserted my arms into the sleeves. There is a zipper around the chest area that zips around the back to zip up the suit. There are other pockets with zippers, which held film and camera. Once zipped, I had to tuck over and squat down grabbing my arms. When this was completed, the suit filled with air which moved to the chest and neck area. From the squatting position, I released the air at the rubberized band at the neck. Once done, all the air was removed from the suit. This provided a feeling of being vacuum-sealed into the suit. It was a really weird sensation. I finally put on the vest containing all sorts of safety signal and survival devices. This was zipped up the front. Ear plugs, helmet and gloves completed the dressing process. After this workout I was ready!
The first helo went out to check the weather conditions and determine if we would fly. We were given the "thumbs up" and the garage door of the hanger was lifted and the helo was quickly pushed out on the launch pad. We had been instructed to quickly get in. The mechanic helped me in due to the fact that it was so hard bending my knees and stepping up into helo with all this gear on. I also needed to straddle several instruments. I rode in the co-pilot seat and I had to make sure that I didn't bump the instrument between my legs or the one on my left. That would have caused a major shake up! Moving upside down or sideways. That wouldn't have been a good plan. Once in, I was strapped in with seat belts and my headphone was attached so that I could talk to the others in the helo. The pilot went through all the steps of the safety prelaunch procedure. Once we were given the okay, we were up and off headed south. We had been south earlier and had an idea that the weather might be windy with open water. It would be the perfect spot to see whales. A lifelong dream has been to see whales!
The ice was very interesting from the helo. Once we left the ship, the ice appeared to look like a tile mosaic. The size of the "tiles" changed throughout the trip. We went over areas of open water. We flew much lower over the water looking for marine mammals. Over one of the first open water areas whales were spotted. The pilot knew my desire to see them and was so kind to continue to hover over the area allowing me to see them clearly. What was spotted was two bowhead whales. I was able to see the smooth backs clearly on each. Neither whale blew when I was observing. I was able to capture the view fairly clearly on video. My cohorts were so excited that I saw a bowhead for my first whale spotting due to its uniqueness. The bowhead is endangered, but increasing in number.
Kate Wynne's book provides a clear description of bowhead whales. They have smooth skin and a massive head. These whales are predominately black with a white chin patch. Some have white on the tailstock. They have a high arching upper jaw that holds baleen. Short flippers and no dorsal fin help make them unique. The blow is v-shaped and high. They are slow swimmers and can break through 1-2 feet thick ice with their head. They will dive 15-20 minutes and surface 3-5 minutes. Bowheads winter in the Bering Sea and follow leads in the ice north to summer feeding grounds in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. They often migrate with the belugas.
A mother and baby beluga were spotted towards the end of our flight. These whales are gregarious and often travel in pods. Kate Wynne describes belugas as having a stocky body with a flexible neck. They have a small, rounded head with prominent melon, and short beak. They have 40-44 conical teeth. Their flippers are broad and spatulate and the edges curl with age. The flukes are broad and notched with convex trailing edges. Belugas are dark gray at birth, blue-gray as juveniles and fade with age to completely white as adults (5-6 years). These whales don't have dorsal fins. They are slow swimmers and often roll casually at the surface.
The other helo group spotted the spectacled eider ducks, two arctic fox, a few seals and several whales. This helo flew north.
On the return to the ship, the pilot circled the ship several times allowing me to get some video footage and still images. It is amazing to see the ship sitting in the ice. It provides a totally different perspective. One thing that is interesting is how small the ship seems when it is surrounded by ice and you are looking at it from the helo. It sure doesn't appear small when you are aboard looking off the deck. Size is relative.
Once we landed, we had to repeat the procedure only in the reverse with regards to dressing. Flying was a great opportunity. I appreciate all the efforts made to provide me with this experience and all the help I received getting prepared. I will have a chance to ride in the helo again when I leave the ship for Gambell.
It is warmer outside today - 23 degrees air temperature with a wind chill of -12 degrees! The thirty knot winds prevented the first helo flight, however they reduced to 21 knots later in the day, so we were successful with the second attempt to fly.
We were at station immediately when I went on duty at midnight. We relieved the day shift halfway through their station. We completed the van Veen and the HAPS core sampling. We found some very interesting animals in the van Veen sample. Brittle stars, clams, and pectinariidaes "ice cream cone worms" were some examples of items found in the sample. We observed lots of open broken bivalves in several samples. One grab contained the clams that the spectacled eider likes to eat.
The rest of the day involved preparation for the helo flight, dinner, and then off to bed!
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