Ice Stories: Dispatches From Polar Scientists » John Whiteman Mon, 15 Nov 2010 20:40:36 +0000 en hourly 1 Foxes on the Edge Wed, 28 Apr 2010 17:26:21 +0000 John Whiteman DEADHORSE, ALASKA– Once they kill a seal, polar bears will often eat only the fat and move on. This behavior may have evolved to help maximize their return on investment, allowing them to use a minimal amount of time for eating, but consuming the most energy-rich portion of the seal. I previously described how bears kill seals, during the capture season last spring here. This spring we have seen some kill sites of bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus), which we did not see much of last spring – the bearded seal is much larger than the ringed seal (Phoca hispida) and presumably is more formidable as prey. Once a polar bear leaves the carcass it is available for other scavengers. They aren’t many other animals out on the sea ice, but we have seen birds and frequently, Arctic fox (Alopex lagopus).

Arctic fox seem to make their living by following bears around and scavenging. We have seen foxes trailing behind bears as they travel, and their tracks often wind around bear prints. (My apologies that the pictures below are graphic. However, the carcass below illustrates a critical aspect of the life of predators).

These bones – the vertebral column and attached ribs – are all that remained of a large seal that was most likely killed by a polar bear. The area was covered with fox tracks, and the carcass had been thoroughly scavenged.

Even a flipper had been used for food – the bones of this flipper were intact, showing the similarity to the shape of my hand.

Such an existence seems precarious; polar bears range over great distances, and their successful hunts are few and far between. What if the fox doesn’t find a carcass? It turns out that foxes themselves can be successful predators of young seals. In the early 1970s, a researcher named Thomas Smith trained his Labrador dog to sniff out seal lairs (lairs are in hollow spaces on top of sea ice but below a blanket of snow; seals use these protected spaces to rest and give birth). He spent several winters digging up hundreds of lairs and found evidence that Arctic foxes were able to enter the lairs and predate on young seals. He wrote:

“A keenly developed olfactory sense allows the arctic fox to locate the subnivean seal lair, sometimes through snow depths of over 150 cm…Lairs that had been entered by foxes showed one or more entry holes. Usually the holes penetrated the lair at a slight angle and were never more than 20 cm in diameter…In the case of an apparently successful kill, blood was always present on the floor of the birth lair once the lair had been dug open…When the lair was well developed into a tunneled structure there was usually more blood and the site of the actual kill usually appeared to be in one of the small tunnels”

In fact, Smith concluded that in certain parts of the Arctic, foxes may be more important predators of young seals than bears. However, foxes were never found to kill adult seals, which must be simply too large for a fox to attack. Foxes were also more thorough than bears. They seemed to remain at the site for several days and consume the entire carcass.

So perhaps foxes don’t live as close to the edge as I originally thought, although no animal in the Arctic seems to have it easy. In a very different way, our field season is currently on the edge – due to good weather early on, we flew for more hours than were budgeted, leaving one of our two helicopters in a crunch for funding. We have scrambled to line up addition funding, to support the helicopter for more time; otherwise, we could be forced to end the season in just a couple days. We have had some tremendous luck in locating and re-sampling bears from previous field seasons, giving us great data on how bears fare over time – I really hope we are able to continue flying.

On what has become a rare, sunny day, this is my view through the bubble windshield of the helicopter, wrapping below my feet, as we fly north over the sea ice.

Thomas Smith’s article:
Thomas G Smith. 1976. Predation of ringed seal pups (Phoca hispida) by the arctic fox (Alopex lagopus). Canadian Journal of Zoology, Volume 54, pages 1610-1616.

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Some Time to Think Thu, 22 Apr 2010 21:02:19 +0000 John Whiteman DEADHORSE, ALASKA– After a very busy start to the field season, the schedule has slowed due to weather in recent days. Temperatures have warmed up into the 20s (Fahrenheit) and the ice has started to break up in some places, exposing open water to the air – I think these influences increase the water vapor in the air and generate more fog. We have had several days with delayed starts because of poor visibility and fog in the mornings. Another sign that spring may be on its way – as I write this, a snow bunting bird flew past the window over my desk, then returned and perched on the sill.

This is the view to the north from the desk in my room at the bunkhouse. The houses and power lines of Kaktovik are visible, and the fog doesn’t seem that bad, especially given the blue sky. However, this is a “sucker hole” that can trick you into thinking that visibility is good, when in fact, you happen to just be in a hole of clarity in an otherwise thick fog bank.

This picture is from the same perspective, an hour later. The fog has mostly lifted – now, beyond the houses, a hangar (about ¾ of a mile away) and the northern horizon of sea ice are visible.

The reductions in flight time have given me time to catch up on coursework and get some reading and thinking done. Even when the schedule is very busy, sometimes the helicopter can be a surprisingly good place to think. The pilot is obviously busy during flight, and as passengers we are always scanning the ground for bear sign – tracks, kill sites, carcasses. However, once you get into the rhythm of scanning and tracking, your mind can return to the larger concepts of the project, turn over the data you have collected so far, or move onto other questions. I suppose it is similar to any situation where you put several people into close quarters for several hours of travel – interesting conversation can come up, or people can mostly travel along in their own minds.

We have been talking recently about how to interpret some of our data in regards to polar bear diet. We have months of analysis before we can begin drawing conclusions, but the summary of our data up until now can provide suggestions. One of the reasons the polar bear diet is interesting is that it is fairly simple in comparison to the closely-related brown bear (grizzly bear). Polar bears mainly eat seals, and this is reflected in their dentition, whereas many brown bears consume a wide variety of food items, including lots of vegetation.

The canine and incisor teeth of an adult polar bear. Polar bears have evolved larger canines because these stabbing teeth are useful in hunting, and polar bears hunt more than most brown bears. Polar bears also have reduced molars because they eat less vegetation than most brown bears, and therefore have a reduced need for grinding teeth.
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Back in the Air Mon, 19 Apr 2010 17:24:52 +0000 John Whiteman KAKTOVIK, ALASKA– On April 8th, I woke up at 315am, caught a shuttle to the Denver airport, and boarded a plane for Seattle. After additional layovers in Anchorage and Deadhorse (Prudhoe Bay), I landed in Barrow, Alaska, at about 530pm. It was around -5 degrees (Fahrenheit) with a light wind. I had envisioned a return to wintry conditions, but it was still a shock to go from the humid heat of Buenos Aires in the summer, to early spring in Wyoming, to late winter in the Arctic.

I met up with the team of researchers from the US Geological Survey who had been performing polar bear captures out of Barrow already for two weeks. That evening, after looking over our gear and getting caught up, I went over to see friends who recently moved to Barrow from Wyoming. It was great to hear about their new life in the area; moving from the mountains to the tundra is certainly a big change.

The next day I began flying in the helicopter for captures. We started in Barrow, fueled up in Deadhorse, and ended the day in Kaktovik, near the Canadian border – we covered almost the entire northern coast of Alaska. Since then we have been based out of Kaktovik, and we have had good weather and have been flying a lot.

It is great to be back out on the sea ice. Although I am out of place here, I really love this environment. In this picture we landed on a small pan of ice about twenty miles from shore; the pan was surrounded by pressure ridges and rubble from ice sheets smashing into each other.

The captures have been going well. We caught the largest bear I have seen, an adult male who weighed 1,147 lbs (I am not sure what the largest bear caught in the southern Beaufort has weighed). His neck was several times the size of my waist, and I could not fit both hands around his snout. It took several people to position him for measurements. We have caught several bears which were sampled in 2009, giving us excellent data on changes over time in the same individual.

We have also caught a lot of cubs-of-the-year, or COYs, including this litter of three. Cubs are born around January 1st. Litters of three are fairly uncommon for polar bears in Alaska, and usually include one cub that is noticeably smaller than the others – in this picture, the cub in the middle only weighed 12 lbs, nearly 10 lbs less than the other two.
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From the Andes to the Arctic Wed, 07 Apr 2010 19:16:34 +0000 John Whiteman LARAMIE, WYOMING– Since returning from the icebreaker cruise last fall, things have been very busy. In November, I presented some preliminary data at the Carnivore Conservation conference in Denver, Colorado. In particular, it was great to discuss the application of stable isotope analyses to ecological research with scientists working on black bears, wolves, and other species.

I have continued with my coursework and working on sample analysis back on campus. A full-time technician on the project has perfected several of the analyses we will perform on samples of muscle tissue, and we have had stable isotope analyses performed on breath samples.

This spring I traveled to Argentina to present preliminary polar bear data, visit field sites to discuss possibilities for research projects, and catch up with a friend from graduate school who is working there. It may seem odd to jump from polar bears in the Arctic to grazing animals high in the Andes mountains, but animals face similar challenges in both places – there is a season of good food availability followed by a season of poor availability and difficult weather, and the systems are fairly simple, with just a couple large-bodied animals dominating the landscape. I hope to return someday.

I gave a presentation on the polar bear project at the Universidad de La Plata, a national university near Buenos Aires. Many undergraduates attended, most studying Zoology and Ecology. I also presented at a provincial ecological research center and a national park.

These vicunas – grazing animals very similar to alpacas and llamas – live in the rocky environment of Nacional Parque San Guillermo in Argentina, at 10,000 to 14,000 feet. For a brief period during the summer lush grass is available in a few areas near water, but for most of the year, they forage on sparse vegetation. Their main predators are mountain lions, the same species that is found in North America.

The Arctic sea ice has had a very interesting winter. The sea ice extent was substantially below average for much of the winter and appeared to reach its maximum extent in early March, which is normal timing. However, cold weather over the Bering Sea and Barents Sea then caused the ice to resume growth, causing the sea ice extent to increase again and not reach its maximum until March 31st, the latest date since satellite measurements began in 1979 (interestingly, temperatures remained above average near the north pole). Ice extent is now very close to the 1979-2000 average.

Extent of sea ice in the Arctic, during this winter. The blue line shows the unusual growth of extent until the end of March. Image is reproduced from

Although the sea ice extent is near normal for this time of the year, it is still below average. The ice which formed in March is thin, first-year ice which is very vulnerable to melt – although the extent is near average now, once warm temperatures return in the summer, much of this ice will melt. The proportion of ice which is greater than two years old and very thick continues to decline, contributing to the long-term trend of reduced extent. There is a good discussion of the current sea ice conditions at

I am headed back to the field soon for our final intensive field season. It is still winter on the north slope; it is currently 1 degree (Fahrenheit) in Barrow, which will be my first stop.

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You Can’t Control the Weather Sun, 01 Nov 2009 21:58:18 +0000 John Whiteman BARROW, ALASKA– Just after the last dispatch, a strong wind storm settled in across the Arctic north of the Alaskan coast. For five days in a row we woke up hoping the wind would subside enough to allow us to fly for bear recaptures, only to find the wind remained steady at 25-40 knots through every day. The temperature rose again, staying mostly in the mid-twenties (Fahrenheit), but the windchill made trips out onto weatherdecks bitterly cold. Fortunately for most of the storm we were hove to in ice, keeping us out of large swells. We were within 30 miles of a bear that was a top priority for recapture, and weather was likely just as poor near other bears, so it simply became a waiting game.

One afternoon a young adult female polar bear wandered by the ship. She appeared out of the blowing snow and walked past the stern, fairly close to the ship. An hour later she reappeared and approached the ship, walking up the fantail until she was directly below the railing. Scientists and personnel from the ship were pressed at the railing above, and she just seemed to be curious, sniffing the wind and looking back at us, occasionally pawing the broken ice at the ship’s waterline.

This young adult female bear walked past the ship, eventually coming right up to the ship.

The polar bear, standing just below us at the stern of the ship.

The railing of the fantail where folks are standing is about 5 meters, 15 feet, above the ice where the bear was standing, at the aft end of the ship, the fantail. It was a wonderful chance for people to see this bear up close.

The wind finally dropped below 20 knots for a day and we flew for the bear – only to encounter heavy fog that prevented us from finding her. We located another bear that was a lower priority and we successfully captured her, yielding good data. The next day the fog dissipated and we flew for our priority bear again, but she had moved over 30 miles and we could not locate her until we received a satellite transmission at the end of the day. We remained in the area because this bear was one of the two top priority recaptures remaining, and we successfully located her twice, but both times she was traveling in large areas of broken ice which were unsafe for captures. The temperatures remained warm throughout this period, rarely dropping below 25 degrees; the water temperature remained warm as well, and sea ice simply was not forming very fast.

Poor ice near one of our priority bears.

This is a frustrating aspect of field work: success relies heavily on weather, and the bad luck of encountering stretches of poor weather can put an entire field season on hold. The only thing that can be done is planning. We planned a long field season to provide multiple opportunities to recapture each bear, and we planned on capturing secondary target bears as necessary. Thus, even though strong winds and fog really reduced our flight opportunities and poor ice reduced our capture opportunities, we had successful recaptures of target bears and we were able to process new bears as well.

The poor ice conditions we have encountered are remarkable. Air and water temperatures remained very warm throughout October, slowing the formation of new ice as winter begins. The current distribution of sea ice in the Beaufort is much more typical of late summer than early winter – we have not had to break heavy ice at all in the last 10 days. It is inaccurate to state that this warm October has been caused by climate change; climate refers to long-term patterns of average conditions, not day-to-day weather. Even in a world with an enhanced greenhouse gas effect, some autumns will be colder than normal and others will be warmer than normal. However, climate change is changing what is considered “normal.” As the earth’s climate warms, particularly in the Arctic, the type of weather we are experiencing may become common.

Graph from National Snow and Ice Data Center. Extent of sea ice over the entire Arctic is currently low compared to the 1979-2000 average, in fact, it is nearly as low as the same date in 2007, when the extent fell to a record low.

Today we disembarked from the ship, using helicopters to ferry people and luggage back into Barrow. Although the trip ended on a frustrating note, overall, it was a very exciting success. Every piece of data we gathered is unique – almost nothing is known about polar bears during this time of year, particularly bears out here on the pack ice far out at sea. I cannot wait to return to Laramie and receive data from our shore-based capture crew, which recaptured bears on the coast during the last several weeks. Before any in-depth analyses, it will be informative simply to compare data sets from the bears on ice to the bears on the coast, to see if differences are striking.

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Life on the Ship Thu, 22 Oct 2009 04:36:15 +0000 John Whiteman POLAR SEA, ON THE BEAUFORT SEA-- For captures, we need calm winds, good visibility, thick continuous ice, and a good bear location. Those factors came together to allow us to recapture an adult female...]]> ABOARD THE USCGC POLAR SEA, ON THE BEAUFORT SEA– I discovered a novel way to become seasick. For two days last week we anchored about 20 miles north of the Alaska coast, near Prudhoe Bay. The capture helicopters were used to pickup supplies from Deadhorse, including fresh lettuce (after a couple weeks at sea, this was exciting), mail, and several new personnel. One is a representative from native communities of hunters and trappers on the north slope, who has joined us to observe our operations. After spending two days on the onload we had two days of transit to our next target bear, and recent poor weather has meant that we had many down days in a row. This finally got me into the gym onboard the ship.

The gym is below the foc’sle, meaning it is below the main deck very near the bow. The floor in the gym slopes upward; I tried the treadmill for the first time, and decided to do a “hills” run. So, the already-leaning treadmill slowly tilted more then less, repeatedly, every one to two minutes, while I ran in place for 25 minutes. We were breaking moderate ice (probably around a foot thick) so the ship was rocking unpredictably as well, particularly when we encountered pieces of thick multi-year ice (many feet thick). By the time I stepped off the treadmill and tried to walk across the gym I was tilting pretty far myself. I walked slowly, from equipment to equipment, bracing myself as I went.

The gym is located near the bow of the ship; the bulkheads (walls) around the gym are on the outside of the hull, so the sounds of breaking ice can be incredibly loud. Last week I was in the gym when we were breaking very thick multiyear ice, and the sound was like being inside of a thundercloud. I would have had to yell to be heard by someone standing next to me, and the screeching and crunching completely drowned out my ipod. The large white tube in the corner runs from the foc’sle above to a room below the gym. The anchor chain is spooled below, where it is paid out or retrieved by a diesel powerplant up to the deck, where it hangs over the side and is attached to a 9000 lb anchor.

I have participated in other aspects of normal life aboard the ship as well. Last week I caught one of the movies shown nightly in the theatre: about 35 well-padded seats that rocked, as in a real theatre, facing a big-screen television. I got a haircut at the barbershop – there is even a striped pole in the hallway. “Pie in the face” voting took place across the ship for a week, and personnel who received the top 5 votes each took a turn sitting in a chair, surrounded by the crew, one night in the hangar. A vigorous auction took place for the right to be the person to actually sling the pie (gently; no broken noses were allowed). Last night I played bingo in the mess deck after dinner. Around 30 folks show up, once a week, and everyone plays three cards at once.

For most of my downtime I am trying to keep up with the course I am taking this fall (Biochemistry), reading research articles and preparing for an upcoming conference, and otherwise doing what I would be doing at my desk back in Laramie. Unfortunately space is fairly tight on the ship and desks are hard to come by so I do most of this work sitting on my bunk, which is just about 2 inches too small to allow me to sit all the way up.

I cannot view the dispatches myself, but it was passed on that someone asked about our rooms. Our room contains two bunkbeds (“racks”), four closet spaces (mine is visible at the right), and a chair. It is probably around 10 feet by 10 feet. The beds are narrow and long, and they lift for more storage space directly beneath the mattress. A vent in the ceiling delivers fresh air.

Recently, after the two days of transit the ship was hove to in very thick ice near Banks Island, which is in the southwestern corner of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

This view from the helicopter shows an area that may show up in a satellite image as mostly-covered with ice, but once we get out there and see it the ice pans are small and separated by open water, making it impossible to capture a bear.

This is the view from the portside main deck this morning, facing south. Thick, multi-year ice from the central Arctic flows south into this area, so the ice conditions are much better for captures. The ridges indicate areas where multiple ice pans have crashed together, and because they are thick pans the broken pieces stack up high where they catch windborne snow.

For captures, we need calm winds, good visibility, thick continuous ice, and a good bear location. Those factors came together to allow us to recapture an adult female we first sampled on May 8th. She was in excellent condition, carrying lots of food reserves in the form of body fat: she had about 6 cm of subcutaneous fat near her rump. All of the sampling went well, but it was slow, partially because of the cold. Temperatures were around 15 degrees (Fahrenheit) during the sampling, which took several hours. It was our first fairly cold day, and a good reminder of the difficulties we may encounter if it gets much colder. Temperatures have continued to drop; as I write, it is 8 degrees with a windchill of -11 degrees.

This 22-month old cub belonged to one the bears we recently recaptured.

This adult female had two 10-month old cubs with her. We waited in the helicopter as the bears walked past, until they got into a good position for a capture.
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Another Recapture, and Big Seas Sun, 11 Oct 2009 23:45:27 +0000 John Whiteman POLAR SEA, ON THE CHUKCHI SEA– Over the last week we kept the ship in the same general area, in the northern reaches of the Chukchi Sea. Several days of cooler weather allowed the ice to thicken a little, and we had another successful recapture of an adult female with her cub...]]> ABOARD THE USCGC POLAR SEA, ON THE CHUKCHI SEA– Over the last week we kept the ship in the same general area, in the northern reaches of the Chukchi Sea. Several days of cooler weather allowed the ice to thicken a little, and we had another successful recapture of an adult female with her cub. These bears had less fat and were not in as good of condition as the previous recaptures, but overall they still appeared healthy.

We last saw this 10 month old cub, a male, and his mother on April 25th. All of the re-sampling for both bears went well.

Despite some patchy fog, we had calm winds and sunshine for most of the capture operations. Once we are out of view of the ship, the ice just stretches out to the horizon. This is about as high as the sun gets, even in the middle of the day. On this day the sun rose around 1030am and set around 715pm.

After the recapture we were able to download data from the collar and several of the data loggers, including travel path of the bear, activity patterns, and body temperature. After spending the spring off the coast near Prudhoe Bay, this female and her cub walked about two hundred miles (just an estimate – we will have to calculate this precisely later) northwest, then spent much of September in the northern Chukchi Sea. We get so much valuable information from just one bear that as soon as preliminary data on the travel path, activity, and temperature are downloaded, it is easy to put off other work and immediately begin exploring the data. It is very exciting to consider why the bears traveled as they did by matching up patterns in the different sets of information.

After the recapture of the female and her cub we began moving the ship slightly south for another bear. As we cruised a strong wind picked up out of the east, blowing across several hundred miles of open water and generating big swells before reaching our position at the edge of the pack ice. The ice became thinner and more inconsistent, and was broken into small pans maybe 5-10 meters across. The big swells were tamped slightly by the ice, but for the most part they rolled right on under the ice, heaving it up and down. Standing on the bow and watching the ice move was like watching an enormous tapestry waving in the wind.

By the time we neared the bear’s last position around dinner last night even the thin newly-forming ice had broken up and we were mostly traveling in open water. The wind was a steady 30 knots and the swells were 2-4 meters, occasionally up to 5 meters (these were swells about 6-12 feet, up to 15 feet!). The ship’s hull was designed for breaking ice, which sacrifices some stability in swells; as a result, we were really rolling. I had to keep a hand on a rail walking around the ship, especially going up and down ladders – twice I knocked my head against a hatch going up a ladder as the ship swayed yesterday. Two of our lab chairs are on wheels – if no one was sitting in them we had to tie them to the counter, otherwise they would roll across the lab and run into people. The waves were too large to allow the ship to drift for the night, nor was there good ice nearby in which to hove to for the night. We had to decide to keep the ship traveling in a large circle for the night, or to move on. Since there was almost no chance of finding our bear on ice safe enough for capture operations, we decided we would turn north again towards a different bear and hopefully away from the worst of the weather.

After dinner the announcement came on “Weather Decks now secure to all traffic”, meaning that no personnel were allowed outside because of the weather. I spent the evening on the bridge, watching the bow rise up and crash down through waves. The ship is 399 feet long and 89.5 feet wide at the widest. The rocking seemed to happen in slow motion. The nose would rise and the wave trough would suddenly fall away, followed by a moment of lightweightedness as the ship fell downwards before the next swell rose up, and then the descent would stop suddenly as the nose crashed back into the water and whitewater shot out in all directions. Several of the swells put whitewater just barely over the bow onto the front deck (the fos’cle). No one knew for sure, but it seemed we were pitching somewhere around 15 degrees, maybe higher. A couple folks on the bridge told stories of taking rolls around 50 degrees during really bad weather – that kind of roll is difficult to imagine.

It was difficult to sleep because of the rolling of the ship, but by late morning the weather had subsided. By afternoon today the swells had come down quite a bit, allowing us to begin taking a direct route to our next bear rather than trying to skirt the weather. We are now headed south, towards the pack ice that runs parallel to the Alaskan coast. We have a cluster of bears to recapture in that area and we hope to fly for the first of the group tomorrow.

Several nights ago as we were breaking thin ice a family group of polar bears was spotted. An announcement was made and the ship slowed, allowing personnel an opportunity to see the bears as we cruised past. It was an adult female and two cubs, both about 10 months old. It was interesting to see them – they may have come from Alaska or Russia, or even Greenland or Canada; they may go to land next summer, or they may spend their entire lives out here on the ice.

*I am not sure if anyone has left comments on recent posts, but if so, my apologies for not responding; I can email these dispatches to the Exploratorium but there is almost no internet connectivity on the ship and I cannot actually go online to see the website myself.

The cub trailing behind was very interested in the ship and wanted to walk over and examine it – the mother corralled it and the family group continued on.
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Catching Our First Bears, Based on a Tiny Floating City Tue, 06 Oct 2009 21:20:52 +0000 John Whiteman POLAR SEA, ON THE ARCTIC OCEAN– We have all adjusted quickly to life on a ship, but every once in a while, it is still quite striking to remember that we are on a very small, floating city, in one of the most remote places on earth...]]> ABOARD THE USCGC POLAR SEA, ON THE ARCTIC OCEAN– We have all adjusted quickly to life on a ship, but every once in a while, it is still quite striking to remember that we are on a very small, floating city, in one of the most remote places on earth. There are peculiarities about living on a ship that make everything just a little different. Overnight, dim red lighting is used not just on the bridge but throughout the ship. Every night at 10pm a general announcement (a “pipe”) comes over the PA system throughout the ship: “Taps taps, lights out, taps taps”, and the ship is darkened.

Because we are so far north, sunrise is already very late – occurring today at 1007am. Because we are so far west, almost to the international date line, sunset is also surprisingly late. I took this photo after 8pm. Daylight is visible through the porthole on a door, but the interior is already lit with overnight red lighting.

Unexpected aspects of life at home also come up. Tonight after dinner, I managed to watch some of the Minnesota Vikings – Green Bay Packers football game (I am from Minnesota). A satellite television signal is received on the ship with the Armed Forces Network, which shows some sports. The reception can be pretty sporadic however, and we lost signal in the 4th quarter. The Vikings were ahead…I hope they won.

I have begun to develop a mental image of the layout of the compartments of the ship (and, thankfully, I can finally find my room without the help of someone nice enough to stop and ask if I am lost). Everything is close here – the mess deck, our berths, our lab space – but connected by a maze of hallways and steep stairs. Walking around outside on the upper decks gives the impression of close-set apartment buildings in a city skyline.

The skyline, viewed standing on a weatherdeck near the bridge facing towards the back of the ship (aft).

Standing over the bridge and looking down on the bow of the ship as we slowly break ice in the evening. The red flag is flown in windy and icy conditions, to judge how the wind may affect the path of the ship and the movement of the ice.

We flew several days in the last week, locating bears for recapture. However most bears were traveling on thin, newly forming sea ice, which is unsafe for capture operations. We really need some colder weather to thicken the ice. Most days have been around 30 degrees (Fahrenheit), although the last two days have periodically dipped down to 21 degrees. Two days ago we finally had our first recapture. We relocated an adult female with her 10 month-old cub as they were traveling on good, thick ice. The capture went well, and we were able to repeat all of the sampling from her first capture, which occurred in May. It was excellent to see this bear again and collect samples that will tell us what she has been doing over the last 5 months. In overall appearance, she and her cub had good body condition. After breaking ice for several days to reach these bears, we will keep the ship in this general area hopefully as colder weather helps expand and solidify the ice pack.

We had a successful capture today as well. This female cub is only 10 months old but already weighs 211 pounds.

It is remarkable that the lack of good, thick ice has been such a problem for us. It was a problem that we considered before this trip but we did not think it would be so common. The ship has a chart of the Arctic that was printed in 1954, and it shows the average location of the ice edge in summer – several hundred miles south of our current position. Until recent years our current position would have been deep into the Arctic ice, rather than near the edge in patchy ice.

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Searching for Ice in the Arctic Thu, 01 Oct 2009 20:21:42 +0000 John Whiteman POLAR SEA, ON THE ARCTIC OCEAN-- This morning at breakfast we received word that we were within 20 miles of the last known location of a bear we are targeting for capture. Over the previous 24 hours we had cruised through several hundred miles of open water...]]> ABOARD THE USCGC POLAR SEA, ON THE ARCTIC OCEAN– Last night I had the opportunity to give a general presentation on this research project in the mess deck. Around 50 people attended, including many of the crew members of the ship, and it was a great chance to describe the general goals of the project and to present pictures and videos of previous captures. A general discussion followed the presentation, and hopefully a lot of folks running the ship took away a deeper understanding of the scientific goals we are pursuing.

This morning at breakfast we received word that we were within 20 miles of the last known location of a bear we are targeting for capture. Over the previous 24 hours we had cruised through several hundred miles of open water, and we hoped to be approaching the edge of the retreated sea ice; however, with only 20 miles between us and the bear, it was only open water in sight. We cannot dart a bear on small pieces of ice with much open water in the area – there is a possibility that a bear may run into the water to swim away, which is dangerous if the animal is going under the anesthetic. However, by the end of breakfast ice had been spotted, and we were still hopeful.

By 9am I went up to the bridge to see what the conditions looked like and await the daily flight briefing. This far north and west, sunrise is late – official sunrise today at our location was 947am. Thus the bridge was still dark and all the lights were dim red. This provides enough light for crew members to perform their jobs but it doesn’t force their eyes to adjust to bright light, which reduces their vision in the dark. Two huge floodlights lit the path in front of the icebreaker. Loose pieces of newly-formed ice, most no larger than several feet across, gently rolled over waves, but there was no thick ice in sight. As we moved west by southwest the ice seemed to get a little thicker so the flight briefing went on as planned and by just about dawn, the first helicopter launched.

The helicopter deck of the ship. To the right is the hangar. After landing, temporary wheels are attached to the skids of each helicopter and they are rolled from this deck into the hangar.

The first helicopter, carrying scientists from USGS and USFWS, radio-tracked our target bear and made visual contact. Unfortunately, the bear was standing on a piece of thick ice around 15 meters across, which was much too small for a safe darting operation. The helicopter gained altitude and scouted the surrounding area but did not see any promising ice. They returned to the ship and we had to make the decision to forego this bear and start cruising towards the next animal. Temperatures have been hovering in the low 30s (Fahrenheit), which is simply too warm for much formation of new ice. We need our bears to move onto thicker ice, or for the temperatures to drop so the new ice increases in thickness. The next target bear is over 100 miles to the north and seems to be quite a distance in from the ice edge, hopefully on thick ice remaining from last winter.

As we began cruising north from the location with poor ice, the ice immediately became thicker. Looking aft from the helicopter deck, we are leaving a trail of open water through about 3-6 inches of sea ice. By now I could walk across the ice and in an emergency, a helicopter could probably land on it. However, conditions still are not good enough for a capture operation.

As we began cruising north I took my lunch to a port-side lower deck and watched the ice go by; almost immediately, it began getting thicker. By evening we will be in position to launch for the next bear, but we will not have enough daylight. Thus we plan to launch at dawn tomorrow, and we hope to find thick ice from last winter to work on.

Standing on the bow of the boat you can hear the ice breaking; up to now, it has mostly been a gentle swish of thin ice getting pushed underwater. Turning around, you are faced with this imposing wall topped by the bridge.
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Finally at Sea Wed, 30 Sep 2009 01:50:28 +0000 John Whiteman POLAR SEA, ON THE BEAUFORT SEA-- After writing the last dispatch, I had a nearly sleepless night in Barrow because I was so worried about all the details involved with getting all the gear and people onto the ship the next day...]]> ABOARD THE USCGC POLAR SEA, ON THE BEAUFORT SEA– After writing the last dispatch, I had a nearly sleepless night in Barrow because I was so worried about all the details involved with getting all the gear and people onto the ship the next day. I finally gave in and woke up early. There had been concern in the community over whether our icebreaker operation would interrupt the opening day of whaling season. However, several whaling teams were successful that morning.

It took several hours to sort, weigh, and tag all of the personal luggage going out to the ship. It took several more hours to ferry the personnel by helicopter, and the luggage by landing craft. I stayed with the luggage to help keep it organized and insure that no pieces were mixed in with the outgoing science party. The day was windy with several snow squalls, and the landing craft rolled and crashed over large swells during the 20 minute ride out – it was a lot of fun.

Wearing a cold-water survival suit, waiting on the beach for the landing craft launched from the icebreaker.

It was surreal to pull up next to the icebreaker (399 feet long) in the launching craft (perhaps 35 feet long). Our little boat was getting pummeled by the waves – I had to brace myself against the handrail during the entire ride – and spray from smashing into waves had been washing over the open deck. However, as we pulled into the leeward side of the icebreaker, the immense ship sheltered us from the wind. I’m not sure, but the icebreaker must be at least 6 stories tall; it was like pulling the boat up to the base of an immense cliff. The Coast Guard personnel threw heavy lines up to the ship and secured the boat then we clambered up a rope ladder and onto deck. A different crew member immediately helped us gather our luggage, and showed us to our rooms.

The rest of the day was spent organizing (no surprise there). We hurriedly unpacked our own gear into our rooms then began the long process of finding all of the project gear in the cargo hold and bringing it up to the lab spaces. Somehow, in the narrow hallways and cramped stairs (more like ladders) of the ship, everyone managed to maneuver their equipment into the labs.

We left the Barrow area and cruised west then north, to avoid the waters near Barrow during whaling season. We then traveled east then north again; by this morning we were passing – and occasionally crushing – large pieces of floating ice. We have not cruised through any solid ice yet, only fields of floating ice. This morning I ducked out onto a side deck before breakfast to take this picture of dawn. Temperatures have been hovering around 30 degrees (Fahrenheit).

This morning we launched for captures for the first time. As we flew to the north, trying to radio track some bears for recaptures, I looked back and saw the icebreaker sitting in the trail of open water it had created. The ship that looked awesomely large from the water looked small from above. The deck from which we launched is visible at the stern. Unfortunately, because we did not encounter large areas of solid pack ice as we flew there were no safe places to perform captures. After short flights, we returned to the ship. We are currently underway and we plan to cruise north for about two days, towards different collared bears, in hopes of working on better sea ice.

The pace of work has continued to be frenetic – our lab is finally up and running, and all of the instruments seem to have made their journey intact. All of the capture equipment was in place for the flight today, and hopefully we will use it soon. Tonight is chance to catch up on some rest.

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