Marine Mammal Surveys: Barrow

Folks around here are subsistence whalers. Mike says, "this, while intended as humorous, is also an honest statement of their sentiments. These people can live off of a relatively few bowheads a year, so they don't like industrial extraction. It cuts into their food source."
Folks around here are subsistence whalers. Mike says, “this, while intended as humorous, is also an honest statement of their sentiments. These people can live off of a relatively few bowheads a year, so they don’t like industrial extraction. It cuts into their food source.”

Mike is in the High Arctic to help folks with NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory (NMML) with their annual Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals (ASAMM) program in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off the northern coast of Alaska. Surveys began in the late 1970s. Objectives include:

  • describing the annual bowhead whale migration across the Arctic
  • documenting abundance and behavior of cetaceans, ice seals, walruses, and polar bears,
  • mapping observations for use by other agencies, and
  • providing an objective wide-area context for understanding marine mammal ecology in the Alaskan Arctic, to help inform management decisions and interpret results of other small-scale studies.
Bowhead whale. Credit: Pete Duley, NEFSC/NOAA(NOAA/NMFS/AFSC/NMML, NMFS Permit No. 14245, Funded by BOEM, IA Contract No. M11PG00033)
Bowhead whale. Credit: Pete Duley, NEFSC/NOAA(NOAA/NMFS/AFSC/NMML, NMFS Permit No. 14245, Funded by BOEM, IA Contract No. M11PG00033)
Wooden whaling boat. There are also walrus-hide umiaks in town. It must be very sporty to hunt large whales from such small boats.
Wooden whaling boat. There are also umiaks (open boats made using skins stretched over wooden frames) in town. It must be very sporty to hunt very large whales from very small boats.

So what’s Mike actually doing? He wrote, and maintains, the software that records detailed, real-time observations of mammals and their behavior while flying prescribed transects over the ocean. He records in-flight observations called out by biologists, fixes bugs, and edits data.

Sitting behind Karen, an observer, and Stan the Pilot, ready to record marine mammal sightings.
Sitting behind Karen, an observer, and Stan the Pilot, ready to record marine mammal sightings.
In-flight display of the plane's actual location.
In-flight display of the plane’s actual location.
The King Eider Inn, Barrow.
The King Eider Inn, Barrow.

He’s currently based in Barrow (pop. ~4200), but will move east to Deadhorse for the second half of the survey. He’s staying at the convenient (next to the airport) and cozy King Eider Inn. If the weather clears enough to fly, the team is right there, ready to go.

Here are pictures of what Barrow and the region look like at this time of year.

The runway. It very often looks like this.
The road along the coast, to the northeast of town. Splendid views.
This rig has both flat tires and is slowly sinking into the thawing permafrost. When cars break around here, this is often what happens to them.
This rig has both flat tires and is slowly sinking into the thawing permafrost. When cars break around here, this is often what happens to them.
Barrow backyards as viewed from the hotel room window. Miscellaneous Arctic stuff, including a pile of wolf pelts.
Barrow backyards as viewed from the hotel room window. Miscellaneous Arctic stuff, including a pile of wolf pelts (center).
Flying along the coast on a clear, calm day.
Flying along the coast on a clear, calm day.
Where the Brooks Range (and maybe the Noatak River?) meet the ocean.
Where the Brooks Range and a large river meet the sea.
Refueling in Kotzebue.
Refueling in Kotzebue.
Typical lagoon-and-wet-tundra landscape.
Typical lagoon-and-wet-tundra landscape.

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