Monday, August 4, 2014

Shipwrecked Lobsters Make A Break For Freedom

I've always been a friend of the lifeguards. My brother is a lifeguard, and so are many of my friends. They spend about the same amount of time on the water as I do and I think they're just about the only ones who care as much as I do about tourists being safe, responsible and environmentally conscious beach-goers.
So the other day while I was sampling on the Balboa Pier in Newport Beach I naturally jumped up when I saw a lifeguard struggling down the pier with two large buckets of water. 

"Need a hand?" I said as I walked over to peer into his bucket. Inside each were three very large and very illegally caught lobsters. 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Thresher Sharks in Southern California!

Don't get me wrong, it's been a lovely summer here in Southern California.

At first I was ecstatic to be back in the land of tourists, surf competitions, and relentless sunshine, where traffic runs like clockwork and if it dips below 70F we all put on jackets as we go out for our evening yoga or zumba class. When I returned home I took up my previous jobs, working for CA Department of Fish and Wildlife (yay CRFS!), sampling fish, riding boats and occasionally saving animals and holding up fishing regulations (Politely, of course, by spreading information and asking them to voluntarily comply ... Sometimes thats all you need!). But life became a little predictable, and ok I'll say it, boring, without sub-polar storms, killer whales, or commuting by helicopter.

The good thing about field science is that it always has a way of coming out of left field with all manners of surprises, from a sticky, color changing, water squirting beast, or a couple hundred playful dolphins, to even a giant shark.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Species of Interest in Alaska

Since being back in the lower 48 I've realized one of the most amazing things about my trip to Alaska was the interesting, unique, and even adorable animals I learned and encountered out there. I decided a while ago to share a few favorite species on the blog and I've been collecting amusing stories and facts since then. It's been a fun little project that culminated in a several hour search for the cutest sea otter photo the internet has to offer!

I did get to see these animals in person, but I'm not a national geographic photographer, so I decided to just borrow some photos in an attempt to share with you what things actually look like.

Yep, pretty much the cutest thing in Alaska.

Sea Otters: One of the coolest things about staring out the windows in Alaska is that eventually a sea otter will swim past you! As one of the first protected animals on the endangered species act, sea otters aren’t too common in most areas, and currently listed as threatened because of population declines on the Aleutians. They’re fairly large (average 5ft long! Thats as tall as me!) , agile and amusing individuals who can commonly be found fighting off seagulls for their lunch, swimming lazily through the bay, and even napping in the kelp! Sea otters can eat just about any sea creature they find but each otter usually has a favorite food, and refuses to eat pretty much anything else. They look just as adorable as you’d expect.

Dawwww, so cute. Not entirely sure its a SEA otter, this guy may be a river otter, but no one cares at this point.

Baby steller sea lions aren't too scary.

Steller Sea Lions: These are no ordinary California sea lions; steller sea lions are HUGE (up to 2,500lbs and over  10ft, as opposed to CA sea lions at a max 1,000lbs) and FEARLESS! Also, they’re always hungry. Sometimes people attempt to feed them by dangling fish over the side of the boat, which is pretty stupid in my opinion, let alone illegal. That sea lion would just as soon take your arm off along with the fish if it gave him a free meal. I’ve heard stories of sea lions jumping out of the water, landing in the trawl alley of a boat, among the deck hands, and ambling its way towards its fish of choice. You might think, “Oh, no worries! He’s going to be slow on deck, you know, not having legs to walk with and all!” WRONG, if you see one on the deck, that’s your queue to get off of the deck.   

Adult steller sea lions, a lot more terrifying.

Not actually a rockfish, still hilarious.

Rockfish: Maybe it’s just because I’m a marine biologist but I think rockfish are pretty cool. There’s probably over a hundred different species found all over the world, and they all go great in fish tacos! Usually in the grocery store they go by the term “snapper” or sometimes “grouper”. Fun fact: Some species of rockfish, like yelloweye, can live for over 130 years! (And it can take over 25 years for them to reach maturity)

Quilback Rockfish, this is what actual rockfish look like.

Sea Stars: Boats sometimes catch invertebrates in their trawls, and I think my favorite one of the bunch is the Basket Sea Star. This guy is related to your classic orange sea star found in tidepools and aquariums alike, but instead of having five set arms, this species 5 main arms branch into a web of tentacles, giving off a pretty alien appearance. Only recently discovered, not much is known about its habits, life cycle or population …  But the basket sea star is cool looking.

Favorite non-edible invertebrate, basket sea star!

Wolf Eel: One of the most terrifying fish that can come up in a trawl in the Aleutian Islands is a wolf eel. They can be eight feet long, have large sharp front teeth and most the time samplers see them they’re still very much alive! Apparently wolf eels are generally friendly to divers; so somewhere between trapping them in a fishing net, and torturing them on deck, they get pissy.

Yeah, wolf eels look majestic here, wait until they're trying to bite your fingers off while you're sampling. 

Orcas at dawn, doesn't get more cliche than this.

Orcas : If there’s anything more frightening than facing off with a wolf eel, its definitely facing off with an orca in the water beside you. Orcas are known to follow fishing boats, stealing fish from long lines, peering out of curiosity into the trawl alley and generally playing around, intimidating people, sea lions and fish alike. Don’t get me wrong, I love orcas, it’s the highlight of my day when we see them in the bay. They’re beautiful, photogenic and probably smarter than a good portion of humans. All I’m saying is, I think I’d pick swimming in shark infested waters before I dove into the water with an orca.

Every time I see orcas in Alaska, its obvious by the tall black dorsal fins, they couldn't be any other animal!

But damn are they photogenic!

Information from the book ‘Marine Mammals of Alaska’ by Kate Wynne and ‘Certainly More Than You Want to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast’ by Milton Love

Note: None of these photos are mine, but its what the animals actually look like, my camera just isn't up to par. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

Alaskan Rush Hour

There is only one highway in Alaska and I’ve heard its one of the most dangerous roads in America. I wouldn’t actually know because I have never driven on it. This post is not about freeways, packed subways or any of those other typical commuting systems, this post is about how most people in Alaska commute to work. Before you ask, no, its not by sled-dog team, orca or polar bear ride … its by air.

Not my photo, but this is what flying over Alaska really looks like. 
Rush hour in Alaska, like most other places, is a predictable enough event, although instead of happening everyday at 7am and 5pm it happens each year at the beginning and end of fishing season.  There are essentially 5-6 “airports” (I use the term loosely for a reason, but we’ll get to that soon enough.) from which every person in the fishing industry attempts to fly into.  I’m talking everyone, fishermen, plant workers, contractors and, of course, observers. That’s almost two thousand people attempting to get through one little bottleneck of a transportation system, in a very small window of time, amidst Alaska’s  somewhat-less-than hospitable weather conditions.

We pick up my story just after Pollock processing in Akutan (which will hereby be referred to as Akutraz) finished for this season. My partner Mark and I were finished with our work at the plant sometime around Easter. All to excited to start our island hopping journey back to Seattle, we cleaned up our acts, packed all our gear  and prepared to leave immediately, but the plant had other plans for us. 

Upon asking, we were never really given exact details of when or how we might be leaving the plant. “Maybe tomorrow” was a central theme in my life for the next few days. Luckily the weather was beautiful for flying, unfortunately the only airline that flies to Akutraz had technical difficulties with ALL of their airplanes. So we waited. Each day we sat at breakfast/dinner (His breakfast but my night-shift dinner.) saying that we couldn’t possibly be stuck at the plant for too many more days, our hope and faith in the discussion waning as each day passed.  After we had our dinner/breakfast pow-wow Mark would head off to go wait for travel calls saying he’d wake me up if we got the call, I would go to sleep thinking this is my last sleep in Akutraz!

After a week of this game, we sat at our usual breakfast/dinner pow-wow, silently staring at our food. Neither of us wanted to play out the usual, “maybe tomorrow” conversation. We were out of hope, and done with this rock of an island. We needed to return to our cell phones, sushi and margaritas, in short, to civilization. After that dismal breakfast I was again sleeping in my room when I heard Mark through my door, “Ali, wake up, we’re on the helicopter at 10 today.”
“What? REALLY?!?! Ten? AM? … What time is it now?”
“Yes really. Get your shit packed. It’s 9am.”
We excitedly packed our bags and turned in our linens and keys! At 9:45 am the travel coordinator for the plant came into our office, “Lists have changed, which means you’ve been canceled.” 
What? How? H-h-h-how can they just do that? Just like that? No helicopter, no sushi, no cell phones? Defeated, I sulked back to my now empty room, to go sleep on a now bare mattress and wait for another day.  I had slipped into a black, exhausted sleep when I heard Mark yet again on the other side of my door, “Just kidding, we’re really flying this time. Get up. The van should take us to our flight in five minuets.”
This is how excited I was to be leaving. Always reminds me of that quote from Finding Nemo "The sun is shining, the tank is clean, and we are getting out of HERE!" 
Well this time he was right! It was an exciting ride. The wind was blowing; a weather front was headed in. As we lifted off the ground the helicopter immediately swayed in the wind. Each gust blew us one way or another, in this little bubble of flying metal and gasoline. Each time we tipped in the wind I got an all too broad view of the angry ocean below. The helicopter pilot was determined to fly all seventy people from Akutan to Akun so we could all make our flights from Akun to Dutch today! A little shaken up, but also excited we landed in Akun’s tiny, double-wide storage container trailer of an airport.   

We felt quite accomplished to be out of Akutraz, until we realized the airport’s only storage container trailer was so full of people you physically couldn’t fit another person inside. Not that there’s much in the trailer, its a heated room with a few folding chairs. No worries, it was in the high thirties and only slightly snow/raining, we could wait out or flight huddling on the leeward side of the “airport” trailer. 45 minuets of freezing our butts off later, an airport crewmember informed us that all 70 of the people waiting in the trailer we expected to make it out of Akun today … If the weather holds. Luckily the plane holds 9 people and there was only abouy 70 waiting to fly. Yay? We succumbed to the cold after a few hours, joined the least fun game of sardines ever, and set about thinking over “Why, oh why didn’t we think to grab lunch at the cafeteria before leaving Akutraz?”

As our turn to fly approached, the rate of time passing seemed to decrease in an almost asymptotic curve. I assumed when our plane eventually arrived, time would stop completely and we’d end up being stuck forever in this dingy, overcrowded trailer. The weather did nothing for our nerves. It got progressively worse until visibility was a fraction of what it was that morning and the wind was blowing so hard you could hear it screaming over the roof of our pitiful shelter.  

Finally we were the last 9 people left, and we heard the props of our plane as it touched down the runway! We jumped for joy, physically. It was surprisingly beautiful flight. The fog and weather came in patches over our 50 mile ride. At times we were flying in grey soup, but at other times we would edge out into a clear patch, and I realized we we’re flying over a sunbathed sea as the clouds swirled over the island mountain tops! It was beautiful. And then we saw Dutch Harbor. Our approach was much less violent that my experience flying in February. Again we flew through a valley so low you could see cliffs on both sides of the plane. Before I knew it we were hovering over the runway and smoothly touching down at the closest thing to civilization I’ve been to in the past three months! We had cell reception at last! We hopped in a cab to leave our bags at the bunkhouse and then headed off for a sushi dinner! (Which was amazing, but if anyone is qualified to judge raw fish quality I guess it’d be the people on the Aleutian Islands.) 

Hopefully we can fly back to the lower 48 tomorrow morning. But for that night I was contented with sushi, a drink, and a working cell phone.   Commuting in Alaska, like everything else, is extreme. So far my commute had taken over 5 days, and I had really only traveled 50 miles … in the opposite direction of home! (Yep, Dutch Hrabor is 50 miles WEST of Akutan.)

Over the next 3 days we played the “wait at the airport on standby for 9 hours everyday” game hoping to catch a flight to Anchorage. Finally we were able to talk our way onto a private charter plane headed to Anchorage that had a few extra seats. Our travel manager pulled some magic out of her hat, got us on the plane and we were home free! Well at least Seattle bound for once.
Sunset over Anchorage from the air. 

So the next time you're sitting in traffic, thinking this is taking forever and that you’ll never get home, remember that if you were working in Alaska it could take you three plane rides, a helicopter, 4 stop-overs and EIGHT DAYS just to get back to civilization! And that’s how Alaska does rush hour.
Hiking in Dutch Harbor while we were stranded.