Friday, February 21, 2014

Open Water

Location: Bering Sea
Temp: Cold
Swell: Enough to make it difficult to walk in a straight line. 10-ish feet?

Firstly, these are a few shots from dawn on 02/19/14

Good morning from the Bering Sea! And good news, I now know how to do my job- sorta!  I had forgotten how much I like doing science, its fun.

A few things to note about life at sea:

I could be 400 miles away from shore, I could be half a mile from shore, I could be traveling east, west, north or south … Everything looks the same if you can’t see land. Monster waves, white caps that highlight the turquoise blue water, occasionally spray over the bow, mostly dark grey water meets light grey or black sky. The only thing that changes is light to dark. But that gets confusing, not only because dawn is around 10 am, but also because my bunk is so dark. I continuously wake up thinking it’s the middle of the night, and usually it’ll be 10 in the morning. Everyone on the crew must think I’m so lazy!

I know you all are probably wondering this, no, I’m not seasick, and I haven’t puked yet! The first day I didn’t feel awesome and it was getting late so I took one Dramamine and passed out! That’s right, I spent my birthday passed out in my bunk, even skipping dinner. But I made up for it and had a celebratory drumstick last night after finishing my first two samples! The rocking of the ship mostly just makes me really sleepy, which, I’m sure, adds to the “the observer is super lazy” factor.

On land I’m a side sleeper. On a boat you have two options, stomach or back. If you attempt to lay on your side, firstly you get a great ab workout, but more importantly you strain your neck, back and legs so much to keep yourself in the position that its no longer comfortable. Just as you're about to fall asleep the boat pushes you onto your back or stomach and wakes you up. So instead, I’ve decided to take up sleeping on my back with both arms out perpendicular to my legs and bracing myself against the side of my bunk. I still slide around a bit, but its good enough to keep me asleep till “morning” … whatever THAT means anymore.

Regardless of where we are, I’m amazed that there’s BIRDS! They’re everywhere, in the middle of the ocean! And they fly so close to the boat. Mostly western gulls and northern fulmars (Fun Fact: Western fulmars have a giant tube on their beak instead of nostrils, it looks hilarious, & makes me feel like they’d make a honk noise for a call.) but I’ll keep a lookout for an endangered short tailed albatross!

Not much else to tell for now. Have a nice day shoreside!
This is the view headed in to Akutan today! (02/21/14)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Bering Sea Birthday

Location: Bering Sea
Temp: 29F
Swell: 1 ft

Yesterday was my first full day on my assigned vessel … and also my birthday. Yay?

There are good and bad points of spending my birthday here, but I figure this is an experience worth the sacrifices (And this is a happy post, so I don’t want to linger on the sacrifices I’ve made.). I can, and fully plan on celebrating with family and friends when I get home in the spring. As if we need any excuse to make a round of margaritas or crack open a nice bottle of wine! The moral of the story is: no regrets on the Bering Sea Birthday!  

 Anyways, here I am on my boat (yes in the middle of the Bering Sea)! It’s a small boat with far fewer than 10 crewmembers. I think it works for the boat, they seem to function well together and generally like each other. It makes the whole boat seem more like a team than a WORK STATION. They are all from the same town, and they keep all the clocks on the boat turned to their home time, which I think its great, although at times, confusing.  It’s funny, every night when a few of the guys turn in they always say “Thanks for comin’ to work.” … as if going into our little cubby-hole bunks bears any resemblance to going home.

Speaking of home, the boat, my home away from home for the next however many days, is really amiable! No one on the crew smokes, (I think a few are trying to quit. Good for them!), the house is kept very clean, and they make pretty good food! We had pizza subs for lunch yesterday. It must have been the first time I’d had them since probably 6th grade, and now I’m wondering why I deserted them for so long? Plus, I lucked out in the fact that I have internet, so I can continue to post to the blog even while out on the water! (No photos unless I’m on land, but that’s ok, cause I’m not allowed to take photos of catch etc anyways.) Overall I think this is an awesome assignment, and I’m very happy to be with a crew of good people.

We’re running out to the fishing grounds now. Should take a while, so I have time to write! I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the sight of the Aleutian Islands. As we left Akutan we passed through a channel bordered on both sides by steep cliffs. Snow covers all of the islands except where these steep cliffs meet the water; there, with binoculars, you can see massive icicles dripping down the cliff like frozen blue waterfalls. It really is stunning. 

One of my favorite pastimes as of lately is staring out the window. This morning I stared at dawn … at 9:30am. The islands turned pink as the sun came up over the other side of the bay. The water was like glass – and then I realized it was because there was a thin sheet of ice along the surface … it might as well have BEEN glass. One of my favorite sights is watching the sea otters tease bald eagles with their snacks of snow crab. Yeah, you read that correctly, the otters eat snow crab and try to keep it from the bald eagles like we keep our french fries from the seagulls at home. Though if the gulls from SoCal made it up here I think they’d die of a heart attack from the cold shock (French fries may have been a contributing factor.)… or starvation, cause god knows they’ve lost all natural hunting instincts. They call the bald eagles here ‘Dutch Harbor Pigeons’, and they’re everywhere!

So to sum up my day I leave you with this Haiku:

Ice, otters, eagles
Pink dawn on snowy mountain
Bering Sea Birthday    

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

North to Alaska!

Temp: 28F

My equiptment.
So yesterday I left Seattle, finally. And what an adventure it was. I guess I should start at the beginning.

I was a little stressed packing my stuff the night before, it’s intense leaving for Alaska! My alarm completely malfunctioned and didn’t go off so I was woken up by a phone call at 3:30 am “Hey, this is your shuttle driver, I’m outside.”


I quickly grabbed my stuff, and ran out the door, praying I didn’t forget anything. Who needs breakfast or deodorant anyways?
My Seattle to Anchorage flight was pretty commonplace. I was on a normal commercial airplane and when we got the announcement that we were descending for our landing I looked out the window to see the ocean beneath the clouds. It was dark grey and familiar. I was waiting to come across the shoreline when suddenly there it was! But it wasn’t just the shore, it was a mountain recklessly careening into the ocean amidst the fog and wind. And nestled among the mountains sits the only lit town within sight, Anchorage. Welcome to Alaska.

Anchorage, kinda.
Upon landing I checked the connecting flight page for my next gate … according to this sign Dutch Harbor wasn’t a destination at all, for any airline. So I did what I have now learned is the best bet in any situation, I politely asked for help. The airline information desk looked at me with a pitiful and knowing sign, oh that’s with PenAir your gate is downstairs and outside. I exit the secure airport area, wander down the stairs into the airport basement where I find a rickety snack stand, a small PenAir travel desk, and some 30 obvious fishermen waiting for thier flight to Dutch. When I checked in for my flight to Dutch Harbor, they asked me one thing, how much do you and your carry-on weigh? News Flash: This is when you know you’ve left normal society and have arrived in the express lane to the end of civilization as you know it.

Our plane arrived and we walked out in the snow along the tarmac into our little 25-person plane. The flight attendant issued ear-plugs when we boarded. I was so relieved to have found the plane and made it to Alaska that I slept most of the flight, until the announcement that we were descending to land in Cold Bay … decidedly not Dutch Harbor.

Boarding the plane to Dutch

At this point I couldn’t have accurately pointed out my location on a map within 200 miles. We landed in Cold Bay to refuel, they do this in case weather prevents us from landing in Dutch (which is almost all of the time) we can fly all three hours back to Anchorage to wait out the weather. Cold Bay does live up to it’s name. There’s nothing there except a runway, a jet fuel station and a grocery store, that you have to call ahead if you intend on going to because it won’t be open otherwise. Less than 50 people live in the small village, and honestly I don’t know how even THAT many people stay.

We take off from Cold Bay to Dutch Harbor, hoping for favorable weather. Traveler’s Tip: Do Not fly to Dutch Harbor if you are at all uneasy about flying. It was one of those flights that keeping your seatbelt on is a must, and don’t expect to keep a cup of coffee or water upright on your tray table unless you’re holding it there. The turbulence is worth it for the view. We flew lower this time, below the clouds so I could see the Islands. The islands are beautiful snow covered mountains clashing with the sea.  My view was a breathtaking stormy seascape with every shade of white, blue, grey and turquoise you can imagine. As we came in for our landing we flew between two mountaintops, so low that I could see the mountains out of both side windows! It’s the kind of landing that everyone applauds when you touch ground. I think one guy puked when he got off the plane.  

Coming in for our landing in Dutch Harbor
Amazingly the weather cooperated, and we landed on our first try! Sometimes it can take days to get from Anchorage to Dutch. In the Dutch Harbor airport there is three travel desks for various island hopping airlines, one baggage room and a small bar/restaurant.  I made myself comfortable in the bar, ordered lunch and settled in for my three hour wait till my next flight to Akun (Pronounced A-coon) which leaves at four in the afternoon. … 4:30 PM I’m sleeping at the airport still no sign of my plane. 5:30 the plane arrives! I thought the plane to Dutch was small; the plane to Akun fits seven passengers and one pilot. SEVEN! And apparently piloted by an ex-air force pilot. I can believe that. 

We landed in Akun, which is essentially a snow-covered rock, literally in the middle of nowhere, with a runway … now what? Oh, turns out that flight was not my last, in fact, in order to get to Akutan I have to take a helicopter! Which only seats three passengers and a pilot. So we take off in the helicopter, all of my scientific equipment was left in Akun because the helicopter couldn’t fit the weight. I land in the village of Akutan, which compared to previous locals of this journey is a veritable city! They have a church/community center and a seafood processing plant. They set me up in a small windowless room to wait for my boat and fed me dinner. I was never so happy to have salad, warm potatoes and short ribs in my entire life.

Riding a Helicopter to work!
“Your boat should be in sometime between 0100-0300, someone will come get you when they arrive.” They told me. Exhausted, I lay down for a short nap before meeting my boat. Next thing I know I wake up in my dark windowless room, it must be the middle of the night, no one has come looking for me. I check my phone and find its actually 9:45 AM! Well crap, I’ve missed breakfast. Guess I’ll go out to find my boat and hopefully my equiptment. All I want in life is my extra tuffs (rubber boots) and for my feet not to be a frozen, wet snow covered mess for another day in a row, they’re with my equiptment in Akun. But the sun is shining, a bald eagle is perched outside the office, and I’m told my boat should be here soon. I think it’s going to be a good day!   

Short Note: I cannot upload phots for the time being. Im really sorry that I cant cause It’s amazingly beautiful! As soon as I can I’lll make an effort to upload photos of flying/helicopter adventures and all the snow covered islands!

Akutan 02/18/14
The view from my vessel.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Do's & Don'ts of Observer Life

Seattle WA ... Yep still here.

So its way too cold for this Southern Californian to venture out any further than the kitchen for tea today; instead, I think I'll spend the afternoon catching you all up on life in Seattle. I have settled into what they call "observer life" quite nicely. Technically I'm a professional - but only in the strictest definition of someone who gets paid to do something, not at all in the showers-goes-to-the-office-wears-business-attire-home-by-five professional sense.

Side Note: One of my favorite marine biologists, Dr. Milton Love, has the best website ever, and I quote, "Dedicated to Good Science and Self Aggrandizement." One of the pages on said website is titled "So You Want To Be A Marine Biologist" It actually gives some very solid advice on the subject. My favorite part is that one of the reasons to be a marine biologist he says is that you can act and dress, pretty much, however you want:

"Marine biologists are almost entirely free of any of those silly restrictions that blight the professional landscape of our fellow proletarians. This is because no one really cares about what we do or what we say. You want to come to work dressed in scabrous khaki shorts and a torn black Sandman shirt? Fine. You want to grow a scruffy beard, get a tattoo of a gooseneck barnacle on your arm or burp at inopportune moments? No problem, just do good work." 

With that said, I give you the Do's and Don'ts of "Observer Life"

Do get a pair of comfy sweatpants you could foreseeably take on the apocalypse in (aka really soft, warm sweats you'd be content to spend the rest of your life in). Bonus points if they have your home state or university on them, mine are stamped with SoCal Surf Club.

Don't go anywhere without your phone while waiting for a boat. The second you put your phone down and leave the apartment your travel manager will call you with an assignment and tickets to a plane that takes off in three hours.

Do take up some sort of addictive habit to kill time. Most choose tobacco of some form, caffeine, or the ever preset lure of bars and night life. I have found that a raging reading addiction can be nearly just as expensive as the rest of these and doesn't upset my stomach like coffee.

Don't go grocery shopping for any more than a couple days in advance. It's a fun game to play, betting your food supply against when you'll fly out. If you buy a week's worth of groceries you're sure to get an assignment for tomorrow, but if you hold off shopping, and eat the lentils/crappy leftovers and other assortments of free items on the shelf you'll be waiting for weeks. Hmm, I guess this is kind of a DO item if you want a boat.

Do leave the apartment! You think you're stir crazy now, just wait till you don't have the option of leaving. Take advantage, learn the neighborhoods, and find some good thai food ... or whatever kind of food you like that they don't have in Dutch Harbor (there's lots).

Don't expect to hold on to any amount of money while waiting in Seattle. When you have literally nothing to be doing its easy to just let cash slip through your fingers, going to lunch, for coffee, the movies or just wandering around the mall, ANYTHING to kill time. I wont even mention attempting to cover your bar tab.

Do attempt to stay active! Its 27 degrees today, colder than the Aleutian Islands. I've given up running or cycling outside and I'm now on a free trial at the local gym (also another addictive habit to kill time). I'm wondering how long I can continue the free trial until they actually make me start paying to go to spin class.

Don't go to spin class every day for a week and expect to walk down stairs like a normal human being.

Do find silly things to brighten your day. Yesterday I went to the dollar store and bought a giant, bright red, fuzzy heart to hang in the bunk house for Valentine's Day. I wonder if it will still be hanging there when I come back in May.

Don't take naps. If you take a nap in the middle of the day you wont be tired by bedtime and you end up staying up late and either going out with everyone else to the clubs or becoming a vampire. Either way your circadian rhythm is one of your last connections to normal society, try to hold onto it as long as possible. (Note: This doesn't apply to life on boats.)

Do stay positive, active and busy -and one day your ship will come in ... literally.