NOAA Teacher at Sea: Story Miller
NOAA Ship: Oscar Dyson
Mission: Summer Pollock III
Geographical Area: Bering Sea
Date: July 29, 2010
Time: 1922 ADT
Wind: 5 knots (approx. 5.8 mph or 9.3 km/h)
Direction: 9.8° (N)
Sea Temperature: 10.1°C (approx. 50.2°F)
Air Temperature: 8.7°C (approx. 47.7°F)
Barometric Pressure (mb): 1015
Wave Height: 0 – 1 feet
Swell Height: 1 – 2 feet
I decided that it would be beneficial to provide some information regarding some of the animals I have seen over the past week.
Short-tailed Albatross (Phoebastria albatrus)
Yesterday morning during breakfast, one of the NOAA Corps Ensigns came down to tell me that there was a Short-tailed Albatross off the port side (left side) of the boat. This was a very special event, especially if you are an avid birder because currently there are about 2000-2500 in the world. The short-tailed albatross is one of three species of albatross living in the North Pacific Ocean and is the largest of all seabirds in this location. This bird has a wingspan of approximately two meters. One could conclude that the bird I saw was younger because young short-tailed albatross have “chocolate brown” feathers when young and as they grow larger they turn white. This bird likes to eat squid, small fishes like pollock, and zooplankton. The albatross population dwindled because the birds were very easy to access due to them only nesting on a couple islands in Japan and they were not afraid of humans. As a result they were really easy to kill and because there was a high market value for their feathers, hunters pursued them to near extinction. In fact it is said that in 1953 there were only about 10 pairs left in the world.
Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis)
This species of bird has been consistently following our ship since we left Dutch Harbor. They are primarily a pelagic bird which means that unless they are breeding, they are living out at sea throughout the year. The Northern Fulmar can be found in a range of different colors depending on where they were born. Generally, the darker birds are found in the southern parts of Alaska and the white are found farther north. However, if you are on the Atlantic side of the US the pattern is just the opposite with the darker birds originating in the high Arctic and the light are found farther south! These birds typically feed on squid and small fish. One fact that I find fascinating about the Northern Fulmars is that they have the ability to launch their puke up to 6 feet as a defense mechanism! I shall now remember it as the projectile vomiting bird!
Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla)
One interesting fact about this bird is that it has only three functional toes, hence the tri prefix in its scientific name. These birds are white and their wings are gray. Because I grew up in the desert, my untrained eye mistakenly identified them as a seagull but thanks to USFWS scientists Marty Reedy and Liz Labunski, I am now informed of the differences! This bird is also pelagic and their breeding season is during this time. These birds feed on small fish and they are found around the coasts of Alaska, the Bering Sea, and in the northern Canadian Atlantic Coast. When the black-legged Kittiwake feeds, it usually catches its prey on the surface of the ocean but it has been known to plunge underwater. Typically they feed on zoopankton.
Red-legged Kittiwake (Rissa brevirostris)
As stated in its name this bird has bright coral red legs and is typically shorter than the Black-legged Kittiwake. These birds are most commonly found mostly in the Pribilof Islands and there are only about five or six places in the world where they breed, all of which are in the Bering Sea.
Short-tailed Shearwater (Puffinus tenuirostris)
These birds are known to breed off Australia. In the summer they migrate to Alaska, a trip of about 9000, and have been known to take as little as six weeks! In Australia they are important in the Aboriginal culture in Tasmania and are commercially harvested for food, feathers, and oil. These birds usually eat crustaceans but are also known to eat fish and squid. To catch their prey, they will plunge or dive into the water. One interesting adaptation is that they are able to convert their food to oil and the benefit is that oil does not have as much weight as an ingested animal which allows the birds to travel long distances.
Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma furcata)
When I first saw these birds I thought a bat was flying over the water due to a slightly more erratic flight pattern than the smooth flights of the other birds I have observed. These birds typically feed at the surface of the water. Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels are also pelagic, living approximately 8 months at sea and when they do return to their breeding grounds in late-spring, they will dig burrows in the soil or find ideal nest locations in rock crevices. The baby chicks are thought to have a unique adaptation for survival. Sometimes the parents leave the baby alone for many days to look for food. During this time the baby’s body head drops into a state of torpor until the parents return and raises its body temperature.
Pomarine Jaeger (Stercorarius pomarinus)
These birds are capable of backward somersaults in the air and take part in acts of piracy as they have been known to harass other birds until the lesser bird gives up its food. The Pomarin Jaegers primarily feed on lemmings and even have a reproductive period that is dependent on the brown lemming! According to the USFWS they are “the only avian predator that digs for lemmings.”
Smooth Lumpsucker (Aptocyclus ventricosus)
Lumpsuckers live in cold waters in the Northern Hemisphere. They have a disk underneath their body that allows them to cling to rocks. “All but a few lumpsuckers have spiny tubercles on the head and body” (2002). There are 27 species of lumpsuckers and 10 are confirmed to occur in Alaska with 3 more species are known to be near Alaska. These fish can be found on the bottom of the sea, usually on the continental shelf.
After my shift ended yesterday, I hung out on the bridge and looked at seabirds and tried to find evidence of land (Russia) since we are so close. The day was clear and sure enough, right after supper, Russia was spotted! While I have not been out to sea that long, the idea of land coming into view was an exciting feeling. Perhaps the feeling was because the land belonged to Russia and I had never been there before or that the sighting of land broke up the monotony of the never-ending stretch of moving water. I feel that the feeling was derived from a little bit of both. While I was searching for Russia, I had the opportunity to observe a Fin Whale about one mile (~1.5km) ahead of the boat. A few times, it came out of the water enough so that you could see its total back and dorsal fin! For me, Fin Whales have been the most commonly spotted.
This morning, after repeatedly launching the experimental Cam-Trawl with no results, we finally snagged a picture of a fish early this morning! The picture was very dark and the fish, mostly a blur but it was obvious that the image was a fish! This is yet another example of how a scientist must be patient as it is common in real-life experiments, as opposed to structured labs in the classroom, to have tests fail multiple times before useful results occur!
In the evening, I decided to spend time on the bridge again and watch for whales. I was in luck yet again as I was able to see two Humpback whales! They were swimming very close to the ship, but not close enough for the zoom on my camera! I was able to watch them for a good twenty minutes before they “fluked” (showed their tail) and dove deep underwater!
Overall it was a very interesting couple of days!
Denlinger, L.M. 2006. Alaska Seabird Information Series. Unpubl. Rept., U.S. Fish and Wildl. Serv., Migr. Bird Manage., Nongame Program, Anchorage, AK
Mecklenburg, C.W., Mecklenburg, T.A., & Thorsteinson, L.K. (2002). Fishes of alaska. Bethesda, MD: American Fisheries Society.
USFWS scientists Liz Labunski and Marty Reedy
Shrimp (unidentified) but they looked like what I have for dinner!
Something to Consider:
Many people, including myself, enjoy watching animals but never learn what their common names are! We take for granted the wonders of Mother Nature that we see everyday and sometimes disregard them as being “normal.” However, what you see may not be normal for other people, such as seeing high populations of bald eagles in Dutch Harbor and Unalaska! It is never too late to learn and if, for example, you move to a different location with different flora and fauna, you can share with your new friends the environment from which you came! I find when traveling to other countries or other locations in the “Lower 48” that they assume Alaska is always cold, snowy, and that penguins live there (which they don’t)! When I take my pictures with me, it is exciting to see other people’s reactions and the conversations afterward are always engaging!
Now would be a great time to photograph the animals and plants you see inhabiting the land surrounding your home. You never know when you may bump into an avid “birder” or other animal specialist that could tell you their names. Or, if you are feeling particularly enthusiastic on a foul weather day, there are many identification books available in your local library.