Tara Fogleman, June 11, 2007

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Tara Fogleman
Onboard NOAA Ship John N. Cobb
June 1 – 14, 2007

Mission: Alaskan Harbor Seal Pupping Phenology and Site Monitoring
Geographical Area: Southeast Alaska
Date: June 11, 2007

During the past two days, we have been monitoring seal haulouts in glacial areas such as the LeConte Glacier and the Dawes Glacier (located in Endicott Arm).  These areas are very different from the sites that we have been visiting in the previous part of this study—instead of hauling out on rocky reef islands, the seals in this area haul out on floating ice that has calved, or broken off, from the glaciers.  Because the ice is always available for haulout, regardless of the tides, we are less constricted by the tides when planning our visits to these haulout sites.

Dave Withrow, Chief Scientist aboard the JOHN N. COBB, took several photos of Dawes Glacier and stitched them together to create this panoramic view.  Photos such as these, along with GPS coordinates, can help scientists monitor changes in the glacier over time.

Dave Withrow took several photos of Dawes Glacier and stitched them together to create this panoramic views that can help scientists monitor changes in the glacier over time.

Glaciers—Ice on the Move 

Glaciers are basically frozen rivers of ice that form between mountain peaks, due to the accumulation and compaction of years of snowfall.  As the surface of these glaciers melt due to heat from the sun, meltwater plunges through open crevices in the ice, breaking up the ice and lubricating its base, causing the glacier to move towards the water.  Of course, snowfall continues to replenish the tops of these moving glaciers; however, due to an increase in global temperatures during the recent years, these glaciers are melting faster than they can be replenished and are currently moving towards the water at unprecedented rates.  Mountain glaciers play an important role in the ecology of Alaska—these ice reservoirs serve as water banks and, as mentioned earlier, provide a place for female harbor seals to give birth to their pups.  Scientists are very concerned about the retreat of the glaciers in Alaska, and as a component of our study, we will attempt to document the location of the glaciers that we visit and compare our data with previous years.

LeConte Glacier 

Harbor seals haul out on floating ice that calves from nearby glaciers.  In this photo of the LeConte Glacier, three harbor seals are visible.

Harbor seals haul out on floating ice that calves from nearby glaciers. In this photo of the LeConte Glacier, three harbor seals are visible.

After staying the night in Petersburg, Dan (our Executive Officer) drove the JOHN N. COBB through Frederick Sound, on our way to LeConte Bay.  Once anchored, Dave and I secured a packed lunch from Bill, the Chief Steward, and headed in the small skiff towards the LeConte Glacier. The area around the LeConte Glacier was filled with floating ice, which made for a bumpy and loud boat ride.  We bounced off chunks of ice as we made our way toward the glacier, stopping to survey the area for harbor seals about every quarter of a mile.  Generally, I observed female/pup pairs hauled out on smaller pieces of ice that allowed easy access to the water. However, as we moved towards the face of the glacier, I observed a greater number of seals hauling out in groups, usually without pups. These groupings are most likely pregnant females who have not given birth yet. The glacial sites were different from the rocky reef sites, where the seals were generally concentrated in one area of the reef. Here, near LeConte, the seals were more evenly spread out and in pairs or small groups, which made it a little more difficult to count.

This female harbor seal and her pup were photographed near the LeConte Glacier in southeastern Alaska

This female harbor seal and her pup were photographed near the LeConte Glacier

Because the female harbor seals give birth to their pups on these floating ice surfaces, we commonly saw icebergs bathed in bright red blood from the birthing process.  Dave told me that he has often seen birds, such as bald eagles, feeding on the afterbirth that is delivered after the seal pup is born. This afterbirth also contains white hair, called lanuga, which covers the pup in the uterus and is shed prior to the birth.  Other closely-related seals, such as the spotted seal found in the Arctic, are born with this lanuga still covering the body. The white hair provides camouflage, allowing the white seal pup to blend in with the ice and snow. After a few weeks, when the pup is stronger, the lanuga is shed. Scientists believe that harbor seals and spotted seals most likely evolved from a common species, and the development and shedding of lanuga reinforces this belief.   

Chief Scientist Dave Withrow poses on an iceberg near the LeConte Glacier.

Chief Scientist Dave Withrow poses on an iceberg near the LeConte Glacier.

After surveying for seals and eating a quick lunch, we spent some time photographing and admiring the scenery around LeConte.  Because of the large chunks of ice that knocked against each other in the water, it was difficult to maneuver the boat up to the glacier to get a close-up view. However, the area had many other amazing sights, including steep, snow-topped mountains, roaring waterfalls, and large, breathtaking icebergs. Hunks of ice floated around the boat in a variety of shades of white, gray, and blue, some towering thirty feet above us.  The bright sun melted them as we passed by, sculpting the ice into fantastic shapes.

Dawes Glacier 

The weather turned colder and the sky became cloudier on the morning that we set out for Dawes Glacier at the end of Endicott Arm. I bundled up in layers of long underwear, polypropylene, and wool, and on top of that, I donned my Mustang suit—a thick orange and black suit that protects from cold temperatures and provides personal flotation in an emergency.  Our visit to the glacier would take several hours, and it was important that I was protected from the cold wind that blows off of the glacial ice.  The Dawes Glacier site provided a better opportunity to approach the actual glacier, as compared to LeConte, where the floating ice made it difficult to maneuver the small skiff. As we traveled towards the glacial ice, we stopped periodically to scan for harbor seals and their pups. As in LeConte, we observed nearly 300 seals, mostly consisting of mom and pup pairs. The seals at this site seemed less afraid of our skiff, most likely due to increased boat traffic in the area.  In fact, while we were visiting the site, I noticed at least four small skiffs transporting tourists in the same area that we were conducting our study.

At Dawes Glacier, the seals seemed less frightened of boat traffic, most likely due to the increasingly large number of tour boats and vessels that make their way into Endicott Arm each day.

At Dawes Glacier, the seals seemed less frightened of boat traffic, most likely due to the increasingly large number of tour boats and vessels that make their way into Endicott Arm each day.

Throughout my cruise, I have noticed that the water in Alaska varies in color, from steel gray to a bright blue-green. Here at the Dawes Glacier, the water was a light, translucent teal—almost resembling the color of a glass Coke bottle.  Chunks of ice were scattered along the surface, moving slowly with the tide and the strong winds.  Some of these bergs were translucent and glass-like; others were a cloudy light blue.  As we approached the glacier, the water became more opaque, due to a larger amount of sediment stirred up by the calving of the glacier in front of us. The melting glacial ice also forms a layer of fresh water on top of the surrounding saltwater, which can add to the cloudy appearance as the two water types mix slowly.

Tara Fogleman, a NOAA Teacher at Sea participant, poses on an iceberg in southeastern Alaska.

Tara Fogleman, a NOAA Teacher at Sea participant, poses on an iceberg in southeastern Alaska.

From far away, the Dawes Glacier looks like a giant, frozen river wedged between two rows of mountains.  It is unevenly streaked with lines of gray sediment picked up as the glacier makes its slow movements across the land.  However, I couldn’t grasp the enormity of the glacier until we traveled up to the face, where the ice intermittently calves from the glacier.  Up close, the glacier face is daunting and deceivingly large—the bottom is cut away due to the continuous lapping of the tides, and the glacial ice forms towering peaks, caves, and valleys that seem to be on the verge of collapsing into the water below. As we watched, several parts of the face fell into the water, one at a time, creating a large splash and a booming sound that resembled thunder.  Often, the large splash of the falling ice created waves that slowly moved towards and rocked our small skiff. We were amazed as the large chunks of opaque ice fell into the water, disappeared for a few seconds, and then bobbed to the top, like ice cubes dropped into a glass of water.   

After observing the glacial calving for about an hour, we headed back to the JOHN N. COBB for a warm dinner and a hot shower.  Temperatures continued to drop as the sun began to set, and we were all fairly cold, regardless of how many layers we were wearing! Tomorrow we will head to another glacial site, the glacier at Tracy Arm, as we begin to wrap up our study.

Tara Fogleman, June 9, 2007

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Tara Fogleman
Onboard NOAA Ship John N. Cobb
June 1 – 14, 2007

Mission: Alaskan Harbor Seal Pupping Phenology and Site Monitoring
Geographical Area: Southeast Alaska
Date: June 9, 2007

In this photo, a female harbor seal and her pup are hauled out on a rocky reef island covered in kelp.  At high tide, many of these rocky reef islands are completely submerged in water.

A female harbor seal and her pup are hauled out on a rocky reef island covered in kelp. At high tide, many of these reef islands are completely submerged.

During the past few days, we have continued to monitor seal haulout sites in waterways between Wrangell and Petersburg.  At each rocky reef site, Dave Withrow (Chief Scientist) observes the seals from the small skiff and makes an initial count of adults and pups using his gyrostabilized binoculars. These binoculars are an important tool because they provide a clear, stabilized image of the seals, even when the user is on a movable object such as the skiff.  If possible, Dave then directs Chris to drop us off at a nearby rocky island, so that we can observe the seals on land from a closer viewpoint.  Throughout the observation process, it is important that we do not “spook” the seals— they are easily frightened by the sounds of nearby boats or visual cues such as the shape of a human figure.  When the seals feel threatened, they quickly slip off of the rocks and into the water, making it difficult to get an accurate count.

The JOHN N. COBB has also made two stops along the way at the towns of Wrangell and Petersburg. At both towns, we have picked up supplies for the rest of our journey, including a fuel filter and extra fuel for the small skiff and groceries for the remainder of our meals.  Because we docked at each town overnight, I was able to get off the boat and do some exploring at each location.

Wrangell

Petroglyphs, which are ancient carvings created by the native people of southeastern Alaska, are found on several boulders along the beaches of Wrangell.

Petroglyphs, which are ancient carvings created by the native people of southeastern Alaska, are found on several boulders along the beaches of Wrangell.

Wrangell is the smaller of the two towns, with a population of only 2,500 residents.  The primary industries of this town are crab, shrimp, and fish processing, though tourism has played an increasing role in the recent years.  Dave, Dan, and I walked through the downtown area, which was mostly shut down for the night since we had arrived after six.  However, some kids were still out, skateboarding on the empty sidewalks or hanging out at the local ice cream shop and arcade.  We purchased ice cream (a luxury not available on the JOHN N. COBB!) and walked down to Petroglyph Beach, an area of beach strewn with rocks and boulders that contain carvings created by the Tlingit, the natives of Alaska. The forty-something carvings scattered along the beach consisted of spirals, circles, and other geometric images that represent a variety of animals and objects from the daily life of the Tlingit.    

Petersburg

A few days later, the JOHN N. COBB docked in Petersburg.  This town is slighter larger than Wrangell and is located at the northern end of the 21-mile Wrangell Narrows.  As we approached Petersburg from the water, I could see rows of neatly painted houses in an assortment of bright colors and a large marina filled with fishing vessels and smaller boats. The town was laid out by a Scandinavian Peter Buschmann, who started a salmon cannery and sawmill there in 1897.  The Scandinavian influence can still be observed today—I encountered numerous Viking references as I strolled through the town, including a large statue of a Viking ship and ancient Viking symbols etched into the downtown sidewalks. The town of Petersburg continues to thrive today, due to successful fishing, tourism, and shellfish processing industries.

The town of Petersburg, Alaska was laid out by a Scandinavian man named Peter Buschmann, who started a salmon cannery and sawmill in the town in 1897.  Evidence of Petersburg’s heritage is found throughout the town, and each year, the town holds a Viking celebration that draws residents and numerous visitors.

The town of Petersburg, Alaska, was laid out by a Scandinavian man named Peter Buschmann, who started a salmon cannery and sawmill in the town in 1897. Evidence of Petersburg’s heritage is found throughout the town, and each year, the town holds a Viking celebration that draws numerous visitors.

After walking around downtown Petersburg for a couple of hours, a few of us decided to take a hike to stretch our legs and get a little exercise (it’s hard to get a good workout on the JOHN N. COBB!).  The day was unseasonably warm—temperatures were in the 70s—and so we grabbed some water, put on some walking shoes, and headed up Mt. Petersburg. The scenery was beautiful, and as we neared the peak of the mountain, we encountered snow! Being from Georgia, we don’t see much snow—and we never see snow in June—so I was quite excited. After making a few snow angels and having a small snowball fight, the sun began to set and so we headed back down the mountain.

Visiting these two towns was a wonderful cultural experience—I had a chance to see a glimpse of life in a small fishing town in Alaska.  The people of these towns were rugged and good-natured, and they seemed to be excited about the upcoming summer season.  For many of them, their lives depend on the oceans, and it is important to them that the natural resources contained in their waters are protected and sustained for future generations.

Tara Fogleman, June 4, 2007

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Tara Fogleman
Onboard NOAA Ship John N. Cobb
June 1 – 14, 2007

Mission: Alaskan Harbor Seal Pupping Phenology and Site Monitoring
Geographical Area: Southeast Alaska
Date: June 4, 2007

We’ve been at sea now for nearly four days, and Dave Withrow, the Chief Scientist, and I have had a chance to visit several haulout sites to count harbor seals.  Harbor seals tend to haul out on rocky islands or reefs that provide protection from predators or strong winds.  Generally, the harbor seals “haul out”, or leave the water, at low tide, so all of our work is done around this time.  We travel to these rocky sites via a small boat that is launched from the JOHN N. COBB, and because the sound of the boat can frighten the seals, we usually jump out at a nearby island, hike to a hidden viewpoint, and use binoculars to count them.  When there is no viewpoint available, Dave must count the seals from the boat; however, this isn’t ideal, since using binoculars from a moving, bumpy boat can be quite difficult.

A female harbor seal and her pup haul out on a rocky reef covered in kelp during low tide.  This photo was captured by Dave Withrow (Chief Scientist) during a study of harbor seals and pupping phenology in southeastern Alaska.

A female harbor seal and her pup haul out on a rocky reef covered in kelp during low tide. Photo by Chief Scientist Dave Withrow.

Don’t Forget the Equipment!

There are several pieces of equipment that are important for the study.  Dave uses a GPS (Global Positioning System) unit to locate sites that he has visited previously—using this tool, he can identify the precise location of a seal haulout that he has visited in the past, or mark a new location for future reference.  He also uses special gyrostabilized binoculars which maintain a stable image, even when his hands are unsteady or he is counting seals from a moving location, such as a boat.  All of his data are recorded in a waterproof notebook. Dave brings camera equipment so that he can take photographs of the seals, which can be used later to recheck counts.  He also carries a radio so that he can communicate with the driver of the small boat (for this cruise, a coxswain named Chris) and the Commanding Officer of the JOHN N. COBB.  Safety equipment is also important, particularly when working in the unpredictable weather of southeastern Alaska. On each boat trip, Dave brings a satellite phone and a GPS-linked emergency transmitter called a PEPIRB (Personal Emergency Position Indication Radio Beacon) that can alert the US Coast Guard if Dave (or anyone else on the small skiff) is experiencing trouble and needs to be rescued. Other safety devices that are commonly used on small boats during field studies include a basic first aid kit, mini signal flares, a bright orange rescue streamer, fire-starting material, extra food and water supplies, and a pocketknife/hand tool such as a Leatherman.

Visiting the Haulout Sites

Tara Fogleman studied harbor seals in southeastern Alaska

Tara Fogleman studied harbor seals in southeastern Alaska

Harbor seals haul out for several reasons, including temperature regulation and the conservation of energy. However, in June, the primary reason for hauling out is due to the pupping season, during which females give birth to their young on land and care for them.  Dave will compare the number of seals hauling out during the pupping season to the number of seals that haul out during the molting season in August, when the seals shed their fur. We have visited several haulout sites during the past few days, and I have become much more adept at counting the seals and recognizing their shape and color from a distance.  Harbor seals vary in color, including shades of white, gray, and brown-black.  Often, the lighter-colored seals are older and larger individuals, while the pups are a darker color.  At first glance, the seals appear defenseless, like large sausages washed up on to the rocks during a high tide. Their movements are awkward on land—they make their way across the jagged rocks by back-and-forth rocking of their bodies, and once situated, they rest in closely-packed groups, with the pups alongside their mothers.  However, upon seeing the silhouette of a person or hearing an approaching boat, the seals smoothly enter the water and swim to safety, suddenly becoming graceful and quick.

Tide pools that form among the depressions in the rocky reefs provide a habitat for a variety of invertebrates, including sea anemones, sea stars, and bryozoans.  Photo courtesy of Dave Withrow.

Tide pools that form among the depressions in the rocky reefs provide a habitat for a variety of invertebrates, including sea anemones, sea stars, and bryozoans.

As mentioned earlier, harbor seals tend to haul out on rocky reefs that fringe small islands or the coastline. These rocky sites are only exposed at low tide, and become completely submerged by water during high tides.  Because we visit the reefs at low tide, the rocks are partially covered in layers of slimy, light-green kelp and green algae that reek of a strong, ammonia-like odor and make for a slippery climbing surface.  Small tide pools in the crevices between the rocks provide a close-up look at purple and orange sea stars, green sea anemones, small fish, and other tide pool organisms.

Humpback Up Ahead!

I finally had a chance to see my first humpback whale yesterday morning.  From a distance, it was easy to spot the spray from the whale as it exhaled out of its blowhole.  As the whale approached our boat and we turned the engine off, we could hear the exhale as well, and I was able to grasp the immense size of this marine mammal.  The humpback whale can reach lengths of up to 45 feet and weigh up to 45 tons, and it is clearly recognizable by the small “hump-like” dorsal ridge that surfaces from time to time. To avoid injuries to the whale, Chris (our coxswain) kept the outboard motor running so that the whale would be able to identify our exact location.  Dave attempted to take photos of the underside of the humpback whale’s flukes, or tail fin, so that the whale could be identified. Each whale has an individually unique pattern on its flukes, which acts like a “fingerprint” that can be matched for identification.  Using these photos, researchers can track individual whale movements within and between seasons.  The master north Pacific humpback database is maintained by NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle where Dave works. We snapped a few photos as it maneuvered through the shallow waters and then headed back to the JOHN N. COBB for a late lunch.  Scientists can use photographs of a humpback whale’s tail flukes to identify the organism because the pattern on each whale’s tail fin is unique.

Tara Fogleman, a NOAA Teacher-at-Sea participant, took this photograph of a humpback whale as it rose to the surface for another breath.

Tara Fogleman, a NOAA Teacher-at-Sea participant, took this photograph of a humpback whale as it rose to the surface for another breath.

We are slowly making our way toward Wrangell, a small coastal town located south of Juneau. After making a pit stop there tomorrow night to purchase fuel and a fuel filter, we will proceed towards the tidewater glaciers at Tracy Arm and Endicott Arm and continue our study of haulout sites.

Tara Fogleman, June 1, 2007

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Tara Fogleman
Onboard NOAA Ship John N. Cobb
June 1 – 14, 2007

Mission: Alaskan Harbor Seal Pupping Phenology and Site Monitoring
Geographical Area: Southeast Alaska
Date: June 1, 2007

The boat set sail today as we headed for our first haulout sites.  Because this first day was a traveling day, where no sampling would be conducted, I had a chance to explore the JOHN N. COBB, speak with the crew, and become better acquainted with life at sea.

Our Boat, the JOHN N. COBB— 

The JOHN N. COBB is the oldest vessel and the only wooden ship in NOAA’s research fleet. She was built in 1950 and named after John Nathan Cobb, the first dean of the University of Washington School of Fisheries.  The boat is 93 feet long, has a beam of 26 feet, and a draft of 12 feet. The JOHN N. COBB typically cruises at speeds of around 10 knots, propelled by a 325 hp diesel engine. She has a crew of 8 and can carry up to 4 scientists.

The JOHN N. COBB spends most of her time in the waters of southeast Alaska, supporting the research of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).  The ship can collect fish and crustacean specimens using a trawl and longline, or sample fish larvae, eggs, and plankton using plankton nets and surface or midwater larval nets.  Marine mammal studies, such as the one that I will be part of, are conducted aboard or by the use of smaller boats stored on the JOHN N. COBB.

Daily Life on the JOHN N. COBB— 

Life on board the JOHN N. COBB is exciting but intimate—the entire crew and scientists must work together to keep the ship clean and in working order so that the scientific research can be done. As mentioned earlier, the ship has several crew members, and each of the crew has important responsibilities that are integral to the proper working of the ship.

  • The Commanding Officer—Our Commanding Officer, Chad, has authority over all other crew members and ship personnel.  He drives the ship on alternating 6-hour shifts and is responsible for medical care in the event that anyone were to get hurt.
  • The Executive Officer—Dan is the Executive Officer (also referred to as the XO) for the JOHN N. COBB on this cruise.  He is the direct representative of the Commanding Officer, and is therefore responsible for executing the policies and orders issued by the Commanding Officer.  He also drives the ship for 6-hour shifts, alternating with the Commanding Officer.
  • The Chief Marine Engineer—Del, or “Chief”, serves as our Chief Marine Engineer.  Because his main responsibilities are to oversee the Engineering Department and fix any problems with the mechanical or electrical systems on the ship, he is usually down below in the engine room.
  • The Chief Steward—Bill, our Chief Steward, is in charge of the galley, or kitchen, of the ship. He provides the crew and scientists with three meals everyday, all cooked on a diesel stove. Because the galley on the JOHN N. COBB is very small, it is very important that those onboard the ship are clean and respect the requests made by the Chief Steward.
Bill, the Chief Steward of the JOHN N. COBB, cooks a delicious dinner for the crew.

Bill, the Chief Steward of the JOHN N. COBB, cooks a delicious dinner for the crew.

There are also other crew members that are responsible for duties such as relieving the Chief Engineer, keeping the boat clean, and driving the skiffs stored on the JOHN N. COBB during scientific operations.  The crew members and scientists sleep in various locations on the boat—though some have it better than others! Most of the crew members, with the exception of the Commanding Officer and Executive Officer, sleep in one large room at the front of the boat. Their room includes bunks, drawers and storage space for their clothing, a small sink, and a couple of benches that also serve as storage units.  Because there is always someone sleeping aboard the ship, curtains can be pulled across each bunk to block light and provide privacy. The scientists are housed in staterooms located just behind the galley, and these rooms provide more space to allow the scientists to work.  Each stateroom has two bunks, a small desk, a sink, and a couple of storage units for clothes and other personal belongings. The bathrooms, or heads, are located in the hallway and are shared by all on board, and there is one community shower for all crew and scientists to use. All of our meals are served in the galley at specific times of the day.  Bill, the Chief Steward, rings a bell when a meal is served, and we each take a designated seat at the table. Meals are served family-style, where the dishes are placed on the table and we serve ourselves. The crew generally consists of some big guys, and so there’s a lot of eating at each meal!  At the end of the meal, we clear our plates, thank the Steward, and head off to do our daily work.

However, life on the JOHN N. COBB isn’t always just about work—the crew enjoy their time off by fishing when the boat is anchored, reading magazines, watching movies, or playing games such as cribbage or solitaire.  There is even a treadmill and rowing machine for those crew members that want to fit a workout into their busy schedule.  Often, the scientists are busy with entering their data and preparing for the next day’s operations. Because there are always some crew members who are sleeping on the boat, it is important that noise is kept to a minimum at all times.

Safety First: Preparing for Emergencies at Sea— 

Tara Fogleman, a NOAA Teacher-at-Sea participant, hangs out in her bottom bunk aboard the JOHN N. COBB.

Tara Fogleman hangs out in her bottom bunk.

It is standard practice for the crew and scientists to perform safety drills during the first 24 hours at sea, and this cruise was no exception.  After lunch, we practiced the “Abandon Ship” drill and the “Fire” drill.  During the “Abandon Ship” drill, everyone aboard was required to report to a life raft and bring (and put on) their survival suit, gloves, and hat. The survival suit is a bright orange outfit intended to cover nearly your entire body (excluding the face), provide insulation from the cold water, and provide floatation. It also has several safety features, including a strobe light and whistle.  During the “Fire” drill, everyone aboard the ship plays a crucial role—many of the crew don protective fire gear and prepare the fire hose, while others assist as needed.  Because everyone plays a role in these emergency situations, it is important that the scientists become familiar with their responsibilities before performing the drills.

Dolphins and Humpbacks and Bears, Oh My!— 

Alaska is beautiful—rugged mountains topped with snow, extensive spruce forests, and dark-blue water that can be so calm in the bays that it appears we’re on a lake.  There were two exciting finds on the way out of Gastineau Channel—we saw the spray of a humpback whale off in the distance (though I can’t truly say I’ve seen a humpback yet) and I saw a group of Dall’s porpoises riding the waves at the bow of the boat.  The Dall’s porpoises are very different from the Atlantic bottlenose dolphins that I commonly see off the coast of Georgia—they are black and white in color (like an orca), they have a smaller dorsal fin, and they are nearly 8 feet in length—but their behavior is similar, as they travel in groups and enjoy riding the waves.  We also spotted two brown bears, most likely a mother and her cub, and several bald eagles while we were anchored in a bay.  Bald eagles are fairly common here, and they are easy to spot because their bright, white heads easily stand out among the dark green of the spruce trees and the grayish-black color of the rocks.

Tomorrow, we’ll begin traveling to haulout sites at low tide (which falls in the morning, between 8 AM and 10 AM) to count harbor seals and their pups.  So with that in mind, I’m off to bed—we have a busy morning tomorrow and I need my rest!

This photo of two brown bears was captured by Chief Scientist Dave Withrow as the JOHN N. COBB anchored in Gut Bay, Alaska.

This photo of two brown bears was captured by Chief Scientist Dave Withrow as the JOHN N. COBB anchored in Gut Bay, Alaska.

Tara Fogleman, May 31, 2007

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Tara Fogleman
Onboard NOAA Ship John N. Cobb
June 1 – 14, 2007

Mission: Alaskan Harbor Seal Pupping Phenology and Site Monitoring
Geographical Area: Southeast Alaska
Date: May 31, 2007

Tara Fogleman, a NOAA Teacher-at-Sea participant, sailed on the JOHN N. COBB while taking part in an Alaskan harbor seal study.

Tara Fogleman, a NOAA Teacher-at-Sea, sailed on the JOHN N. COBB for an Alaskan harbor seal study.

Personal Log 

After a long day of plane travel to Juneau, I found the JOHN N. COBB, located my stateroom for the length of the cruise, unpacked, and quickly fell asleep.  It wasn’t until today that I was able to explore Juneau by foot.  Immediately upon leaving the boat, I could tell that I was a long way from Savannah, Georgia!  The weather in June is still cold and unpredictable here—temperatures can fluctuate from 40°F and raining to 75°F and sunny, so it is important to dress in layers.  The sky here is often overcast or partly cloudy, and today was no exception.

The area of Juneau closest to the NOAA boat dock is a tourist-ridden area because it is a popular drop-off site for people sailing on cruise ships—however, I maneuvered around quickly, enjoying the local art shops, murals and statues, and learning about the history of the area at the local historic sites, such as the Governor’s House and the Alaska State Capitol.

Exploring Juneau and its History— 

A view of the town of Juneau, Alaska taken from the JOHN N. COBB as the ship began its journey.

A view of the town of Juneau, Alaska taken from the JOHN N. COBB as the ship began its journey.

The first residents of Juneau, the Tlingit people, fished and hunted in the Gastineau Channel for centuries. I observed evidence of their culture, including decorative artwork and totems, throughout the city. In the 1870s, a mining engineer named George Pilz offered a reward to anyone who could lead him to gold.  Chief Kowee, of the Auk Tlingit tribe, approached him with samples of gold from the Gastineau Channel, and a search party was sent to investigate.  When the mother lode was found in Silver Bowl Basin, prospectors began to arrive by boat with hopes of finding gold and making it rich.  On October 18, 1880, a 160-acre town site was staked out on the beach, and Juneau was born.  Within a few years, Juneau was transformed from a native fishing village to a large-scale mining industry.

The city of Juneau is located in the middle of the Tongass National Forest, which is the largest temperate rainforest in North America.  This forest, which covers nearly 17million acres, is dominated by the Sitka spruce, which is Alaska’s state tree. The Sitka spruce is identified by its very straight top and sharp-tipped needles, and can reach ages of 200 to 700 years old. The Tongass is a temperate rainforest, which differs from a tropical rainforest in two ways:  temperate forests are much cooler, and they are inhabited by fewer species of plants and animals.  However, though temperate rainforests are less diverse than tropical rainforests, they contain a high amount of biomass.  Animals such as bald eagles, black bears, marmots, and porcupines inhabit the Tongass, and organisms such as harbor seals and salmon can be found in the coastal waters.  After exploring Juneau, I headed back to the boat to speak with Dave Withrow, the Chief Scientist for the mission.  We spoke briefly about the procedures for the study and the major objectives that we will try to achieve while aboard the JOHN N. COBB.

 Mendenhall Glacier is located just outside of Juneau, Alaska.  The glacier is retreating at an alarming rate.

Mendenhall Glacier is located just outside of Juneau, Alaska. The glacier is retreating at an alarming rate.

The Objectives of the Study— 

During this cruise, Dave will be exploring selected areas of southeastern Alaska to: 1) determine population counts of harbor seals, with a special emphasis on which sites are being used for pupping, 2) identify how many pups are born and the approximate age and size of these pups, and 3) identify potential haulout sites for long-term studies, such as sites that are inhabited by large numbers of seals (more than 200).  Identifying critical habitat is an important component of this study, because many of these habitat areas are experiencing a decline.  Harbor seals use the floating ice calved from tidewater glaciers to pup, nurse their young, and molt, because these areas are free from most predators and disturbance. However, these tidewater glaciers are disappearing at an alarming rate; in 1983, there were 52 recorded tidewater glaciers, and in 2004, only 31 of these documented glaciers remained, and all but 5 of them were receding.  This reduction of pupping habitat could have a significant impact on harbor seal populations.

More Sightseeing Around Juneau— 

Prior to setting sail, I ran errands with the crew around Juneau to pick up miscellaneous gear needed for the cruise, and I even stopped at the Alaskan Brewery to take a tour of their facilities. Later that evening, Dave Withrow took me to the Mendenhall Glacier— this is a glacier located just outside of Juneau.  He told me that the glacier has been retreating at an alarming rate during the past years.  I was particularly amazed at the light blue-green color of the glacial ice that floated in the water in front of the glacier—it is unlike anything I have ever seen.

I’m off to bed for now—tomorrow we set sail for our first study sites.