Polar Sea Icebreaker Expedition with PBI and the National Science Foundation

Posted Sep. 26th, 2009 by Daniel J. Cox

September 25, 2009 Temp 30F

My day began quite early. The alarm on my watch gently broke my slumber at the 4:00am mark. I’ve never been one to jump out of bed and this morning was no different. I laid there curled in the fetal position on my right side trying to find the inspiration to get my ass out of bed. My mind was churning though you could never tell since it looked as though I was still asleep. As is always the case when I’m physically beat and short on sleep, I start asking myself, “Why are you doing this? What’s the purpose?” I come up with poor reasons as to why I should stay in bed and gradually as I begin to wake the voice of lethargy and laziness begins to lose its power. It’s replaced by the whisper of adventure and curiosity and finally the booming thunder of guilt and shame at the idea that I’m still lying there. There’s a very large boat to catch and I hauled myself out of bed to begin my journey of documenting a project for Polar Bears International highlighting scientists studying polar bears. From Bozeman to Barrow the trip begins.

A view of the Brooks Range on my way to Barrow, Alaska.

A view of the Brooks Range on my way to Barrow, Alaska.

Just out my window is the Brooks Range. I’m close to the end of the trip for today but just the beginning for the next five weeks. The plane I’m on includes myself and 39 other able-bodied scientists, camera men and women, coast guard personnel, and others who are winging our way to meet up with the US military icebreaker, Polar Sea. It’s a big ship, 399 feet from stem to stern. It displaces 13, 500 tons and can travel at 3 knots through ice six feet thick. There’s only one country with more muscle in the icebreaker department and that’s Russia. The Soviets use nuclear power to thrust them along. The US does not. In any case, for what we plan to do, she’s plenty worthy. Our mission? To study polar bears that are living on the Arctic ice pack. I’ve worked with several of the scientists that are on this expedition. I’m excited to see George Durner and Eric Regehr—two friends I’ve made from past science adventures.

See Photos From the Polar Sea Icebreaker Expedition

September 26 Temp 29F

We made it into Barrow safely last evening. This morning I woke to a fresh skiff of snow on the ground. Had a good night’s sleep in the science consortium staff housing which is basically Quonset type WWll styled huts that are used for visiting scientists. Being a layman in the science world, I’m fortunate to hang out with some of the smartest people working in the field today. I find them all incredibly interesting, some as normal as anyone you will meet. For a guy who had barely a C+ in the sciences in school, I’m a very fortunate man to hang with these guys. I’m grateful they let me in to tell their story.

The day got off to an early start. Lots of getting ready to move and then getting orders to wait for awhile. In short a day of hurry up and wait. We finally make it out to the icebreaker Polar Sea. It was a short helicopter ride to the ship waiting a few miles off shore from the northern town of Barrow, Alaska. The rest of the day was spent putting the labs together with the scientists. I was fortunate to snag a very comfortable and ideally located desk for myself in the web lab. Here I set up my hard drives, computer, and the small HP personal printer. I often bring this printer so I can pass out photos to the folks who help me make my pictures. It’s a great way to gain the trust of the people you work with. Equally as important is the act of giving as opposed to the constant “taking” that most photographers typically do. Aside from these benefits it’s just plan fun to see people smile when you hand them a printed photo you took just minutes earlier. For those interested this is a link to the printer I use. It was a day with lots of scurrying, poking around the ship trying to gain the lay of the land so to speak and getting to know our fellow shipmates.

September 27, Temp 32F

I found a comfortable spot in the Wet Lab to set up my desk.

I found a comfortable spot in the Web Lab to set up my desk.

Fairly routine day of everybody just getting there field labs set up. I spent the day as well getting my desk put together. There’s been lots of scuttlebutt about issues going on with the ship. First, the rudder steering went out. If you can believe it they were actually steering the ship with a pair of vice-grips. We were planning to continue on to the first location for the target bears but changed plans due to the bear scientists having an issue with radios they ordered. Apparently they were sent the wrong radios. The next few days will be spent steaming through the open water of the Beaufort Sea giving us all enough time to be prepared for the science to come.

September 28, Temp 29F

It’s a beautiful day in the Arctic. Last night we found out one of the radios the scientists absolutely need was the wrong one. We have now turned back toward Dead Horse where they plan to have new radios waiting for us. Mission has been put on hold for now.

The ship we’re on is really quite old and seems to have seen better days. I had heard through the grapevine this ship was scheduled to be mothballed but the government gave the Coast Guard just enough money to get it back in service. The downside is that the communications for connecting to email and Internet is almost non-existent. It’s been a big disappointment but one I’ll have to live with. In some ways it’s actually nice but unfortunately for us freelancers business doesn’t stop and I’m concerned about several big projects going on at home that I need to be a part of. Hopefully the email system will be enough.

We’ve encountered some ice. A few people saw some walrus yesterday. The weather is beautiful. Temps in the mid to low 30s. A bit cloudy but no fog or moisture of any kind. Awfully warm for an icebreaker cruise.

September 29, Temp 32F

Most kinks seem to be getting worked out. I heard through onboard communications, also know as gossip, that the coasties would be working on the ships steering today. Plan is to replace the vice-grips they’ve been using to steer with. The weather has been very nice for the arctic. Where is the cold and the ice? No wind, cloudy and just a dusting of snow now and again. The bear capture crew went out for the first time today. They were after two different bears they had GPS coordinates on that had come from a recent satellite transmission. We’ve been navigating in very thin, recently formed ice. The choppers took off and flew out in the direction of where they thought the bears were. Once they got a few nautical miles from the ship all ice disappeared.  No ice in site. They were flying over open water. They never did get a radio signal on the two bears they were hoping to track. After an hour or so they came back to the ship to regroup and take a look at the latest Canadian satellite ice maps. It was a day of testing the equipment, getting the choppers figured out and basically giving the system a dry run. Merav and George felt it all went pretty well. The scientists regroup back at the ship and decide to head NW a few hundred miles towards Wrangle Island, Russia a well known location for lots of polar bears.

Even though this expedition is primarily for research on polar bears there are many other scientists on board. They included people studying ice, water temps and many other arctic concerns. The desk I secured for myself in the wet lab sits right across from Dan Whiteman and Dawn Sechler, two very friendly young people studying ocean microbes. The way Dan explains it to me is; their mission is to figure out how less sea ice will effect what is considered the bottom of the food chain. The microbes, plankton’s, algae’s etc. of the ocean. He readily admitted that the megafauna category that polar bears fit into is much more sexy and appealing to people but the top of the food chain owes their very existence to the tiny little crustaceans, algaes and other creatures that fill the microfauna niche that most people don’t care about and few people understand. The folks on board doing things other than bear studies have to arrange their schedules around the bear scientists. They dive, scoop water and do the other necessary chores to accomplish their studies in-between the choppers flying out to find bears. It’s quite exciting to be around such energetic and enthusiastic people who take their job so seriously. Even if it is as just water and ice.

September 30 Temp 30F

Today will be spent just steaming as the ship’s captain describes it. There is virtually no ice in the part of the arctic ocean we have been in. Eric Regher told me yesterday that even if they had found a bear on the little ice that we had near the ship there would be no place for a helicopter to safely land. We have to find ice and therefor are now heading to the NW to hopefully get into conditions conducive to catching bears.

October 1 Temp 29F

We woke to open seas once again this morning. No ice anywhere but radar promises it’s on the horizon. Breakfast was the normal scrambled eggs, omelets if you choose, sausage, pancakes, fresh fruit, options for a couple of different cereals including, Cheerios, Peanut Butter Captain Crunch, corn flakes and a few others. The coffee is quite a surprise! I don’t drink much of it anymore but they aren’t using Farmers Brothers. Might have something to do with this ship being based out of Seattle. The coffee is terrific!

As the morning went on a thin layer of ice did appear and  the scientists sent a chopper out to intercept a bear they had GPS coordinates on. They found the bear but it was no hope of darting her and getting any data. Ice is too thin. No where to land a chopper. They fly out, take a look around and are back within twenty minutes. It’s on to the next bear nearly a hundred miles away.

We’ve been traveling in ice since around noon but it’s very thin. Now and again a few chunks of the older multiyear ice makes an appearance but it’s few and far between. Alex and Katie, the bird counters, are seeing quite a number of birds and there seems to be more seals than many originally thought. That’s been one of the big questions. With the pack ice so far off shore, far from the most productive, shallower, waters near the coast, will there be food for the seals? If there is no food for the seals they won’t be around. No seals, no food for polar bears. Counting seals is just one part of the many scientific projects taking place on this expedition.

We spotted two polar bears from the ship today but both were a long way out. Something I often refer to as bear dots, even with binoculars. Believe me even a bear dot  is a big deal when we left four days ago and have seen so few bears. Everyone was excited. Dan and Dawn are working on their water collection experiments. They built a large wooden platform on the bow of the ship that holds water tanks, water heating devices, pumps and hoses. It’s quite complicated but in short what they are trying to decipher is how organisms in the water are affected by the longer periods of warmth. They’re quite busy. Even with the lack of polar bears these two haven’t missed a beat.

October 3, Temp 23F

Another day begins and still not a bear captured. Yesterday the bear team went out and had a couple of opportunities for capture but the ice conditions were just not sufficient to hold the chopper. Very little mutiyear ice around and the pieces that are here are small, most no larger than 1/4 to 1/2 of a football field. When the bear team finds a suitable subject they must first determine if the ice is large enough to make certain it can’t run for  water. The safety of the bear is the capture teams first concern and any bear that is tranquilized, then gets into the water is in serous trouble. If the ice pan is large enough, the next  necessary part of the capture is whether the ice can sustain the weight of a helicopter. If either one of these two requirements are not met than the capture is aborted. That was the case yesterday on all subjects.

There seems to be quite a few bears around. Last night about 6:00pm I was invited to go on a reconnaissance mission with one of the scientists. He had a satellite radio collar location on a bear that was female and should have a cub. Our goal wasn’t to capture but to just go out and see if we could locate her and determine if she still had the cub. Even a visual observation counts as important data since climate change is predicted to affect the very young more severely.  If her cub is gone than it’s circumstantial  evidence that something negative to the health of that cub happened. Merav recently showed us a power point slide of a bear that was tracked last year swimming over 400 miles from land in Alaska to the pack ice. When she left land she had a cub but later they recaptured her and the cub was gone. Less than ten years ago the ice pack was only a few miles off shore and if a bear was on land decided to get back out onto the ice it didn’t have far to swim. Now it’s much different and in the above case she had hundreds of miles to swim to find the ice.

Our flight to locate this female was spectacular. We had lots of sun with a little haze on the horizon. Greg, the Nat Geo cinematographer, Christina, the science teacher and myself all went. Greg and I flipped a coin to see who got the larger window. I called heads and won but since I had much smaller lenses and cameras I gave him the big window. He’s a very nice man and works well on the team. It’s so much easier to work with those you like and are team players than those in the game for just themselves Greg doesn’t’ fit that category. Besides, I’m a firm believer in positive Karma and little did  I know that good karma was coming my way.

A polar bear charges the Helicopter and then stands.

A polar bear charges the Helicopter and then stands.

We were in the air for approximately 30 minutes and had no luck finding the female. We were all glued to the window looking hard for any sign of the bear. There were lots of tracks and George had just commented on such when all of a sudden, just off the left side of the chopper a bear appeared. I frantically reached for the helmut mic switch and calmly proceeded to announce, “bear to our left, bear to our left, bear to our left”. I had to repeat it three times since George and the pilot were talking. Harold swung the chopper left and we circled. It was a young bear by George’s estimation. Incredibly, as we banked, peeling around to her front–at least two hundred feet off the ground– she charged. She actually charged the helicopter. I shot 4-5 frames of her starting the charge, head down, ears back coming full tilt. After about 20-30 feet she bolted straight up, stood on her back legs and looked straight at us. Can you imagine a bear charging a machine with such size and making such a huge racket? I was dumbfounded but seeing this event reminded me of a couple of stories my friend and worlds polar bear authority Steve Amstrup has talked about. He’s seen it before and in fact has had bears stand up on their hind legs and take swings at the skids of the chopper s they come in low. Hard to believe but Steve has seen it more than once. Amazing to see this.

The ice scientists had their first chance yesterday to get off the ship and on to the ice. What an operation that was. The Coasties make sure their are no safety mishaps and because of all the procedures it took forever to get the ice and diving teams off the ship. It was a beautiful day. About 32 F. I spoke to Metta, one of the ice scientists and asked her how the samples came out. She said they weren’t good due to the ice being so soft. Unfortunately the ice cores just fell apart. The divers didn’t have a great deal of luck either. They saw a few baby arctic cod but not much else. We weren’t allowed to accompany them out on the ice but it looked like a beautiful day to be in the arctic. Sun was shining, blue sky with some haze but still a bit cool.

October 5, Temp 28F

I’m running behind on my writing as usual. Yesterday was pretty slow as far as anybody getting out is concerned. The ice was exceptionally thin, the weather was nasty to the north. Chopper pilots talked about freezing ice sticking to the rotor blades if they had to go that direction so it was agreed that they would fly south. I was actually pleased I wasn’t invited on this less than blue bird day. It’s been warm all week with temps no colder than 26 F. There seems to be bears out and around, the scientists are seeing tracks quite regularly. George Durner commented to me that he’s never seen such great opportunities for tracking and it’s due primarily to the fact it’s extremely warm. There is a thin skiff of snow over the newly formed ice sheet but the ice is scarcely frozen so it’s mushy and soft. The bears walk across it, push through the top cover of what looks like vanilla icing and leave a large, dark paw print the size of a dinner plat in the slush below. One print after another, the trail zigs and it zags, a drag mark between pads signifies a large lumbering male. Out across the ice he travels, imprints like ink on paper confirm a solitary hunter often shadowing a freshly frozen lead.

The choppers return after maybe 30 minutes. Ice conditions and fading weather make the risk versus reward to much in favor of risk. When flying in the arctic you never want to give risk the upper hand because it will kill you.

Which brings me to today. Last night we turned around in the middle of the night and came back to where we had captured a mother and cub two days before. I spoke to Merav and they made the decision to come back since there was such poor ice conditions where we were headed. I may not have mentioned but a big part of the mission of this expedition is to recapture bears that were originally captured last spring  near the Alaska coast. By rechecking ones they caught earlier they can evaluate how they are surviving. They can help answer the questions that may arise due to issues brought on by a much smaller polar ice cap. Many of the bears they caught last spring near land have moved hundreds of miles out here into the middle of the Chukchi Sea. How are they doing is the question everyone is asking.

So far from what the scientists are recording the bears seem to be pretty healthy. I haven’t heard any negative concerns about skinny, malnourished bears so far. They all seem to be in descent to very good shape and that’s at a time just before the frigid winter sets in. Winter brings more ice and a larger frozen platform, more opportunities for seals and the frigid environment they’ve prospered in for 300,000 years.  We’re still just barely into the expedition and have only caught a few bears but the word so far seems to be positive except for the lack of sea ice. That said, one of the main attributes of quality science is long term study. No biologist worth their salt would ever make a prediction as to how a species is doing based on one weeks worth of data or even one years worth of data. Ideally, decades of science just begins to paint the scientific canvas; one with lots of graphs, charts, bell curves and mathematical numbers. That’s where I draw the line. That side of my brain just doesn’t compute like it does for these world class scientists. It’s the main reason I’m in charge of pictures. However, they do sometimes hand me a clip board to record the numbers. Everyone is part of the team.

Today the media crew, that includes me, Greg Marshall from Nat Geo and Pam Manns from the Coast Guard got our first chance to get out on the ice with the scientists and two tranquilized polar bears. The weather wasn’t great, heavy overcast and potential for mist it looked like to me. Our pilot made the comment, “wow, the weather has really gotten ugly” just as we moved in to make our landing near the tranquilized bear. I didn’t like the looks of the weather when we left the ship but man alive when a pilot makes those comments I pay attention and I was nervous the whole time we were on the ground with the research team. One of the ways to stay alive in the Arctic or any location that is remote and potentially dangerous is to PAY ATTENTION. I’ve backed out of more than one airplane or helicopter flight because I made my own decision that the weather was to iffy.

Thermochron IButton temperature logger that is implanted in the bears abdomen

Thermochron IButton temperature logger that is implanted in the bears abdomen

I’v been fortunate to have been out on two different spring capture seasons with Dr. Steve Amstrup and though this mission was similar, there was a huge addition to this teams science. Hank Harlow and John Whiteman lead the surgical procedures where they have two different surgeries they perform. One consists of planting a device called a Thermochron IButton in the bears abdomen. It collects the bears temperature data over an extended period of time. The other is a procedure called the Biceps femuris tissue sample where a minute amount of muscle tissue is taken from the bears hind leg. The tissue is immediately frozen with liquid nitrogen and brought back to the ship eventually ending up being analyzed in a more sophisticated lab back home. Much of what these scientists are doing is new to the science of polar bears and all part of the plan to monitor this species in hopes of knowing for certain if climate change is affecting their long term status and short term health

Today the ice divers came back with another little creature of the Arctic Ocean. It was an amphipod. Looks similar to a shrimp.

October 6, Temp 28F

Another cloudy. dreary day. Temperature is sticking just below 30F. This weather is lousy for everybody. It’s especially problematic for flying helicopters. Yesterday I mentioned that I was not excited abut going out due to the weather. Same goes for today but I’m scheduled for the first chopper to leave. It’s 9:00am and still too difficult to see what the weather is really like but cloud cover is for certain and at 28F the temp is in the realm that chopper pilots don’t care for. It’s just below freezing and yet the moisture in the air isn’t snow. This is what we had yesterday and when the helicopters were brought in from the days flights they had ice on their wings and rotor blades. I’m hoping we don’t fly in this stuff again today. Merav stopped by and gave me the go ahead that I was going out on the first chopper. I don’t want to disappoint her but I may pass if the weather is crappy. We have a preflight meeting at 9:50 on the bridge and I’ll be able to see the weather and talk with the flight specialists at that time. Will make a decision then.

A colorful little creature known as a pteropod

A colorful little creature known as a pteropod

The decision was made not to fly so I spent the day on the ship doing lots of busy work on my computer andeventually photographing amphipods and other critters that the dive team brings in for me. So far I have documented three different species. They’re quite interesting little creatures. I had heard of them before but before this trip I would have lost all bets on what the heck one looked like. To me they’re very similar to shrimp and in fact Katrin says that I’m on track with that description. As I understand it they find them clinging to the bottom side of the ice. Not many around but a few. I have to talk with Katrin and get more information on what they are all about.

I was on my way to bed when George Durner came into my small office here in the Wet Lab. George is a really intense guy which you figure out when you have a chance to hang with him for a few days. When I say intense I use that word in nothing but a  positive manner with huge respect and appreciation for his enthusiasm and immense dedication to the science of polar bears. George speaks very softly but deep inside he’s burning like a torch with passion and fire for what he’s doing. George walks in and says, “hey Dan have you got a minute? I would like to show you some amazing data that we just pulled from a GPS collar of a polar bear.” I said, “sure George, wold love to see it” so down to the library we went where he had his laptop. There he showed me the trail of a polar bear that was astounding. Not just for the miles this bear put on in a very short period of time but for the fact the path she chose was nearly exactly in line with the steep drop off of the outer continental shelf Cap a steep underwater cliff off the northern coast of Alaska. This doesn’t sound all that important until you remember that one of the big concerns about polar bears is if they will find adequate food as the ice pack moves further off shore. Current data suggests that the seals and other animals they rely on spend most of their time near the shallower waters by the coast. As the ice retreats further out to sea will there be enough prey for them to continue to survive? George readily admits that her entire path may just be a coincidence but it was striking how the trail she laid down mirrored the edge of the Chukchi Cap and the deep water it falls off into. He was like a little kid showing me the GPS data, explaining and wondering aloud. I was equally excited that he wanted to share it with me. Most everyone had gone to bed and he was excited with what he had found. He just had to share it with someone. I was flattered he chose to come get the least scientific one in the bunch. That’s the kind of people these folks are. They are so dedicated and so excited to be doing what they’re doing that they can barley think of anything else and when they find something really interesting they need to share it.

October 7,  Temp 21F

Each morning I’m in my office around 6:30am. Breakfast is at 7:00. I’ll be checking my emails and John peaks his head in the doorway of the web lab. There’s a set of computer screens just behind and to my left that have all the current weather data. Outside air temp, water temp, wind speed, wind direction, dew point, barometric pressure, relative humidity and numerous other details. But the one he’s checking most is the temperature. Today it was closer to 20 degrees and that was an improvement over the general trend for the past two weeks of the temps being in the high 20’s. Ideally everyone wold love to see the temps drop to under 10 degrees. Ice gets better, less moisture in the air so the choppers don’t have to worry about building ice and it’s more pleasant to work on the sea ice when you aren’t kneeling in slush.

The bear team captured a female and cub and Merav was ecstatic. They both seemed very healthy. The so called Press were flown out to the site after the bears had been darted and we were told that when they went down they were on ice that wasn’t stable. So the team put them in a helicopter sling and air lifted them over to more stable ice. George Durner fell through and got wet to his chest. Thankfully nothing serious but an indication of what we and the bears are up against. For us it’s short term. For the bears it could be the rest of their lives. All the appropriate samples were taken, John and Hank performed their surgeries.

October 8, Temp 23F

The temps are still warm. Dew point and humidity actually are responsible for canceling the flights today. Merav decides the weather just isn’t worth the risk. The day is spent steaming across what has been ice and eventually turned into open seas. There is one particular bear they’re trying to recapture and she’s moved since the last reliable satellite data. When they finally got an update we were a long way off and we’ve been sailing all day trying to catch her. I shot some fun things today with a long pole and a camera attached. Daniel Smith a very likable young Coastie is stationed in our labs area and he’s been available frequently. Today I recruited him for a couple shoots. He enjoys photography himself so it’s been pretty easy to get him involved.

This is the first day in about a week and a half that I’ve actually felt like I’ve been on a ship. We have a considerable amount of rocking and swaying going on. Large swells are rolling beneath our bow. It turned clear today and the late afternoon was incredibly beautiful with the golden light of the arctic. For the past week and a half we’ve been quite stable on board due to being surrounded by ice. Thin ice at that but ice all the same. Today is a different story. These swells are quite noticeable and it makes you think of some of the predictions scientists are making that with less and less ice the northern oceans will become even more difficult for bears to swim in. Polar bears are notoriously good swimmers and the science people have great examples of heroic swimming feats by these charismatic creatures of the cold. But there are newer stories making the rounds of bears who have lost the battle with the open sea. Bears that have washed up along the coast with water in their lungs. Our goal is the female I mentioned earlier but I just heard via the shipyard grapevine that we may be turning around due to the open seas. Merav and the others are thinking that even if this female is out there the ice won’t be stable enough to go after her with the helicopters.

Just before dinner I was working in the lab, editing my photos when Alex, one of the bird ladies, came down and told us there was a great opportunity coming up to see a mother polar bear and her two cubs. Merav had spotted them from the bridge and it looked as if we would pass fairly close. I grabbed my 200-400, a 700-200 and the 24-700. Rushed up on deck and saw her in the distance. We were headed directly for them. The captain turned the ship to the west and throttled the monster diesel engines to a virtual idle. It was a family group. She wasn’t overly alarmed and in fact one of the cubs was walking right to the ship. The female polar bear called and chuffed at the brazen wanderer but he kept coming. It was a surreal show of natural wonder at it’s best. Here we were, in what one could consider the most remote part of the world left and we were calm, safe and comfortable watching three of the natures most beautiful creatures living their lives hundreds of miles from the nearest man. Excluding us of course. We spent a good 30-45 minutes watching the show before the boldest of the two cubs finally went back to the group and they all wandered off over the very thin and dark ice.

October 13, Temp 32F

Another day on the Polar Sea. The temps continue to dash many of the plans the scientists have. The ice is to thin for bear captures and the open water creates lots of fog. The past 4-5 days have been spent heading further south and east, eventually the plan is to be in Canadian waters. The hope is that the ice conditions around the Banks Island region will be more conducive to the work they need to do. All along the route there are bears giving off their radio tracking signals and are there for the capture if only it were possible. We’re all hoping for colder weather. Amazingly, my emails to my wife in Montana report of colder temps at home than we are getting here in the middle of the Arctic ice pack.

The good news is that much of what I’m here to do includes working with the other scientists as well. Though bear captures have been few, there have been enough to keep me busy in my portable, run and gun photo studio. I’ve been very busy shooting some of the work with the ice scientists, the water researchers, polar bear biologists –when they come back with biological samples– as well as now and again recording the beauty of the arctic ocean.

Last night provided the most beautiful sunset I’ve seen in many years here in the north. I shot a beautiful image of the bear team coming in from the capture as the sun just touched the horizon. I’t s gorgeous! Later into the night I was able to record some faint northern lights just off the ships bow. The lights of the ship made it difficult to get a good image but it also added to the scene in other ways. I stayed up until about midnight, got out of bed at 4:00am to check for more lights but the clouds had rolled in. I went back to my rack feeling good I hadn’t missed anything. Then at breakfast Rich pipes up, “did you see the Northern Lights last night”, “Absolutely” I replied hesitantly adding, “what time did you see them?” Rich replies, “they were amazing between 1:30 and 3:00am.” CRAP!!!!!!! Well that’s life. Hopefully another night we’ll nail them down. Greg and I have given the bridge the request to wake us if they return.

October 14, Temp 32F

This day was slow but ended with some excitement. The bear team went out again today and captured a female with two cubs of the year. All reports from those who where there is that she was extremely skinny and the cubs were just short of a 100 pounds each. But the excitement was in getting everyone home.

In the location the bear team was working it was clear with great visibility. However, fog was beginning to envelope the ship and by the time radio contact was made and they were able to get everything wrapped up the visibility was down to less than 500 meters. On top of all that daylight was basically gone. It was certainly dusk. One chopper ended up siting on the ice as the other one made it in. I got some great video of him coming into the ship. They all made it back but it was spooky. On top of the fog and low light it was raining as well. Fog, freezing rain, and choppers. Not good conditions to be flying in. I was happy to be on the ship today.

October 15, Temp 31F

It was a great morning to sleep in. I made it to about 8:30am. Breakfast is served from 7-8 so it’s cold cereal after that. Fine for me. I’ve never eaten as much as I do here.  We motored 120 miles from where we were to Deadhorse. We need to resupply the ship with food provisions. Two weeks left. Hoping things improve for catching polar bears in the next few days.

The sea is free of ice here. Not a frozen cube in sight. There’s a bit of wet snow in the air. At 31F it’s barley cold enough for blowing flakes. The choppers made three trips each into town today and the last chopper was fogged in. He’s in Deadhorse for the night. Supposed to be back out to the ship tomorrow. Rumor has it that we may be stopping for some time in Kaktovik. There are at least two polar bears on shore in Kaktovik that have collars that are too tight and the native people are upset over the situation. They’ve told Alaska Fish and Game that they either come in and remove the collars or they’re going to shoot them. Merav has another team of scientists on the ground doing bear capture in the Kaktovik area already but for some reason they don’t have the right chopper to get these bears. If we have to go do this it will take at least one day out of the schedule and most likely two. I’m starting to worry about getting enough bear researchers in the field images. If I don’t get more than I have my story will be dead in the water. Five weeks with no paycheck. That’s going to be tough but that’s the risks we take as freelancers. No guarantee’s for a paycheck ever. Thankfully I’ve had great opportunities for building my portfolio of science images. I just got the word that the Katovik team can handle the situation without our help. We’re now headed to Canadian waters.

Greg Marshall from National Geographic gave a great program tonight about his work with Crittercam. He invented the technology where they are able to put small remote cameras on animals so they can see what is going on in their lives in areas that humans can’t go. He had some astounding footage. They did a deployment with cameras on Emperor penguins. For decades researchers figured that the Emperors were feeding down 30-40 meters below the ice surface in Antarctica. What they found was that indeed the penguins were going down to that depth but they were going down that far to  look back up at the ice sheet where they could make out the form of fish silhouetted against the ice. They then rise from the depths to grab the fish that they’ve spotted from below. He likened it to an eagle soaring high in the sky to hunt for rodents. Spotting their prey from far above and diving down to catch their prey. The footage was so amazing. Another example was a pod of humpback whales in SE alaska. Most likely the same ones I’ve worked with and watched doing their bubble net feeding. They attached a camera to a baby whale and documented it nursing from it’s mother. It then pulled back and you saw it stay behind as the other whales began their circling motion to start their bubble net. The baby whale stayed back as the group broke the surface and watched the whole thing, showing it in detail by way of the Critercam. It was unbelievable footage. Greg has been working for Geographic for nearly 20 years. Started back in the early 90’s and has made dozens of films for them. He’s quite an interesting gentleman and as nice as he is unique. Just one of the benefits of traveling with such talented people.

October 18 Temp 15F

Finally, a morning where the temps are more conducive to forming ice. The past three days were spent anchored off the coast of Deadhorse. We had planned to be there only an afternoon but during the resupplying of the ship by helicopter one of the choppers became stranded in Deadhorse due to fog. He spent the night in town and couldn’t make it to the ship until late the next afternoon. That’s life in the arctic. No way to keep a set schedule.

Two nights ago we left Deadhorse around 6:00pm and sailed nearly 350 miles towards Canada to a location that has much thicker ice. We had our flight briefing at 8:00am this morning. Quite early compared to the past two weeks. When we were further north the sunrise wasn’t until 10:30am. Since coming so far south we now have sunrise around 8:30. Flight briefings are interesting. Anyone planning to fly that day needs to be there. If you miss the briefing you can’t go. The Captain is there along with the entire polar bear team and other officers of the ship. You discuss the flight operations for the day, go over the predicted weather and then go through a voting system that relates to the missions complexity and dangers. It’s a 1-10 voting scale where each person votes to a questions like, “crew readiness?” by holding up 1-10 fingers. Ten fingers reflect a vote of no confidence in the crews physical abilities which might be due to people being tired from too much travel or any other factor that makes you less able to perform at 100%. Each person votes on a set of questions that all pertain to safety and if the final score comes in too high the mission is cancelled. It’s a good system to keep everybody safe.

I’m scheduled to go out today but the choppers have been out for a couple of hours now and still no bears down. I’m told I will only have 30 minutes on the ice but will get a second chance for another capture from start to finish this afternoon if all goes as planned. Lets hope that happens.

Yesterday as we traveled to this area not far from Banks Island, Alex, one of the bird observers on board saw seven snowy owls flying out over the ocean. At the time we were over 90 miles from shore. Who would have thought Snowy Owls would be out over the open sea. Merav related a story yesterday of a female polar bear they captured last spring. I should first say that one of the main objectives of this trip was to try and prove a hypothesis that suggested that there were two different groups of polar bears. Those that stay on land and watch the ice retreat and those that cling to the ice and ride it out in to the Arctic Ocean at all costs. What they have actually found is that in fact many of the bears move quite freely between land and ice. They know this due to new satellite collars that provide GPS location, salt water tracking and other unique options. This along with the IButton body core temperature device that John Whiteman implants surgically they are able to tell an amazing amount of things never before known. For example, last night Merav related a story of a female polar bear that they collected data from. Based on the GPS collar and the Ibutton core temp monitor they know that she swam for nine consecutive days straight. Without sleeping! She then crawled out on to a floating iceberg at a time when her core body temperature was close to near death and regained her strength. Two days later she slipped back into the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean and swam for an additional two days until she reached the ice pack. Hard to believe but it’s true. Can you even dream of swimming in the frigid waters of the arctic for nine consecutive days? One of the safety factors discussed during our flight briefings is how long a person can last in the open waters if you fall in. Without a survival suit it’s always just above three minutes.

October 20 Temp 17F

Yesterday was a bit more exciting than it has been. For certain it was the coldest day up here by far with morning temps at 13F. We made it over to Canadian waters and there were two bears that Merav had on the list to recapture. The weather wasn’t perfect but we captured both. Unfortunately, once again I wasn’t able to accompany them out on any of the capture runs. Thankfully I was able to spend a good part of the day with the ice divers and ice coring teams.

Diving beneath the ice looks as if it would be spectacular. The first item of business is to find the right location. Finding that perfect spot has ben difficult since ideally, they want to be diving under large pressure ridges made of old, multiyear ice. However, finding ice that meets these qualifications has been nearly impossible. Up until yesterday we couldn’t find any substantial amounts of multi-year ice. It’s all new or nonexistent. The problems faced by the bear team are the same for the ice diving scientists.

Just after dinner around 6:00pm we began heading back west for additional target bears. Their location, 300 miles toward the evening sun. When I woke this morning only only 120 of those 300 miles had been pushed behind us to the east. Rumor from the bridge says that we were stuck last night in ice 8 feet thick for over two hours. Apparently we couldn’t get moving, neither forward nor backward for those entire two hours. Eventually they dislodged the ship from the grips of the toughest ice we’ve seen to date, then onward west she sailed. The thicker ice in Canadian waters was evident as the ship trembled and shuttered all through the nights voyage. Breaking ice on a ship this large is quite different than the what I experienced in Norway on our little 45 foot sailboat. Here on the Polar Sea the entire vessel rumbles as if we’re passing through an arctic earth quake. Few slept. One scientist after another walks through the door of the wet lab bleary eyed and sleepy. They look at the computerized map just over my shoulder and grumble when the lack of progress becomes evident. I later hear that when we were stuck in the ice we actually lost two pistons to one or more of the five engines.

It’s getting late or rather not so late but the time goes slowly at night around here. There is absolutely nowhere to go after a full days work. I have my little office space in the wet lab. There is the ping pong option in the helicopter hanger. At the front of the ship is a nice room with comfy chairs for movies. Several of us where planning to watch the Departed but a couple of coastie gals hijacked the movie room and put on a chick flick PS I Love You. So that’s not an option. Other than that there is my bunk that’s about 3 feet wide and just over six feet long. Not many places to be by yourslef. I’ve heard the other Coast Guard ship the Healy has many more amenities. Could be worse. Can’t think of a more comfortable way to tour the arctic ice pack than a ship of this magnitude.

October 25, Temp 22F

Has been slow for nearly a week. Ice is much better than we had at the start of the trip but weather has stopped everything for nearly seven days The wind has been blowing anywhere from 30-45 knots/hour. Choppers can’t fly in anything more than 30 knots. It’s not that they can’t fly it’s just that they can’t maneuver to allow the scientists to capture bears. Turning into the wind quickly is problematic and dangerous so we have to sit.

The end of the trip is coming fast. It’s been a considerably different experience than I had originally thought. All of us have had a difficult time accomplishing our goals. Mine originally was to document the bear capture team but weather, ice conditions and inability to get to their subjects have made it nearly impossible.

November 1, 2009 Temp 30F

It’s been a week since I last wrote and I feel guilty for not keeping up. Doing daily journals are difficult at best and sometimes qualify as painful. The following is a synopsis of our last week.

Around October 23, the winds began to subside. Merav, George, Eric, Hank and John had several target bears left. One in particular. So we stayed for two days in one spot waiting for the winds to die down. Unfortunately, when we were able to fly the ice was just to soft to land a chopper on. This has been a huge overall ongoing issue nearly the entire trip. Ice broken or soft.

During one of the days we were weathered in we had the tremendous fortune of having a beautiful female polar bear come directly up to the ship. She appeared almost out of nowhere and cautiously made a beeline directly toward the Polar Sea. Everybody ran to the aft deck in excitement. All the scientists and many of the Coast Guard crew jumped at the chance to as George Durner puts it, “see polar bears just being polar bears,.”. George has a unique perspective as do most all of the polar bear scientists. They’ve all seen their share of polar bears but the vast majority have been from a helicopter as they  make their way in to capture it. They love these animals or they wouldn’t be doing this but any intimate observation time comes in very small doses for these folks who roam the arctic ice in search of bears. The female polar bear hung around for maybe as much as an hour and then slowly sauntered off to a broken ice ridge to lay down and extract herself from the howling wind. I made several checks throughout the night hoping she might return. It would have been a beautiful photo of her in the spot lights from the ship, wind driven snow streaking by the speaker looking like cones off the back deck that illuminate the night. She never did return and the next morning we began to move.

The team of scientists I worked with over the cours of the expediton

The team of scientists I worked with over the course of the expedition.

The trip ends in a rush. We make the final push up towards bears north of Barrow. Though they are seen we can’t catch them. We steam overnight back to our final destination of Barrow, Alaska. The next morning is a blur with getting all things packed and onto the choppers for our ride to town. I really thought five weeks was going to pass slowly but just the opposite happened. It’s hard to believe I was gone that long. I made several new friends I hope to stay in touch with. You never know however, once everybody gets back to their own lives it’s easy to loose contact. One of the things we offer through PBI are copies of the photos I shoot for the scientists. Our goal is to give them images that help inspire people they talk to. I’m hopeful this gift will help seal the deal on new friendships and our goal to help save the polar bears and the arctic as we know them.

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There are 3 comments on this post…
  1. Karen Durner DelleFaveOn Oct. 15th, 2009

    How exciting to read about this and see my brothers name! I am one of George Durner’s five sisters. So proud of all he has accomplished over these last 18 years! What an awesome experience for all of you! I am terrible, when George emailed the family the link of the ship…I replied back, “Where’s the pool and the shuffle board?” Not sure if he liked my humor. Next time you see him, please tell him hello. Look forward to seeing him when he comes home (Cranbury, NJ) at Thanksgiving.

    Not sure if you can do this or not, but I would love a photo of George (and of course a bear!), if you are able.

    Many thanks, and a safe and exciting trip to you.

    Karen (Durner) DelleFave

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      danieljcoxOn Oct. 15th, 2009

      Hi Karen,
      Thanks for the note -I can have Dan email you an image of George when he returns – it sounds like it has been an exciting trip and great opportunity!
      Tanya Cox

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