Springtime for the Bowhead Whale: Chukchi Sea polar bear research

Saturday, April 2
The FWS team has thoughtfully reworked the types of samples taken in order to both increase efficiency and reduce the amount of time needed on the ground- hopefully reducing the stress to the bears. They are also experimenting with two new satellite tracking tags- one an ear tag and the other a temporary glue on tag. If successful, these new technologies may allow researchers to track males and sub adult bears for the first time and may also reduce the need to collar females.
Sunday, April 3, 2011:
It’s a blue sky day this morning, with the looming threat of worsening conditions later this afternoon. From the weather service map, we are in the middle of the only stretch of coast across the entire state of Alaska (more coastline than the rest of the US combined) that is under visual flight rules (VFR). Limited visibility from snow, blowing snow, or fog dominates the weather elsewhere. We find ourselves in the gap between a high pressure system over Chukotka and two deep lows pushing across the Bering Sea. With any luck, we’ll escape the snow- but we will not escape the wind.
Karyn, Michelle and I ready the gear and load up the helicopter. We’ll head northwest today and cover some new habitat to the southwest of Point Hope. The village of Point Hope is one of the oldest Inupiat sites in Alaska and is still a largely traditional village to this day. As such they live close to the land and the sea, relying on wildlife for healthy and affordable protein- including fish, caribou, seals, whale, and polar bear. Spring however is the time where focus turns to one single and very important species- the Bowhead whale.  The Bowhead harvest remains central to Inupiat culture and traditions. In respect for this time, the USFWS has agreed to a 30 mile flight buffer on the ocean sides of the community to reduce any chance of disturbing the hunt. We’ll have to watch the GPS closely as it is easy to lose track of the buffer if you are on a set of fresh tracks.
As feared, winds gradually increase throughout the day. We work a few sets of tracks without much success and finally stop for refuelling mid-afternoon. Once on the ice, we realize just how much the wind has come up- closing in on 25 knots and gusting higher. We also realize that the tracks we just left were likely fresher than assumed as our own footprints drift over in minutes.  Given the increasing winds and some lowering of visibility, we decide it is best to just hunt our way back home. It’s the first day of the season the team encounters no bears, not unusual, but it makes for a long day of searching in vain. Chances are good that the winds are also encouraging the bears to lay low.

More icescape views from the Chukchi Sea highlighting this dynamic environment (c) Geoff York/WWF
Monday, April 4
Well the weather has changed again this morning with lower visibility, increased winds, and periodic snow. Karyn rotates out today and I’ll be joined by Craig Perham, another staff biologist with the USFWS and a friend from my graduate school days in Fairbanks, Alaska. The plan was to fly down to Kotzebue for the swap out and then start searching for bears on our way back up the coast. The change in the weather will force a change in plans, so our early morning preparations are for naught as we “hurry up and wait”.
Around noon the weather in Kotzebue appears to break, but the weather on the ice is still marginal. Plan B: Karyn will fly to Kotzebue with the pilot and rotate out with Craig.  Capture is out today. On the bright side, one of my colleagues from WWF Russia, biologist Mikhail Stishov, joins the fixed wing spotter airplane in Kotzebue today. Mikhail lived on Wrangel Island in Russia for nearly 20 years, studying polar bears among other things. He’s a very experienced field man and will be a huge help spotting bears once the weather gives us a break.
Tuesday, April 5
Another sunny day with clear skies- and of course wind.  We have 15- 20 knots at base camp and, once again, likely increasing over the day. Alaska can be a fickle place for weather forecasting with enough vast seas and large mountain ranges to disrupt even the best short term prediction. We hope the forecast is wrong, and we watch and wait.
Local conditions are holding and reports from the south are fair, so we decide to launch towards the west and investigate. As we make our way out onto the sea ice, the winds pick up. New leads have also opened and much closer to shore. About 15 miles out we hit a lead nearly 7 miles across at its widest.  Given the winds and the water, we decide to head south to look for a couple of bears recently spotted by a musk ox survey crew working from Kotzebue.

The wind follows us south as we approach the Seward Peninsula and turn west again. We send the fixed wing to the last known location of the polar bears reported by the survey crew, east of our position.  The information is a few days old now, and there is no trace of the bears.  As the winds continue to increase, we work through a couple of track sets until we need fuel. We find a good flat ice section for the airplane and arrange a rendezvous.
Mikhail is clearly happy to be back on the ice himself. He has actually worked on both sides of the Bering Strait having done some contract work in Bering Land Bridge National Park. He is also a long time advocate for the idea of a trans-boundary system of protected areas, an idea formerly called Berengia- linking Chukotka with Alaska.
Once on the ground, we realize it’s time to call it a day, yet again. Ground blizzard conditions with significant blowing snow- handling the helicopter on a darting run, let alone handling a bear, would be challenging to say the least. We take on fuel and work our way home.