Aleutians Revealed

In the summer of 2019, photographer Ian Shive joined the research biologists and ship’s crew of Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge aboard the R/V Tiglax for an insider’s look at the vast, enigmatic, and remote Aleutian Islands. He shares the experience and the refuge’s research to a wider audience with the debut of a 60-minute nature documentary special, “The Last Unknown.”

Check out some of what Shive saw and catch up with a few of the refuge’s star appearances, including millions of auklets, sparring fur seals, steaming volcanoes, monuments of war, and the one-of-a-kind Tiglax, a 120-foot floating platform for science.

Action photo of a chain of people in bright orange survival float jackets turning an inflatable skiff back into the ocean from a rocky shore.
Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska: biologists and scientists use skiffs to circumnavigate the remote islands of the refuge. Photo: courtesy of Ian Shive.

At Home in the Ring of Fire

A thousand-mile chain of islands rises between the cold confluence of the North Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea, running so far west from mainland Alaska that eventually it becomes the Far East off the coast of Siberia. Part of the Ring of Fire, about 80 large volcanoes create the Aleutian Islands, a dynamic home for wildlife and the Unangax people who have lived here for thousands of years.

An aerial view flying up a shimmering waterfall amid the green tundra of the volcanic Chuginadak Island. The western part of this island is called is called Chuginadax in Unungam Tunuu or Aleut, translated as “simmering.” Chuginadak is part of the Islands of the Four Mountains subgroup in the Aleutian Chain, recently theorized to be part of a single mega volcano. Video: courtesy of Ian Shive.
Fur seal numbers have declined in other parts of Alaska, but their numbers are increasing on the island of Bogoslof, despite recent volcanic activity. The island that we see is merely the tip of a vast undersea volcano surrounded by nutrient rich deep sea waters; it’s shores provide shelter for the breeding seals and their pups. Photos: a group of fur seals and an aerial view of a barren, black island with steam emitting from the center, courtesy of Ian Shive.
Millions of seabirds nest in the steep, rocky cliffs and rugged shorelines of the Aleutian Islands. Photos left to right: red-faced cormorant, tufted puffin, courtesy of Ian Shive.

Science by Sea

Each summer, a small group of intrepid biologists embark on a marine journey to reach their far-flung study areas within the refuge. They sail with a professional crew of mariners into remote and distant corners of Alaska, taking leave of their mainland homes for months at a time.

Aerial view of a large white and blue vessel in the ocean with green islands in the background.
Spread over a vast coastline and marine environment, most of Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge is accessible only by boat. The The R/V Tiglax (TEKH-lah — Unungam Tunuu or Aleut for “eagle”) and its crew work for the refuge as its research and transportation support vessel. In a season, the Tiglax may sail to islands in Southeast Alaska, the far western end of the Aleutian Chain, and into the Bering Sea, typically traveling 15,000 to 20,000 nautical miles. Photo: courtesy of Ian Shive.
A man in brown uniform with USFWS logo and a woman in black jacket look at a maritime chart set out on a table in a ship’s wheelhouse.
Discussing the route with a biologist. A team of professional mariners facilitates research and management of the refuge from the R/V Tiglax, one of the few vessels that operates in the nearshore waters of the refuge and the only one of its kind in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. An establishing purpose for the refuge is to conduct research, and the R/V Tiglax is a perfect platform for science collaboration at sea. Photo: courtesy of Ian Shive.

Want to get a feel for what it’s like to be on board the boat? You can take a 3D tour of the Tiglax from your computer or smartphone. Virtually walk through the ship from the flying bridge to the engine room. Watch short 360 videos along the way and meet the crew!

Left: Looking out from the Captain’s view over the bow of the Tiglax. Right: skiffs on the back deck ready to bring crews to shore. The ship tends to eight remote seabird monitoring camps for taking out and picking up people and supplies, and also visits periodically during the summer, bringing news and fresh food to the uninhabitated islands where the work is carried out. The crew also makes time for village visits and hosts educational tours for summer campers in remote communities. Photos: courtesy of Ian Shive.

For the ship’s captain, John Faris, bringing new people out to the Aleutians is a special experience that affects the entire Tiglax crew.

“It’s always so amazing to show someone the Aleutian Islands for their very first time. What surprises most people more than anything else is not the isolation or remoteness, it’s not the weather with all the high winds and big seas … it’s the amazing sights of beauty and rawness, one after the other! It could be the million-plus birds overhead or a massive active volcano, it could be sea lion rookeries with killer whales patrolling offshore, or waterfalls a hundred feet tall dumping into the sea.”

What did he most enjoy sharing with Shive during the voyage?
“Bogosolf Island. Rarely do you get to take someone to a place that you have been hyping up for days before getting there and then have that place deliver and watch that person just be in awe and never stop grinning from ear to ear with excitement for the whole time that they are there!!”

Island Life

Would you spend a summer on an uninhabited island in a tent or cabin with just a few other people, days of foggy-misty-drippy weather, and millions of very vocal, circling seabirds? It’s definitely not for everyone, but for bird biologists Sarah Youngren and Dan Rapp, this is the best life and they loved sharing their research on Aiktak Island with a visiting videographer.

“Aiktak was in true-form when Ian and crew arrived: fog and mist. It was fun seeing how they adapted to the constant wetting of everything, including their camera gear.” Sarah recalled.

What did you hope the crew would capture?
“We really wanted them to capture the hidden world of our nocturnal burrowing seabird species and the methods we use to monitor them. We were able to show “grubbing,” where we stick our arms into seabird burrows and try to feel what’s inside.”

A grassy slope with several openings into burrows, and many tufted puffins sitting outside or in flight.
Puffin city. Tufted puffins nest in burrows that tunnel back into grassy hillsides. Photo: courtesy of Ian Shive.

Anything special about the filming day?
“Aiktak’s tufted puffins are ever-present during the summer, but some days they show up in even bigger numbers. We weren’t sure if the day Ian and his crew arrived would be one of the puffin big days, but it was!

It was like show-and-tell. The crew had limited time to film, so we tried to use the most of it by showing as many of our favorite parts of Aiktak as possible including the tufted puffin, ancient murrelet, and storm-petrel colonies.”

A small green cabin and outbuilding nestled in dense green grass and ferns with fog just overhead.
Would you live here for a summer? This remote cabin supports a small scientific field crew on an otherwise uninhabited island. Photo: Courtesy of Ian Shive.
Interior of a small one room cabin showing a stove and oven, two wooden bunks, a table and two chairs near a window, backpacks, and many boxes, supplies, and gear.
Field camp cabin interior: what would you take with you to survive for months on a remote island? Photo: courtesy of Ian Shive.
Ian Shive with filming gear among the grasses of an Aleutian Island. Courtesy of Ian Shive.
Scientists use sturdy tents for more temporary camps like this one at Hawadax Island, where a small crew is visiting to inspect for any signs of rats after an intensive eradication effort to remove the damaging rodents from vulnerable seabird nesting areas. Video: timelapse of setting up tents courtesy of Ian Shive.

Legacy of a Forgotten War

As the research vessel and crew visit remote camps and communities along the chain, they also weave through memorials to a history of conflict known as “The Forgotten War.”

For refuge manager Steve Delehanty, this is a powerful story to share:
“These lonely islands are not just connected to us ecologically. They are connected to our hearts, our history. Battles were fought here. People died. Survivors were forever marked by their experiences.”

A silver metal face shield lies in rust-colored mud, tubing and other debris is half submerged in the mud, and grass shows at the edges.
Remnants from World War II: a gas mask and tubing half buried in Aleutian grass. Photo: courtesy of Ian Shive.

During World War II, the archipelago saw invasion by Japanese forces, the occupation of two islands; a mass relocation and imprisonment of Unangan civilians; a 15-month air war; and one of the deadliest battles in the Pacific Theater. The refuge now manages the multiple sites that make up the Aleutian Islands WWII National Monument.

Delehanty reflected about sharing these remote sites through film. “The signs of war remain today, like nowhere else in the world: bunkers and caves, planes and submarines, awe-inspiring remnants not in a museum, but right here on these islands, where bullets once flew.”

Landscape image showing a large metal aircraft with exposed fuselage and four engines half buried in the green tundra with mountains in the background.
A B 24-D Liberator Bomber, a type of fighter plane that played a significant role in WWII. This plane crash landed on Atka Island in the Aleutians and is now part of the Aleutian Islands WWII National Monument, managed by Alaska Maritime Refuge. Photo: courtesy of Ian Shive.

World War II forever changed the Aleutians, the Unangax people, and the lives of those who waged battle there, leaving behind scars and stories scattered throughout the refuge that exists today.

Millions of Seabirds: A Big Window Into Sea Change

Seabirds spend most of their lives at sea, coming to land on the refuge for only a small part of their year. Shive captured this spectacle as he visited some of the refuge’s seabird monitoring sites: dark clouds of swirling auklets, cliff colonies of murres, tufted and horned puffins, and dramatic red-faced cormorants.

Photos: a cloud of swirling auklets fly over the open ocean (left); red-faced cormorants at their nest overlooking the rocky coast (right). Courtesy of Ian Shive.

So what can the refuge’s millions of seabirds tell us about our world? It turns out, quite a lot. We all depend on the same ocean waters, and seabirds are one of the best windows into the health of oceans and the wildlife that live in them.

A close up view of a group of black seabirds with bright orange beaks and feather “crests” on their foreheads.
Crested auklets dive deep into the ocean, eating plankton, which thrive in the volcanically-fed, nutrient rich waters. The birds nest on the islands, typically in the cracks and crevasses of upturned rocks. The colonies here are some of the largest in the world, numbering into the millions. Photo: courtesy of Ian Shive.

Seabirds are top predators, feeding on fish and plankton, and their food strategies include a variety of harvest locations: deep dives, surface foraging, feeding close to shore, or dining far away at sea. As the climate changes, we can study them to collect clues about our underwater world that might otherwise remain hidden.

A common murre dives through the clear blue waters off an island in Alaska Maritime Refuge. Murres can dive over 500 feet below the surface — a tremendous depth for a seabird. Video: courtesy of Ian Shive.

Check out more:

Start here for a virtual visit to Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
Links to 3D tours, stories, photos, educational resources, and more.

Can I visit?

Yes, although most of the refuge is very remote, even by Alaska standards. Planning a trip to one of the more accessible wildlife viewing hotspots is a bucket list experience, especially for birding enthusiasts.

How do I watch the show?

The Last Unknown premieres March 18th, 2021 on Discovery+, a streaming subscription platform for the Discovery Channel.

Watch: a playlist of 24 short video clips

This playlist, available directly on our YouTube channel, shares brief clips of footage captured by Ian Shive in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Select clips to view in the menu bar at the top, or go directly to the playlist to navigate and view descriptions for each clip.

Where is Alaska Maritime Refuge, exactly?

Great question! The refuge manages thousands of islands, islets, and rocky reefs spread out over a vast swath of coastal Alaska — from the rainforests of Southeast Alaska to islets off the coast of Kodiak and the Alaska Peninsula, through the Aleutian Islands and up north to the Pribilofs and into the icy waters of the Chukchi Sea. If you compare the refuge with a map of the continental United States, it ranges from Georgia to Texas to California and up to Minnesota, encompassing five different marine ecosystems.

Purple and yellow wildflowers among short green vegetation grow on the edge of a rocky cliff that drops into the ocean in the background.
Photo: Wildflowers on an Aleutian Island. Courtesy of Ian Shive.




Stories from Alaska by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

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U.S.Fish&Wildlife Alaska

U.S.Fish&Wildlife Alaska

Stories from Alaska by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

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