Alaska National Wildlife Refuge Science

Sailing the Oceans of Alaska

Science by Sea for Alaska’s Wildlife Refuges

From spunky inflatable skiffs to a fully equipped 120-foot research ship, boats give our scientists access to the immense 6,640 mile coastline of Alaska (over 30,000 miles if you count all the islands. Which we do.). Boats also help us to study the wildlife that depends on the diverse marine waters of two oceans with three different seas (the North Pacific and Arctic Oceans, along with the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas). It’s a big, watery world out there, and we invite you to join us for a brief cruise on three of our vessels as they sail the remote reaches of the state.

The R/V Tiglax

Captain: John Faris
Home Port: Homer, Alaska

Photo Left: Captain John Faris. S. Hillebrand/USFWS. Photo Right: The Tiglax at sea. Ian Shive for USFWS.

Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge

Visiting the far-flung islands and coast of Alaska Maritime Refuge almost always requires a boat. The refuge’s 3.4 million acres include the spectacular volcanic islands of the Aleutian chain, the seabird cliffs of the remote Pribilofs, and icebound lands washed by the Chukchi Sea, and provides essential habitat for some 40 million seabirds, representing more than 30 species.

Photo Left: Bogoslof Island. Tufted puffin habitat in foreground, with crew conducting tufted puffin research. In background, on cliffs are nesting murres and kittiwakes. Photo Credit: Ajay Varma. Photo right: Parakeet auklets on St. Paul Island, Pribilofs. Credit: Lisa Hupp/USFWS
From fur seal colonies in the Bering Sea to the 1,100 mile-long Aleutian chain that stretches across the North Pacific Ocean, the refuge is truly a maritime wonder. Credit: Lisa Hupp/USFWS

Since 1987, the R/V Tiglax has been plying the wild waters of coastal Alaska, ferrying biologists to remote camps and serving as a platform for nearshore research. The Tiglax (TEKH-lah — Unangan or Aleut for eagle) and its crew are a vital to managing the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, which stretches from Southeast Alaska to the far western end of the Aleutian Chain, and into the Bering Sea. She is steady but not speedy; the Tiglax typically travels 12,000 to 20,000 nautical miles a year at a speed of 10 knots (about 11 mph).

The M/V Tiglax takes staff to seldom visited places where amazing things can be witnessed and new discoveries made. Credit: Sarah Schoen

Keeping Watch for Oceanic Change
Researchers aboard the Tiglax study ocean conditions and the marine food web in the nearshore waters adjacent to critical seabird colonies and marine mammal rookeries in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea. Watching for change is critical to understanding species decline and possible causes, including climate change.

The Tiglax sets out and picks up seabird monitoring field camps (eight different sites spread out through the islands of the refuge) and 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.

A floating research platform: the Tiglax carries four 17-foot outboard-powered inflatable boats to transport gear or workers, hosts wet and dry labs for examining and preparing specimens, and can deploy marine sampling equipment (Simrad bioacoustic transducers and data processors for sampling fish/plankton densities; midwater and bottom trawls; neuston and vertical plankton nets). Photos: Ian Shive for USFWS.

R/V Ursa Major II

Captain: Jeff Lewis
Home Port: Kodiak, Alaska

The R/V Ursa Major II sets out with volunteer bird counters at dawn in December for the annual Christmas Bird Count. Credit: Lisa Hupp/USFWS

Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge

The famous furry resident of Kodiak (Ursus arctos middendorffi) and the Great Bear constellation inspired the research vessel built for Kodiak Refuge, the R/V Ursa Major II. This 49-foot boat carries a small crew each year to survey the seabirds and marine mammals of the Kodiak area. Nestled in the Gulf of Alaska, south of the Kenai Peninsula, the Kodiak Archipelago is a group of islands bound by the sea with over a thousand miles of convoluted coastline. The nearly 2 million acre refuge spans the main island of Kodiak (the second largest island in the United States), Ban and Uganik Islands, and the northwestern portion of Afognak Island.

Surveying along the shoreline of a refuge famous for more than 3000 Kodiak Brown Bears. Here, a mother with three newborn cubs climbs up from the water’s edge. Credit: Morgan Barnes/USFWS

For several weeks during the summer, the refuge’s avian biologist and two or three volunteers live aboard the Ursa Major II, which can sleep six people. Like the Tiglax, this small vessel is self-contained and carries everything the researchers will need to conduct their surveys along remote coastlines, including a skiff that can run five-kilometer transects across ocean waters.

Photo left: The Ursa Major II, courtesy of Jeff Jones. Right: Captain Jeff Lewis holds the survey skiff ashore, with the Ursa Major II in the background. Credit: Lisa Hupp/USFWS.

The shelter of island cliffs and the bounty of the North Pacific Ocean support colonies of breeding seabirds, including black-legged kittiwakes, tufted and horned puffins, Arctic and Aleutian terns, cormorants, and pigeon guillemots. By monitoring the populations of seabirds over time, scientists can gather a lot of information about the overall health of oceans. In Kodiak, researchers are especially interested in the apparent decline of Aleutian and Arctic tern colonies along the coast, and are trying to learn more about the possible causes.

An Aleutian tern perches on floating kelp. Credit: Robin Corcoran/USFWS
Left: a horned puffin on rocky cliffs. Right: pelagic cormorants on an islet just offshore. Credit: Robin Corcoran/USFWS
Photo left: these small sand lance play a big role as “forage fish” in the diets of many seabirds and marine mammals. Photo right: a tufted puffin with a beak full of sand lance. Credit: Robin Corcoran/USFWS

Welcome Aboard!

The R/V Ursa Major II home ports in the fishing community of Kodiak year round, where boats are a big part of life. In addition to hosting research and carrying supplies to the roadless refuge, the Ursa also welcomes visitors and volunteers aboard for education and citizen science, including the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

Each year, the Ursa Major II brings exhibits and displays about the refuge in a “floating visitor center” to one of six remote coastal communities: Ouzinkie, Port Lions, Akhiok, Larsen Bay, Karluk, or Old Harbor. Local school classes join the captain aboard and learn about how the boat supports science.

Welcoming students aboard in Old Harbor, Alaska. Credit: Lisa Hupp/USFWS.

Arctic Inflatables

Skiff Captains: Elyssa Watford, Elizabeth Schell, and Will Wiese
Home Port: the Arctic Coast

Boating the Beaufort Sea, north of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Danielle Brigida/USFWS (left) and Lisa Hupp/USFWS

Put on your orange mustang suits and jump in a small rubber skiff: we’re going boating through the ice of the Beaufort Sea lagoons. This virtual tour video takes you along with our biologists as they journey to one of the most remote places in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: the barrier islands north of the Arctic coastline.

This is a virtual excursion, part of the 2019 online #ArcticBirdFest. Video contains footage of boating past floating ice, biologists at work on a flat gravel beach with driftwood, common eiders on the beach and in the hand, and landscape scenes of ice, beach, and sky.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The barrier islands of the Arctic coast are a unique ecosystem: narrow edges of gravel and sand that separate large spaces of protected lagoon waters from the open ocean and drifting sea ice. Mostly flat and with little vegetation, they catch “wrack lines” of weathered driftwood from rivers hundreds of miles away.

Scenery from the barrier islands. Credit: Lisa Hupp/USFWS

Birds make their home here, gulls call and wheel overhead, and tiny chicks run up and down the water‘s edge under the midnight sun of June and July.

Common eider chicks nestled in their down. Credit: Danielle Brigida/USFWS

Common eiders are an indicator species for this ecosystem: by studying their health and learning more about them, we can better understand the conditions of other birds that call the barrier islands home. As the Arctic warms, the extent of sea ice becomes more sparse in the summer and into the fall, leaving these island edges and their nesting inhabitants more vulnerable to storm surges and flooding from the open water.

Photos: Top left: female common eiders nesting along the driftwood. Top right: common eider nest. Bottom photos: biologists carefully hold a female common eider during a sampling operation. Credit: Lisa Hupp/USFWS

The crew that studies the common eider along these wild islands rely on two inflatable boats and can operate self-sustained with proper camping and safety equipment. Over several days, they might travel from a refuge base camp to the eastern boundary of Alaska and Canada in Demarcation Bay and back, living in small tents and monitoring nests and islands along the way.

For more, read “Chasing Eiders: A Week on the Beaufort Sea with Arctic Refuge Biologists.”

Sea ice in Demarcation Bay. Credit: Danielle Brigida/USFWS.

Boating Safety

Boating safely in the frigid waters of Alaska is something that our captains and crew take very seriously. Every passenger receives a full safety briefing from the captain, including lessons and drills in how to don a survival suit (also called a “gumby” or immersion suit) in case of emergency. For Arctic boating in inflatable boats, everyone must wear full body flotation gear, called a mustang suit, at all times.

Knowing about and practicing with your survival gear is an important part of joining us as a crew member. Crew leader Elyssa Watford demonstrates some tips for getting into a mustang suit below:

Video title: How to Get Dressed in the Arctic. Timelapse contains footage of a biologist demonstrating how to layer clothing and put on a full body floatation suit: start with warm and wicking baselayers, make sure an emergency beacon is included, put on waders (for extra warmth, waterproofness, and pockets), include GPS, field notebook, and science tools, continue layering warm clothes and boots, point toes to put legs into the mustang suit, put on gloves before putting arms in the suit, zip up and tighten belts.

Compiled by Lisa Hupp, Communication Specialist for Alaska Refuges.

In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.

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

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