Alaska 2007

Way back in 1982. when Janet was fresh out of college, she went to the north slope of Alaska to be an observer on aerial surveys for endangered whales, specifically bowhead whales.  It was a temporary job..... that lasted until the early 1990s..... and was absolutely great fun.

In October 2007, Janet got a chance to go back again to “beautiful” Deadhorse, Alaska, as part of the same project that she started working on 25 years ago.  Some things were exactly the same, many things had changed. The beauty of the Arctic, especially right when it is freezing for the winter, remains awesome.

Normally we fly over the water (after all, we are looking for whales) but when the sea states are too high because it is too windy, we will divert over land somewhat.  These are the foothills of the Brooks Range, which encompasses all of the mountains directly south of Alaska’s northern coast. It really is a “slope”.

October 2007 was characterized by extremely high winds for much of the month. Those make for difficult conditions in which to fly and see any whales, because there are too many whitecaps on the ocean. So we spent a fair amount of time on the ground.  Deadhorse does not offer much in the way of entertainment (it is essentially a bunch of oil field service support camps) so we sort of make our own. A common thing to do is drive part of the way down the Trans-Alaska highway (the “haul road”) to look for wildlife.  That is where we found this Arctic fox, hunkering down during a 50 kt blow.  You can tell from the look on his face that he is facing into the wind.

One of the things different from before was the plane that we flew on. Back in the 80s, Janet flew surveys on a Grumman Goose, which was a heavy amphibious aircraft built back in the early 1940s. Now we are flying surveys on a DeHavilland Twin Otter operated by the National Oceanographic and Atmosphere Association (NOAA).  Twin otters are considered a workhorse aircraft, as they can carry large amounts of weight (cargo, people, extra fuel) and take off and land on fairly short runways.

Another different thing is the extent of flight training and safety equipment that we now wear.  We used to have a very short safety briefing from the pilots and then survey in our “civvies” - jeans, t-shirts, shorts (depending on where you sat in the plane - the front of the Goose was a virtual sweatbox while behind the bulkhead it was so cold that the windows frosted over).  Now we go through a 3-day aircraft egress class that teaches us how to exit a plane if it is upside down and filling with water and how to use materials from the plane to survive in case of an emergency landing.  Not the most pleasant of thoughts but it is good training to have. We also wear full dry suits and emergency flotation vests, and have real-time flight following the entire time we are in the air.

This is the configuration in the aircraft.  The large white thing on the right is an extra fuel tank, which allows us to stay in the air for more than 8 hours.  Keep in mind there is no bathroom! The main observers (like Chuck in the orange suit) are positioned at large bubble windows in the back of the plane, which allow for visibility directly underneath the plane as well as outwards. Observers do not really sit in seats but rather use various cushions and pillows to try to get comfortable. Needless to say, this is pretty hard for someone with a bad back, which is why Janet only does fieldwork for one week at a time these days (those 7-10 week field excursions are for younger more nimble biologists). But even being there for one week was great - plus we saw some bowheads!!!!

Sunset over the Trans-Alaska pipeline - looking forward to going back in 2008!

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