Julia Whitty

Julia Whitty

Environmental Correspondent

Julia is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction (Deep Blue Home, The Fragile Edge, A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga), and a former documentary filmmaker. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

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Julia is a writer and former documentary filmmaker and the author of The Fragile Edge: Diving & Other Adventures in the South Pacific, winner of a PEN USA Literary Award, the John Burroughs Medal, the Kiriyama Prize, the Northern California Books Awards, and finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean. Her short story collection A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga won an O. Henry and was a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Award. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

Whalers and Scientists Work Together: Arctic Ocean Diaries Dispatch No. 6

| Mon Oct. 15, 2012 3:03 AM PDT

Leanna Russell, Community Observer aboard USCGC Healy.

Editor's note: Julia Whitty is on a three-week-long journey aboard the the US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy, following a team of scientists who are investigating how a changing climate might be affecting the chemistry of ocean and atmosphere in the Arctic.

Traveling with us on the cruise through the Arctic Ocean is Leanna Russell, a member of the Native Village of Barrow. Leanna's aboard the ship as a community observer whose daily reports on Healy's work and the ship's interactions with local subistence hunters eventually wend their way to the National Science Foundation.

Map of figure-8 bowhead whale migration. Courtesy of Melanie Smith, Arctic Ocean AtlasMap of figure-eight bowhead whale migration. Courtesy of Melanie Smith, Arctic Ocean Atlas

This is the season of the autumn migration of bowhead whales. They're vacating the Arctic for their winter waters in the Bering Sea. As you can see in the map above, their migration follows a figure-eight pattern: in spring, up from the Bering along the Alaskan coast, past Point Barrow and into the Arctic Ocean as far as the Canadian Archipelago; in autumn, down along the Beaufort Shelf off northern Alaska, past Point Barrow again, en route to the Russian coast of the Chukchi Sea, then back to the Bering Sea. (Thanks to Melanie Smith, a bird observer aboard Healy, and author of the "Arctic Ocean Atlas," for this map. I'll write more about her work later.)

Virtually every bowhead in this part of the Arctic is streaming past Point Barrow at this time of year. Consequently this season was traditionally one of two whaling seasons for Inupiat in the area. And nowadays it's one of two seasons when Inupiat get a bowhead catch quota. But it's also the season for our science cruise to work these same waters.

fruchtzwerg's world/Flickrfruchtzwerg's world/Flickr

That's a lot going on in one relatively small piece of ocean.

Inupiat whalers don't want big ships, like ours, around when they're actively hunting bowheads because they fear big ships drive away the whales. So as long as Inupiat still have whales left on their quota and as long as they want to go out and hunt, Healy works elsewhere. Leanna's job is to help coordinate between the ship and the whalers as these decisions are made.

Even though the whalers of Barrow have one whale left on their quota this season, Healy has been able to work off Point Barrow for the past three days because 25-knot winds have kept the whalers and their small boats ashore.

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Aurora Borealis: Arctic Ocean Diaries No. 4

| Thu Oct. 11, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

Aurora borealis seen from the deck of the USCG icebreaker Healy in the Arctic Ocean: Photo courtesy of Laurie Juranek, Oregon State UniversityAurora borealis seen from the deck of the USCG icebreaker Healy in the Arctic Ocean: Photo courtesy of Laurie Juranek, Oregon State University

Editor's note: Julia Whitty is on a three-week-long journey aboard the the US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy, following a team of scientists who are investigating how a changing climate might be affecting the chemistry of ocean and atmosphere in the Arctic.

Last night those of us on night watch—or those who stayed up especially for it—saw the show of a lifetime. The forecast was for a strong aurora borealis starting around midnight local time. The skies had been overcast and worse all day, as we frequently sailed into blinding snow squalls. There didn't seem a whole lot of hope that we'd get a glimpse of the magical polar lights.

I spent a couple of hours on Healy's bridge staring out into the night. The bridge is the highest interior space on the ship, five decks above the main deck, with wraparound windows designed to give whomever is sailing the ship a view in all directions. The bridge at night is one of my favorite parts of being at sea: hushed, completely dark except for pinpoints of red light (red light maintains your night vision), with an intimate view, no matter how dark the night, of sea and sky. It's a cocoon of intense concentration, punctuated by the soft chimes of the ship's bells marking time.

The Healy's bridge during the day. Julia WhittyThe Healy's bridge during the day. Julia Whitty

At midnight, what I first thought was a break in the clouds began to pulsate. Then suddenly the clouds sheared away and stars burst through. Except they were radically different from stars in a clear sky. They were bigger and seemingly brighter, like glow-in-the-dark stars on a kid's bedroom ceiling, amplified by the curtains of green, blue, white, and red aurora shooting across the sky.

Now the wraparound view of the bridge wasn't nearly big enough. Several of us threw on every piece of clothing we had at hand and braved the open weather deck behind the bridge. It was cold and about 30 knots of wind were blowing. Yet it was the sky that took our breath away. The whole dome of heaven was transformed into sheets of translucent silk that shook out upon the stars, rippling across the Pleiades, the Big Dipper, and the North Star. The Milky Way was painted with a luminescent blue geyser that erupted and subsided almost faster than my eyes could register it. And then another, and another. Looking straight up, I saw veils of billowing emerald aurora falling down upon me, as if I were standing in a waterfall of light sparkling with stars and planets.

And through it all, to our left, off our port beam as we sailed northeast, the strongest beacon of all in this magical sky burned ominously from the platform of Shell's drilling rig in the Arctic Ocean, reminding us of how fragile these lights, this world, really is.

The map below, from the Northern Alaska Environmental Center will give you an idea of our position during the events described in this post. The ship was about three-quarters of the way between the town of Wainwright and the yellow dots marking Shell drilling sites in the Chukchi Sea:

Northern.orgNorthern.org

Armed Scientists: Arctic Ocean Diaries No. 3

| Wed Oct. 10, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
Jesse Torres, Fireman, aboard the US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy, shooting arrows from the helicopter deck. Looking on, David Forcucci, Marine Science Coordinator and founder of the Drift Arrow Project.

Editor's note: Julia Whitty is on a three-week-long journey aboard the the US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy, following a team of scientists who are investigating how a changing climate might be affecting the chemistry of ocean and atmosphere in the Arctic.

We had a lot of fun yesterday when everyone aboard got an email on the ship's Intranet from David Forcucci, the Marine Science Coordinator for Healy and a marine biologist by training, saying there would be the opportunity to shoot arrows off Healy's stern at 1630 hours. He looked surprised at how many people showed up from both science and ship's crew. Shoot arrows off the ship? Hell yeah.

We launched 50 arrows yesterday out into the Bering Strait, all handmade from Tonkin bamboo, no plastics of any kind, using traditional bows made by Jay St. Charles of yew and spruce. Each arrow was marked with www.driftarrow.com (check it out). We got to decorate them as we wanted with Sharpie pens.

Rather than a message in a bottle, we're sending messages on arrows. Dave's hoping to track the progress of these floating message-bearers around the Arctic Gyre—the big oceanic circulation circumnavigating the North Pole, maybe all the way to Europe. He's counting on people up here in the far North to take a second look at bamboo—something rarely to never seen up here—pick up an arrow and register it at his website.

Dave's arrow project is more fun than hard science. He's hoping local kids will get involved. He and Jay have already involved five school groups in the Seattle area who have decorated a few hundred drift arrows. Andrey Proshutinsky, an oceanographer from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, will be using his computer model to predict where the drift arrows travel in the Arctic current system. Dave also will be deploying a high tech satellite buoy alongside one quiver of arrows launched from from Healy, which should enable him to get daily positions on their drift.

Scientists testing the bows. Left to right: Bob Pickart, Frank Bahr, David Forcucci, Donglai Gong. Julia WhittyScientists testing the bows. Left to right: Bob Pickart, Frank Bahr, David Forcucci, Donglai Gong. Julia Whitty

Thar She Blows! Arctic Ocean Diaries No. 2

| Tue Oct. 9, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

Humpback whale with northern fulmars.

Editor's note: Julia Whitty is on a three-week-long journey aboard the the US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy, following a team of scientists who are investigating how a changing climate might be affecting the chemistry of ocean and atmosphere in the Arctic. Read her first dispatch here.

On our way north yesterday, we encountered a phenomenal gathering of humpback whales. I've seen a lot of whales in my time, dating back to my filmmaking days, but I've never seen as many humpbacks as were congregating off Unalaska Island yesterday. They're migrating south, some to Hawaii, others to the west coast of Mexico. They must have run into something of consequence—maybe krill—for so many to stop and feed.

But because Healy's on such a tight schedule, we can't linger until we reach the first mooring site sometime Tuesday morning. From that point on there will be a crazy amount of work to do literally around the clock in all weather, fair and foul.

Most of the scientists aboard are sampling water from various depths and in various locations in relation to land and rivers. In a way they're doing what whales and other marine life do: "reading" the water. The humpbacks are presumably reading for clues to food, migration route, friends, and foes. The humans are reading for clues to the rapid change underway as the Arctic icecap dwindles—change that will likely impact the future of krill, humpback whales, and people, to name a few.

The map below marks our current position as of 1517 hours on October 8. The red lines marks our passage up from Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, through the Bering Sea. We passed through the Bering Strait and over the Arctic Circle sometime last night. We're currently in the Chukchi Sea. You can see the yellowish outline of a boat with red dot in the center: That's us. The red triangles mark mooring sites where we'll be stopping to sample water. We'll be cruising the Alaskan shelf of the Beaufort Sea all the way east to the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

To collect data, the Healy research team will use CTD (conductivity-temperature-depth profiler), a package of oceanographic instruments that captures water at various depths and takes other measurements on its way to and from the bottom. It's deployed via winch and run to the bottom (or wherever) on cables.

Most research aboard Healy this cruise is supported by the National Science Foundation, Office of Polar Programs.

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