Steven Jamieson's Diary

Friday, June 15, 2007 Saturday, June 16, 2007
Sunday, June 17, 2007 Monday, June 18, 2007
Tuesday, June 19, 2007 Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Friday, June 22, 2007 Sunday, June 24, 2007
Monday, June 25, 2007 Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Wednesday, June 27, 2007 Thursday, June 28, 2007
Saturday, June 30, 2007  

Friday, June 15, 2007 Finally on my way….

Currently, I am in transit to Los Angeles (halfway across the Pacific Ocean). Everything has gone smoothly thus far, but I fear that by the end of my 39-hour journey, my biological clock will not know today from yesterday, back from forward, and day from night.

Thinking back to when I first found out that I had received an Earthwatch fellowship through Alcoa, I realize the excitement and anticipation has been steadily building, and I cannot wait to actually get there. I really have no idea what to expect, but I have checked off and packed all that is on the briefing list, so I suppose I am as prepared as possible.

There is nothing like getting out of your comfort zone.

Saturday, June 16, 2007 The two days of traveling was worth it just for the 40-minute plane ride from Anchorage to Valdez. Unbelievable—mountain and snow like I have never seen (note that I have only seen snow once, and it was in Australia, so I’m probably not the world’s biggest expert) along with spectacular glaciers.

Valdez is a beautiful fishing town surrounded by mountains, with architecture taken straight from an old western movie. I can’t wait to meet up with the rest of the volunteers and the field team later today.

Sunday, June 17, 2007 Yesterday, I met the field team. They are:
  • Aly (principle investigator): Protector of the kittiwake, veteran field operative, team provider, and first-rate baker.
  • Kelsey (field team leader): Aly’s spouse, spends most of his time on projects in the rest of the sound.
  • Raymond (the next generation): Aly and Kelsey’s little boy, budding mountain man with a knack for remembering names.
  • Alex (British master’s student): skillful climber, being groomed to take over as the protector of the kittiwake.
  • Joe (university volunteer): young biologist, hunter, and mountain man.
  • Andrew (university volunteer): English major who likes wildlife. A wordsmith, hunter, and mountain man.
  • Terri (Earthwatch volunteer): Californian animal lover, healer of the sick, veteran volunteer.
  • Greg (Earthwatch volunteer): Fellow Western Australian, mayor, mathematician, and general knowledge oracle.
After meeting the crew, we went through the boat training. If you fall in the water, it is so cold it will kill you in 15 minutes. To combat this in the event of an emergency, there are immersion suits, which are basically big, thick, baggy wetsuits. We had to become familiar with these just in case. I must say, I looked smashing in mine.

After the training, we tackled the 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) from Valdez to Shoup Bay. It took us approximately 11 hours. How is this possible, you might ask. Simple, I say. Take a 7.6-meter (25-foot) Boston Whaler boat named “Starik” filled with fuel, water, food, gear, and seven people. Then add 1.5-meter (five-foot) seas at two second intervals and near freezing water splashing over the rails. You get seven people huddled around a pizza at Mike’s Palace in Valdez waiting out the bad weather.

Once the weather calmed down, the journey was uneventful. But getting the boat through the inlet into Shoup Bay can be quite interesting. The water depth drops from 61 meters (200 feet) to as little as 1.8 meters (six feet) in approximately 18.2 meters (60 feet). The boat needs to be lined up with a flashing marker and the headland, which was a little difficult to do at 1 a.m. with fading light.

The Starik is moored in the deeper water upstream from the colony and camping area, so we had to transfer the gear and ourselves into an inflatable dinghy to go up the channel to the camp.

We were all pretty beat by the time we arrived at camp. Once we were shown our spacious three-person tents and unloaded the supplies, we went to bed.

Having been left to sleep in, I arose at 9:30 a.m. to attend the camp orientation. This included bear training, with survival techniques that included flares, air horns, guns, bear spray, and loud “Hey, bear” shouts, which apparently work fine to scare the bears away. In the case of a normal bear charging you, you must let the bear knock you over, and then you go into the fetal position. The bear should then leave you be unless it’s a predatory bear, at which point you must defend yourself at all costs. I only hope that if the time comes, the bear lets me know beforehand if it is a normal bear or a predatory bear.

Our first task related to the project was to complete the periodic (every three days) monitoring of the kittiwake nests. The nests are relatively small and range from zero to three eggs per nest. I have been told that the eggs should begin to hatch in the next two weeks.

The colony that we’re monitoring is an island located in the bay adjacent to our camp and contains approximately 30,000 birds (with 20,000 breeding). To the north of the colony is a spectacular glacier.

The majority of the fieldwork is conducted from inflatable dinghies. The boats are driven around the colony, and we jump off onto the cliffs or record the data from the boat at the required locations.

Monday, June 18, 2007 Today was overcast, but I am beginning to acclimatize to the cold conditions and get over the jet lag, so I am starting to enjoy myself.

Our task for today was to monitor the gull nests. The team has marked out 100 plots throughout the colony. It is quite tricky scrambling over the rocks and through the dense vegetation. When you add in the aggressive gulls kicking (unfortunately, the gulls go for the tallest predator, which is yours truly—I utilized my crash helmet on several occasions) and defecating on you, along with the potentially skin-irritating cow parsley, completing the plots is quite the challenge.

After lunch, we conducted a count of all the gulls on the island, followed by a closer look at the Shoup Bay Glacier. The pressure that the water flows from the base of the glacier was alarming. Joe told me that last year there was no beach in front of the glacier, which means that it has retreated at least 70 meters (230 feet).

Tuesday, June 19, 2007 Today was a real Alaskan summer day, with a beautiful clear sky and cool, comfortable breeze. I am writing this at 8 p.m., and it is probably the hottest it has been all day with no sign of night.

The only problem with the hotter weather is the mosquitoes. They were in plague proportions today and were unrelenting, but apparently they don’t carry any viruses like they do at home. Aly and Kelsey don’t use any insect repellent, because they are scared of putting the chemicals on their skin every day for six months of the year. It actually seems as if they have developed a natural repellent, as they don’t seem to get bothered as much as the fresh (volunteer) meat.

My task for today was to trap kittiwakes. This was the most enjoyable task that we have preformed thus far.

The birds are caught using a snare. My role in the hunt was to hide in a bush some distance from the nest and pull the snare once I got the signal from my fellow trapper. It is amazing how you have to be a certain distance away from the birds for them to land. Sometimes all it takes is to step back a couple of meters.

Once a bird was caught, we took measurements and checked its band prior to releasing it. We were successful in catching five birds, including the elusive “Sly Bird.”

In the afternoon, Andrew and I went for a swim in the rock pool, which was surprisingly warm after the buildup the other team members gave it and the fact that there is a whopping big glacier 200 meters (656 feet) away. It was good to have a bit of a wash after a few days of marinating.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007 Another beautiful day. I am sitting out in the sun in shorts, a singlet, and thongs (flip-flops) in Alaska. This weather is breaking all the stereotypes.

I am nearing the end of my four-hour predator watch shift. I have only seen a few ravens, with one taking an egg from a nest. Looking at the log, I see that the others have seen eagles and a wolverine.

These watches run for 24 hours once a week.

Friday, June 22, 2007 The fine weather has ended, and the weather report states that we have some inclement conditions on the way.

Yesterday, we did the gull plots in the morning. Several gull eggs have hatched, which has morphed the gulls into World War II Spitfire planes. I took three severe blows to the head, which earns me nine points in the camp’s “Game of Life.” In the game, you earn points for things ranging from the nightly euchre card game to the number of kittiwake captures that you get. I am proud to announce that I am now leading, just slightly ahead of Aly.

After lunch, we went for a hike up to some rock pools adjacent to the Shoup Bay Glacier. This was fairly rough terrain, with two small but challenging river crossings. At the summit of the hike, there is a rock pool. The water in the pool can only be described as icy. The only Brit on the team was keen to jump in, so I couldn’t let Ricky Ponting (Australian cricket captain) and the boys down. As quick as you like, I had de-robed and lobbed myself into the pool. I tell you that you know you’re alive when you hit the water.

On the way back, I saw what appeared to be a relatively small section of the glacier break off. It made a loud “WHUMP” when it fell, telling me that it was actually monstrous. Aly said that when the glacier was in the water, the team was not allowed to venture around to the north side of the colony, as they could get waves up to 1.8 meters (six feet) high from the cave-ins.

Today, we were busy with adult captures and nest checks. We saw the first kittiwake chicks for the summer and spent the afternoon getting ready for the town visit tomorrow. I am longing for a beer and a shower.

Sunday, June 24, 2007 Yesterday, we rose early with the intention of completing our kittiwake nest checks prior to 9 a.m. so that we could get into town before the forecasted bad weather. Unfortunately, we were a little late due to Joe’s love of sleep (took two separate attempts to wake the mountain man from his deep slumber).

Anyway, with a bit of scurrying along, we managed to get into town before the weather kicked up. We spent the first hour doing washing and having a heavenly shower. Looking in the mirror was a bit of a shock, and I confirmed that you can definitely get sunburned in Alaska. Time to slap some sunscreen on the nose.

We checked emails and got reacquainted with the world outside of Shoup Bay. We then replenished supplies and had a hearty meal before getting back to camp by 10:30 p.m. Poor Alex had to do her nest checks before going to sleep, as the eggs were beginning to hatch and this date is an essential piece of data.

Today, our mission was to finish off the adult captures before lunch, as Aly was concerned that the kittiwakes were being kept away from their newly hatched eggs. We would then do the gull plots after lunch.

The day didn’t go quite as smoothly as I had hoped, with points on the line for the final six adult captures. I was teamed with Alex, and we were keen to get a jump on the competition. We went around to the north face of the colony in the hope the birds were not as spooked, as less trapping had been carried out in this area. Apparently not. After two hours of trying, we gave in with only three headshots and a slap in the face by an angry gull to show for our efforts.

On the way in, we checked in with Andrew and Greg. They were also not having much luck, so we decided to try a double snare. It is hard to master, but as we all saw ourselves as skilled snare operators, we thought that it was worth a shot. After a further two hours of tolling and our egos deflated, we went in for lunch, beaten by the small in stature but mighty kittiwake. After today’s failure, I will not talk of the “Game of Life” again, because I will not be able to win, and I am a proud, sore loser.

After lunch, we re-grouped and decided to leave the adult capture to the skilled veteran Aly and instead headed off to do the gull plots. My skills at dodging the increasingly aggressive gulls are increasing rapidly. With my survival instincts taking over, I managed to get through the plots with only two glancing blows to the head. We saw one nest with six eggs—this is unprecedented. To date, the most that had previously been spotted were three eggs in a nest.

Monday, June 25, 2007 I spent the day with Alex collecting data for her master’s project. This included checking her production plots, which are approximately 20 groups of 20 nests scattered across the top of the colony. This task is quite challenging, as the terrain is relatively rough and you have to peer out over the cliff edge to see the nests. Alex took the brunt of gull attacks, allowing me to be a manly man and hide in any nook that I could find.

The weather was quite nice today, with the sun starting to break through the low-lying clouds. Due to the proximity of the water and the glacier, the air temperature increased significantly as soon as the sun comes out.

After lunch, it was gull bolus collection time with Alex and Greg. (For the simple folk out there, which includes me, bolus is similar to vomit.) We had to target three areas: one with kittiwakes in close proximity; one with some kittiwakes; and one with no kittiwakes.

The idea of the exercise is to determine if the proximity of the kittiwakes affects the gull’s diet. Although the gulls are aggressive and unlovable (I think so, anyway), you have to admire them for their courage and protective instincts. I know that if something 10 times my size came trampling through my living room, I wouldn’t turn around and kick them in the shin. I would be out there quick smart.

It is tough going up there. The chicks are very cute. As soon as you arrive on the scene, they start scampering around, often wandering into other adult gulls’ territory and receiving a deadly peck. I suppose that this is the price of knowledge, and it was evident in everything we did that Aly’s number one priority was to limit the impact that we had on the colony.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007 Today was a long but rewarding day. The plan was to go to Heather Bay to do the weekly transects (monitor all the animals within 100 meters—328 feet—of the boat along specifics paths). We would then come back and do the nest checks undermanned, as Joe was off catching up with his family, and then begin a 24-hour predator watch.

I had been looking forward to the Heather Bay trip all week, as I missed out last time the team went, and the others said that it was a majestic place. The bay is about an hour by boat out toward the Gulf of Alaska.

The weather today was ideal—sunny, light winds, and small seas. Coming from Australia (specifically Western Australia) where the land is flat and dry, the mountains, snow, and icebergs took my breath away. I can’t even imagine what it is like doing the trip in the winter.

On the way, we saw four sea lions relaxing on a marker buoy. These animals are massive and, frankly, look obese. It is amazing that they can swim at all.

Heather Bay is also adjacent to the Columbia Glacier, one of the larger ones in the sound and one of the first things that I saw flying into Valdez. The drop in temperature struck me as we approached the bay, where the winds come off the glacier toward the warmer sea. Thank goodness it was a warm day.

We dropped Alex and Greg off in the inflatable tender to monitor the Kittlitz’s murrelet (a rare bird that has been decreasing in numbers) from the shore. They looked quite comical as they paddled off with all the gear and Alex’s dog crammed into the vessel.

The rest of the team headed off to run the transects. We used a computer hooked up to a global positioning system (GPS) to record the data. I entered the data, as apparently my bird-watching skills weren’t as good as the others. Aly drove, and Andrew and Terri took watch on either side of the craft.

I thought that the sea otters were cool. They float around in little gangs, either chilling out floating on their backs or sunning themselves on an iceberg. Aly was very excited by the animals that we sighted, as there was an unprecedented number of Kittlitz’s murrelets.

By mid-afternoon, we had finished up and set off for camp. On the way back in, we saw a killer whale. Aly said it was a male due to the size of its dorsal fin. It didn’t breach or anything, but it was still pretty amazing. We also got held up coming into the Prince William Sound inlet by an oil tanker. Since the Exxon Valdez disaster, the security and safety measures have increased significantly. The tanker was escorted by two tug boats, one already attached in case of an emergency. I was also told that if you get within 300 meters (984 feet) of the tanker, they can fire upon your boat.

The day wasn’t over yet, though. We got back to camp around 5 p.m. and went straight out to do our growth rate and nest checks. We split Joe’s nests between us and put in the hard yards to finish up by 9 p.m. Poor Alex and Andrew then had to do their predator watch shifts through the night. We woke to pick Joe up from town at 9 a.m. the next morning so that he could show his family the campsite and colony.

All in all, it was a long, hard day but also the most enjoyable and rewarding one thus far.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007 After a long day yesterday, I slept like an infant. My predator watch shift was from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The weather was fantastic again, so the watch was relaxing and pleasant.

I had a bald eagle stalking the colony for an hour or so. The eagle perched itself in a position to snare an adult kittiwake, hiding behind a cluster of bushes to take the birds by surprise. After half an hour without luck, the eagle turned its attention to the helpless chicks. Although he devoured three chicks, the most damage was done by his band of scavenging followers. The crows and magpies followed the eagle and waited until the kittiwakes got flushed so they could pilfer egg after egg from the unguarded nests. The eagle was eventually chased off by a couple of gutsy gulls.

The other highlight in the watch was seeing one of the inflatable boats floating out into the bay and having a sleepy Alex and Andrew chase it down.

We finished the day by playing cards and having a few beverages on the beach followed by a delicious meal of pizza and homemade ice cream with brownie chunks (made by adding rock salt to glacier ice, creating a temperature of approximately minus 7° Celsius, or 19° Fahrenheit).

Thursday, June 28, 2007 Today was our last morning in Shoup Bay. We planned on leaving at 2 p.m. for town prior to conducting our last task as Earthwatch volunteers.

The task was a good one. With the first kittiwake chicks hatching in the growth rate nests three days ago, we got to measure and band these chicks. The chicks are very cute, apart from all the defecation, and are amazingly resilient for their size. Aly collected the readings with ease, while the volunteers, especially I, were made to look extremely clumsy.

As we packed and said goodbye to Shoup, I thought to myself that the landscape and, to some extent, the people I have met were such a contrast to my normal settings that they have changed my outlook on life significantly in only two weeks. This experience has fueled my desire to find out what else is out there in the big, wide world.

We went our separate ways when we got into town, with the plan to meet for our final meal as Earthwatch Team IV. After a fine Mexican meal in the depths of Alaska, we all said our goodbyes with some final jokes and the promises of email correspondence. Now all that remains is the trip home—actually, replace trip with mission. I will let you know how I am holding up in transit. The stopwatch will be started as I board the plane at Valdez.

Saturday, June 30, 2007 I have crossed the international dateline and am a little confused as to what date it is.

I have just boarded my final flight from Sydney to Perth. Total transit time now stands at 29 hours and 37 minutes, with roughly five hours to go.

I just read the latest American Rolling Stone magazine, which is a climate change special. It discusses the effects that President Bush’s policies have had on global warming and talks of the upcoming Live Earth concerts, along with announcing that Rolling Stone will now be printed on recycled paper.

From this and other media, it is evident that “the climate crisis” is now a big political and social issue, but is it too late? I have many friends who are aware of this topic, all well-educated and relatively wealthy people who aren’t willing to make the necessary sacrifices to address this problem. If this is the case, then what hope do we have? Surely the changes have to start with this demographic. The poor cannot be expected to make the environment their top priority when they are struggling to feed their family. From what I can see, the message is out there, but without some big legislation changes, especially in American and Australia (two of the top polluters per capita), any change is a fair way off.

This trip taught me a valuable lesson, in that the life of the consumer is not the only way to live. Meeting people like Aly and Kelsey, who live amazing lives in a near self-sufficient manner, was refreshing. They spend half the year in the bush monitoring the seabirds. When they come home, their house draws nothing from the power or water grids and is constructed from recycled materials. There are environmental friendly and cost efficient alternatives. It seems all you need to do is pursue them.

I must admit that I am a consumer. I like to have the latest music and fashion, and I will quite easily drive 600 kilometers (373 miles) on the weekend for a surf. I am not sure that I am willing to sacrifice these things. Does it matter that I’m thinking and acting on a small scale to change my ways? I like to tell myself that I am assisting in combating climate change, and that while we wait for government policy to evolve, every little reduction helps. It is evident that people are beginning to acknowledge this “crisis,” and it is going to be an interesting time (maybe race against time) in the world to see if the general public starts acting. It is comforting to know that some already are.

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Seabirds of Prince William Sound

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