On Saturday evening Elliot and Ian finally met up with Melissa Good, who is the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program lead in Dutch Harbor, and her husband, Josh who is a local high school teacher and diver. We strategized on where to collect sea stars and plans for the following day. Melissa and Josh kindly offered to help us collect the targets for our collection with a group of divers that get together every Sunday to explore the underwater wilderness around Unalaska – a very generous and awesome offer which made our work a lot easier!
The following morning, Melissa and Josh took us on a zodiac tour around Captain’s Bay and the inner harbor to see some of the sights and familiarize us with the geography of the region. Within about 10 minutes of leaving the dock we were treated to viewing a pod of humpback whales which were nearby chowing down on small fish (presumably).
We also went to visit a wreck of the Northwestern, a boat that was bombed in 1945 by advancing Japanese troops. They claimed it as a huge military prize of the campaign – turns out it was being used as a restaurant ship for officers and nobody was injured (thank goodness). Makes for an impressive shipwreck though!
Unalaska has several protected deepwater ports and is home to a massive fishing fleet and fish processing industry. In 2013, 753 million ponds of fish worth $197 million were landed at the port, roughly 1/12th of the entire fishery landings of the US. Not bad for a place of only 5,000 people – they charge a fish tax which means that the community has amazing public infrastructure. We got to see some of the fishing boats within the harbor itself close-up; each draws about 10 – 12 foot, making them a bit like an iceberg. There are boats called “Trammers” which process and package fish caught from smaller boats that do the actual fishing – quite the operation. An interesting statistic is that the town of Unalaska and Dutch Harbor operates on diesel-electric generators, which go through $1 – $1.5M a month in diesel! That’s a lot of gas!
After a morning tour of the bay, we then went back to shore so that Josh and Melissa could get their dive gear and coordinate with the other divers. Shortly thereafter, we proceeded to the shore diving site called “Deadman’s Bend”, located in Captain’s Bay, which hosted a variety of sea stars. Once there, we saw immediately that this was the case – loads of healthy looking Evasterias troscheli, Solaster stimpsonii, Pycnopodia helianthoides etc. One thing that is noticeable about this trip compared to our March expedition is that everything seems much closer to the intertidal – back in March we found scant stars actually at the surface, this time they were everywhere.
With divers in the water, Elliot and Ian strategized for processing the stars: Our priority was small stars (about 5″ in diameter), and those that had recovered from injury (for cell culture work). We also wanted to get ones which were morphologically distinct – thus making it easier to tell them apart. The dive itself took about 25 minutes – the Goods and colleagues also were collecting Tanner Crabs for subsistence fishing – and when they returned they had collected a great variety of small sea stars!
Juvenile and adult Pycnopodia helianthoides that were collected from 5 – 10m during the dive. Screen shots are part of a video which will be uploaded shortly.
We ended up collecting 21 young and adolescent Pycnopodia helianthoides and 21 small Evasterias troscheli, all asymptomatic, which we transferred to an action packer (big plastic container) filled with water. Because the cargo flight wasn’t heading out until the following morning at 9am (we finished collecting at 2pm), we decided to put the sea stars into collection [laundry] bags and suspend them off the dock in Little South America before packaging them up early the following morning – to keep them at temperature and with plenty of oxygen. The transit back to Ithaca was estimated to take 50 hrs or so, which is a long time for an animal to be stuck in a plastic bag, so we minimized time this way.
Sunday evening we had a tremendous dinner with the Goods before hitting the hay, as we had an early start (4.30am) the following morning to package sea stars.
We woke up well before dawn on Monday morning to package up the sea stars, which takes quite a while. Cargo from Dutch Harbor is prioritized for live animals, so we had to get them on the plane for the first flight out. Fortunately, we managed to get them all together in time (barely!)
Feeling anxious, we actually watched our stars be loaded on the flight and take off!
By this time it was 9am, and our flight out didn’t leave until 6pm, so Elliot and Ian decided to do some more observations of sea stars and make good use of the time. We went out to Little Priest Rock, which is a moderate-high energy zone, and where the 6 armed sea star, Leptasterias hexactis is common.
At about 4pm, we headed to the airport for the flight back to Anchorage. The plane left about an hour late, but we arrived at Anchorage airport pretty much per schedule – they often schedule fuel stops to allow for large cargo loads.
Unfortunately, our bags got lost on the way back – evidently someone decided to ship seafood back on the plane, which means our bags were bumped. But we do have a day in anchorage now for some sightseeing.