Watch out for Wildlife!

Ms. Callaghan’s Classroom

Jil Callaghan is a 6th grade science teacher at Houck Middle School in Salem, Oregon. She is posting blogs for her students while aboard the Research Vessel Sikuliaq as part of a teacher at sea program through Oregon State University. 

One of the neat things about going on a science expedition is that you not only get to go to your destination, but on the way there you may have a chance to stop in other cool places. Our ship was sailing out of Nome, Alaska, and not leaving for a couple days after we got there, so there was time to do some exploring of the local area. 

Jil Tundra.jpg
The Arctic tundra is frozen for the majority of the year. Trees can’t grow here, but low growing plants like moss, heath, and lichen do. The soil from approximately 1-3ft below the surface is permanently frozen (permafrost). Carbon dioxide and methane (greenhouse gases) are released into the atmosphere as permafrost melts due to climate change.

Salmon, Bear, and Musk Ox in the Alaskan Tundra

The Alaskan Tundra is a very different environment filled with low shrubbery and sponge ground cover.  During the long winters, it is completely covered in snow. What all lives here?  We drove a couple of hours away from the ship, stopping now and then to enjoy the scenery and to watch any wildlife we happened to see. Some of our science crew were sitting in the bed of the pickup truck, and they were often the ones that would first spot wildlife and start pointing – and then we’d know to stop.

Sockeye salmon were visible in the river along the road, even from the truck – the water was that clear!

Our next sighting was of a bear off in the distance – really it was just a white blob that we tried to figure out what kind of animal it could possibly be.  We weren’t sure until we looked at a zoomed in photo on Dale’s camera that it actually was a bear.  It was so light-colored that we wondered if there was any way it could be a polar bear, but we knew that their range made it unlikely they’d be this far south.  I asked one of the Alaskan natives, and they told me that it could have been a young brown bear, since they’re light colored when young.  They also said it could possibly have been a cross between a polar bear and a brown bear!  Wow, does that really happen?

Lastly, we passed a small herd of musk ox on a hill in the distance.  After we finally turned around to head back to the ship, we couldn’t resist trying to get a closer look at them.  We tried to sneak through the shrubbery, but we didn’t want to get too close.  So amazing to see them out in the wild!

Jil musk ox.jpg
Male musk ox can grow up to 8ft tall at the shoulder and weigh up to 900lbs! Despite their size, they can reach speeds of 37mph. Musk ox live in herds and are sometimes domesticated for their milk, meat, and wool.

While we did not see a moose (even though it was perfect moose habitat and we really wanted to see one!), one of our science team did see one the next day.

Whales in the Bering Sea

Our first day away from land – we are just traveling to get to the first “station” (a location where we want to collect samples).  As we approach the Bering Strait and can see the Diomedes (the larger island belongs to Russia and the smaller island belongs to the U.S.), we also spot some whales!  The spray from their blow spouts lingers even after they go back under water.  There are four of them!  Then we spot another pod of whales on the other side of the ship!

Jil whales.jpg
These might have been gray whales. They can live to be 75 years old! Their fighting behavior when hunting once earned them the nickname devil fish.

Walruses and Polar Bears in the Arctic Ocean

Ice!!!  At first it was just small pieces of ice floating by…. then they got more frequent, they got larger, and eventually the ship was breaking through some of the ice pieces!  On the bridge they had spotters with binoculars looking at the ice (older ice that has been there for more than one year is denser and harder to break through).  Herbert, a native Alaskan who is traveling with us, was also looking out for wildlife.  We saw a walrus on a piece of ice, just before it slipped into the water.  Those tusks! If you looked carefully at some of the ice, you could see areas with lots of grooves that their tusks had scraped into the ice! Next we saw a walrus mom with her pup in the water.  Finally, there was a group of about six walruses swimming along.  Their heads kept coming up and breaking the surface as they swam along. 

Jil walrus.jpg
Walruses use their tusks to make and maintain holes in the ice, and also to help haul themselves up onto the ice. The walrus uses an air sac under its throat that helps it to float and bob in the water while sleeping.

Ok, we’d seen walruses – so cool!  But you know that everyone was really hoping to get a chance to see a polar bear.  There was an announcement: Polar bear on the port side!  By the time I got there, though, it was out of sight…ah, well.  Three of us stood outside near the bow (front) of the ship, admiring the ice and keeping our eyes peeled for polar bears.  I spotted one just shortly before it gracefully slid into the water – my first sighting!!  We saw two more, far apart from each other, and each slightly more yellow than the white ice it was walking on, visible without binoculars.  As the ship kept moving, they were eventually out of sight.  Feeling both exuberant that we’d seen three polar bears in the wild – in the arctic! –  and feeling pretty cold, we went up onto the bridge to join everyone inside who was looking for bears too. We saw one more while up there, and everyone was sharing binoculars and trying to find it on the ice.  It was funny to hear people trying to figure out how to describe where on the ice the bear was – lots of confusion and attempts to describe features of the ice and guess at distances!

Jil polar bear ice.jpg
Polar bears live in the Arctic, not the Antarctic. They’re most likely to be found where sea ice meets water rather than close to the North Pole, where there aren’t many tasty seal meals.

Later that evening, as I was just about to head inside, I decided to take one last look at the water, and as I walked down the stairs to the bottom deck, I looked up and there was a piece of ice floating by the ship – with a polar bear on it and not more than 60 feet away!!  What do I do?

Jil polar bear water.jpg
The many months of the year that it spends at sea qualifies the polar bear as a marine mammal. No other marine mammal has limbs and feet that allow it to walk and run on land.

Do I enjoy seeing the polar bear, or do I run inside and tell others, knowing that it will soon be out of sight?  I felt I really had to share this experience if possible, so I ran inside and yelled “There’s a polar bear and it’s really close!” Some of the science crew came out and saw it too – the closest one all day!  That made a total of five polar bears that I had seen – it was like Christmas! 

I would now love to see a narwhal, but their range doesn’t overlap with where we’ll be, so I don’t have my hopes up….

See Ms. Callaghan’s other posts here.


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