“This isn’t the end of the world, but you can see it from here”
These words are posted on a sign at the US Coast Guard outpost on Attu. This lonely but spectacular island is the furthest west you can go in North America; technically we’re closer to Russia than anywhere else.
Attu saw a severe battle between the US and entrenched Japanese soldiers during the second World War, but you’d never know it by the vistas afforded to us from our anchorage in Holtz Bay. Most of us, at least from San Diego, were eagerly awaiting our time at Attu. What would it be like all the way west? Would the wind be howling across the Near Strait? Would the water be unbearably cold? What would the rocky reef communities look like?
Attu, if nothing else, was spectacular beyond belief. Our dive sites were in the three different habitats that we are studying: a kelp forest, an urchin barren, and a transition zone. The conditions were exemplary and each midnight sunset was more spectacular than the last. The wind howling through hidden glacier-carved valleys subsided as we launched the small boats to our dive sites. The sun showed itself on multiple occasions, revealing towering snow-capped peaks looming above us. Tussock grass swayed gently in the breeze on the cliffs as murrelets and puffins darted between the water and the sky around us.
Deployment of the benthic experiments went smoothly. We put three benthic chambers in each habitat to measure how much oxygen each habitat is producing. We may expect that kelp forests, because of the abundance of photosynthetic material (ie kelp) in the habitat, are more ‘productive’ ie produce more oxygen than urchin barrens, which are mostly devoid of kelp. Once they are placed on the bottom they sit for most of the time, although we maintain them every six hours, which affords us time to work on other projects. In the meantime, we enjoyed the sites Attu had to offer with breathless amazement. We were even allowed on shore for a brief expedition.
But, all too soon we had to pack up our experiments, stow the small boats on the Oceanus’s deck and begin our steam back east. For the rest of the trip we’ll be running to several more islands as we make our way eastward to Dutch Harbor on Unalaska, and our departure from the Aleutians.
Until next time,
-Pike (aka Baron von Urchin)
Genoa here! We just left Amchitka Island and are en route to Attu Island, however it will take us about 21 hours to get there, and we have to steam through Buldir Pass which is a section of exposed Bering Sea...Needless to say we are taking our seasick medicine now!
At Amchitka Island we were anchored next to an old World War II pier and one of our dive sites was littered with bullet casings and an old airplane wing! We need to get back to sorting samples so not much time to write, but here are a few pictures from the island!
R/V Oceanus anchored in Constantine Harbor, Amchitka Island.
It may be cloudy on the surface, but underwater, the subtidal world shows off its vibrant colors. In this photo the Dragon kelp (Eularia fistolusa) sporophylls (reproductive kelp blades) are surrounded by hungry sea urchins. Often, kelp can survive on pinnacles like this because the water speeds up as it goes over the rocks and knocks off the hungry urchins. Additionally, the sporophylls are strong and as they sway back and forth in the wave motion and knock off the sea urchins. But kelps that aren't lucky enough to grow on tall rocks or pinnacles lose their defense from hungry sea urchins.
View from the bridge of the RV Oceanus as we steam through Buldir Pass on the foggy Bering Sea.
Tristin here, greetings from the Aleutian Archipelago!
This week we embarked on our lab’s second voyage to the Aleutian Archipelago to study patterns of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning along the island chain! Our lab was granted NSF (National Science Foundation) funding for a two-year study how biodiversity and ecosystem production have changed following wide-spread kelp loss. We are focusing on three habitat types: Kelp forests, Urchin Barrens, and areas that are in transition between the two. Last year, we traveled from Adak (center of the Aleutian Island chain) towards mainland Alaska. That 21-day cruise on the R/V Oceanus covered a 444-mile expanse, and we surveyed six islands. For a more information on our research goals, and history of the project scroll down to the “Welcome to the Aleutian Islands Blog 2016” at the bottom of this page.
This year, we will expand on the work we did last year and sample the far western Aleutians including the islands: Amchitka, Kiska, Attu, Agattu, and Shemya. The furthest of the islands is Attu (see image), and to put it in perspective, Attu is 1,100 miles from mainland Alaska… and ~450 miles to Russian territory. As a side-note and interesting fact, during WWII, Attu was the only battle fought on American soil.
The expanse of our trip this year will lake us west from Adak to Attu, then back east where we will end our cruise in Dutch Harbor, AK. Team Edwards (Dr. Matt Edwards, Dr. Ju-Houng Kim, Scott Gabara, Tristin McHugh, Sadie Small, Pike Spector and Genoa Sullaway) is back in action, and we are ready for another amazing adventure. Stay tuned for more updates on our research activities over the next couple of weeks!
R/V Oceanus: Unalaska 6/29 – 7/1
Hi there, Pike here.
We arrived on our 6th and final island sometime in the early morning on Wednesday June 29th. It’s hard to believe that we’ve been living and working on the r/v Oceanus for almost two weeks now. We’ve battled rough seas, challenging dive conditions, and long days working in the field and in the lab. Although the weather only cooperated part of the time, we sampled more islands than we had originally proposed to do this year, so I think that alone makes this first expedition a success.
By the time we went to deploy our chambers in the calm, shallow reefs of Unalaska, we felt as if we could do it in our sleep. Without ripping currents, breaking waves and strong winds, our only challenge was dealing with the thick understory algae. Setting up the chambers, and then later breaking them down, went on without a hitch.
At this point you may be wondering about the design and construction of these chambers, and what exactly makes them so cumbersome. In the months leading up to this trip, the Edwards’ lab has been cutting, stitching and gluing PVC together, along with large sheets of plastic, to make our pyramid-shaped tents. The ocean is a mischievous mistress, and speaking from experience we knew that our chambers had to be sturdy enough to deal with anything the ocean could throw at us (case and point, Atka). However, not only did our chambers have to be sturdy, they also had to be transportable.
Ok so, we have chambers that are sturdy and transportable. Great. To stow them topside, such as on the deck of the Oceanus, we would fold them on themselves to make a 2-demensional triangle. We would transport them to the dive sites like this, and then once anchored, lower them into the water. To deploy them, we swim the triangle to an intended site, and then begin the process of unfurling them. Easier said than done; water is significantly more viscous than air, which means there is a lot more drag working against us. Once the triangle is unfolded, we use a PVC sleeve to secure two of the ends together and voila, we have ourselves a pyramid. But our pyramid also has a lot of drag, and anything not secured to the substrate will eventually be moved by any number of processes in the ocean. To counter this, we lay two lengths of chain around the chamber’s skirt. We riveted loops to the chamber’s skirt to better hold the chain in place; trying to manipulate the chain, skirt and loops while wearing thick gloves is also easier said than done. Before the chain is applied we make sure our sensor arrays are appropriately arranged inside of the tent; after it’s all said and done we have a nice microcosm experiment set up in situ!
Chamber retrieval is basically just the opposite process, which can be a little more tiresome than set up. But if my calculations are correct, across six islands we did a total of 90 chamber deployments and retrievals! At this point I think that makes us chamber professionals. It wasn’t always easy, but the data we gathered will definitely be worth our efforts. Stay tuned for the results!
Sometime in the 1980’s and 1990’s the sea otters throughout the Aleutian Islands, Alaska began to disappear, causing their favorite food (green sea urchins) to explode in numbers. As this continued over the following decades, the sea urchin numbers became so great that they began to eat up all the kelp and associated algae, leaving behind urchin barren grounds (areas devoid of most seaweeds but with lots and lots of sea urchins). This also resulted in apparent changes in a host of associated invertebrates and fishes, such that now much of the Aleutian Islands have dramatically changed and no longer reflect the old dense kelp forest ecosystems. This begged the questions; what does this change mean to patterns of biodiversity? And what does this mean for the whole Aleutian Islands ecosystem’s primary production?
Our trip is being led by Drs. Matthew Edwards from San Diego State University and Brenda Konar from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Drs. Edwards and Konar have both worked together in this ecosystem over the past few decades, beginning when they were graduate students in Dr. James Estes’ lab at the University of California Santa Cruz. Dr. Estes is the first to have described these changes and the causes of them, earning his induction into the National Academy of Sciences. Now, Drs. Edwards and Konar are following the work of Estes and trying to learn what these changes mean to the way the ecosystem functions.
On this research trip to the Aleutians, which has been funded buy the National Science Foundation, we are looking specifically at how patterns of biodiversity compare between kelp forests, urchin barren grounds, and areas in transition between these two states. Our work is primarily done on SCUBA (using dry suits of course), but there are activities involving benthic trawls to look at deeper habitats beyond the reach of traditional SCUBA to understand how the loss of kelp subsidies (i.e. drifting detached kelp) is impacting these habitats. In the shallower waters (20-40’) our group is dividing our efforts into two main categories. The Konar lab from UAF will be surveying the bottom and counting seaweeds and invertebrates, and collecting samples of each to get a measure of their biomass in each habitat. The Edwards lab from SDSU will be deploying benthic chambers to measure ecosystem production. These chambers are specially designed and equipped with Oxygen, light and temperature sensors to measure photosynthesis and respiration in each habitat. Also, we have along with us Dr. Ju-Houng Kim from (Chonam National University) in Korea who is working on the ship to measure how each individual species contributes to the overall patterns we are seeing. He has brought with him special equipment that measures photosynthesis and respiration for each species, and this information can be evaluated against what the Konar and Edwards labs are doing.
Check in with us from time to time over the next two weeks to follow our progress.