Collaborative research in southwest Alaska: Mussels, mollusks and more, part 1

Seattle Aquarium Animal Care Specialist Caroline Hempstead traveled to the coastline of Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve from June 28 to July 10, 2019. Caroline assisted with a variety of research being conducted as part of a long-term monitoring program of the area. These efforts were part of the National Park Service’s Southwest Alaska Inventory and Monitoring Network as well as part of Gulf Watch Alaska, the long-term ecosystem monitoring program of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council for the marine ecosystem affected by the 1989 oil spill. Check out Caroline’s account of her experiences in Alaska below!

 

Map of Katmai National Park
Map of Katmai National Park

 

Part 1: Getting started in Homer

Days 1-3

 

Heather looking through her binoculars for a foraging sea otter.
Heather looking through her binoculars for a foraging sea otter.

 

Day 1

I flew from Seattle, Washington, to Homer, Alaska, to join a team of scientists from the National Park Service (NPS), United States Geological Survey (USGS), University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), Simon Fraser University (SFU) and others assisting with the long-term monitoring in southwest Alaska. With only minor flight delays, I arrived in Homer and met up with a few of the scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) bunkhouse: Kelsey Griffin from King Salmon NPS, Brian Ulaski from UAF, Lena Ware from SFU and Carly Miller from Anchorage NPS.

After dinner we went for a walk down to the water and came across a young dead sea otter on the beach. Unfortunately this is not an uncommon phenomenon where sea otters are abundant, such as in Kachemak Bay (where Homer is located). Discovering the cause of mortality in sea otters can often be achieved by conducting a necropsy (an autopsy on an animal). Any sightings of a dead, injured or sick marine mammals should be reported to the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network. 

 

Day 2

It was a day of introductions, loading field gear, and starting our 12-day voyage down the Katmai coast. After breakfast, we met up with Jim Bodkin, USGS (scientist emeritus), to pick up one of three skiffs (small inflatable boats) that would be used to launch from the Miss Diane, the main vessel and our home base, an 85-foot aluminum landing craft. The Miss Diane was docked alongside the pier on Homer Spit, a long, narrow piece of land that juts 4.5 miles into Kachemak Bay.

Throughout the morning and early afternoon, everyone started to arrive: Heather Coletti from Fairbanks NPS and leader of the trip, Dan Monson and Brian Robinson from Anchorage USGS, Brenda Ballachey from USGS (scientist emeritus), Parker Martyn from Anchorage NPS and Elsie Krebs from Environment and Climate Change Canada. Once all the skiffs, field equipment and personal gear were loaded onto the Miss Diane, we were ready to set sail for Shelikof Strait.

The Miss Diane alongside the loading dock in Homer, Alaska.
The Miss Diane alongside the loading dock in Homer, Alaska.

 

 

Day 3

Though the seas were rough at the intersection of Cook Inlet, Shelikof Strait and the Gulf of Alaska, after 15 hours of cruising, the Miss Diane finally found some calm waters in Sukoi Bay (Cape Douglas). Sukoi Bay was not our intended destination, but fieldwork requires flexibility and optimizing opportunities where they arise, so we decided to deploy one of the skiffs. Heather, Jim and Brenda headed out for a survey of marine birds and mammals south of the bay. These surveys were conducted by driving a skiff along established nearshore transects (specific designated distances) along the coast and close to shore. Every person had a task: one person navigated the skiff and counted seabirds and marine mammals offshore, another person counted the animals inshore of the skiff and another entered the data into the computer. Each seabird and marine mammal was assigned a four-letter alpha code to indicate the common name of the species. For example, the alpha code for horned puffin is HOPU, pigeon guillemot is PIGU, harbor seal is HASE, tufted puffin is TUPU and so on.

Brenda, Jim and Heather returning from the survey with help from Captain Bill of the Miss Diane.
Brenda, Jim and Heather returning from the survey with help from Captain Bill of the Miss Diane.

 

Meanwhile, the rest of the team stayed on the Miss Diane to receive a thorough presentation on bear safety and was subsequently issued bear spray and flares. Katmai National Park and Preserve is known for its brown bears (Ursus arctos). There are over 2,000 brown bears living in the park. For those of us unfamiliar with bear behavior or bear-human encounters, this orientation was greatly appreciated!

After the others returned from their survey, we regrouped and teams headed out on the skiffs to conduct additional studies. I joined Heather, Jim, Brenda and Dan to collect sea otter foraging (feeding) data. Once a foraging sea otter was spotted, teams of two were taken ashore with all their gear. With binoculars in hand and tripods and scopes set up, we were able to observe foraging dives on several sea otters. Data collected included dive duration, time spent on the surface and the type and size of prey items consumed by the otters. At this particular location, sea otters were observed eating butter clams (Saxidomus gigantea), Pacific blue mussels (Mytilus trossulus) and sea stars (Evasterias spp.). I also saw my first wild brown bear walking on a bluff and foraging on the vegetation, which makes up a large part of a brown bear’s diet in Katmai. I was so excited to see the bear I forgot to take a picture!

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