Research in the Arctic, One of the Many Advantages
I transferred to UAS from Western Washington University to study biology and have just completed research in the Arctic of Alaska studying ringed seals. I lived on the ice for a month with the Dean of Arts and Sciences Brendan Kelly and research assistant John Moran.
When I studied in Washington I did not have any opportunities for fieldwork. I was lucky if my professors even knew I existed at that school, because there were 12,000 students. Being at UAS, I’ve had a lot of opportunities that I would not have gotten in a larger school. At UAS I have that one-on-one time with my professors.
I was part of the first group to ever research ringed seal’s foraging and feeding behavior using underwater video. No one has gone under the ice to see what they are doing. National Geographic was shooting a documentary on Dean Kelly and they were able to provide a video camera that could be attached to the back of a seal that we used in our research, it’s called the Critter Cam." To attach the camera, first we had to catch a seal. We caught a 140 lb female that we called Sisi. We first attach netting to her back with special glue. We than attach the camera to the netting with clamps so it is easy to get on and off. The netting and clamp assembly falls off during the annual molt.
Seal holes were located by Labrador retrievers trained to locate seal odor and by following the tracks of polar bears. When the wind died out we were able to set some nets to capture the seals. We attached a microphone to each hole so we could monitor its activity from our tents. We listened for breathing, just a little puff of air, or bubbles that seals produce to clear the ice from breathing holes so they can see if it is safe to surface. When the seal is heard breathing, we know it is positioned within our net, and we trigger the fall of a weight which purses the net below the seal.
It was 7:00 AM near the end of the month and John and I were the last two people on the ice. I was still in my cot when the phone rang. Pam from the North Star oilrig was calling to tell us we needed to get off the ice. Two nearby rivers broke up and the newly thawed waters began to flow toward us. We had two days before the water would overtake our camp, but the $15,000 Critter Cam was still attached to Sisi. John and I were concerned because with this extra width she may have difficulty getting through the hole and we could lose the camera and a huge part of our research. Right at that moment I heard a bubble on the monitor and shot out of my bed. John dropped the phone with Pam still speaking. We triggered the net and cruised to the hole on our snow machines. Sisi was there. We captured her at the last possible minute, we were so relieved. It was amazing! Then we had to rush off the ice. Watch the video for yourself!
Everything just seems so surreal. UAS just opens opportunities. I met people from National Geographic who connected me with other researchers who I can go out and work in the field with. I am just meeting tons of new people. This is just opening the doors.