As you can probably tell if you’ve been reading Gone Floatabout, the two of us are amateur birders. And the Arctic – particularly Barrow (see last post) – is a wonderful place for spotting lots of unique species. So when Craig and Cyd told us about Cooper Island, we had to go!
Cooper Island is about 50 miles east along the Beaufort Sea coast from Barrow and is one of the many flat, gravely islands lying just off the mainland.
For the last 40 years, a scientist called George Divoky has spent summers there, essentially camping, in order to research black guillemots (a small seabird) and the effects of climate change on them.
On August 10, 2015, we set off from Point Barrow in light, shifting winds and sailed East-South-East, scanning the coast with binoculars in case a polar bear was padding along, or a herd of caribou was browsing the tundra. No polar bears, but we did actually see a caribou, albeit too far away to photograph.
To seaward of us were a lot of largish icebergs, big chunks of sea ice drifting free. They were too far away to be of any worry, and the water we were sailing in was ice-free. Further east a tongue of ice still reached down to the shore, but we weren’t headed that far.
As usual in the shifting silt of the Alaskan Arctic coast, we found our chart inaccurate for entering the lagoon south of Cooper Island (essentially a continuation of Elson Lagoon by Point Barrow). The channel that was there when the chart was drawn had disappeared and it took a lot of trial and error to find somewhere deep enough to go in and anchor.
The next morning we rowed ashore to meet George. We’d talked to him on the VHF radio beforehand so he knew we were coming, and I think he was pretty excited to see some new faces – he doesn’t get too many visitors in the months he spends there. He showed us around the island, his tiny cabin, and the guillemots. All the birds nest in Nanuk plastic cases (military grade, just like Pelican cases) that George got to prevent polar bears from eating the research subjects, something that happened more and more frequently as the summer sea ice retreated and bears’ normal prey of ringed seals became harder to hunt. The guillemots had previously nested under driftwood and other wooden debris that was easy for the polar bears to swipe aside. The Nanuk cases have improved things for the birds and for George’s ability to continue his research.
George recognized each individual bird – identifying them by their leg bands – and could tell us who was nesting with whom and who had multiple partners and thus multiple nests: guillemot soap opera!
The biggest change he’s seen as the ice cover has retreated over the last 40 years is that the parents have to fly further and further offshore to get their offspring’s preferred food, which is Arctic cod. In recent years they simply haven’t been able to get it at all (they aren’t able to fly far enough out to the ice edge where the cod live) and so they’ve brought back sculpin instead.
For the first few years the chicks wouldn’t accept sculpin and were doing badly, but recently he’s seen them adapt to it and do better. There’s tons of information on George’s own site: http://cooperisland.org/
All too soon it was time to head back to our anchorage off Point Barrow in order to say goodbye to our friends there and get ready for the long passage back to Dutch Harbor.