Gone Floatabout

Sailing, Photography, Wilderness

Seabirds and sea ice on Alaska’s Arctic coast: August 10, 2015


Black guillemot in flight

Black guillemots, Alaska’s Arctic coast

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!

Route Map_2015 to Barrow

Our route to Point Barrow and the Beaufort Sea, June – August 2015

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.

Cooper Island map

Google map screenshot of Cooper Island, Elson Lagoon, and Point Barrow


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.

Black guillemot

Black guillemot on Cooper Island

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.

Sea Ice Berg

Sea ice berg off our port side

Hot chocolate time

Hot chocolate break!

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.

Cooper Island

George’s cabin on Cooper Island

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.

Nanuk box nest

Nanuk case nest – the hole is where the parents, and eventually the chicks, come in and out.

Inside the nest.jpg

Fast growing chicks inside the nest

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!

Black guillemots

A black guillemot couple

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.

Guillemot with sculpin

Black guillemot with sculpin to feed its young

Baby guillemot

Baby guillemot carefully held by George

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/

George Divoky, Seth & Ellen Leonard

George, Seth, and Ellen bundled up against the cold

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.

8 thoughts on “Seabirds and sea ice on Alaska’s Arctic coast: August 10, 2015

  1. Thanks for sharing! Nice birding! What binoculars do you use/suggest and do you remember what George uses? Thanks, Scott

    • Glad you enjoyed it! Unfortunately I can’t remember what binoculars George has and I couldn’t quite make it out from my picture. We use a 10-year-old Nikon OceanPro compass binocular and it’s always been great! Good for taking bearings, too!

  2. beautiful post and pictures.

  3. Great photos. Please keep them coming.

  4. What an interesting post! Striking bird with its bright red feet and pied plumage.. And what a lonely place for George! Off to visit his site.

    • Thanks, Chris! I loved the guillemots – such fun, almost comic, birds! And yes, it is a lonely spot for George. He actually had a helper for much of last summer, which must have made it a bit better, though.