October 22, 2012
by Shelley Dawicki
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Humpback whales sighted approximately 90 kilometers (56 miles) west of Pt. Hope, Alaska on September 11, 2012. Point Hope, on the Chukchi Sea coast in northwest Alaska, is 330 miles southwest of Barrow. Photo by Allison Henry, NEFSC (NOAA/NMFS/AFSC/NMML, NMFS Permit No. 14245, Funded by BOEM, IA Contract No. M11PG00033)

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NOAA Northeast Aerial Marine Mammal Team Flies Alaskan Skies

Three members of the NEFSC'S marine mammal aerial survey team have been in Alaska assisting colleagues at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center with the annual Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals (ASAMM) project.

Coordinated by the Alaska Fisheries Science Center's National Marine Mammal Laboratory and funded by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the project began in early July and is based out of Barrow, the nation's northernmost community, with additional effort based at Deadhorse, both located on Alaska's North Slope along the Arctic Sea shore.

Weather permitting, daily aerial survey flights commenced in July and are running through October. The survey is documenting distribution and relative abundance of bowhead, gray, right and fin whales, belugas, and other marine mammals in areas of potential oil and gas exploration, development, and production.

The study is similar to the Atlantic Marine Assessment Program for Protected Species (AMAPPS) in the North Atlantic. The NEFSC aerial survey team and other Center staff have been involved in that project as well, and have worked with many of their colleagues in Alaska before.

Allison Henry spent most of the month of September flying out of Barrow, but recently returned to the NEFSC's Woods Hole Laboratory. Pete Duley also worked with the team in Barrow in September and October, while Jen Gatzke has been flying out of Deadhorse some 200 miles away.

"I saw several species I'd never seen before, and flying over the ice floes is indescribable," said Henry, who saw polar bears, bowheads and walrus for the first time. "I got some amazing looks at all of them. I also saw gray whales and orcas for the first time from the air. It was a truly amazing experience!"

For Jennifer Gatzke, observing bowheads and gray whales feeding was something she had never witnessed before. "We are seeing many beluga whales in the Beaufort Sea, along with groups of small ice seals and some bearded seals," Gatzke said. "Along with a few swimming polar bears, we have observed large numbers of polar bears feeding at the whale boneyard on Cross and Barter Islands - so exciting! One of the most interesting experiences for me has been the cooperation between the ASAMM project and the Inupiat whaling groups."

For Pete Duley, flying out over the ice seeing polar bears and walrus was a highlight. "Always strikes me as strange to see bears 60 miles offshore," he said. "They truly are marine mammals. Everything is just so big out there, and the wilderness landscape goes on forever. It was hard to leave, even as the days were getting shorter and the snow was flying. It was a fantastic trip and a great opportunity."

For all three NEFSC researchers, working on this project has been an experience they will not soon forget.

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(File Modified Mar. 25 2013)