• Mother Ship gives education and comfort to lonely camps
Editor’s note: The MV Tiglax’s work as a research ship enables U.S. Fish and Wildlife scientists and other agencies to get to remote parts of Alaska that would otherwise be inaccessible. First-time discoveries emerge from the Alaska National Maritime Refuge based in Homer, making it a world class research facility. This is the first in a series of articles to describe that work.
By Naomi Klouda
The M/V Tiglax left its Homer harbor for the second and last time of the season on peaceful tinfoil waters leaving Kachemak Bay, destined for field camps dotting thousands of miles of coast. It would go as far north as St. Matthew Island before heading back south, hugging the Aleutian Chain.
The research ship under the employ of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge is so clean the safety lesson given by First Mate Dan Erickson includes a warning about no stockinged feet on the shiny sliding galley floor. “Wear foot wear at all times,” he tells the six passengers aboard this voyage. He points to the first berth just off the galley. “Ship hit bad seas and one guy flew all the way across to there and dislocated his shoulder.”
Polished wood paneling and every plate, cup, tea bag, book and movie is tucked away into cabinet spaces made especially for them. A lab off the back deck gleams with stainless steel tables meant for calibrating rat traps to rid that evasive species from islands where they have sucked the life out of bird colonies. The steel table are meant for processing science specimens from tiny plankton to giant sea lions. The lab housed Aleutian cackling geese en route back to their native islands.
The wheelhouse where Capt. Billy Pepper has piloted the ship many years looks hand polished, its gleaming instruments Capt. Cook would envy, housed alongside the latest in digital mapping. This is the home-away-from home of some of the most important refuge research done currently by the federal government in America’s holdings.
“We count everything. That’s our motto,” Capt. Pepper says in his Boston accent. “Every whale we see, what kind is it, where it was on the horizon, what day, what time, every sea bird, every sea lion where it is found, we count it.”
Aboard are two teens from the Youth Conservation Corp, Axel Gillam and Katherine Dolma, with
their supervisor, bird scientist Ingrid Harrald, taking them to the Priblofs where they will count birds and conduct a camp for young people.
“A lot of times, these kids have never been away from their parents. And it’s a big deal for them, because they can’t call home. It’s a big deal for the parents as well, to make sure they are okay,” Harrald said.
Gillam,and Dolma worked shifts to swab decks, help inflate the Zodiaks for the camp trips, or to scrub sea bird guano off the crane lift from a frightening height.
Biologist-naturalist Rich Kleinleder is aboard to count birds en route to St. Matthew, where he plans to then switch to an arctic fox inquiry with his former UAF biology professor and father-in-law, Dr. Dave Klein.
En route, he spends the voyage’s days on the top deck in a place especially outfitted for bird scanning and entering data into a custom program on an all weather computer provided for the purpose. It is the most exposed part of the ship to elements of rain and mist. The computer is housed inside a special cubby designed by Eric Nelson, who has been the ship’s engineer since it rolled off the shipyard in 1986.
Cindi Jacobsen, the assistant deputy regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska, also is aboard to observe. She is involved in national budget cut debates at a time when the multi-trillion dollar budget deficit must be brought in line with reality. The Cornell University PhD is along to learn about the science programs underway in the refuge.
“We’re looking at ways to economize. About 10 percent reduction, that’s what we are told is needed. We’re looking for efficiencies,” Jacobsen said. “Studying a surrogate species might supply some answers. By looking at just a few harbingers of change we can deduct what is happening with a management area,” she said.
A NOAA maintenance manager also is aboard, Marc Hoover. He contracted the Tiglax to carry tons of building materials needed for NOAA facilities in St. Paul and St. George.
The federal government in the late 1800’s built the sea-side structures for processing millions of fur seals when the territory of Alaska was supervised by federal marshals overseeing harvests that claimed 30,000 pelts a year. Hoover is in charge of placing bronze statues, weighing 2,000 pounds each, to commemorate 75 years since the Seal Act began to protect them from over harvesting, one for St. Paul and one for St. George. Though not set to be unveiled until next year, the Tiglax is needed to transport the statutes.
“I’m thinking we need a really good foundation for them, something respectful, in a circle, more color than just concrete,” he tells Capt. Pepper. He outlines a method he has in mind that would incorporate native stones.
Art of navigation
Axel Gillam stands in the wheelhouse of the Tiglax the first full day out of Kachemak Bay. Fin whales surface in the distance and porpoises swim close. As the ship passes by the Kodiak Island village of Karluk, Pepper shows Gillam how to calculate the ship’s distance from Kodiak Island in nautical miles. He picks out a landmark.
“What’s that rock jutting straight up, sharp and jagged?” Pepper asks, indicating a stoney tooth sticking out the water at end of Kodiak mainland.
Part of the objective of being on this trip for the YCC youth to learn even navigation. Gillam goes to work looking at the plot chart depicted on the monitor in front of him. He double checks the distance on radar. He consults a paper chart, using a protractor.
“About 8 miles,” Axel said, judging from both the plot chart reading and the trusty 80-year old radar technology, which ships still use despite GPS and modern tools for its accuracy. “Tombstone Rock?”
“That’s it,” Pepper enthuses. “Tombstone Rock, it’s eight miles, confirmed twice.”
This is the third season the Refuge has offered this internship for teens.
“What we had in mind was to show them all the facets of the ship, whether it be navigation or bird observation, maintenance or cooking and cleaning, each crew member shows a portion of their work and gives them a duty in their work,” Capt. Pepper explains.
The Refuge is benefiting from funding to hire two teens, who do a lot of useful tasks along side the crew.
“The program has three components: educational, maintenance and biology,” said Harrald.
Before leaving the Homer Harbor, the teens did a gruesome amount of shopping.
“It was two and half days of frantic shopping, because you don’t want to forget something on the list,” Harrald said. “I was at a camp once where we wouldn’t be re-supplied for a month, and they forgot the dairy – the cheese, the milk. Another time, they forgot the fresh produce. I thought ‘how can people be this way?’”
At the end of Dolma and Gillam’s efforts, careful Harrald’s shopping list provided 10 heaping grocery carts sorted into more than 30 boxes to be divided between Choweit Camp, Aiktak Camp, St. Paul, St. George and St. Matthew. The boxes were loaded into the hold of the Tiglax and filled the lab’s floor.
“The point is to give as many youth as possible the opportunity. There needs to be a level of experience and maturity because they will be aboard a ship. It might be the first time they are away from their parents,” Harrold said.
The entire 1,000 mile journey, all crew and passengers aboard the Tiglax are out of cell phone range and cannot access Internet to email family and friends. Remote camps along the route from Homer to Umigak Island to the Priblof Islands are far from communication towers.
Katherine Dolma’s time in “captain training” with Capt. Pepper followed roughly the same kind of lessons, only on this afternoon as the ship treaded quiet waters under a partially sunny sky to its first remote bird monitoring station on Choweit Island in the Semidi group, she was given a lesson in reading the weather.
The Tiglax receives a weather fax four times a day, raw data showing the wind direction and barometric pressure. Dolma determines the wind is expected to blow southwest 20. Rain and fog is in the forecast.
Pepper shows her the Beaufort Scale, illustrated in a booklet: 0-1 is flat calm. Up more violently turbulent waters, say scale 34, would be “Deadliest Catch” conditions. Even worse, hurricane force goes up to Nos. 53-56.
From the wheelhouse, as the Tiglax rides through open sea en route to the Semidi Islands, the water lies flat as silver. Swells increasingly skip along the surface, rippling toward caps.
“I think it’s 0-1,” Dolma tells him.
“Sounds right,“ Pepper tells her. “My job is to know when to slow down and when to speed up. Weather plays a big part of our season. It tells us where we can and where we can’t land. Looking ahead is how we know.”
Since they’ve been trading off duty times, Gillam ends the day in the wheelhouse with Pepper. A rare Right whale is reputed to be in these waters, offering a small chance for a sighting. Pepper has him scanning the horizon with binoculars.
Down in the galley, a movie is waiting for Gillam, a chance for the two YCC workers to sit down and relax for probably the first chance since getting underway. “Do you think I can go now?” he asks Pepper, referring to the movie.
“No,” Pepper surprises him by answering. “You can watch movies any time, but how often do you get to watch for a Right whale?”
Gillam smiles, and returns to scanning the waters.
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