Ecosystems Fisheries-Oceanography Coordinated Investigations EcoFOCI Bering Sea Ice

Bering Sea-Ice Expedition
Questions and Answers

Are there whales in your area, and have you seen any yet? If so, what kind?

As of May 7, we have seen a total of 34 whales, including bowhead (3), minke (2), humpback (7), killer (7), grey (10), and 5 unidentified. The minkes and humpbacks were right next to the ice edge and the killer whales were traveling north toward the ice edge (perhaps looking for seals). It is difficult to identify whales because we often cannot get close to them before they dive. Thus, we use some clues about their blows (Is it tall and skinny like a blue whale or short and bushy like a humpback?), and their backs (Is it uniformly dark with a dorsal fin like a humpback or bumpy and mottled like a grey whale?). Sometimes we are lucky and they wave bye-bye with their tail as they dive and vanish from sight. back to top

Will we be able to view the films being made by your photographer?

A Seattle Times reporter and photographer and a filmmaker have accompanied us on this expedition. They have been watching and filming us as we work and asking questions about the research that we are conducting. Their photographs and films may be used in an article or a movie in the future but until that time, they will not be available. However, many of the scientists have been taking photographs and movies and some of these will be posted on the website. back to top

What was the reaction of the parent seal(s) when a pup seal was caught to be tagged?

We are always trying to capture the mother as well as the pup so we only see the mother’s reaction if we miss capturing her. If she escapes capture (usually by going into the water), the mother always stays close by, keeping an eye on us as we are working with her pup. She often will haul out onto the ice floe numerous times, sometimes allowing us another chance at catching her. After we leave the ice floe, after measuring and tagging the pup, the mother seal always reunites with her pup. back to top

Have any of you or others been injured by the wildlife now or in the past?

We have had one minor wildlife injury on this expedition. Rachael, a fisheries biologist, was stung on the forehead by a jellyfish tentacle. The jellyfish in the Bering Sea have a very mild poison and the sting resulted in a slightly irritating stinging sensation that went away without treatment in a couple hours.


Seals are carnivores and have sharp teeth. Working with wild animals always carries the risk of being bitten. In addition, these seals are large and heavy (1 – 3 times the weight of a scientist), and they struggle to escape. However, on this expedition, nobody has been injured by any seals. back to top

What has the temperature range been?

Temperatures have been much colder than we were expecting. The coldest air temperature was about -12°C (10.4°F) and the warmest has been almost 0°C (32°F). The wind makes it feel even colder. These cold temperatures have made it very hard for us to work. Our instruments have been freezing and we have to thaw them out before we use them. When we pull instruments or nets out of the water, we get pelted by frozen drops of water. back to top

About how many core samples will you take on this trip?

We have had 3 ice core sampling operations so far and hope to do one more. On each operation, we take 3 ice cores. The first core is used to measure how much chlorophyll is in the ice which tells us about phytoplankton or ice algae that might be growing in the ice. The second core is used to measure salinity, nutrients, and alkalinity. The third core is used to measure temperature and to do productivity experiments. back to top

How many seals have you tagged?

As of May 7, we have tagged a total of 18 seals, including 12 pups, 1 yearling female spotted, 1 adult male ribbon, and 4 adult female ribbon seals. Of the 12 pups, half were spotted seals and half were ribbon seals. The pups will loose their lanugo (baby fur) soon and therefore must be tagged with flipper tags. These tags only give location information. The older seals will not molt for a while so we can use splash tags that are glued to the fur. In addition to location information, the splash tags also provide data on water properties (temperature and salinity). back to top

Have you seen any polar bears?

No, we have not seen any polar bears. At this time of year, polar bears are farther north. The ice that we are working with is patchy with lots of open water in between. This type of ice is not a good place for polar bears. back to top

During severe weather, is it prudent to leave the ice and head for open water, or does the ice provide protection or stability against the high waves?

During severe weather, to stay near ice or flee from it depends on wind and sea conditions. Being near the ice dampens or quiets wave action so, generally, conditions can be calmer at an ice edge. In the stormy times during this cruise, it was notable to see large swells rolling through the ice, while the smaller, more chaotic wave action (higher frequency) was greatly reduced. We felt this effect on board the ship. Another scenario is when ice surrounds us, and/or the wind speed and direction is causing ice to move toward the ship from multiple directions. This could place the ship into a converging ice field. This threatens the safety of a ship, and would be a situation where leaving distance between the ship and ice is necessary. Ice Expedition Physicist. back to top

Who do you work for? Do you all work?

Everyone affiliated with the ice expedition is a worker; there are no volunteers. This includes ships' crews (officers, lookouts, cooks, engineers, technicians, deckhands, etc.), science crew (professors, technicians, ocean/atmosphere/biology scientists), shore-side support (web engineers, technicians, shipping personnel, communications experts, scientists), and commentators (documentary film crew, newspaper reporters).


We work for a number of different organizations: Federal government (NOAA), State governments (Universities of Washington and Alaska), other universities, private contractors, newspapers. There is one scientist with the Russian Academy of Sciences, and there are two Native Alaskans. back to top

What kind of education do you need to work on your ship?

It takes many people to run a ship safely and effectively, and the amount of education required by her crew varies widely. Many entry-level positions require only a high-school education, while heads of departments will have many years of experience and extensive training. A ship's deck officers and engineers hold licenses issued by the United States Coast Guard. To obtain these licenses, a mariner must meet training and experience requirements and must also pass a written exam. Many are also graduates of one of America's seven maritime academies. The deck officers on NOAA research vessels are all officers in the NOAA Commissioned Corps. Membership in this organization requires a college degree in some branch of physical or life science, engineering, computer science, or mathematics. Lower-level deckhands and engineers do not require a license, but must be experienced and trained to hold higher positions. With time and training, a mariner may gain a certification for a position, such as boatswain, able seaman, or qualified member of the engine department.


Visiting scientists aboard ship also come from a wide variety of educational and experience backgrounds. Many project leaders have earned Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degrees from graduate educational institutions. Almost all scientific and technical personnel have earned a Bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. It is possible to become a technical specialist with no more than a high-school education and a lot of experience, but that is becoming harder and harder to do. back to top

How does the information you gather help the ecology?

The information that we gather will help us understand better how nature works, so that decision makers can do a better job of managing natural resources. We must respect the planet that we live on. Everyday, all over the world, people make decisions that affect our planet. Sometimes the effects are good; sometimes they are bad. Can you think of some good and bad effects that people's decisions have had on the ecosystem around you? back to top

Why do you risk your life to do this work?

Sometimes we forget that we are risking our lives! We always keep safety at the top of our decision-making process when we are aboard ship. There are lots of safety measures that are designed into life at sea. Even with all of that in place, it can still be dangerous and lives have been lost. My first boss and the scientist who had the office next to mine disappeared when their research ship sank near Hawaii about 25 years ago. Do you risk your life when you cross the street? When you ride your bike? Is safety always your number one priority? back to top

How long will you be out on the ocean?

Most oceanography cruises last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. This particular expedition will last about a month, and will be conducted in two 2-week sections. Most scientists will work just one section, then fly back home. A few will work both sections. The officers and crew of the ships live on their vessels all the time. The ship is their home. They will often work about nine or ten months out of the year with only a few trips back to their home ports. back to top

What is the objective for this mission?

Our main objective is to observe the ice-edge ecosystem of the Bering Sea. The ice edge is a productive zone. Melting and freezing affect water temperature and freshness (salinity) which in turn affect the entire habitat and food web. You might be interested in reading the introduction to our research and other parts of our Ice Edge web site. back to top

Is there a hypothesis for the expected results for the chemical, biological, physical measurements?

We are working under several general hypotheses that we state in the form of questions. How do the species of the phytoplankton bloom under the ice differ from the open water bloom that occurs in May? How do temperature and salinity vary in relation to previous ice position? Where do ice seals go after ice melts? What is the structure of the ice itself? back to top

How is this trip related to global warming and the loss of freshwater glaciers from the polar regions?

This trip is not intended to study global warming or glacial retreat. The Bering Sea is sensitive to decadal sifts in climate, such as the PDO (Pacific Decadal Oscillation). The southeastern Bering Sea has warmed markedly (3ºC) over the past decade, and we have the opportunity to study how the ecosystem responds to this type of change. The ecosystem work we do across multiple scientific disciplines can be viewed as a piece of the whole picture on global dynamic changes. back to top

NOAA - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration