Checking In, St. Paul
8 July, 2012
by Michael Dessner
In 1994, in the middle of a 100 year old flood that brought the banks of the Mississippi an equal number of miles outside its banks, I left Iowa and went to Alaska to work for the summer processing fish. For the next 10 years I made Alaska my home, working from the deep water ports of Homer and Seward, purchasing fish for most of the major canneries on the Kenai Peninsula. In 2005, I departed Alaska to work for the Waitt Institute; by the time I left it was time for me to go, I wasn’t happy in the work I was doing and the allure and impact of the land that had drawn and kept me there for a decade had waned. When the opportunity presented itself to come back and work the Institute-provided submersible, I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to reminisce with my friends up here and come back to some familiar grounds. I felt it was something of a victory tour for me, to come back to the place that had introduced me to the sea and started the love affair with the oceans that I hope will last until the end of my days.
I was unprepared for the impact my return would have on me. I expected a certain amount of nostalgia but did not anticipate that the response it would invoke in me would be no less powerful than the first time I crossed the border at Beaver Creek. This is a truly singular place, the biosphere, the people and the way they interact to produce a truly one of a kind state when compared to the Lower 48. The sense of community based in a pioneering spirit and stolid sense of individualism is as strong and striking as when I first encountered it. I point it out only to pay homage to the people who live and work in the largest of the United States; I am proud to call myself a former Alaskan.
In 2010, the Waitt Institute participated in a series of submersible dives in the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. With our partner on that expedition, Greenpeace, we were working with Doctors Sandra Brooke and Steve Ross from Marine Conservation Institute and the UNC, respectively, in order to study impacts of that totally preventable environmental catastrophe. One of the lessons we learned, aside from the extreme inadvisability of drilling deep for oil, was that Greenpeace is an exceptionally squared away group of people at sea. I wanted to work with them again.
Over the course of the last two years I have had a continuing conversation with John Hocevar, the Greenpeace Ocean Campaign Director for the US, on how we might work together again. I knew that John (who is qualified to pilot our Nuytco Dual DeepWorker Submersible) had worked with a DeepWorker in 2007 up in the Bering Sea doing a study to collect information on the biology of two large submerged marine canyons just south of the Pribilof Islands. In 2006, the regulating authority declined to set protections for this area due to the lack of solid scientific information. Greenpeace doesn’t take no for an answer. Instead they did 30 plus dives into the Zemchug and Pribilof canyons and collected data that led to the authoring of two peer reviewed scientific papers on a newly discovered species as well as the number and variety of fish species depending on the corals located in these critical habitats. The papers have been cited extensively in testimony before the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council on possible Marine Protected Areas. As that ongoing effort meshes nicely with the Waitt Institute’s philosophy, John and I had often discussed the possibility of continuing the collection of data to support the effort. This year, with the Greenpeace global campaign to Save the Arctic, John and I had our long waited opportunity to bring our two groups together again. We plan to dive the Waitt Institute Dual DeepWorker in Zemchug and Pribilof Canyons to continue the study to further our understanding of these critical marine areas.
Our expedition really began 1 month ago in Seattle. On June 1st the Waitt Institute sub arrived for integration onto the Greenpeace ship Esperanza. The Dual DeepWorker joined with a one man rescue submersible and the expedition members met to begin the training phase. We ran the ship from our berth in Lake Washington through the Ballard Locks over to Yukon Harbor just across Puget Sound from the Seattle waterfront. I must say that it was exceptionally gratifying to be aboard as the ship was brought down to the low tide level in the locks, dozens of locals came out to show their support for the environment, the response was overwhelmingly positive and somewhat unexpected. Granted that Seattle is one of the liberal bastions of America but, it was nonetheless an extremely positive moment for me. Many people make their living working in industries that might take our efforts as contrary to their interests. While I would make the argument that preserving the environment is not about ‘taking away’ but more about making sure that what is available for us now is also available to future generations, not everyone is moved by such an argument. Sustainability is not closing the door, simply ensuring that there IS a door a hundred years from now. Yet it is not hard to understand why someone who is directly impacted might not be a fan of those whose scientific efforts may lead to a decrease in their fishing quota or the closing of an area where they ply their trade. That’s why we and our partners at Greenpeace work so hard at outreach.
Our week of training in Seattle went well enough once we set our dive times to coincide with slack tides as the tidal flow during our training period was about the highest of the year. Greenpeace was training up three new personnel to become submersible pilots: Brent, Jackie and Shannon. This would allow Greenpeace to increase their pool of pilots and give John a break from being the only qualified sub pilot in their organization. The Waitt Institute’s dive supervisor, Joe Lepore, and I also participated in the training. After 5 days of dives the ship returned to Lake Washington and we invited some local luminaries aboard to sit in the sub and tour the ship, a very gratifying interlude. Two days later, the ship departed Seattle for Alaskan waters, making a quick 5 day stop to pull into Resurrection Bay and Seward, AK for some needed work in a local shipyard. After a quick stop on Kodiak, the ship sailed for Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island in the Aleutian chain where the containers that the subs are shipped in were offloaded to create some deck space. The final leg of preparatory travel took the Esperanza to St. Paul Island, AK where the sub pilots and technicians rejoined the ship.
That’s where we are now, anchored up just offshore of St. Paul while we do another round of checks on the subs and put the “jewelry” on, the sonar transducers, tracking system, laser scalers and other scientific instrumentation and equipment needed for safe operation of the subs in open ocean, add-ons that were not necessary for training in a sheltered cove.
Just a few notes on St Paul
This is the third time I have been on the island having come here twice during my fish processing days. Both of those trips were in support of the crabbers who work in winter. The island is volcanic in nature, roughly 40 square miles dotted with cinder cones and even a few inactive craters in the middle of the island. Discovered by the Russians in 1788, the island had no indigenous population initially. In the 19th century Russian settlers enslaved indigenous peoples from the Aleutian Islands and forced them to assist with their fur trade on the islands. The islands now boast the largest Aleut population in North America. What would stand out to most people who see the island for the first time is the total lack of trees, as one would find in most areas of Alaska at this latitude. The village on St. Paul is nestled on the hillside on the southwest corner of the island very near a large fur seal haul out. A fairly well developed harbor and proximity to the crab grounds dramatized in popular TV shows make winter the busiest season on the island. The people are open, happy, welcoming and supportive of the work we are doing up here. Again I am struck by the positive attitude Greenpeace tends to elicit in people. My third trip to the island was certainly more pleasant than the previous times I had been ashore here.
Tomorrow we begin our dive program. The plan will be to dive transects in the Zemchug Canyon to survey for biology as well as make an assessment of damage done by bottom draggers should we come across areas impacted by their operations. Everyone on board is fairly excited to begin the work, as am I. For the first time since my arrival here 18 years ago I will be doing something to help the environment in the place that made it precious to me, I am grateful for the opportunity to do so.
Next up: Sub operations in the Bering Sea