Sounds of the Bering and Beaufort Seas

WCS continues to collect data on the presence of marine mammals and the noise levels they are exposed to in the Northern Bering and Eastern Beaufort seas. As part of this project I went back to Nome, Alaska during the spring of 2017 to work with boat captain Adem Boeckman and his crew on board the F.V. Anchor Point. Our efforts started with a trip to the Bering Strait that took us along King Island’s west coast. Passing the island, we got a good view of Ukivok, a stilted village once the winter home of 200 Iñupiat Alaska Natives, but that now lays abandoned.


The abandoned village of Ukivok, located on King Island’s west coast.

Leaving King island behind, Adem steered the Anchor Point northwards toward the Bering Strait. This course took us right along the commercial shipping lane proposed by the U.S. Coast Guard as part of the Bering Sea Port Access Route Study. Creation of this shipping lane seeks to minimize environmental and safety risks in this area that is rich in wildlife and of profound importance for indigenous subsistence communities, but lacking in salvage and rescue capabilities. Shipping traffic is predicted to increase in this area, but navigating northwards along the shipping lane we encountered no other vessels (although vessel traffic is generally higher later in the summer). The clear weather provided us with wide views stretching from the Alaskan coast to the East, all the way to the Russian coast to the West.


Adem Boeckman and James Longley retrieve a sound recorder from the Bering Sea. Photo Ricardo Antunes.

After several unsuccessful attempts to recover one recorder in Bering Strait, we headed southeast and closer to shore. Everyone on board couldn’t avoid feeling disappointed at the loss of a recorder. There is always a risk of losing equipment that we deploy on the bottom of the sea for months on end, subject to the energetic conditions and shifting substrates of the Bering Sea, and particularly through the notorious storms. More than the equipment itself, it’s the data it contains that is invaluable. These data are essential as we try to better understand the patterns of marine mammal presence, and how levels of underwater noise are changing in this part of world.

Further along our return trip to Nome our mood recovered when we successfully retrieved the first recorder of the trip. Once again the F.V. Anchor Point’s gear hauling equipment, usually used for crab pots, was invaluable in retrieving the heavy moorings that secure our equipment to the substrate. The size of Adem’s boat allows us to work in ways that wouldn’t be possible using a smaller vessel. Navigating closer to shore, Adem had to slalom the Anchor Point through a field of drift ice while we kept ourselves entertained spotting walruses swimming around the boat and hauled out on the ice. As someone who spends hours and days watching spectrograms and listening carefully to recorded underwater noises, it was gratifying to make closer acquaintance with the originators of some of the sounds!


A walrus hauled out on an ice floe in the Bering Sea. Photo: Ricardo Antunes.

With continuing good weather on the horizon we soon followed with another trip to St. Lawrence Island to attempt to recover more recorders. We first approached the island at the northeast cape and then moved along towards the hallowed Punuk Islands. At this point, we were visited by a group of Alaska Natives from Savoonga. They had been hunting off Punuk for several days and were trying to return back to their home village on the north coast. Persistent winds had made the return trip impossible for days and and they were running low on water and other essential goods. This late in the spring hunting season, floes of sea ice are smaller and thinner, and become brackish, not allowing the hunters to extract fresh drinking water from the ice.


WCS researcher Ricardo Antunes and Savoonga hunters off Punuk Island.

Our encounter with local hunters was a fresh reminder of the dependence that Alaska Natives have on natural resources for their subsistence and cultural identity – a key reason they are also looking to expand their role in the stewardship of their environment. The ongoing changes in this part of the world, caused by climate change and increased shipping, will undoubtedly impact their livelihoods.


A large male walrus swims among ice floes in the Bering Strait. Photo: Ricardo Antunes.

After sharing water and other goods with our visitors, we proceeded by rounding the island’s Southeast Cape and steamed along the south shores across Powooiliak Bay. At Southwest Cape we recovered two more instruments, one of which had been deployed for two years. Together these two deployments extended over a period of 18 months. We were thrilled to discover that the instruments had worked flawlessly and were loaded with data from this important location that hosts most whaling operations for the Savoonga hunters each spring. Powooiliak Bay is where the St. Lawrence polynya (an area of open water amidst the extensive sea ice cover) develops every year, and where bowhead whales congregate during the winter months. Data from these instruments will help us get a better understanding of when these critically important whales occur in this area.


After two years at the bottom of the Bering Sea, a sound recorder lies on deck after recovery. Photo: Ricardo Antunes.

The next stop of the trip was off Gambell, the Alaska Native village at the Northwest Cape of St. Lawrence island – a mere 40 miles from the clearly visible Russian coast! We have been deploying here longer than any of other locations, starting in the summer of 2013 when we deployed our first recorder from a local hunter’s skiff. We hope to build a long-term dataset to better assess any changes caused by climate change.


A pair of gray whales swims in Bering Sea waters of Gambell. Photo: Ricardo Antunes.

Gray whales have been a constant presence at Gambell every time that we have been here, both in the fall and the spring trips. The team has become used to seeing individuals and groups of two and three whales foraging around the ship while recovering and deploying our sound recorders. This trip was no exception.


A gray whale dives to feed off of Saint Lawrence Island. Photo: Ricardo Antunes.

We returned to Nome filled with excitement about the new data on board and the revelation that would result from its analysis.

For additional updates about the results, the team, and to hear some of the amazing marine mammal vocalizations, please see Blog written by Ricardo Antunes, WCS, July 2017.











Fall deployment of acoustic monitoring gear

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Grey whale sighted off of King Island in the Bering Sea. WCS is using underwater acoustic monitoring gear to quantify vocalizations of marine mammals and noise levels in the Bering Sea.

During October 2015, WCS’s team, including Dr. Ricardo Antunes, boat captain Adem Boeckman and his crew, were back in the Bering Sea for our third marine mammal acoustic monitoring expedition. We started this project using hunters to deploy gear, but have used a fishing boat more recently due to the safety concerns of using heavy anchors offshore. However, for 2016 we are hoping to return to working closely with hunters as we seek to partner with them to better understand which animals are calling and being recorded.

Ricardo Antunes_Bad weather in the Bering Sea keeps team from deploying recorders

Storms in the Bering Sea kept the WCS team on shore for four weeks.

It was challenging at this time of year. The fall weather conditions were not as favorable as during our previous trip in June. A string of low-pressure systems came through from the west and forced us to stay in the harbor for nearly 4 weeks. While ashore, Antunes took the opportunity to speak to local students from Anvil City Science Academy in Nome about the sounds made by Arctic marine mammals and what he has learned from studying them.

The team’s perseverance paid off. We finally saw good weather on the horizon, and headed to St. Lawrence Island. During our first trip of the season, we approached the island from the northeast, rounded it first by the southeast cape, and followed across Powooliak Bay on the south coast. Along the way, we pulled up the recorders, recovered the memory cards, and replaced the batteries in the instruments we had deployed in June. As in previous years, these recorders will remain in the water collecting data on whales and other marine mammals throughout the winter. Similar to the previous trips we have found grey whales off the northwest cape, close to the village of Gambell. Weather conditions deteriorated after we picked up our fourth recorder off Gambell, and we were forced to steam back to Nome over heavy, rolling seas.

Ricardo Antunes_Anchor Point off St. Lawrence Island approaching sound recorder location for recovery

The Anchor Point approaches the location of a sound recorder for recovery off of St. Lawrence Island. The team now has seven recorders deployed in the Bering Sea.

A few days later, taking advantage of another good weather window, we headed into the Bering Strait. We are expanding our monitoring beyond St. Lawrence Island with our first trip into this area. We steamed out of Nome heading northwest in the direction of King Island. We dropped one recorder five nautical miles west of the island in a location inside a proposed shipping route. We saw  several grey whales in this area, which appeared to be feeding. We then continued north, along the shipping lane, until the Bering Strait, between Little Diomede island and Cape Prince of Wales on the Alaska coast. Two additional recorders went into the water in this location, and we headed back to Nome.

Ricardo Antunes_Dr. Ricardo Antunes prepares sound recording instrument for deployment in the Bering Sea 1

Dr. Ricardo Antunes, onboard the F/V Anchor Point, prepares a sound recording instrument for deployment.

This was our first expedition funded by the North Pacific Research Board. With their support we can continue to collect data on the presence of marine mammals and the noise levels they are exposed to from passing ships and industrial activities. We will be assessing how the increase in ventures in this area will impact the lives of wildlife in the Arctic.







Acoustic monitoring in the Bering Strait

The lives of marine mammals are coming under increasing challenges with a changing climate and industrial activity in the Arctic, including potential for expanding shipping and oil exploration activities. The Bering Strait is one of the regions where shipping activity is expected to increase the most. This passage is also used by a vast number of several marine mammal species that make seasonal migrations in and out of the Arctic. This overlap between marine mammals and increasing ship activity has the potential to impact the lives of these animals by increasing the risk of collision and increasing underwater noise levels.


The fluke of a grey whale as it plunges back into the waters of the Bering Strait. Photo Ricardo Antunes.

The Northern Bering Sea waters are typically covered with ice during the winter, and are prone to extreme weather conditions. This makes monitoring for the presence of marine mammals and assessing impacts of climate change and industrial activities quite challenging. Since the summer of 2013 when our team worked with a local hunter from Savoonga to deploy our first sound recording instruments off St. Lawrence Island, we have been deploying sound recording instruments around the entire Island to detect the vocalizations of marine mammals and noise levels in the Northern Bering Sea and leading into the Bering Strait. This information will constitute an important baseline from which to assess changes in ambient noise and patterns of marine mammal presence, and will allow us to anticipate future impacts associated with increasing shipping.

One of the sound recording instruments lays on the deck of the Anchor Point prior to deployment.

One of the sound recording instruments lays on the deck of the boat prior to deployment. This is one of five we deployed in June 2015. Photo Ricardo Antunes

During June 2015 our team, led by Dr. Ricardo Antunes, went on the next expedition to the waters of the Bering Strait. The goal was to recover two recorders deployed in October 2014 and deploy five others for monitoring marine mammals and anthropogenic noise throughout the summer. Instrument recoveries are always exciting as our team tries to find them after months underwater, wondering if they had been dragged along the bottom by drifting ice, if their waterproof housings have leaked or if the batteries kept working in cold Arctic waters. Luckily our team managed to find both recorders and was exhilarated to discover that they had worked perfectly, recording throughout the whole period. This means that they probably recorded vocalizations made by bowhead whales during both their Southward and Northward migration, as they pass off St. Lawrence. In the coming months, we will be analyzing these recordings for the presence of vocalizations of bowhead whales, walrus, bearded seals and other marine mammals, as well as measuring the noise levels generated by vessels steaming through the Bering Strait.


Retrieving sound recording instruments deployed in October 2014. We were able to locate both of the instruments and will analyze the recordings in the coming months.

Deployment of additional instruments was also quite successful, helped by extremely good weather and support from captain Adem Boeckman and the remainder of the Anchor Point’s crew. We have been using a larger vessel recently due to the dangers of working offshore with heavy anchors for our equipment. The analysis of the winter recordings has started in the lab and when finished will provide insight into the migration patterns of marine mammals and into the assessment of baseline noise levels in the area—this will help us as noise levels potentially increase so we can determine if they are having an impact on these amazing animals and this important area.


Captain Adem Boeckman of the Anchor Point. We have been using a larger vessel recently due to the dangers of working offshore with heavy anchors for our equipment.

Acoustic Monitoring in the Canadian Arctic

Dr. Stephen Insley of WCS Canada is examining how ice loss affects animals through habitat change and increased human activity. As the arctic sea ice retreats, opening new ocean channels to commercial shipping, there will be direct and indirect impacts on marine mammals, including ship strikes, pollution, and noise. Dr. Insley wrote about his work deploying acoustic data-loggers to monitor noise in the in the eastern Beaufort Sea on the WCS Canada blog, Muddy Boots.

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Local Wayne Gully testing a ringed seal hole for water depth near Sachs Harbour.

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Navigating the jumble of sea ice pressure ridges off the west coast of Banks Island during an acoustic datalogger deployment in the spring, 2015.

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Dr. Stephen Insley preparing an acoustic datalogger for deployment in Sachs harbour, July 2015.

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Dr. Stephen Insley preparing an acoustic datalogger for deployment from the edge of the fast ice in the spring 2015.