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> May 25, 2006 – Farthest Point North, Little Diomede Island
post May 30 2006, 08:08 PM
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May 25, 2006 – Aboard the Healy
Longitude: 168.940716 W, Latitude: 65.729191 N

Today we sailed beyond our northernmost sampling point so that Captain Oliver, Lee Cooper, and Jackie Grebmeier could pay a visit to the residents of Little Diomede Island, Alaska. We also stopped there so that Gay Sheffield, the wildlife biologist from Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game, could get off of the Healy to work on the remote island for a short period.

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The Healy visitors were welcomed in the community’s city office. During the visit, Captain Oliver presented a plaque to the Mayor, Mr. Patrick Omiak, Sr., paying tribute to the isolated sea-faring community. (Photo courtesy of Lee Cooper)

Lee and Jackie have worked with the people on Little Diomede over the past several years to create a Bering Strait Environmental Observatory. This observatory pumps and samples water from the ocean for short periods of time on a continuous basis to measure its salinity, nutrient content, temperature, and other water characteristics. The ultimate goal is to construct a more permanent means of pumping water ashore so that water flowing through Bering Strait can be monitored or collected for many different biological and chemical studies.

Another part of the project is led by Gay Sheffield. She coordinates the collection of marine mammal tissues from animals that have been harvested for food by local subsistence hunters. Scientists from all over the world use these tissue samples to study marine mammal genetics and the contaminants that accumulate in the animals’ tissues.

Some of Jackie Grebmeier’s long-term sampling of the rich benthic community in the Bering Sea has also been supported by the environmental observatory effort. You can learn more about the scientific effort and the people of Diomede at http://arctic.bio.utk.edu/AEO. Little Diomede is an ideal spot for such ecosystem studies, because the island sits in the middle of the Bering Strait—just three miles from Big Diomede Island, Russia. It also happens to sit one mile from the international dateline and the U.S.-Russian border. The water flowing between Little Diomede and Big Diomede mimics that of the waters surrounding the islands. So if ecological changes are taking place in the waters here, similar changes are likely taking place nearby too.

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Sam and I pose in front of Big Diomede (left) and Little Diomede. Open water surrounds the Healy here, but soon we find ourselves in very thick ice.

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Clifford the Big Red Dog, a Scholastic character, poses in front of Big Diomede, Russia. One of my co-workers, Mirtha Williams, gave Clifford to me as a “bon voyage” present before I left for my Bering Sea expedition. Since the ice surrounding Little Diomede Island was extremely thick, it was decided that the Captain, Lee, Jackie, and Gay would fly to the island in a helicopter.

While we awaited their return, the Healy slowly punched its way through the ice toward the island. The Healy uses a method called “back and ram” to cut through ice this thick. That means that the ship’s navigator, Tim Sullivan, steered the ship forward as far as it could go before the ice stopped it. Then, he backed up and rammed forward again. Each time he did this, we broke through the ice bit by bit.

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Coast Guard navigator Tim Sullivan maneuvers the Healy in a back and ram fashion.

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You can see the “V” shape left by the Healy’s hull as we back away from an earlier ram.

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Thick ice, beautiful scenery, and the excitement of “back and ramming” drew a crowd to the Healy’s bow for the best view around.

After roughly an hour of back and ramming, the helicopter came back into view, returning from the island. It landed on the Healy’s deck, and it was time for us to go. Back to the scientific sampling!

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We received a satellite radar image today showing the indentation that the Healy made in the ice. Despite an hour’s worth of back and ramming, the ship only carved a very tiny notch. The Healy’s track is superimposed on the image.
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