Searching for bowheads in the Beaufort Sea

In August 2012, UBC PhD candidate Frances Robertson traveled to Alaska’s north coast to co-lead an aerial survey team of Protected Species Observers (PSOs) to monitor and record marine mammals in the vicinity of drilling operations in the Beaufort Sea. This work provides valuable field and professional leadership skills, as well as funding while Frances completes her PhD.

Frances was based in Deadhorse on Alaska’s North Slope. Deadhorse floats on gravel pads atop the Arctic tundra, and is an industrial hive of gravel roads and trucks serving the largest oil field in the USA. It is not what some might consider your typical remote field work experience. For Frances, however, that experience occurred each time she climbed aboard the de Havilland Twin Otter survey plane, specifically outfitted with bubble windows to fly over the Beaufort Sea to look for marine mammals.

Frances Robertson marine mammal researcherFrances and her 5-member crew flew surveys consisting of a series of pre-determined transects perpendicular to the coast searching for bowhead whales and other marine mammals. During each flight, they continually scanned the water for marine mammals and noted environmental conditions. Species most often recorded in the Beaufort Sea were bowhead and beluga whales, bearded and ringed seals. Occasionally a breaching bowhead was seen, or there was evidence of a recent polar bear kill on the ice.

Relevant details were recorded for each bowhead whale spotted, such as “one adult, swimming at medium speed, traveling in a 10 o’clock direction”, and an angle measurement was taken to allow the exact position of each sighted whale to be calculated.

The completion of each transect led to the next leg until it was time for the team to return to Deadhorse. Evenings were spent entering data and writing reports, all the while wondering if the weather would remain clear enough to attempt a survey the following day.

The surveys continued through September and October, coming to an end in early November. The colors of the tundra changed as summer advanced into autumn and autumn into winter. Ice formed over the ocean as the bowhead migration had all but passed through the survey area. Daylight hours waned and storms blew through, blanketing Deadhorse in snow—a sure sign that the aerial survey season was drawing to a close and the time had come for Frances to return to BC to continue her studies.

Frances’ PhD research is determining how behavioral responses of bowhead whales to industry operations influence the ability of aerial observers to detect whales; and how this may impact density estimates of whales in the vicinity of offshore industry activities. Working on the aerial surveys provides Frances with first-hand experience and a better understanding of the data she uses in her research.

Frances Robertson is a PhD candidate at U.B.C.




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