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Alaska Coral Expedition Days 1-3: Setting Sights on, and in, Tracy Arm Fjord

Follow along as NG Grantee Rhian Waller explores the deep-sea corals that have been found in the shallows of fjords in Alaska, and discover what they can tell us about the rest of the ocean as well.   It’s the end of day three of our Alaska coral expedition, and so far all is going...

Follow along as NG Grantee Rhian Waller explores the deep-sea corals that have been found in the shallows of fjords in Alaska, and discover what they can tell us about the rest of the ocean as well.


It’s the end of day three of our Alaska coral expedition, and so far all is going swimmingly well. Despite it being mid-winter here in Alaska, the weather couldn’t have been better – high 20’s out of the water and 36F in the water, glassy flat calm seas and beautiful snow topped mountains to boot. Visibility underwater isn’t quite what we’d hoped for, but it is 20-30ft+, which is more than we need to do our science, and more than enough to enjoy the scenery while you’re working.


Student Julia Johnstone gets suited up in her 'Gumby Suit' (survival suit) as part of our day 1 safety training. Photo by Rhian Waller.


To recap our whirlwind three days: We left the NOAA dock in Juneau at 6am on Thursday morning, bright and early and still in darkness. The trip down Stephens Passage, past the Taku Inlet (notorious for high winds) into Holkham Bay and onto Tracy Arm were thankfully uneventful; calm seas and a push from the tides meant we arrived in time to put in a dive that afternoon.


As we round the corner on the R/V Steller, our sample site comes into view on a snowy Alaskan winter day. Photo by Julia Johnstone.


Sailing into Tracy Arm always gives me a thrill. The narrow fjord is bordered by 4000ft+ mountains, all covered in a dusting of snow with low-lying clouds hiding their true height. The rich aquamarine water gleamed as we turned ‘big bend’ and edged closer to our dive site. As we came around the corner to our sample site, it all came flooding back – the steep valley, the high walls, the mark on the wall that looks a little like a mermaid showing us where our study area begins – it was all there. We got ready to jump in.


36F water and snow doesn't stop the dive team. Rhian Waller and Bob Stone prepare for the first dive at the site. Photo by Julia Johnstone.


Rolling backwards into the water from the skiff reminded me instantly this was winter. My gauge didn’t read more than 36F the whole dive. But there they were – our corals, dotted with fluorescent orange and green marker tape from previous visits and small yellow tags telling us who is who. The first dive was really a ‘look-see’, to check the conditions, shake down the gear and get into the groove; but the visibility was so good, and everything went well, we collected 10 samples right there the first day. And so went the second day – first dive 7 samples; second dive 12 samples; third dive 6 samples – pretty soon we’ll have all 38 colonies sampled for microscopic study and move on to other sampling tasks.


The scale is hard to comprehend. Diving under 4000ft high mountains makes you feel very small. Photo by Julia Johnstone.


Today’s dives have been a little tougher. The day has been overcast, so the dives have been darker, making our three daytime dives seem like night dives (particularly our late afternoon dive). Along with some equipment failures and some high current on dive three (combined with a leaky mask!), we’re ready to start day four tomorrow fresh. On the good side we’ve finished our main sampling for histology and have moved on to collections for ultramicroscopy (I’ll be explaining the samples in a later post!), DNA and measuring our tagged colonies. Three more days to go, and we’re ahead of ourselves right now. Never speak too soon on expedition though; being ahead is a good place to be, as you never know what a new day brings when at sea!


Boat tenders are essential to dive operations. Here Julia Johnstone tends the dive boat in the wind, ice and snow while the divers are underwater. Our mothership, the R/V Steller, is in the background. Photo by Dan Foley.


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Meet the Author

Rhian Waller
Dr. Rhian Waller is a professor of Marine Sciences at the Darling Marine Center (University of Maine, USA) and specializes in the ecology of deep-sea and cold-water organisms, particularly corals. Rhian has led or participated in over 40 international research and exploration cruises and expeditions to some of the most remote parts of the planet, and has published over 30 scientific papers and book chapters in her 9 year career. She is passionate about educating the next generation of scientists, and conserving our little known deep-sea and polar ecosystems to be studied and enjoyed in the future.