Alaska Coral Expedition: Snow, Ice, Corals and Earthquakes!

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.


On Friday we awoke as usual – bleary eyed, climbing out of dark cabins having had late nights preparing samples – and saw something different: ice, and a lot of it. Slick ice covering the surface of the water, with small and large icebergs dotted around our sample site. Strange, but we didn’t think too much of it until the news came through the satellite communicator that there had been an earthquake in the night, a 7.5 centered just a few hundred miles from our location. There was no tsunami, and being onboard a ship none of us felt anything…..but that glacier sure had.


Looking out for icebergs, we check out a big one that floated close to our study area while Rhian (pictured) and Bob were in the water. Photo by Julia Johnstone.


Though we had to be cautious going in that no major ice would cover where we were diving, it sure made for a beautiful day. Icebergs come in so many shapes and colors, reflecting back shades of brilliant blue when they’re fresh. The slick ice created a sheen across the surface of the fjord, gently swaying with the tides. Now it really felt like winter in Alaska!


Bob Stone prepares an array of sensors we deployed at the site. These sensors will measure changes in ocean acidification at our coral site, and will be left out for several years monitoring the changes happening in our oceans. Photo by Rhian Waller.


The diving has been highly successful. Just prior to the trip one of our divers had to drop out of the cruise, so it was just Bob Stone from Juneau and me. Diving at a remote site with only two divers is risky – all it would take is one of us to get a cold and the whole program would be in peril, but we had no choice and pushed on with large doses of vitamin C everyday and conservative dive profiles! We’ve had success, we’ve not only managed to get all the samples that are headed back to my laboratory, but we also did some site tidy up (removing old tags), exploring some new areas, and deployed an Ocean Acidification sensor array in our coral patch. This sensor is part of another project, but Bob bought it along in case we had time to put it out. Corals are sensitive to changes in ocean chemistry – as the oceans are getting more acidic, they may have a harder time building skeletons and producing larvae. With this array my colleague Bob Stone of NOAA will be able to keep tabs on what is happening at this coral site.


Julia Johnstone preserving coral specimens on the back deck of the RV Steller. You can't get a better view than that! Photo by Rhian Waller.


And now we’re headed home, to process samples at the Auke Bay Laboratory in Juneau. All in all a huge success. This may be my last time in Tracy Arm though, so i’ve been savoring every moment, both below and above the water. This is one of those rare places, where fewer divers than you can count on one hand have dove and seen. Where even the marine radio won’t reach and you’re completely out of touch with the rest of humanity. Where when the sun shines on the top of the mountains and glistens off the aquamarine ocean, the scale of this glacial cut fjord becomes instantly apparent, and you feel so small. I think it’s important we take ourselves places where we can feel small occasionally, to remind us that we are protectors of our lands and our oceans, and to understand it we need to explore it.


Getting ready for a dive in the fjord, Rhian Waller in drysuit (left) to protect from the 36F water, and undergraduate student Julia Johnstone in warm waterproof clothes to tend the dive skiff. Photo by Rhian Waller.


Our trusty research vessel - the RV Steller. Photo by Julia Johnstone.


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Meet the Author
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.