Dutch Harbor and the Bering Sea : A season 2011

by macksemil

In December I started training in Seattle to be a Fisheries Observer, under contract with the National Marine Fisheries Service. This was a great opportunity for me to get some field work experience and have a far north adventure for the winter. At the time of departure I was proper broke and needing an escape, so it worked out well.

The three week training class in Seattle was intense but educational. The people in my apartment and class were great fun to be around. Before we knew it the class was over and we were boarding planes to Alaska. Once in Anchorage, we switched from Alaska Airlines to PenAir and loaded into a roughly 40 person plane to fly to Dutch Harbor.

My first morning I posted up at the company bunkhouse in Dutch Harbor and sat across the street at the beach for the day. At this point the boat that I was assigned to during training was late coming to Alaska and the company wasn’t sure where they were going to assign me yet. So my job for the time being was to stay close to the bunkhouse in case I was assigned on short notice. I watched the sun rise on the mountains across the bay between 10am and 11am.

Dutch Harbor was home to a battle during WWII, see “The Battle of Dutch Harbor“. The many dugouts, pillboxes and assorted other dilapidated military and commercial structures provide some interesting scenery.

The Bald Eagles in Dutch Harbor are like pigeons in New York City. They are everywhere on the light posts, boats, cars, bridges, hillsides and they love to eat out of dumpsters. All of the birds in the picture below are bald eagles.

The next day I was assigned to a boat. A 127 foot trawler targeting Walleye Pollock and Pacific Cod. The field supervisor drove me down the long widning gravel road next to the water, past cranes, docks, giant container ships, a marine salvage junkyard and fish processing plants to what is called ‘The Spit’. There is a dock at the end of the spit, and my crew came and helped me load all of my gear onto the boat.

The next three months was a roller coaster of seasickness, intermittent work, boredom and living in fairly cramped conditions. Being out at sea made me appreciate life on land, where you are free to come and go from places and can get exercise whenever you want to. I got along well with the crew on my boat and the food was good, it was a good first assignment.

While fishing for Pollock, we unloaded our fish at a giant floating processor that was nearly 370 feet long. The boat anchors in a remote inlet where our satellite phones didn’t even work due to the mountains around the inlet. It was a scenic albeit stinky place, as the fish meal production facility grinds fish into particulate. While on board the vessel I felt like I was breathing fish dust, and it smelled like a rotting whale.

Some notable moments at sea were related mostly to rough weather. Hauling back around 2am during the beginning of a storm we were in 20+ foot seas and 50+ knot winds when the winch jammed on the back A-frame. This is the part on the boat that is on the stern (rear) and on the top of the gantry, about 20 feet above the deck of the boat. All of the deckhands climbed up the gantry in the middle of the storm and pulled at the line to free the jam. I was on deck trying to count fish while waves were breaking over the weather wall and scattering all of the fish and sampling gear all over the deck. Afterwords, the deck boss explained that his balls were in his stomach the whole time. I would have shit my pants up there, as the chance of being found in the ocean before you freeze to death in that sort of weather is almost negligent.

Here is a video that was taken on a fellow observer’s boat during similar conditions on the Bering Sea this last fishing season. Just as a note to keep everyone out of trouble : the video was taken and posted by a crew member of the boat.

During most rough weather episodes I was confined to bed. While I was horizontal I had a better tolerance for the rocking of the boat, I could keep food and water down and not feel like total hell most of the time. I will note however that I worked through all of my seasickness, even the first three days that I didn’t eat anything at all and threw up every 25 minutes. Let me relate that after consumption, bacon turns into an salty, globular evil substance that is the worst thing ever to regurgitate. And it’s a waste of perfectly good bacon.

I woke up in midair one evening, on my way to the floor. I had managed to fall asleep whilst skipping dinner due to seasickness. A big wave hit the side of the boat and rocked us over 35 degrees, the sudden motion suspended me in the air and the boat rocking moved the bed out from under me in the meantime. I came to full consciousness at the apex of my suspension and felt the sickening sinking feeling in my stomach as I fell five feet to the floor. The drawer in the bed came out in much the same fashion and landed inches from my head. Apparently someone that was eating dinner lost their entire plate to that particular wave.

There were a few moments of paying my newbie dues. One such was when the doors to the trawl alley were open during a decent sized swell and a wave crashed into the trawl alley. The crew and I were waiting at the end of the trawl alley next to the house and watched the wave come racing up the trawl alley towards the 6 inch end board just feet from us. The rest of the crew silently moved to the sides behind the winches while I looked at the thing like a deer in headlights. When it hit the end board the water all jumped up into a solid blue wall and I had just enough time to grab my knees and duck my head. The whole thing crashed right on my shoulders and the weight of it almost knocked me over. I am sure that the crew had a good laugh about that one later.

The one that the crew didn’t do any laughing about was a little bit more idiotic. Between the deck of the boat and the galley there is a room about the size of a closet that all of the rain gear is stored in. This room is called the “dry room”. There is a space heater in the corner that helps dry out everyone’s rain gear between shifts working on deck. On this particular haul I needed to collect the otoliths out of a few fish, so the crew finished working before I did. As I went to spray myself off with the deck hose, I quickly realized that the hose was left on full blast and the waterproof door to the dry room had been bungeed open. The hose sprayed me in the face and jumped directly out of my hands into the dry room, coming to rest about four inches from the ceiling. This cause the stream of water to shoot in all directions, down all four walls, soaking everything in the entire room. The hose was shut off in a matter of seconds, but the damage had been done. The space heater in the corner was smoking, the electrical outlets on the ceiling were sparking, and everyone’s rain gear was soaking wet again. Everything was shut off quickly to protect against an electrical fire. The mate walked into the room, shook his head and said “You can’t fucking do shit like that man.” Well, he was right, and I felt like a total bag of dicks so I retired to my bunk for the remainder of the trip. After a few days the crew started talking to me again, mainly due to the fact that when everything was power tested the next morning it worked perfectly fine. A couple of wet cigarettes and my pride seemed to be the only casualties of the mishap.

Another favorite memory was one evening fishing just off of Unimak Island which is home to an active volcano, Mt. Shishaldin. Mt. Shishaldin is one of the ten most active volcanoes in the world, however at the time it was not smoking, just sitting ominously in the background being graced by washes of pink and orange from the falling sun. I was the only one on deck, kneeling over my grey tote with knife, forceps and specimen vial in hand. An unfortunate Pacific Cod was draped over the edge of the tote. Methodically, I sawed through the cranial bone, and snapped the head open like breaking a stick in my hands. With the brain exposed, I was free to dig about for the otoliths, or ear bones. NMFS wants the otoliths because they reveal patterns of growth in the same way as tree rings. As I poked my tweezers around in the cranial cavity the contact between my forceps and the nerves caused the dead fish to twitch reflexively. It was just one of those moments, I guess.

I had some notable adventures on land in Dutch Harbor and Unalaska. There is an authentic Russian Orthodox church in the town of Unalaska, built by the Russians in the mid 19th century. It is the oldest standing Russian-built building on US soil.

Another notable excursion was hiking Ballyhoo in the snow in Xtratuff boots. That was a great adventure that afforded some beautiful views.

After 86 days on board my boat the Pacific Cod and Walleye Pollock seasons were over. Finally I was returning to the mainland. The field supervisor came to pick me up in the truck, I said my goodbyes to the crew and got a quick shot with the captain, Acacio, before parting ways.

That concludes the winter in the Bering Sea for 2011. Actually, just yesterday I agreed to go back for the last three weeks of June. I wasn’t intending to go back to work so soon, but I was offered a three week contract, which will add the little bit of extra income I need to make my central and south American trips a reality.

There are other pictures from Alaska, from exploring the area around Anchorage while waiting to turn my data into NMFS. However, this post has gotten pretty large so I’ll make a separate entry with those photos another time.