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Expedition Log: August 14, 2001

Alison Hammer

St. Matthew Island and Hall Island

I woke up early on Tuesday, even before the announcement that, "breakfast is now being served," basically because I had gone to bed early the night before due to very rough seas -- apparently we really are in the Bering Sea. However, the water was now smooth as glass and it was rather foggy outside and cool at 44 degrees Fahrenheit. Passengers were warned to keep an eye out for possible polar bears that may have become stranded on the island from passing ice flows.

I decided to participate in the tundra walk with naturalist Dale Chorman while on St. Matthew while other passengers opted for either the longer "Survival of the Fittest" tundra hike or a shorter beach walk. My group of sixteen walked down the beach to investigate a gray whale skeleton before climbing the steep slope from the beach to the tundra. Luckily, the carcass was purely bone, but the baleen was clearly visible. Although the beach was remarkably barren, we did see shotgun kelp, birch tree bark, skate egg sacks, driftwood, fox tracks, and some old fishing line and floats.


hiking at St. Matthew

Hiking on the tundra of St. Matthew Island. (Photo by National Ocean Service, NOAA).
Click image for a larger view.

The group then climbed up a hill to the spongy tundra where there were several varieties of wildflowers including the blue jacobs ladder, yellow bog saxifrage, red king's crowns, and purple monkshood. In addition, there were varieties of white, stringy lichen growing close to the ground. The most notable feature on the tundra was the network of lemming tunnels crisscrossing the ground. If one stood still long enough, a curious brown lemming would eventually poke his head out of his hole for a quick look around. The island was very rich with a variety of shorebirds. Even Dale, a long-time birder, saw a new species for his life list, a McKay's Bunting. In addition, we saw a gray fox in the distance. These foxes are indigenous to the island and eat lemmings and birds.


yellow flowers

Patch of yellow flowers (yellow bog saxifrage) growing on the tundra at St. Matthew. (Photo by National Ocean Service, NOAA).
Click image for a larger view.

At 2:30 in the afternoon, Harriman passengers took a two hour Zodiac tour around Hall Island to view sea birds. Hall Island was visited by the original Harriman Expedition in 1899 where they described, "sea birds innumerable were fluttering about the rocks…there were puffins, pigeon guillemots, and least auklets, besides the vast company of murres, and the cackling of innumerable voices made an incessant murmur above the sound of the sea." However, due to heavy fog and colder temperatures, our expectations from the ship of seeing much of anything were low. Were we ever wrong! The journal description definitely continued to hold true 100 years later. Hall Island was just an incredibly rich and productive ecosystem. The extreme number of birds perched on the shear cliffs and flying about our heads was a breathtaking experience. Kim Heacox, the expedition photographer, actually had to duck his head more than once to avoid being hit by a low-flying horned puffin. However, even more remarkable were the juvenile male Steller sea lions that curiously approached our Zodiacs and followed closely to investigate. The sea lions rotated among various Zodiacs and got as close as twenty feet. There must have been fifteen to twenty in a group bobbing in unison; it was a wonder they could swim that close together and still appear graceful. Hall Island is a haul-out area for Steller sea lions. This is different than a rookery which is where breeding and birthing occurs. Rookeries, like on Bogosloff Island, are strictly protected and special permits must be obtained even to approach them from a regulated distance. My journey around Hall Island left a lasting impression and reinforced why I am working in the field of marine science and protection.

zodiac and sea lions

Group of Steller sea lions off of Hall Island investigating a Zodiac with the Florentine Film camera crew filming for the PBS documentary. (Photo by National Ocean Service, NOAA).
Click image for a larger view.

(View the day's photos)


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For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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