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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


December 1, 2001 - Issue 50


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Native Wisdom Benefits Biologists


How do you follow a fast-swimming, deep-diving seal across polar ice?

The initial ingredients are simple: Patience. A breathing hole. More patience. Follow that with a sheet of plywood, a secondhand transmitter, a dab of epoxy and at least one orbiting satellite.

In a feat that married Inupiat seal-hunting know-how with Space Age gadgetry, villagers from Little Diomede Island worked with biologists last spring to capture and then track a ringed seal more than 400 miles through the frozen Chukchi Sea during the seal's annual northward migration.

This unique collaboration between modern science and traditional knowledge marked the first time anyone has ever successfully followed a ringed seal through open sea ice by satellite tracking. It offered the first detailed glimpse of where the animals go and how deep they dive as they move offshore in the spring, according to project scientists.

Between early May and mid-June, the seal traveled northeast from Diomede, sometimes diving as deep as 164 feet in search of food, according to a paper about research in the Bering Strait by seven scientists from the University of Tennessee, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and the University of Maryland. When the transmitter stopped working on June 19, the animal had reached a location about 100 miles northwest of Barrow.

"It was fairly stout ice," said state biologist Gay Sheffield, one of the study's authors. "That's where they live."

Unlike many polar studies involving complicated logistics and expensive expeditions, capturing this ringed seal was remarkably low-tech and economical, made possible by the common-sense ingenuity of several Native hunters from the village, according to Sheffield.

"It's all about sharing," she said. "They came up with the idea on how to do it. And they were gracious enough to let me try."

The project was just one offshoot of a broader effort to monitor marine life in the Bering Strait, where the Bering Sea flushes into the Arctic Ocean to create some of the richest marine environments on the planet.

With support from the National Science Foundation, the Arctic Environmental Observatory has been sampling seawater and gathering tissue samples during the past two summers with help from villagers in Little Diomede and Shishmaref, the U.S. and Canadian coast guards, and investigators from Fairbanks, Maryland and Tennessee.

"Little Diomede is a challenging, but rewarding place to work," said oceanographer Lee Cooper, the observatory's lead scientist, in a NSF release. "We couldn't have made any significant progress up there without the community's support."

Each July, the scientists have sampled the water column and ocean bottom at productive locations while traveling as guests aboard the Canadian Coast Guard vessel Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

For two seasons, the team has laid a temporary pipe about 600 feet into the strait and pumped seawater into a shed under the Little Diomede school to record temperature, salinity and other ocean characteristics. Ice tears out the pipe each fall, but the team hopes to install a permanent facility next year.

"The whole idea of this is to get a sampling regime going 24-seven," Sheffield said.

But some of the most innovative work focused on seals, a dietary staple for the 146 people who live on the small, mountainous island tucked in the middle of the Bering Strait about 680 miles from Anchorage and about 21/2 miles from Russia's Big Diomede Island.

"What was rewarding about all this was having the hunters involved," Sheffield said. "These guys are tremendously resourceful."

The smallest and most common of the four seal species associated with the sea ice, the chunky 150-pound ringed seals maintain breathing holes and raise pups in lairs. They eat Arctic cod and, in turn, provide tasty meals for foraging polar bears. Although biologists believe they number in the millions and serve a critical role in the marine ecology, no one has much concrete data on migration, feeding habits or population trends.

During the first week of May, a pair of hunters rigged up an ice blind near a breathing hole on the sea ice a few hundred yards off the village, Sheffield said. When a seal emerged to bask in the midday sun, the hunter deftly pulled a sheet of plywood across the hole with a rope, preventing the seal from escaping into the ocean.

"This was an adult, male ringed seal in rut," Sheffield said. "It was very mild mannered."

Using five-minute epoxy, Sheffield took a small transmitter tag that had originally been used to track harbor seals in Prince William Sound and glued it to the seal's fur. The tag, which uploads data to the satellite when the seal surfaces, eventually falls off during the summer molt.

When the animal was properly equipped, the hunters slipped the plywood off the hole. The people stepped back.

"Down it went, and that was it," Sheffield said. "It stayed in the area for two weeks, and then it moved north."

For information on the Arctic Environmental Observatory and research in the Bering Strait, check out


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  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.  

Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


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