Friday, May 26, 2006

Tomorrow is Today is Tomorrow

May 25, Bering Strait

The International Dateline is strange. From a distance it makes perfect sense. It is an imaginary line that marks the end of one 24-hour period. So every time this line passes the Sun, another day has gone by. The dateline runs between the western US and the eastern edge of Russia. You can find it on a map, but the experience of standing practically on it is quite different.

Today the Healy headed toward the channell that runs between Little Diomede Island, on the US side of the Bering Strait and Big Diomede Island on the Russian side. As the bow pointed down the International Dateline, most of the crew and scientists gathered on the bow to watch the Healy smash through the thick pack ice surrounding these two massive rocks jutting out of the Bering Sea. There was much discussion about what day it was on which island. It went something like, "Ok, so it's today over here on the right, but it is tomorrow just over there to the left? So it's basically now and 24 hours from now in the same spot? Wow. That's so weird."

The plan was to drop off Alaska Fish and Game researcher Gay Sheffield, who studies walruses and other marine mammals hunted by native communities. There is just such a tiny settlement teetering on one side of Little Diomede Island. It is literally the "village on the edge of tomorrow." Gay was going there to collect some samples from local hunters. These types of samples, along with tagging animals in the wild, help researchers track the movement of marine mammals and their genes. Knowing how genes are distributed throughout a population, especially a limited one such as walruses, helps keep tabs on the health of a whole species of animal.

We saw bunches of walruses earlier today. They are big, social marine mammals that tend to gather in groups on the ice floes. Most of the walruses in this region should be cows and calves out to feed in the Bering Sea. Males head to other locations this time of year. The ice provides a floating hunting platform for these long-toothed mammoths. Walrus researcher Carlton Ray is aboard the Healy to observe these groups in the Bering Sea. He said no one knows exactly why walruses cling together, lying on top of each other when there's room to spread out on the ice. They just like to do that.

The ship is shaking sporadically as I type because we are breaking through the pack ice around Little and Big Diomede Islands. Ice breaking in the Healy involves a long process of pushing forward, backing up and pushing forward again. The movement churns huge chunks of ice like a blender. Sea birds gather round the open water that's left behind, hoping to catch morsels of plankton let loose from the ice as it breaks under the Healy's hull. The sound is a tremendous bashing of metal against, well, ice. I'm heading up to the Bridge to see what's happening.