July 28th, 2009 – At Sea, 70 11N 143 14W
by Herb McCormick
(July 28): The first thing you notice is how little there is to notice. A few hours after Ocean Watch left the Arctic township of Barrow on Sunday morning, the tiny barrier island called Cooper hove into view. Cooper Island, as you’ll see, is not the sort of place one would normally visit, unless of course you happened to be carrying a big bag of groceries, an inverter, and other assorted goodies for the isle’s lone human inhabitant, scientist and ornithologist George Divoky, who for reasons vast and wondrous has called the glorified scrap of sand home each summer for the last 33 years.
This bears repeating: George has made a pilgrimage to Cooper every single year since the mid-1970s. As in: Every. Single. Year.
One doesn’t grasp the significance of this rather startling statistic until one gets a load of Cooper – roughly the
|This rickety ex-storage shed serves as Divoky’s seasonal homestead.|
width of a football field and about three flat miles long – situated hard by the gray Beaufort Sea. Most everyone has harbored a fantasy of chucking it all and setting up camp on a deserted tropical island, but Cooper, at 71N, is most assuredly not tropical, and due to the increasing number of polar bears who wash up on the place – yes, polar bears – it’s not necessarily deserted, either. Once Ocean Watch was about a mile off the beach, we could make out three distinctive silhouettes, in descending order of stature: 1) the pair of lonely towers for the wind generator and weather instruments, respectively; 2) the rickety ex-storage shed that serves as George’s seasonal homestead, and; 3) George.
The fact that George, who stands about 6-feet tall, was the third most prominent feature on the Cooper skyline will hopefully speak for itself. Look up the word “desolate” in the dictionary, and enjoy the accompanying illustration of Cooper. Strapped to George’s back, also clearly visible from a mile out, was his rifle, a Cooper Island fashion accessory that wasn’t at all necessary back in the ‘70s but which has become all the rage since the turn of the millennium. Of the big white bears that have made firepower so trendy, we could see none.
|Dave Logan, David Thoreson and Herb McCormick set off to visit George Divoky.|
Thus encouraged, we dropped the hook well offshore in rather choppy, windswept seas, and deployed the dinghy while skipper Mark Schrader remained on anchor watch. Swathed in foul-weather gear, with a box of fresh shotgun shells tucked into George’s watertight bags of supplies, Dave Logan, David Thoreson and I set out for the lonely figure waving from the beach.
All About the Birds
By midday Tuesday, Ocean Watch was motoring with a reefed mainsail and had closed to within a day of our next scheduled stop, Hershel Island, situated just off the coast of Canada’s Yukon Territory. The trip thus far from Barrow has been cold, unpleasant and forgettable, and we’ll leave it at that. On this slow news day, we’ll take the opportunity to profile the increasingly well-known George Divoky, who knows more about the tough and tender species of Arctic seabirds known as black guillemots than you, me and the rest of humanity ever will.
George has a deep, alarming story to tell. In fact, a significant portion of it has already been told, and exceedingly well. In a 2002 cover story in the Sunday New York Times Magazine that sets the bar for great non-fiction writing, journalist Darcy Frey captured the very essence of his moving-target subject in an epic 13,000-word piece called “George Divoky’s Planet.” This is an article we could not possibly recommend more highly (a link can be found on George’s own website – http://www.cooperisland.org- or by logging on to Google and typing in the relevant key words above) and it garnered George all sorts of media attention, including an appearance with David Letterman.
Here are some salient details, for which we need to credit Darcy Frey: As a young ornithologist, 26-year-old George first set foot on Cooper in 1972 while working for the Smithsonian Institution in a study to identify vulnerable seabird habitats. The island was littered with abandoned 55-gallon oil drums and empty ammunition boxes the Navy had deposited there after the Korean War.
As he stumbled through the mess, writes Frey, “Two black guillemots, startled by the crunch of gravel, suddenly
|Climate change has had a biological effect on the reproductive cycle of the guillemot.|
flew out from beneath an ammo box. Since guillemots don’t normally breed in this part of the Arctic – they are cavity nesters whose natural habitats, rocky cliffs and headlands, do not exist for more than 500 miles – it was, in George’s words, ‘definitely a hit.’ He looked around and found eight more pairs breeding in the boxes, at which point, he says, ‘I almost wet my pants.’”
It was three years later before George returned to the island, launching the annual trek that continues to this day, and when he arrived, he “found 18 pairs of guillemots breeding in the boxes… Hoping to grow the colony, George began creating – and naming – new nest sites in earnest: Freshman Housing, the Condos, Married Student Housing… To a degree that was unusual even in the field of ornithology, George became obsessed… By 1978, there were 70 guillemots on Cooper Island, and by 1981 the population was up to 220. By 1990, almost 600 birds were scrambling around the drums and ammo boxes, looking for places to breed.
“For many years,” continues Frey, George “pursued a rather esoteric study of them – mate selection, age of first breeding, ‘the kind of thing that’s of interest to about 20 ornithologists,’ he says now. Then, almost by accident, he discovered that his birds were picking up on another kind of frequency, and that if he watched and listened with great care, they could tell him about something no less consequential than the climatic fate of the earth.”
George kept coming back to Cooper – and coming back – and eventually realized the very song of life to which the guillemots danced was changing. Frey cut to the chase in his piece on George’s career:
“In 1995, in response to Vice President Al Gore’s task force on climate change, a call went out for data sets: did anyone have information that would shed light on regional climate change? George acquired National Weather Service data on when the snow melted at Barrow and plotted the dates on a graph. Then he looked at his own data on when the first egg showed up on Cooper Island and plotted those dates as well. The correlation leapt off the page: from 1975 to 1995, snow was melting in northern Alaska, on average, five days earlier each decade. Over those same 20 years, the date his guillemots laid their eggs was occurring, on average, five days earlier each decade.
“In fact, since guillemots require at least an 80-day snow-free summer in which to copulate, ovulate, hatch and fledge their chicks – and there were rarely 80 snow-free days in northern Alaska until the 1960’s – they wouldn’t even be this far north were it not for warmer temperatures. Expanding their range, playing with the edge of a changing climate, his guillemots, he realized, were tracking the region’s snowmelt on an annual basis. And an earlier date of snow melt was, in effect, an indication that the seasons were in flux; that in a mere 20 years, the brief Arctic summer was now arriving 10 days earlier; and perhaps most important, that climate change was having a biological effect, leaving a fingerprint on a species living in a seemingly remote, pristine environment thousands of miles away from the industrial hand of man.”
All About the Bears
Darcy Frey’s story, as mentioned, was published in 2002. Quite eloquently, he described how George’s studies of black guillemots unexpectedly morphed into a definitive statement about one effect of climate change at the apex of the planet. Since that time, however, there have been new chapters added to the story, none of which bode well for the future of the pigeon-sized black birds that drew George to Cooper in the first place. Receding pack ice, melting permafrost and the arrival of a new species of predators and competitors, the horned puffins, are all contributing to the guillemot’s not-so-well being.
But for the scientist and his subjects, the biggest new problems, literally and figuratively, are the polar bears.
“From 1975 to 2002, I saw one bear on this island,” he said. “Since 2002, they’ve been here every year. And last year, they were here every day for my last week on the island, a different bear.”
The reason is simple. The pack ice that for all those stated years was within sight of Cooper – and the big, fat, abundant, blubber-coated seals on which they dined and feasted – is now nowhere in view. The bears are hungry. They’re swimming to Cooper Island in search of chow.
For the first 27 of his 33 years on Cooper, George camped in a series of tents, but with the arrival of the bears, he’s hauled an old shed to the island for shelter. As we walked up to it, he told us the tale of his latest unwanted visitor. George is, shall we say, chatty, and perhaps more so when he’s having his first conversation with folks other than himself in several weeks. The story unfolded rapidly:
“On the 21st (of July) a bear showed up, he came up the beach from the east, and he worked his way down the island flipping over nest boxes, and at first, eating some guillemot eggs and chicks but then just flipping over nest sites and not doing anything with them. There isn’t much I can do. Some of these birds I’ve had for twenty years or so and they’re raising their young and then suddenly a bear comes along and it’s eating their chicks. These are chicks I’ve seen come from an egg on the 20th of June to the chicks they are now. He was apparently looking for something good to eat but not finding anything. The eggs were fully developed embryos – no yolk – and the chicks are all bone and down and they don’t amount to anything.
“It was disconcerting but it’s not like the bear was malicious in any way, he’s stuck here trying to find something to eat. So he just walked through the colony, he wrecked 26 nests, and then he just headed back toward the east (had a three-hour nap on the beach, and swam away).
“It was nice. I was very happy. I love seeing the back end of a polar bear, walking away from me. If they had magazines – if there was an Internet site that basically just had the back ends of polar bears walking away – I would pay for that stuff. It makes me happier than anything. That’s what I saw: a polar bear walking away.
“I mean, people ask me if I believe in climate change. And I say, ‘No, but I believe in polar bears.’ When I see a polar bear, I know that’s a polar bear. But I also know I was out here for so long and I didn’t see polar bears. So, you know, something’s going on.”
Bad Omens Abound
Okay, for obvious good reasons, the bears have George freaked. Nestled in the confines of his cluttered cabin, he has three shotguns, strategically placed, against each wall. But polar bears aren’t the only change that’s come to Cooper. Take those puffins.
|Since 2003, puffins have killed more and more chicks.|
“Since 2003,” says George, “there have been more puffins on the islands and puffins have killed more and more chicks. One year, we had 180 chicks after hatching took place. Sixty of those were killed by puffins and sixty of them starved to death because the ice was so far offshore and there was no real good alternative prey. It basically happened two years in a row: 2003 and 2004. In those years, almost two-thirds of all the birds died from puffins or food shortages. And those that did leave the nest were underweight.”
And then there’s the island itself. “It’s eroding much faster because the permafrost under it has melted,” said George. For many years, when he first arrived each summer, he brought a small cache of yogurt and dairy products to make the early part of his stay “more enjoyable.” To keep the stuff fresh, all he had to do was dig a small hole, a foot or so, and he’d have a cool place to stash his food.
Then, in 2003, he came out and started digging. “And digging, and digging,” he said. “I’d gone around a meter and then I hit water. In terms of things I’ve experienced out here, that made me realize, something strange is going on. I mean, it was chilling – so to speak – because I had dug this hole for 28 years, and that’s how I always kept things cold. And now, you cannot dig here and find what was permafrost.
“Shortly after that, all the freshwater ponds on the islands, because they lost the ice that was under them, they drowned and now there’re no more freshwater ponds or plants on the island as there used to be. So the whole island is changing while things are changing offshore.”
Not only is the island undergoing radical changes, so too are the colonies of guillemots. There used to be well over 200 functioning nests on Cooper Island. Yesterday, after the latest polar-bear rampage, there were eighty-five. They’re trending in the wrong direction. The writing is on the wall.
End of an Era?
So, one has to ask the question: How many more years, George? How long will you keep coming back to Cooper Island?
He thinks for a moment. Is he weighing the ledger, the plusses and the minuses? He rattles off some thoughts and you realize, it’s all in the red: The longer summers have wreaked havoc on the breeding cycle, what George calls the “salad days” for guillemots are over; the puffins and bears are becoming a nightmare; the pack ice that keeps everything in balance is going, going, going…
“I came here to see how this seabird could react to different prey abundance and species types in terms of raising their young. That’s not really possible now when the puffins are coming and killing the chicks and the polar bears are flipping over their nest sites. So I think the puffins and polar bears will decide when this really isn’t worth my time. If the thousandth bear is the one that’s going to get you, I’m up to some level now, so I don’t want to be around when the 999th comes strolling down the beach. I’m trying to avoid that. I’m dedicated, but not stupid…though you could argue that…
“There’s a book called The Last Polar Bear,” he says later. “So there’ll be the last guillemots on the island that started breeding here when things were pretty good, but were (ultimately) never able to be successful…”
George’s voice trailed off. He remembered a guillemot called White-Orange-Gray (George names his birds), a bird he banded in 1975 that kept coming back until 2003. “From 1978 til 2003, that was the only vertebrate that I saw annually over that period of time,” he said. “I mean, there were certain times I didn’t see my family for a whole year. I had different girlfriends. White-Orange-Gray was my touchstone.”
Okay, one last story, back to the most recent polar-bear intrusion. As George surveyed the carnage, he came across one chick that had survived, but barely. Somehow, it was torqued around in its shell; he could see the back where the bill was supposed to be. “And I thought to that bear, what, you know, why’d you do this?
“So I did something I probably shouldn’t do, but I started picking away, thinking, maybe the bill is really close by,
|A peeping guillemot comes out of its shell.|
but it wasn’t. It was definitely the back of the bird. And I kept picking away and I thought – wait a minute – I’m hatching, I’m having this chick hatch in my hand. So I picked the shell off and here’s this very wet, little guillemot, peeping.
“I take the shell away and put him back in the nest and the parents come right back. And I went and saw him today. Now, of course, when I go out and weigh the chicks I’ll be very curious to see how that guy’s doing. If it fledges and comes back to breed here, and I band it, I would always have…that would always be a connection, that bird. It would, you know, go beyond what you have with most lab rats.”
Yes, George, it most certainly does.
So: Cooper Island without George Divoky? Like the cold, white world around him, it’s hard to get a grasp on. Like the changing Arctic itself, it just won’t be the same.
- Herb McCormick with photographs by David Thoreson
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