By Geoff York
Our last day for flight operations and we are all up early. Well, everyone but Jessica, our dedicated lab whiz, who was up until 3 AM working on the samples from the six bears we brought her late last night.
The lab work is yet another important and time consuming task. All of the samples taken in the field are placed in containers for longer-term storage and most are transferred into smaller sub samples (blood, serum). Whole blood is spun down in a centrifuge to separate serum. The remaining blood clot is kept for fatty acid analysis that will help tell what polar bears have been eating. The FWS also carries a mobile blood chemistry analyser that allows us to get basic information on each bear while in the field. Teeth are placed in formalin to fix them for later analysis. Samples are frozen each night and shipped frozen back to Anchorage.
The lab duties also include repacking our field collection supplies each night as well as maintaining adequate drug inventory. The drug most commonly used by bear researchers around the world is called Telezol and blends a sedative with a paralytic agent. Telezol comes freeze-dried and has to be mixed into solution as needed and in the correct concentration.
Lastly, the lab position is responsible for some of the data entry and general inventory of field supplies. Running out of key items this far away could mean shutting down the operation for days. This is more than enough to keep Jessica busy most days!
Today is our last day of flying, and for me, the time has passed much too quickly. I’m sure I would feel differently if this was week 7! With reports of low ceilings, fog, and icing conditions to our north and south, we launch into a ‘doughnut hole’ of clear, sunny weather and decide to stay closer to home.
The fixed wing is stuck in Kotzebue due to the weather down there, so we will be further limited. We make a large arc from the northeast around to the southwest covering a great deal of ice, but finding no new track or any bears. As the weather has not improved further offshore, we call it a season. 69 bears handled – almost double the number from each of the past two seasons. More importantly, everyone is going home safely, including the bears!
The remainder of the day is a whir of packing and arranging logistics for our flights home tomorrow. We say our goodbyes to our pilot and mechanic as they have decided to start heading home today. After dinner, the season has been reduced to a couple of shipping pallets and our personal bags.
The helipad sits empty as I make my way to my room and pack up the last of my gear.
WWF International Arctic Programme polar bear specialist, Geoff York, is currently in the Chukchi Sea area with the US Fisheries and Wildlife Service, conducting research into the status of polar bear populations in the area, and is blogging for the WWF Climate blog while he is there.