In the beginning

COOPER ISLAND, ALASKA — While it seems like I have been at the Cooper Island black guillemot colony forever, there was actually a time when I did not spend the summer in Arctic Alaska wearing long underwear and worrying about polar bears for three months. George E. Watson, who was then a curator of birds at the Smithsonian Institution, played a pivotal role in getting me to the Alaskan Arctic in 1970, and to my finding the Cooper Island black guillemot colony in 1972. Last week George turned 80 years old and (while at this point of the summer it feels like I was born on Cooper Island) it is important for me to acknowledge (and thank him) for providing the opportunity to visit here almost four decades ago.

1970 was one of the last summers I spent in the Lower 48. That year I had an internship at the Smithsonian Institution in the Division of Birds. Having gained an interest in seabirds the previous year, when I spent the summer making shipboard observations in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a Smithsonian summer program for graduate students gave me the opportunity to work with one of the few Americans then working with seabirds, George E.  Watson. I had no idea the first day I walked from my Capitol Hill room to The Mall (in 90 degree temperatures) that the conversations that day would forever change my summers and much of the rest of my next four decades.


Dr. George E. Watson

I found “Dr. Watson” to be both genial and witty as he welcomed me to the Bird Division, found me a spare desk, and then took me to his office, where he told me that earlier in the week he had been contacted by the Coast Guard, which was looking for a bird and mammal observer to participate in  cruises off northern Alaska. Oil had been discovered at Prudhoe Bay in the late 1960s, and the Coast Guard wanted to sponsor a scientific cruise in the Beaufort Sea before development of the oil field. Knowledge of the physical and biological oceanography of the region was minimal, and since construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was being held up in the courts, there was consideration of transporting the oil by sea. Pre-impact studies were needed for a range of things, including the region’s seabirds.

As George was outlining the research opportunity of the cruises to me it was clear from the look on his face that he knew exactly how his presentation would affect me. As he asked me if I would like to participate in that year’s September cruise, with the potential of going on summer cruises in the two following years, he was grinning broadly, knowing that the chance I would decline the offer or tell him I would have to consider were nil.

That September George and I flew to Point Barrow and boarded the USCG icebreaker GLACIER. We spent the next month on the ship’s flying bridge as it moved through the waters of the eastern Chukchi Sea. Sea ice cover in the Beaufort Sea was so extensive that we were unable to proceed to the intended study area off Prudhoe Bay – demonstrating how ice conditions have changed in the past four decades.

Having George’s company on board ship, and certainly during the long periods observing from the flying bridge, spoiled me for what to expect for conversation and camaraderie in the Arctic. George had a wealth of stories about seabirds, ornithologists and his various travels to the Antarctic (where he had done most of his seabird research) and the Grecian islands (where he traveled due to his interest in classical languages, and became interested in the area’s avifauna). While George and I were cruising through flocks of Ross’ and Ivory gulls, pods of walrus, and even the occasional black guillemot (that even then I found fascinating as they fed in the spaces between ice floes), he would (as the number of sightings increased) frequently say, “And thick and fast they come at last. And more and more and more.”  I learned, only recently, that the lines come from the poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter” in  Lewis Carroll’s “Alice: Through the Looking Glass”.  I have no idea if George was quoting it because of the close proximity of large numbers of walrus. But he said this phrase often enough that now, 40 years later on Cooper Island, on a day when lots of guillemot chicks are hatching or sculpin are being brought in by all the guillemot parents, I will find myself saying “And thick and fast …”.

In the pivotal summer of 1972, when I found the Cooper Island black guillemot colony in early July, George did not join the cruise until later that month. He was with me on Cooper Island in August, when I found that a wooden structure I had turned over earlier in the summer now housed an adult guillemot incubating two eggs. I remember shouting out to let George know of my discovery, and as he approached he took out his camera and told me to point to the nest site. The black and white image he obtained really documents the start of this long-term study and — when I show it in a presentation — is always a reminder to me of the role that “Dr. Watson” played in my getting to Alaska and to Cooper Island.


The start of the long-term study

I wish him well on the occasion of his 80th birthday, and send Dr. George Watson my thanks for the opportunity he provided in the early 1970s, and for his companionship during my first three years in the Arctic.

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