Behind the scenes: Living on Cooper Island while filming

Guest blogger: David Wright, Luna Sea Films
David Wright is a documentary filmmaker with over 20 years experience shooting wildlife and science stories for clients including the BBC, Discovery and National Geographic.

COOPER ISLAND, ALASKA — My flight arrived in Barrow, Alaska, on what the locals said was the best day in the last ten years. Blue sky and 60 degree temperatures greeted me, heralding a great trip out to Cooper Island. I was returning after visiting George in July of 2010, while shooting a story for the new BBC series “Frozen Planet“. After gathering supplies in town I was offered a ride out to the island on a boat conducting a bowhead whale survey. Its mission is to monitor the annual migration of these animals to a feeding ground around six miles north of the Cooper Island, a reminder of the abundant population of krill & plankton that occur just off shore and which are the basis of the food chain throughout the Arctic.

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I return to the 10×12 cabin where I stayed in 2010 during the filming of the BBC documentary “Frozen Planet”. For the next three weeks this cabin will again be my home. Credit: George Divoky

Before we could even see the Cooper, the silhouette of George’s cabin appeared on the horizon, then George’s outline as he was checking nest sites, followed by the low profile of the island itself. It was great to step off the boat and back onto Cooper once again. The mission for the next three weeks would be to shoot our climate change documentary based on George’s four decades of work on Cooper Island. After enjoying a great dinner prepared in the 10×12 cabin that would be home for the trip, I headed out to shoot a glorious sunset. I am glad I got the shots, as it would be the last time we would see a sunset for the entire trip. The good weather that welcomed me to the Arctic was gone. For the next three weeks fog banks swept across the island with only brief views of the sun.

fog on Cooper Island

My first night I witnessed a glorious sunset. For the next three weeks fog became the norm. Credit: David Wright

The island and the research had changed from the 2010 season. All the old nest sites were flipped over and George has replaced them with adapted Nanuk cases that are proving to be both polar bear and puffin proof. George has also been busy fitting TDR’s (temperature depth recorders) to some of his birds. Equipped with these miniature devices the research data was no longer restricted to observations on the island. The birds would bring back second by second information from their feeding forays into the surrounding oceans. As the days progressed they began delivering fascinating data about how deep they were diving to find food and ocean temperature. This is then combined with images taken by remote camera monitoring their nest sites, showing us what species of fish they are bring back for the chicks. Over the coming years, this new development to the Cooper Island research will provide a growing insight into the changing conditions in the Beaufort Sea and how it relates to climate.

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The wooden boards of the old nest sites can be seen behind the polar bear and puffin proof Nanuk nest sites. George’s cabin is in the background. Credit: David Wright

Workdays on the island are always long for George. After checking data from his TDR birds each morning, nest checks begin. I continue to be amazed at his dedication. Whatever the weather, George never misses a day. Amongst this busy schedule he patiently made time for me to follow him with my camera to document the work, never phased by the many questions I bombarded him with along the way. We captured the many moods of the island from fog to sun as George relentlessly weighed and measured chicks.

George Divoky with fledging

George holds one of this year’s chicks which is ready to fledge. Credit: David Wright

Now the second week of August, the reality of introducing the Nanuk cases set in. For the last few years starving polar bears, or territorial invasions by horned puffins, meant that many of the chicks would already have been killed. This year was shaping up to be different. In 2010, less than a dozen fledglings made it to the ocean, this year there was a potential for more than 200. A great success for the birds, but it also means George’s workload remains constant. Instead of complaining, his excitement about the new data he is collecting fuels his enthusiasm for the work, each day filled with revelations about changes in the type of fish being brought back to the colony, growth rates and how the weather is influencing this. The only anxiety was by the fact that the edge of pack ice was now out to the continental shelf, at least 150 miles from the island. With no shallow water beneath the ice, seals and walrus head for shore, followed by the now annual migration of polar bears seeking sanctuary on islands like Cooper.

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Two black guillemot eggs. Credit: David Wright

The relentless heavy workload of checking nests would now be punctuated by continual scanning of the horizon for a bear reaching the island after their epic swim to shore. On August 13, amongst a thick fog enveloping the island, evidence of the first bear to visit the colony during my trip reminded us of how stealthy they can be. A bear had turned over a nest box, failed to take the chicks and walked away. Despite us being close, we had seen nothing. It was a cautious walk back to the cabin that night, but once inside the safety of the electric fence, a good night’s sleep is no problem after the exertions of a day spent walking on the sand and gravel, buffeted by the perpetually damp easterly wind. Our guess was that the bear was also bedded down for the night after swimming more than 150 miles to shore from the retreating pack ice.

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A paw print is evidence that a polar bear was on the island. Credit: David Wright

The next day dawned with no fog and good visibility. Across the flat terrain of the island, no bears were visible so I headed to the west end to look for tracks. Sure enough, a bear had swum to the island, but appeared to have walked to the colony and then doubled back. It then must have headed out to sea to swim for the mainland. Then I noticed something large on the beach. Wondering if it was another bear sleeping on the beach, it seemed odd as the waves were breaking over the curled up animal. For a while the mirage effect caused by temperature differentials of the air, land and sea made the shape dance around in a way that made it impossible to identify. Then it moved and the tell-tale tusk of a walrus emerged as the animal rolled onto its back. As it turned out, this was the first recorded sighting of a walrus on the island during George’s four decades of visits. As with the changing fortunes of the guillemot colony, this is also a sign of the times. To the west at Point Lay, several thousand walrus have started to haul out on the beaches once the sea ice retreats. Left with no other places to rest, they head to the mainland to stay within reach of their feeding grounds.

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A rare sunny day on Cooper Island. Credit: David Wright

With 2011 mirroring the ice retreat of 2007, it is shaping up to be a record breaking year with the least volume of sea ice covering the Arctic basin. This has dramatic consequences for the animals that rely on the ice to help them find food or shelter, and not just bears and walrus, but everything in the food chain.

August 15 brought clearer skies, and as I sat filming the birds in the colony and George working near by, we heard the approach of a helicopter. The local radio station, KBRW, our life line to the outside world, had mentioned that USGS were doing an aerial polar bear count along the coast. They dropped by for a quick visit and let us know that they had spotted a bear on the next island to the west. Sure enough, four hours later the same bear arrived at camp as we were eating dinner. A small dye mark on its back confirmed it was the bear seen by the USGS team. Appearing to be a young male, and in good condition, he continued to a tundra patch east of the cabin and disappeared into the fog.

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Filming on Cooper Island Credit: David Wright

Now wanting to keep an eye out for bears in the area, I had an urge to check the colony before turning in. By chance, a bear was walking down the beach line and amongst the nest sites. We agreed it appeared to be a different bear, larger and with the proportions of a more mature male. He also made his way to the tundra patch but still in sight from the cabin. Finding a small gully for shelter, he lay down to sleep and would not move again for the next 28 hours.

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A visiting polar bear made himself comfortable in this gully and took a nap. He slept for 28 hours to rest up after his long swim to the island. Credit: David Wright

Once our latest visitor departed, the work filming George monitoring the colony continued. With a bear free day, we could focus on the plight of the chicks in the continuing volatile weather conditions. The wind was swinging from the east, all the way to the west, and the parents seemed to be a challenge finding fish. Chick weights were dropping, especially those of the smaller beta chicks that were second in line to be fed. George was noting feathers plucked from these smaller chicks, a sign of sibling aggression during this time of reduced feedings.

The next day brought calmer weather, but this too brought a new challenge for us. George runs the camp on a combination of wind and solar power that charges a bank of batteries. With fog and cloud, and now no wind, we would have to ration our much needed charging of radios, camera batteries and computer equipment.

Late evening, our bear from two days ago reappeared, easily identifiable from its unique dye spot on its neck after being marked by the USGS survey team. Making his way through the colony and checking nest sites, he managed to flush an adult bird from a nest box and caught it under his paw, before killing and eating his victim. The bear continued through the colony and to the camp. With the protection provided by the electric fence and the cabin, we were in little danger. The inquisitive bear came close enough to touch the fence. Shocked, but not seeming to be unduly upset by the experience, he once again walked away into the night, his curiosity satisfied.

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An evening visit from a polar bear, just before checking to see if the electric fence was on. Credit: George Divoky

As morning arrived we ventured out into the colony to see what damage the bear had done. On the way to the box where we saw him catch the adult, we noticed that he had tried to break into four others, but failed to get to the chicks. A testament to the success of introducing the cases to ensure the birds’ safety. At the fifth case, the parent bird had been unlucky enough to have been paying a visit when the bear arrived. The chicks survived unscathed, but the bear had caught the adult, then carefully eaten the organ meat and left the muscle tissue. They always seem to seek out the fatty parts of their prey.

This was no doubt a sad moment for George as he checked the bands on the dead bird and recognized that it was an adult that had hatched on the island and had returned to breed. Even with this fatality, the boxes are still proving to be an amazing success as this bear could have eaten scores of chicks in just one visit. Instead, he quickly decided that his efforts would be best focused elsewhere.

Two black guillemots sit atop a polar bear proof Nanuk nest box. Credit: David Wright

Two black guillemots sit atop a polar bear proof Nanuk nest box. Credit: David Wright

As George began his nest checks for the day, I focused my attentions on the large flocks of red phalaropes gathering on the island. Massing by the thousands, they presented a spectacular scene as the moving flocks caught the light; George also framed in the background as he weighed chicks. Ever vigilant, and feeling a little exposed as I lay flat on the ground to film the birds, I happened to look beyond George to the beach just as a female bear crested the bank. Shaking her fur, she had just emerged from the ocean. Warning George of the potential danger, we retreated to the safety of the cabin.

This bear was cleaner than the others we had seen and its shape suggested it was a mature female. In years gone by, a female of this age would likely have had cubs accompanying her. With the clean fur it is likely she had spent little or no time on land and had likely swum the more than 150 miles from the pack ice. In the last few years, George has seen none of these females arriving with cubs. Many of the youngsters are simply too small to manage the long swim to land, an issue that must be drastically impacting polar breeding success.

After failing to find any nests in natural sites, this bear departed east and our work in the colony then continued until around 8 p.m. Although several hundred yards apart, both George and I suddenly realized there was another bear off to our east that was sleeping on a raised area. Its bulk and color meant it was not the female, but another animal that had walked to the spot while both of us had been concentrating on the birds. He posed no threat because of his distance from us and appeared to be in a deep sleep, but we quickly finished the tasks at hand and retired to the safety camp for the night.

polar-bear

Another polar bear visitor Credit: George Divoky

As night fell the bear awoke after 26 hours of sleep. It seems they require this amount of time to recover from swimming to shore. Making his way near camp, he appeared tired and lay down again to sleep for another hour, just enough time for us to make, and eat, our evening meal. As we finished, the bear slowly made his way by camp, swaying his head in a way that is normally used as a territorial display. Bypassing the guillemot colony he made his way to the end of a spit south of us and waded across a lagoon to a distant sand bar, then off into the night, beginning his long search for food.

Dawn greeted us with the the now predictable 40 degree temperatures, another foggy day that seems to be this year’s prevailing condition. Waves were also cutting into the beach showing just how dynamic a barrier island like Cooper can be, especially as they are no longer protected by a sea ice that would have traditionally acted like a breakwater to protect the shoreline. The sand and gravel is eroded and re-deposited so that shape of the island continually evolves.

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An Arctic storm. Due to wave erosion, the shape of the island continues to change. Credit: David Wright

As the local NPR station brought us news of the growing global financial melt down, global stock prices seemed to be as erratic as the weights of guillemot chicks. I wondered whether chick weight might be as good a way to gauge the well being of the economy as the S&P 500 or Dow, both seemed equally volatile. This quickly seemed a million miles away while on George and I worked on the edge of the Arctic focusing on the daily plight of the animals that call Cooper Island home.

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The black guillemots of Cooper Island. Credit: David Wright

With just a few days to go, I set out to capture the remaining shots we need to make our film and began to repack gear for the trip home. The boat taking me off would deliver George’s partner Catherine for her annual visit. Thanks to the boating skills, and kindness of biologist Craig George, a long time Barrow resident, the transfer went smoothly. My long trip home now began, but as I write I only made it to Anchorage. Flights to the east coast are completely cancelled due to hurricane Irene.

It is somewhat ironic to have been at “ground zero” for climate change in the Arctic and have weather delay my return to my home in Maine, but this may be the new normal. Data suggest that more unpredictable and extreme weather events are occurring each year and can be linked to global warming. It is no longer an abstract process happening at the poles, it is knocking on the door of everyone in North America, as well as the rest of the world.

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