Héloïse Chenelot could feel the Steller sea lion’s sharp teeth through her dive hood. She was 30 feet underwater, on a dive near Tigalda Island in Alaska’s eastern Aleutian Islands. Six divers were in the water, but Chenelot and her colleague, Max Hoberg, seemed to be particularly attractive to the young marine mammals.
Hoberg ducked his head down into the kelp and held still. Three sea lions surrounded him. Juvenile or not, the animals were huge — each probably weighed around 300 pounds. One of the animals gently wrapped its mouth around Hoberg’s head, too.
“If they wanted to, they could crush your head in their jaws, but they didn’t. They were just curious, and they were amazingly gentle,” Chenelot said later. “A lot of thoughts go through your mind right then … but bolting to the surface in panic is obviously not an option. So you just have to think positive, calming thoughts.”
The researchers eventually cut the dive short and swam slowly to the surface.
It was the first of 440 dives the team made in the little-explored Aleutian Island chain during the summers of 2006 and 2007. There were more than 1,000 miles of coastline to explore, from near Unalaska-Dutch Harbor in the east all the way to Attu Island at the western end of the chain.
As he climbed aboard the R/V Norseman, a 108-foot converted crab fishing vessel and the “topside” headquarters for the divers, Stephen Jewett wondered whether sea lions would be a problem on every dive. The lead diver on the expedition and chief dive officer for the University of Alaska for the past two decades, Jewett was in charge of the divers’ safety, and curious sea lions were just one of many factors he had to consider.
The divers never had any problems with sea lions again. In fact, they saw relatively few of the endangered animals on the two-year expedition. What they did see, however, was an underwater world that none of them will ever forget.
Jewett and the rest of the UAF dive team, which included Reid Brewer, Chenelot, Roger Clark, Roger Deffendall, Shawn Harper and Hoberg, were part of a larger team of scientists aboard the Norseman, all with a mission to assess the overall health of the coastal waters of the Aleutian Islands. Sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and managed jointly by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and UAF, the project focused on measuring contaminants in the water around the Aleutians and determining the productivity and biodiversity of the underwater flora and fauna of the region. The project was part of the nationwide EPA Environmental and Monitoring Assessment Program, where regions are characterized by surveys of 50 randomly selected sites. Doug Dasher, a water quality scientist with ADEC, was the principal investigator on the project.
Although the region may appear remote and pristine, the islands and their coastal waters are not immune from human activity. Concerns that numerous areas in the vast Aleutian region may be contaminated, principally by petroleum products and some PCBs and heavy metals, were an impetus for the study. Many of these sites are related to World War II and Cold War activities. One is midway along the Aleutian Arc at Amchitka Island, where the United States conducted multiple nuclear tests. The largest of those tests, Project Cannikin, resulted in a 5-megaton underground blast in 1971.
Many scientists are concerned that contaminants pose potential threats to the marine ecosystems in the Aleutian and Bering Sea regions.