July 18, 2009
Mystery Gook Found In Arctic Sea
Hunters from Wainwright say that there is something big and strange floating through the Chukchi Sea between Wainwright and Barrow in the Arctic.
The hunters first spotted the thing sometime early last week.
According to Gordon Brower with the North Slope Borough's Planning and Community Services Department, whatever it is, it is thick, dark and "gooey" and is drifting for miles in the cold Arctic waters.
Brower and other borough officials joined with the U.S. Coast Guard and flew out to Wainwright to investigate. The agencies found "globs" of the stuff floating for miles offshore on Friday and collected samples for testing.
Brower later said that the North Slope team spotted a long strand of the stuff and followed it for about 15 miles in a borough helicopter, shooting video from the air.
The floating substance arrived offshore from Barrow the next day, about 90 miles east of Wainwright. Borough officials went out in boats and collected more samples to send off for testing also.
No one knows what it is, but Petty Officer 1st Class Terry Hasenauer says the Coast Guard is sure what it is not.
"It's certainly biological," Hasenauer said. "It's definitely not an oil product of any kind. It has no characteristics of an oil, or a hazardous substance, for that matter.
"It's definitely, by the smell and the makeup of it, it's some sort of naturally occurring organic or otherwise marine organism."
Brower said that no one in Barrow or Wainwright could remember seeing anything like it.
"That's one of the reasons we went out, because in recent history I don't think we've seen anything like this," he said. "Maybe inside lakes or in stagnant water or something, but not (in the ocean) that we could recall."
"If it was something we'd seen before, we'd be able to say something about it. But we haven't ...which prompted concerns from the local hunters and whaling captains."
Brower said that the stuff is "gooey" and looks dark against the bright white ice floating in the Arctic Ocean.
"It's pitch black when it hits ice and it kind of discolors the ice and hangs off of it," Brower said. He saw some jellyfish tangled up in the stuff, and someone turned in what was left of a dead goose -- just bones and feathers -- to the borough's wildlife department.
"It kind of has an odor; I can't describe it," he said.
Hasenauer said that he has not heard any reports of waterfowl or marine animals turning up.
Although Brower said that it would not surprise him if the substance turns out to be some sort of naturally occurring phenomenon. However, the borough is waiting until it gets the analysis back from the samples before officials say anything more than they are not sure what it is.
"From the air it looks brownish with some sheen, but when you get close and put it up on the ice and in the bucket, it's kind of blackish stuff ... (and) has hairy strands on it."
According to Hasenauer, the Coast Guard's samples are being analyzed in Anchorage. The results may be back sometime next week, he said.
"We brought back one sample of what they believe to be an algae," he said, and a big algae bloom is one possibility.
"It's textbook for us to consider algae because of all the false reports of oil spills we've had in the past. It's one of the things that typically comes up" when a report turns out not to be an oil spill after all.
But, he said, "there are all types of natural phenomena that it could be."
Meanwhile, the gunk is drifting along the coast to the northeast.
"This stuff is moving with the current," Brower said. "It's now on beyond Barrow and probably going north at this point. And people are still encountering it out here off Barrow."
The mystery substance has seemed to stay away from the shore.
"We did get some residents saying it was being pushed against the shoreline by ice in some areas," Brower said, "but then we get another east wind and it gets pushed back out there."
Image Courtesy Of The North Slope Borough Planning Department