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Scientist in Residence: Alyssa Adler

From the time I was a young girl, all I wanted was to play outside. I used the ferns in my childhood backyard to hoist myself up muddy Pacific Northwest slopes, sat by the edge of the property’s wooded creek and imagined it was a roaring river.

Hours were spent on horseback, prepared with saddlebags and snacks to ride the same trail over and over, always dreaming up a new experience. As an adult, my interests are unwavering, though the landscape has shifted. For the last four years, I have had the opportunity to explore our Earth’s most remote cold water locations as an underwater videographer and ocean-focused naturalist, cultivating an appreciation and understanding for challenging corners of the globe. Though my travels have taken me from Antarctica to the Arctic, it’s the temperate in-between that captivates me. During the last four years, Southeast Alaska, particularly the Inian Islands in its incredible wildness and productivity, has stolen my attention. My name is Alyssa Adler, I am the Inian Islands Institute’s 2019 Scientist in Residence and National Geographic grant recipient for project Tall Trees in Cold Seas.

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Kelp forests make up extensive habitat in southeast Alaskan waters, catering in spring to juvenile fish, mollusks of almost any kind, and egg layers like nudibranchs, whelks, and octopus. In summer they become optimal hunting grounds for predators like the quick and crafty sea otter. Tall Trees in Cold Seas will focus on the annual bull kelp (Nereocystis) of the Alaskan and Canadian coast, creating a story through a variety of media and observational data about this unique boom and bust habitat. Bull kelp has an incredible ability to harness solar power, using its photosynthetic processes to grow up to 30” a day in the high latitude summer. This rapid growth results in habitat from seemingly nowhere – a forest that grows from the seafloor to 100’ tall during just a few short months, and dies just as rapidly in the low light and rough seas of fall and winter. Through the power of virtual submersion via 360 degree cameras, the eagle eye view only a drone can offer, time lapse photography and underwater videography, I plan to bring this environment to the surface. Though filming has only just begun, the excitement around the Hobbit Hole was palpable throughout our mid-march week of setup. The project is complex in location and execution, but the Inian Islands Institute truly has the means to create magic.

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The natural beauty of the Inians is pristine, but the environment works for it. Massive rushing tides flood and drain the Hobbit Hole twice daily, swirling and racing out of the gut like a raging river. Sometimes I learn lessons the hard way – exactly where the tidal low is shallow enough to bottom out the resident skiff, how rough anything but high tide can be once divers are underwater, how quickly that time-lapse camera will be fully submerged.  The topside logistics are complex – working my way from Juneau to the Inian’s and back took the Alaska Marine Ferry, Captain Colter on the Institute’s Magister, and a flight in a small 9-person prop plane. Transportation of extensive dive equipment required the help of people in Ketchikan, Gustavus, the Hobbit Hole, Juneau, Sitka, and Hoonah. These lessons only allow my respect for this region to swell, teaching me that to be successful I need to learn and understand the power and network of Southeast Alaska, both in the water and out. It’s all worth it to roll into the salty Pacific Ocean, turn on my cameras as I sink to the seafloor, and shine my lights on early spring in the Inian Islands; young bull kelp reaching towards the surface with nothing but young fronds and the promise of summer.

Read more about Alyssa and her project as Inian’s first Scientist in Residence.

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