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Question: What are Conex boxes with observation decks on top for? I saw two locations: one at the town boat launch at the mouth of Ship Creek and the other in the parking lot of Northern Lights and Postmark Drive. Just be curious.
These shipping containers near the Ship Creek boat launch and along the coastal path near Earthquake Park are intended for marine mammal viewing in Cook Inlet during construction of the Port of Alaska. And there are more.
Last Friday was a good day to see how it works. The idea is to ensure that the marine mammals that are sometimes found in Knik Arm, especially the Endangered Cook Inlet Beluga – are not disturbed by construction noise.
Workers were driving steel piles into the harbor floor on Friday. Pile driving makes a lot of noise. Under federal rules, if some species of marine mammals get too close to the noise, work should stop until they are further away.
So a group of spotters were set up on the shore around Knik Arm looking for marine mammals, some with binoculars in hand.
In addition to the seismic park and the launching ramp, two additional stations have been installed at the port. Another station is sometimes used across Knik Arm at Point MacKenzie, and yet another is used at Point Woronzof.
Among the concerns about pile driving: Loud noises could temporarily damage the hearing of whales, and belugas sometimes feed in the High Knik Arm during the summer, passing near the harbor, said Bonnie Easley-Appleyard, specialist. marine mammals at NOAA Fisheries.
“Overall, we’re basically trying to avoid any sort of harassment, anything that might affect them,” she said of the monitoring program.
Neil Walsh and Dennis Moore, two of the observers, stood on a wooden platform installed on top of a rust-colored shipping container adjacent to the Port of Alaska.
The platforms, which have been in use for this project since April 2020, have a simple construction: stairs to the viewing platform through the container, a metal roof above. They are equipped with binoculars, a computer and a device to detect the location of a mammal in the water. And snacks.
Friday morning, Walsh and Moore had seen two beluga whales pass in the silty tides. If the belugas had swam during the pile driving, they would have had to communicate by radio with the construction crew, and work would have been stopped until the animals swam out of the area.
Duncan Allen and Arika Garcia were stationed on another observation deck near the Ship Creek boat launch.
Garcia looked through huge 3-foot-long binoculars and read the visibility numbers based on how far she could see through the water.
So far this season, observers have seen porpoises, beluga whales, harbor seals, a gray whale and river otters.
Watching the water can get boring, Allen said, but rotating between stations and breaks can help. Work comes with some excitement. When he arrives each day, he’s already curious about what might be there.
“You never know what you might see coming out of the water,” Allen said.
Due to the noisy construction work underway at the moment, the port must ask these observers to monitor the water, according to Drew Lenz, co-owner of 61 North, the company responsible for observing marine mammals.
At any one time, 11 people monitor the water during pile driving, Lenz said.
The piles are basically giant pipes that the decking is built on, said Jim Jager, director of business continuity and facility security at the Port of Alaska. The batteries are huge. Workers were preparing to ram a heap of hundreds of tons as part of their job to build the new oil and cement terminal on Friday.
Jager said they are trying to complete the pile driving work ahead of peak beluga season later in the summer when the season’s largest concentrations of beluga tend to arrive in Knik Arm.
Crews were able to dig piles on Friday and Sunday, but work on the pile was delayed Monday due to belugas nearby, Jager said. Work began after the beluga whales left the area, but stopped after the whales returned that evening, he said.
Granted, there are other noises at the port, between military jets above and vessel traffic in the water, said Verena Gill, supervising biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But the pile driving is especially loud, she said, which is why there is an effort to keep the whales and the work away from each other.