By Andrea Medeiros

Imagine working on a ship that takes you 15,000 miles through remote islands, from the Gulf of Alaska to the Bering Sea, in support of conservation. Six U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service jobs provide this opportunity, all operating out of Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge aboard the R/V Tiglax.

“Sometimes you don't see another ship for days at a time,” says Captain Billy Pepper, who has worked on the Tiglax for more than 20 years and is responsible for the ship as well as hiring and managing the crew. Combined, the captain, first mate, two deckhands, a cook and an engineer have 60-plus years' experience sailing the refuge.

Constantly on the move during the six- month field season that starts in April, the crew works 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and is always on call. The Tiglax (pronounced TEK-la) is at sea for extended periods of time without Internet or cell service. Beyond the hours and the isolation, weather, mechanical problems, medical issues and even natural disasters can challenge the crew.

Last year, while the Tiglax was anchored near Attu Island, an 8.0 earthquake hit. “You could feel the chain of the anchor rolling across the bottom,” says Pepper. Alaska Maritime Refuge headquarters called to say a tsunami could hit within 30 minutes. The crew evacuated researchers on Attu. The ship barely made it to safer waters. “It was quite the fire drill,” Pepper says. “Everyone was very anxious, especially with thoughts of Fukushima in mind.”

The challenges of working on the Tiglax are counterbalanced by being among rocky islands with spectacular scenery, abundant wildlife and distinctive cultural histories. “Each island has a different personality,” says Pepper. Every summer more than 40 million seabirds nest on Alaska Maritime Refuge. One of the islands, Buldir, boasts more nesting seabirds than anywhere else in the Northern Hemisphere. The Tiglax also encounters whales, porpoises, seals, sea lions and other marine mammals.

Built in 1987, the 120-foot-long Tiglax plays a critical role in meeting Alaska Maritime Refuge's research purpose by supporting scientists from the Service, universities, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and elsewhere.

Umnak and Samalga islands in the eastern Aleutians have been part of the refuge since 1913. Last summer, thanks to the Tiglax, refuge biologists were able to survey the islands' coastlines for the first time. They discovered tens of thousands of shorebirds in the intertidal zone of Samalga Island, potentially a globally significant resting area for shorebirds on their summer migration.

In 2015, the Tiglax also supported a regular survey of sea otters in the western Aleutians and a second, rare survey on the hard-to-access Pacific Ocean side of Amchitka Island. Both will help biologists better understand sea otters.

Since 2008, when the volcanic island of Kasatochi erupted, the Tiglax and the North Pacific Research Board have been helping scientists from the refuge, the USGS and the University of Alaska- Fairbanks to annually monitor the island over the long term as it comes back to life. Before the eruption covered Kasatochi with ash and changed its landscape, the island had thick vegetation and supported a colony of approximately 250,000 least and crested auklets. To understand the effects of the eruption on the near-shore marine environment, depth surveys and dive surveys were done. “We found it to be completely clear of all life,“ says Pepper. “It was like being on the moon – only it was underwater.”

What other new discoveries are out there on Alaska Maritime Refuge? The possibility of being part of making a new one keeps the crew of the Tiglax coming back.

Andrea Medeiros is a public affairs specialist in the Alaska Region office in Anchorage.