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Curious Alaska: What are shipping containers with observation decks doing along the Anchorage waterfront?

Observers at Earthquake Park near the Coastal Trail keep eyes on Knik Arm, looking for marine mammals during Port of Alaska dock construction on Tuesday. (Anne Raup / ADN)

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Question: What are the Conex boxes with observation decks on top for? I have seen two locations: one at the city boat launch at the mouth of Ship Creek and the other in the parking area at Northern Lights and Postmark Drive. Just being curious.

These shipping containers near the Ship Creek boat launch and along the Coastal Trail near Earthquake Park are for observing marine mammals in Cook Inlet during construction at the Port of Alaska. And there are more.

Last Friday was a good day to see how it works. The idea is to make sure marine mammals that sometimes are found in Knik Arm — especially the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales — aren’t disturbed by construction noises.

Workers were driving steel piles into the ground at the port Friday. Pile driving makes a lot of noise. Under federal rules, if certain species of sea mammals get too close to the noise, the work has to stop until they’re farther away.

So, a group of observers was set up on shore around Knik Arm watching for sea mammals, some with binoculars in hand.

Arika Garcia is one of the observers stationed around the Port of Alaska and the Knik Arm. She's using what they call the ’big eyes. ’ (Anne Raup / ADN)

In addition to Earthquake Park and the boat launch, two additional stations were set up at the port. Another station is sometimes used across Knik Arm at Point MacKenzie, and yet another is used at Point Woronzof.

Cook Inlet beluga whales are classified as endangered, with an estimated 279 of them left in the population in 2018 compared with the roughly 1,300 whales in 1979, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Among the concerns surrounding pile driving: Loud noises could temporarily injure the whales’ hearing, and belugas sometimes feed in upper Knik Arm during the summer, passing near the port, said Bonnie Easley-Appleyard, a marine mammal specialist at NOAA Fisheries.

“Overall, we’re trying to basically just avoid any sort of harassment, anything that would affect them,” she said of the monitoring program.

Dennis Moore is one of the observers stationed around the Port of Alaska and the Knik Arm. Photographed June 18, 2021. (Anne Raup / ADN)

Neil Walsh and Dennis Moore, two of the observers, stood on a wooden platform fitted on top of a rust-colored shipping container adjacent to the Port of Alaska.

The platforms, which have been used for this project since April 2020, have a simple construction: stairs up to the observation deck through the container, a metal roof overhead. They’re equipped with binoculars, a computer and a device for capturing the location of a mammal in the water. And snacks.

On Friday morning, Walsh and Moore had seen two belugas swimming past in the silty tides. If the belugas had been swimming during pile driving, they would have needed to radio the construction team, and work would have halted until the animals swam out of the zone.

Duncan Allen ducks out of the data room at a monitoring station at the mouth of Ship Creek as Arika Garcia keeps her eyes trained on the waters of the Knik Arm. (Anne Raup / ADN)
Binoculars rest on the wall decorated with animal artwork at the observation station at Ship Creek. (Anne Raup / ADN)

Duncan Allen and Arika Garcia were stationed at another observation deck near the Ship Creek boat launch.

Garcia peered through massive 3-foot-long binoculars and read out visibility numbers based on how far she could see across the water.

So far this season, the observers have seen porpoises, belugas, harbor seals, a gray whale and river otters.

Staring out at the water can get boring, Allen said, but rotating between stations and taking breaks can help. The job comes with a certain excitement. Upon arrival each day, he’s already curious about what might be out there.

“You never know what you might see come flying out of the water,” Allen said.

One of several marine mammal observation sites is at the Anchorage overlook at Earthquake Park. Photographed June 22, 2021. (Anne Raup / ADN)

Because of the loud construction work going on right now, the port is required to have these observers watch the water, according to Drew Lenz, part-owner of 61 North, the company contracted to do the marine mammal observations.

At any point in time, 11 people are watching the water during pile driving, Lenz said.

Piles are essentially giant pipes that decking is built on top of, said Jim Jager, director of business continuity and facility security officer at the Port of Alaska. Piles are huge. On Friday workers were setting up to drive a pile that weighed hundreds of tons as part of their work to build the new petroleum and cement terminal.

Jager said they’re trying to get the pile driving work done before peak beluga season later in the summer, when the largest concentrations of belugas of the season tend to arrive in Knik Arm.

Crews were able to drive piles on Friday and Sunday, however work on the pile was delayed Monday because of nearby belugas, Jager said. Work began after the belugas left the area, but stopped after the whales came back that evening, he said.

To be sure, there’s other noise at the port, between military jets above and vessel traffic in the water, said Verena Gill, supervisory biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But the pile driving is particularly loud, she said, which is why there’s an effort to keep the whales and the work away from each other.

Workers prepare to drive a pile into the ground below the waters of the Knik Arm while constructing a new dock at the Port of Alaska. Photographed June 18, 2021. (Anne Raup / ADN)

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