Odd Jobs: George Divoky and the black guillemots of Cooper Island

George Divoky on Cooper Island, Alaska. Photo by Gary Braasch

George Divoky on Cooper Island, Alaska. Photo by Gary Braasch

By Beth Jusino

In the early 1970s, ornithologist George Divoky was in the farthest reaches of northern Alaska, doing a survey of seabirds for the U.S. government, when he came across a colony of black guillemots nesting on a remote sandbar island. George started to track the colony there on Cooper Island, going back every summer to observe the pigeon-sized birds as they mated, nested, and raised th­eir young. He got government funding and then lost it when Ronald Reagan was elected. He applied for enough grants to scrape by. Not many people paid attention. That, I’m told, is pretty normal for an ornithologist.

But then something happened. By the mid-1990s, George had twenty years of data on a colony of ground-nesting birds that consistently laid their eggs two weeks after the snow melted. He noticed the birds were laying a full two weeks before they used to in the 1970s. Arctic summers were starting sooner.

Other evidence piled up. The birds had to fly farther to get to the sea ice where they found fish for their chicks. Then the kinds of Arctic fish they ate disappeared almost entirely in the warmer water. And, of course, the polar bears showed up. We’ll get to that.

People started paying attention. George’s bird study became a publicly compelling piece of evidence in the arguments for climate change. He was profiled in a cover story in The New York Times Magazine and interviewed on The Late Show With David Letterman. He was even one of the inspirations for a play about climate change staged in London’s Royal National Theatre in 2011.

When George isn’t on Cooper Island, he lives in Seattle and works, usually just a few tables away from me, at the coworking space Office Nomads. You wouldn’t know he’s somewhat famous. He and his research assistants compare charts of indecipherable colors and numbers that track their birds and nesting sites, which makes it seem like a pretty boring science job—until you find out about the polar bears.

He seemed a fitting choice for the launch of an “Odd Jobs” column. (How many climate-change expert ornithologists do you have working at your coworking space, huh?)

So, George, how do you describe your job?

I’m an ornithologist and an Arctic biologist, and because of what I was studying and what I found out I became a conservationist.

What does that mean for people who don’t speak in –ists?

I got a PhD in ornithology, which is the study of birds. I started forty years ago a study in Arctic Alaska on a species of seabird that I didn’t know would be responding to climate change, but with time I saw the sea ice melting and the snow melting. Things were changing rapidly, and I realized the whole situation with global warming and carbon emissions was more important than my birds. They were just the canary in the coal mine.

divokybird2Funny. So what’s life like on Cooper Island?

Cooper Island is a flat, gravel sandbar. I’m there from the 1st of June until roughly the 5th of September, and I study the black guillemots, a seabird that breeds in boxes on the island. I monitor who lived through the winter, I band birds with color bands so I can see who they are the next year, I see who they’re breeding with, I see when they’re laying their eggs, when the eggs are hatching, how they’re raising their young, what they’re feeding on.

Is that a 24 hour a day thing?

It is. I mean, it could easily be 24 hours of work on the island just because of the workload, and the fact that the sun doesn’t set until roughly the 10th of August. The sun is up, just circling the island, for two months. Luckily the birds leave the island every day for around eight hours. They fly some distance offshore and feed, and I sleep during that period. The only trouble is that they leave the island from roughly noon ‘til nine or ten in the evening. It’s tough to sleep at the brightest time of day.

What’s the most surprising thing that’s happened during your research?

After 28 years on the island, even knowing that the Arctic pack ice was just offshore and that polar bears were out there, I had never seen one except at a distance. I carried a gun around for the first two years, but at some point you think “wait a minute, I don’t need to carry a gun around, because I haven’t seen a bear.” And then [I was] out in the field in 2002 and looked back, and I saw a bear right in front of the tent—the tent that had the gun in it—and realized one, oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening, and two, if this bear looks at me and starts walking toward me, there’s nothing I can do. You just feel completely powerless, and you are…

divokybearWe should stop and point out there’s nowhere to hide or climb or run on Cooper Island.

That’s right. It’s a flat gravel sandbar, and there’s nowhere to hide. There is a pond, and I use this now, if there’s a bear that I see—I always have a gun with me now, but I get on the far side of the pond, so that it’s clear: if you [the bear] want to cross the pond to come get me, then it’s clear that you want to come get me. But if you’re going to walk around the edges, then I can always keep walking around the edges the other way, and eventually I’ll get back to safety. [George now lives in a wooden 8×12 cabin protected by an electrified bear fence.] What was amazing was that the first bear showed up in 2002, and then more bears showed up. The ice had rapidly pulled offshore that year, and there were almost 100 bears stuck on the Arctic coast of Alaska, and around twenty-five of them came through my campsite in the next three days. I learned fast how to turn polar bears around, but then we had one we couldn’t back down, and he backed us down. We called Search and Rescue because we didn’t want to shoot the bear, and we didn’t want him to eat us.

So was that the end of that summer of research?

Yes. That was the first year that the bears started eating all of the chicks, which was the saving grace because it was like, okay, there’s no point in staying on the island. You’ve eaten all the birds I was studying, so I don’t have to measure what their next growth rate is.

Are you alone out there?

On the bulk of the forty years I’ve been out there I’ve been alone at least three-quarters of the time. This past summer I was out there for fourteen weeks and I was alone for around eight of those weeks. I have field assistants who come out in August when the chicks are growing rapidly and there’s a great deal to do, I have friends who’ve come out in the past to visit me, and my girlfriend, who’s a lawyer in Seattle, tries to break away and come up for a week or two. So I have these breaks, but I’ve also had extended periods of six weeks where I haven’t seen another human being, which is something that most people haven’t done.

How does that change the other nine months of your year?

I like to be alone in nature, because you can see more things, you can experience it in a way. But when I’m in a city and in close proximity to other people, I can really feel lonely if I don’t have contact. I would work at home or I’d go to the library, but I just happened five years ago to run into someone at a party who mentioned a coworking space, and that was Office Nomads. I wasn’t quite sure at first, but in terms of focus it was great, because you’re sitting and looking at a computer, and other people are doing the same thing, and you have nothing else to do there, where at home you have your whole life you can do. So it was a great way to say “okay, for six hours I’m going to do this,” and for six hours I would come in and do something, and I was really kind of amazed at how well it worked. It changed everything.

What do you do when you’re here in Seattle? What’s your job when you’re not cuddling baby birds and avoiding polar bears?

I spend the first month just recovering from three months in the field. Then I start writing papers, writing grant proposals, collaborating with other researchers on work that they’ll be doing on Cooper Island, attending meetings, and keeping busy with all the things that a now-40 year study makes you keep busy with.

You have been studying the same birds in the same place for 40 years now, which is longer than a lot of the coworkers in this office have been alive. How does the length of the project change you?

It’s only recently that I realized that I have a different time sense than most people. People say [to me] “that really shows dedication,” or “I can’t believe you’ve been doing it that long.” Well, if you were to say that to someone who was married for forty years, it would be an insult. “No, it’s not a sacrifice. We enjoy each other’s company.” I enjoy the birds’ company, and at some point it just got to be what I did, which isn’t bad.

Where do you see Cooper Island research going?

This is such a unique study. We’re right in the middle of the Arctic oil patch, we’re right in the middle of the retreating pack ice, we’re right in the middle of where all the new shipping lanes are going to be. It’s a very hot property. [Secretary of State John] Kerry is going to appoint an ambassador to the Arctic. If this hadn’t all happened, the study would probably just be winding up right about now. But these birds live to be thirty years old. Last summer we had 125 chicks fledge, and if things hold about 50 of them will come back to breed on the island. Some of those birds will live through the next three decades in the Arctic, which is something that we can barely conceive of. Summer sea ice is going to disappear, there are going to be all sorts of developments, there will probably be a major oil spill. And these birds are going to live through that.

What do you want people to know from your experience?

I went to an island just to study birds, not to study anything with climate change. And in my research lifetime, things have changed so rapidly that it went from being an Arctic situation, with ice cover and water temperatures that only have Arctic fish, to being a subarctic population. The species I am studying, which was an Arctic species, is now having a great deal of trouble raising young, and it happened in my lifetime. I’ve seen such rapid change that it’s scary. It’s scary beyond the polar bear thing. It’s scary to see birds not be able to raise their young because they don’t have the food there.

divokycabinWhat’s the dumbest question that anyone’s ever asked you about what you do?

I don’t know if this is the dumbest question, but the most common question that confuses me is “Are you going up again this summer?” I hadn’t thought of it in that context, but people ask that and I’ll just go, [said with wide eyes and exaggerated gestures] “Oh, you think I should? Well, I don’t know. Maybe I will.” And it makes me think again how it’s unusual to have a commitment. And it’s also like, if I didn’t do that, it’s not like I couldn’t find plenty else to do, but if I did something else at this point, I would be going, “Oh my God, it’s the 15th of June…”

“…Where’s white orange gray?” [the designation of a bird based on the colors of the banded tags on its leg]

Exactly. Even if I leave the island for a few weeks, which I have, and there’s a field assistant on the island, I’m thinking, wait a minute, if a guillemot falls in the Arctic and I’m not there to record it, does it make a sound?

Find out more about George Divoky’s research at the Friends of Cooper Island website and Facebook Page.
Photo credit: Gary Braasch

Is there someone in your coworking space with an unusual or interesting job? This will be a regular column, so email us with your nomination for the next Odd Jobs column.



  1. Melissa Mesku 05/16/2014 at 4:33 am #

    We should have international coworker prizes: “Most Rugged” definitely goes to George.


    Melissa Mesku
  2. Nicolas Bergé 06/04/2014 at 12:55 pm #

    WOW !


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