Alan Mearns standing next to the famous rock on July 12, 2006. Photo by his NOAA colleague Jeff Lankford. Photo courtesy of Alan Mearns

Along the shoreline of Knight Island, in a cove called Snug Harbor, sits a rock. 

David Janka knows this rock very well. He plans to visit Snug Harbor this July, and his visit will mark his tenth consecutive summer of photographing the boulder, also known as Mearns Rock. He hopes it won’t be his last. 

Janka is part of a small group of citizen scientists who monitor nine intertidal sites located in the southwest corner of the Prince William Sound. 

NOAA started monitoring these sites in the aftermath of the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Alan Mearns, a now-retired ecologist with NOAA, began photographing Mearns Rock and nearby sites to observe the recovery process of intertidal zones after the spill. 

He and his team continued to photograph these sites throughout the 1990s. As the area recovered, they continued to take photographs to track natural variability, and in 2012 the monitoring project transformed into the volunteer-led endeavor that it is today, with an eye toward tracking effects that climate change may have on the Prince William Sound. 

For Mearns, one of the key parts of this project is having “the historical, visual presentation of the changes.” It’s important enough that he’s still involved in the project today, even though he retired from NOAA in 2018. 

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“Nobody’s paid anything for this,” Mearns said. “All volunteer work. Including my own time.” 

Janka originally learned about the sites over 20 years ago when he was hired by NOAA to charter Mearns’ team in the Sound. Since then, he has often stopped to photograph the sites while taking clients out on trips. 

“People were always interested when I described what was going on, and they were more than happy to add that to their itinerary,” said Janka. 

Scott Pegau, a research manager at the Oil Spill Recovery Institute in Cordova, has also been involved with the project for about a decade. Like Janka, he photographs sites while out working on other – paid – work. 

“Even though I’m a scientist, I’m a citizen scientist on this particular project,” he said. 

One of Pegau’s goals is to raise awareness about the project and encourage more people to contribute, which is why he’s been building an online resource where people can see the collection of photographs from previous years, and they can learn how to take photos of the intertidal sites themselves. 

“We are dependent on trying to convince people that ‘Hey, if you’re in this area, you know, please take pictures,’” said Pegau. 

His colleague Rob Campbell, a biological oceanographer and the chief science officer with the Prince William Sound Science Center, has contributed photos for over five years. He also often stops by Shelter Bay to document a pair of boulders named Bert and Ernie.  

‘They’re changing really slowly over, you know, decades,” said Campbell. “You need that kind of long-term data to look at.” 

Although Janka recently retired after 30 years of running his charter business, he plans to continue to return to Snug Harbor and photograph Mearns Rock as long as he’s able to. 

One of the more important things he has learned from this project, he said, is, “You can’t go out there and observe and count everything on one visit and think you know what’s going on, because it’s always changing.” 

Janka calls this “snapshot science,” and, like Campbell, stresses the need to collect long-term data sets to accurately analyze all of the fluctuations that happen. 

“Nothing is static. It’s all very dynamic,” he said. 

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