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Smooth Sheet Bathymetry of the Aleutian Islands

February 25, 2013

The bathymetry of the Aleutian Islands is poorly described and relatively unknown, considering that it and the rest of Alaska have been part of the United States since 1867. Part of the reason for this lack of information is that Russian and European navigators were late to explore and map the Aleutians, along with other parts of Alaska. Another reason is the vastness and complicated distribution of the Alaska mainland and island areas, with more shoreline than the continental U.S. (Jones 1918). Alaska, and especially the Aleutians, has remained relatively unpopulated and is remote from major population centers since this early period of exploration. Despite these negative factors, the Aleutian waters support important fisheries (Aleutian Islands Ecosystem Team 2007) and the Aleutian chain is crossed twice by about 3,100 commercial vessels each year (Nuka Research and Planning Group, LLC. 2006) while plying the great circle route between the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Asia (Jones 1918; Fig. 1).

The Dutch navigator Vitus Bering, sailing in 1741 for the Russians on his second expedition, is credited with the first charting of the Aleutian Islands, though the posthumously published chart showed the Aleutians as a peninsula (Hayes 2001). This led to the Russian colonization of Alaska and numerous Russian charting efforts, with the expeditions of Petr Krenitsyn and Mikhail Levashev (1766-1769) and Potap Zaikov (1774-1779) being especially fruitful for establishing the location and number of the Aleutian Islands (Hayes 2001). Early Spanish expeditions sailing from Mexico to the North Pacific in 1774, 1775, and 1779 did not reach the Aleutians (Olson 2004). The British explorer Captain James Cook used some of the Russian nautical knowledge during his third voyage and stopped at Unalaska Island in 1778, nearly shipwrecking in the eastern Aleutians because Bering's positions were incorrect (Hayes 2001). Cook's survey of what is now called English Bay, on eastern Unalaska Island, is reasonably accurate in terms of shoreline, depth and latitude, but the longitude places the bay about 18 km too far to the west. A Spanish expedition under the command of Esteban Martinez utilized the work of Bering and Cook to reach Unalaska in 1788 (Olson 2004). Other notable North Pacific scientific charting expeditions during this time period did not venture as far north and west as the Aleutians, such as a French effort led by Jean-Francois de Galaup, comte de LaPerouse (1785-1788), Spanish expeditions in 1790, 1791, and 1792 (Olson 2004), a British effort led by George Vancouver (1791-1795), and the U.S. Exploring Expedition (1838-1842) led by Charles Wilkes (Philbrick 2003). William Gibson, commanding the Fenimore Cooper as part of the U.S. North Pacific Exploring Expedition (1853-1856), surveyed some of the Aleutians in 1855 (McCormick 1906, Hayes 2001) but a formal publication never followed (Hayes 2001).

Last updated by Alaska Fisheries Science Center on 12/23/2021

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