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AFSC Historical Corner:  Brown Bear, Grizzly Bear & Black Bear - "Bear" Boats

Early Pioneers
Research and Mgmt.
The Albatross, 1882
Early BOF Patrol Boats
FWS Vessels
Newer Research Ships
Pribilof Tenders
Launches/Small Craft
Charters/Other Boats
Vessel Links

Several boats designed by the noted naval architect Harold Cornelius Hanson (Seattle, Washington) were constructed initially for the federal Alaska Game Commission in 1934. These vessels included the Red Fox, White Fox, Black Fox and the 30-foot Cross Fox. In addition were the three "bear" boats described here, which eventually went to the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

The Brown Bear, 1941-49, 1965-?

Brown Bear
The Brown Bear at Lake Union, Seattle, Washington, ca. 1941.
Photo print provided by V. Lundquist (AFSC). Photographer unknown.

Vessel Details
Year built: 1934
Location built: Winslow, WA
Builder: Winslow Marine Railway
& Shipbuilding Co.
Designer: H. C. Hanson
Other names/id: YP-197  (USCG, WWII)
Baja Explorer  (post-NOAA)
#980667  (USCG ID)
Length: 114'
Breadth: 27'
Draft: 13'
Tonnage: 300 tons gross
Original engine: twin 200 hp Washington
diesels  (Wash. Iron Works)
Average speed: 8.5 knots
Cruising range: 4,000-5,400 miles
Known skippers: John O. Sellevold (1937-41)
Ian ?  (1951)
? Princehouse  (1960s)
Fisheries service: 1941-49  (FWS)
1965-72  (BCF, NMFS)
Disposition: unknown

Situated at Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge Island, just across Puget Sound from Seattle, was the Winslow Marine Railway & Shipbuilding yard. It had been established in 1903 as part of the Hall brothers' boat building business originally located on the island nearby at Port Blakely. Since shipbuilding jobs were a vital source of employment and economic benefit to the small island community, any new boat building contracts were well received. This was especially true for the construction of the 114-foot Brown Bear in 1934, at the time when the U.S. was recovering from the Great Depression.

The $125,000 cost for building the wooden-hulled Brown Bear was funded by the U.S. Government's Works Progress Administration. The vessel, which took six months to build, was designed specifically for biological research work. The Brown Bear was constructed for both the Alaska Game Commission (AGC) and the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey (BBS). The launching of the vessel on 7 November 1934 was witnessed by a large number of guests who had traveled across the Sound from Seattle aboard the Kitsap County Transportation Company's steamer Manitou.

The vessel's heavy sawn-fir-frame type hull was sheathed in ironbark. She was designed with a flush deck, with a long forward deck suitable for working in Arctic ice. A hatch in the aft deck led to a 100-ton cargo storage hold. Spacious living space with sleeping accommodations for 16 men was provided from her three separate deck levels. Aft of the upper deckhouse was an 18-foot tender powered with a 10-horsepower Kermath engine.

In 1936 sea otters were surveyed for the first time around the Aleutian Islands using the Brown Bear. It was discovered that the valuable herd, which was feared to be going extinct, was in fact increasing in numbers and expanding their range. Cruises such as this also provided the opportunity to report any sightings of foreign fishing activities being conducted in Alaskan waters.

Frankie and Normie
The 18 December 1936 edition of the "Schenectady Gazette" reported on the Brown Bear's unlikely mascots: Frankie, a 4-month-old bald eagle purchased in the Aleutians by U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey crew members from an Eskimo boy for a dollar, and Normie, a 3-month-old seagull who would only bathe in fresh water. Both birds were close friends and became quite the tourist attraction while the ship was docked in Seattle – Normie perching proudly atop Frankie's back.  (Read another newspaper article)

The BBS biologist Olaus Murie made use of the Brown Bear from 1936-38 during his investigations of resources native to all the Aleutian Islands and other areas around the Alaska Peninsula and Bering Sea. During these expeditions he was accompanied by other scientists form the AGC and BBS. The vessel was skippered by John Sellevold, a veteran seaman.

During his intensive study of Alaska's fisheries and marine mammals in connection with the BBS, Dr. Carl L. Hubbs (Curator of Fishes at the University of Michigan) was transported in 1939 aboard the Brown Bear to the Pribilof Islands, Unalaska, and later in September to Seattle. In 1940, after the Aleutian Islands Reservation was renamed the Aleutian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, the Brown Bear was assigned to protect game at the refuge and patrolled the Aleutians throughout the year.

By 1941, the vessel had been transferred to the recently formed Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). At this time the U.S. government was exploring the means of propagating the sea otter in Alaska, which involved the Brown Bear making trips to the Aleutian chain as far as Attu Island.

  Brown Bear
The Brown Bear in front of Taku Glacier, Alaska, August 1935.
Archival photo by Steve Nicklas, NGS/RSD. NOAA Photo Library.

Shortly thereafter, she was turned over to the U.S. Navy for use during World War II. She was then acquired by the U.S. Coast Guard on 5 January 1942, and designated as the yard patrol boat YP-197. At this time she was equuipped with a T-106 radio transmitter, RC receiver, and a boom and derrick. The YP-197 was used by the Coast Guard as a transport ship to carry personnel and freight in Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands to the north. On 2 November 1945, the vessel rejoined the Navy briefly before returning to the FWS.

In 1946, the Brown Bear narrowly escaped destruction while docked at the north end of Lake Union in Seattle – scorched by a large fire that gutted the Fish and Wildlife Service warehouse at the pier, resulting in nearly $100,000 in damage and loss of contents within.

The following year, the Brown Bear left Seattle on 3 April for southeastern Alaska with passengers who worked the downstream pink salmon fry counting weir at the FWS Little Port Walter field station. The vessel then served as a base of operations for the spring stream surveys headed by FWS biologist Samuel J. Hutchinson. During this work, outboard-powered skiffs were used for ship-to-shore transport. In early May 1947 the survey ended and the staff were transferred to the FWS vessel Brant to conduct additional surveys in the Ketchikan, Alaska, district, while the Brown Bear returned to Seattle with Mr. Hutchinson. By the end of the decade, the Brown Bear was making regular runs to and from Bristol Bay with supplies before being relieved around 1950 by the FWS's newly acquired transport vessel Dennis Winn.

For six months in 1950-51, the Brown Bear was sailing in severe weather at the Aleutian Islands while her crew were investigating an intestinal parasite that was killing infected sea otters. Upon her return to Juneau, Alaska, in May 1951, the vessel was again requisitioned by the U.S. Navy and by the summer of 1952 she had been acquired by the University of Washington's (UW) Department of Oceanography. For the next several years, the converted coastal freighter was used by the UW for various research projects in Alaska, off the coasts of Washington and Oregon, and in parts of the Columbia River – often in cooperation with boats from other agencies:

A reconnaissance oceanographic to study the estuarine circulation of the deep-water Silver Bay fjord estuary near Sitka, Alaska – conducted with four other vessels including the USFWS Skipjack and Teal  (1956, 1957)
  Brown Bear
The Brown Bear  Auke Bay Laboratories photo.
A longitudinal profile survey (bathymetry, bottom sampling, chemical/physical studies of the water, etc.) as far north as the Bering Strait, with ships from both the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (U.S.) and Canada (summer 1958)
An oceanographic exploration as part of an international project to study the Pacific Ocean including the Aleutian Trench – equipped with 31,000 feet of wire rope and various sampling gear to make soundings as deep as 20,000 feet (summer 1957)
A comprehensive study of the Chukchi Sea conducted jointly with the USFWS Bureau of Commercial Fisheries (BCF) vessel, John N. Cobb (1959, 1960). Sea bird observations were also made aboard the Brown Bear during the 1960 cruise
Four cuises made off the Washington and Oregon coasts to collect physical, biological and chemical data in connection with studying the properties of the Columbia River effluent water (January to August 1965)

Operation of the vessel was eventually returned to the Agency (USFWS/BCF) sometime in the later 1960s. She became a "house boat" and was used for saltwater salmon rearing experiments while stationed at the NOAA Manchester Biological Field Station in in Puget Sound near Bremerton. The Brown Bear served as a floating laboratory and hatchery, equipped with tanks and trays for marine sampling. The boat had superb facilities for studying water chemistry, which allowed fresh and salt water to be circulated and modified by temperature, filtration, aeration and ultraviolet sterilization. In 1972, a portable floating laboratory was obtained to replace the Brown Bear.

In a 2014 email, maritime hobby-historian George Schneider (California) shared his knowledge of the vessel's post-NOAA history:
  "I next saw her in 1990, and she had been sold for excursion work [and dive chartering] in the waters around Baja California and named Baja Explorador. When that project was over, she returned to Los Angeles and was sold to American owners and renamed Brown Bear, documented with the Official Number 980667 in 1992. I don't believe she ever sailed again, with her various owners being Michael Brittain of Seward, AK, then Alaska Oceanographic Society, Anderson Tug & Barge Co., and eventually R/V Brown Bear Inc. of Seward. By 1994 she had been moved to San Diego Harbor's free anchorage, where she sank from neglect in August. In 1995 I noted that she appeared to be broken in half, but in January 1998 The San Diego Log reported she had been raised, towed to sea, and scuttled off San Diego."

Brown Bear photos in the AFSC Multimedia Gallery.

Brown Bear
The Brown Bear.  1963 U.S. Naval Oceanographic Office publication photo.*

Additional information:

Anonymous. 1934. Queen of New Alaska Game Dept. Fleet. Pacific Motor Boat, Feb. 1934. p.12.
Jones, N. 1935. New Alaska Game Commission Fleet. Pacific Motor Boat, Jan. 1935. p.17-20.  (details of furnishings, with interior photos).
Anonymous. 1934. The Launching of the "Bears". Pacific Motor Boat, Dec. 1934.

*  Capurro, R. A., A. M. Bargeski, and W. H. Myers (compilers). Oceanographic Vessels of the World; a Joint Publication of IGY World Data Center A for Oceanography and the National Oceanographic Data Center. Publication info Wash., D.C. Printed by U.S. Navy Hydrographic Office, 1961-1966. Physical descrip. 3 v. (loose-leaf) illus. 29 cm. General Note Vol. 2-3 printed by the Hydrographic Office under its later name: U.S. Naval Oceanographic Office.

Grizzly Bear and Black Bear  >>>

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