We’re on the home stretch! Much of the scientific equipment has already been packed and the mood has changed from a final scramble to squeeze every bit of data out of ship time as possible, to a subdued transit lull in which people are catching up on sleep, tying loose ends, and coming to terms with wrapping up this 28 day cruise.
This week included a couple lows and a lot of highs. Yesterday was one of the highs – we got to play in the ice. The ship stopped and three crew members (Ethan, John Hamill, and Paul) took the still unnamed shore boat (favorite: Biscuits ’n Wavy) out to an ice floe less than 100 square meters in size off the starboard bow. Ethan wore a harness attached to the boat and used what’s essentially a large stick to test the thickness and sturdiness of the ice. Then he and John stuck orange flags in the ice to establish a perimeter. They let off a couple rounds of the flare gun to test it out. After a few more crew had a chance to take a look at the floe (it was a good chance for crew to brush up on training), the science team was given a safety briefing and we went out in groups of seven (four scientists, three crew) to play on the ice.
I was in the first group with Laurie, Miguel, Kylie, Ethan, Elliot, and John French. In order to get on the ice, Biscuits ’n Wavy has to sort of ram into it and drop a little landing platform. The most striking thing for me was the feeling of the moving ice below my feet, and the small size of this temporary platform preventing me from falling into Arctic water. It felt sturdy and I plopped down to make a snow angel. Later groups had snowball fights. I enjoyed making fresh tracks and peaking over the edge at the water. There were polar bear tracks, claw marks, and a smooth area where the bear had probably been laying down. Someone was on bear watch on the bridge of the ship, making sure we’d have ample warning if one were to approach. Miguel, Laurie, Kylie, and Ethan practiced taking samples, drilling a hole into the ice and retrieving some water from the hole.
It was a clear day and we had a great view of the ship. Looking back at the Sikuliaq in the vastness of the Arctic, I’m struck by how small it is, this life-saving vessel which has seemed so big and all-important to me while living aboard it the past few weeks. How insignificant it looks compared to the endless ice, and it reminds me that all the memories contained within it – friendships, frustrations, discoveries, day-to-day dramas – might also be a tiny part of this enormous place. Being of sensitive literary inclination, I tend to read meaning into everything – this is just a research vessel filled with 42 people who have the shared goal of completing scientific work. But it’s also been our home, a floating community with its own quickly-established culture. In a few weeks another science team will replace ours and the ship will hold a different meaning to different people. We’re one iteration among decades more (the average ship life expectancy is about 40 years). I hope future groups continue to do good science here.
Another high was seeing the northern lights. It was about 2am on Monday and some of us stood on the deck adjoining the bridge to look at a few streaks of light greens and greys on the clearest night we’d had so far. I’d never seen the aurora nor photographed it. I was surprised when I snapped a photo and the colors looked more vibrant on my camera than in real life. In actuality, the greens that seem bright in the photo below looked much more subdued in person. By 3:30am they were no longer visible, and we haven’t seen them since, but that brief glimpse was spectacular.
The lows of the week were endured with good humor despite now-familiar sleep deprivation. At the end of last week, we’d begun a 24hr stint of CTD casts. This was aborted early Monday morning because there was a failure in the load handling system (LHS). The crew worked nonstop for about a day and a half to get it working again, which they successfully did. In the meantime, Burke’s lab put out the super sucker for the length of the DBO 4 line. On Tuesday morning, we pulled in the super sucker, turned around and did more CTDs back down DBO 4.
Before beginning the CTDs on Tuesday, we tried again to release the glider. I was lucky because I got to join the Biscuits ’n Wavy team for deployment. It was rougher seas and overcast and my first time on a smaller boat away from the ship. It was thrilling, especially the tricky part (not for me, but for the crew handling it) of lowering the boat into the water and recovering it again. Brita, the research scientist from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, communicated with Elliot, Ethan, and Artie on the small boat via radio. She managed the glider from her laptop on the bridge and told them when it was the right time to drop it in the water. The glider was successfully deployed, but 15 hours later it aborted its mission because a sensor flooded. So the next morning (Wednesday), we went back up to the top of the DBO 4 line to retrieve it. Learn more about the glider in Ms. Callaghan’s post here.
Next, we steamed to the Icy Cape line. Burke’s team attempted to tow the super sucker again but dealt with repeated technical difficulties and had to abort. So on Thursday night, when most of the scientists had been expecting to catch up on sleep (a super sucker deployment usually means extra sleep for everyone except Burke’s team), they had to rally for an all-nighter of CTDs and multi-cores on the Icy Cape line. I remember this all-nighter beginning with Laurie singing “work all night, sleep all day” – it ended up being the theme for the next 48 hours. During the day Thursday we transited to the Wainwright line. Late Thursday night and early Friday morning was spent doing more CTDs. The milestone of the 100th CTD cast was reached at 4am Friday. We’ve done a total of 103 on this cruise!
It’s a strangely quiet morning as I’m writing this, sitting in the computer lab on the main deck. Usually I come down here after breakfast to get a gauge for the course of the day. The computer room can be a hub of activity and information when CTDs are happening, and there’s some desk space with a porthole view of the ocean. Every day is somewhat unpredictable because certain equipment might not work the way you want it to, there might be weather complications or ice, new decisions might be made. But generally, I find after 10 minutes wandering through the main deck lab, wet lab, analytical lab, mess hall, lounge, and ending in the computer room, you can have a pretty good sense of the pace of the day — lots of sampling or more relaxed, who’s awake and what they’re doing, if there were any unexpected developments while you slept, if there are any exciting deck ops happening that day.
You can also look at the many monitors around the ship that display live footage of the aft deck, baltic room, a map of where we’re going, and continuous data taken from a sensor on the ship. I realized yesterday that I’m going to miss looking at those monitors. I’ve grown so accustomed to looking at a map of offshore stations in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas; it will be weird not seeing it every hour every day. This morning the feel on the ship is decidedly quiet. The labs and lounge are empty, not many people showed up to breakfast or lunch, there isn’t a lot of radio chatter, no one is hurriedly walking through the passageways. Without another imminent round of sampling, most people are catching up on sleep. Last night a group of us watched a TV show called Black Sails, essentially a pirate version of Game of Thrones. It’s become a science team favorite.
We have four days to get through the Chukchi Sea and Bering Strait and back to Nome. The transit itself probably won’t take that long, but we’re not sure yet what we’ll do in the meantime. There’s talk of bad weather heading our way but we haven’t experienced any of that yet. We’ll arrive in Nome on Thursday, September 29. We’re all looking forward to Nome because – as is custom at the end of a scientific cruise – the science team and the crew go out for drinks together. It’ll be bittersweet saying goodbye to everyone.
The Sikuliaq crew
The crew has been incredible. I’ve heard horror stories of the crew and science team not getting along, being antagonistic toward each other (and many other previous cruise tales; it’s a favorite chatting topic). The Sikuliaq crew has been ever-attentive to the scientists’ needs and proactive about finding solutions. They work hard and often work long hours, usually with a good sense of humor. None of the science would be possible without the crew and this ship. They feel like colleagues but also like friends. The science team has worked mainly with Ethan, a marine technician who is genuinely driven by getting good science done. He and Miguel may tie for least hours of sleep had during the cruise. There are 22 crew members aboard, and there’s no way I can do their work justice, but here are a few of them:
The other crew members on this cruise are Diego Mello (chief mate), John Hamill (second mate), John French (AB), James Klapchuk (AB), Arthur “Artie” Levine (AB), Chuck Petzel (chief engineer), Marcel Beaudoin (1AE), Scott Myers (3AE), Patrick Bedard (QMED), Anton Costales (QMED), Mark Teckenbrock (steward), Kim Heine (cook), and Terence Singerline (mess attendant). Every one of them deserve credit for making this expedition a reality and a success. I think I can safely speak for the whole science team to the crew when I say we owe you a huge Thank You.
I grew up going on cruises with my parents. They weren’t normal cruises, they were eclipse cruises. My mom and dad loved to be in the exact perfect place on the globe in which to look up and see the moon pass in front of the sun (solar eclipse) or the earth come between the sun and the moon (lunar eclipse). Often this spot happened to be in the middle of the ocean, so we’d take a cruise to get there. The types of people who go on eclipse cruises tend to be science nerds and photographers. Instead of dancing shows on a stage in the main hall, we’d listen to lectures on astronomy. I remember my dad taking me to the casino for my first time gambling in international waters and it was completely empty; eclipse cruisers don’t tend to be big risk-takers.
I thought this was normal cruising until 8th grade, when my family went on a vacation cruise. There was a lot more drinking, there were extravagant shows in the main hall, the casino was full. I don’t know if it’s because I was accustomed to eclipse cruises, but a vacation cruise didn’t feel quite right. In high school I sailed on a 150ft ship in the Gulf of Maine as part of a summer oceanography program. We worked in shifts, slept in tiny bunks (to be fair, being tall makes most bunks seem tiny), learned to tie knots (which I’ve since forgotten), helped cook our own food. I remember waking up at 5am for one of my shifts, walking through the ship to check everything was in order, and ending on the deck to report to my supervisor (who seemed like the wisest person in the world at the time, but who I now realize was only a few years older than I currently am). He taught me about diurnal vertical migration, when some ocean creatures come up through the water column to feed at the surface by night, before descending to depth at daybreak. It was a clear morning and as the sun rose I thought that this was more how ship life should be.
I’ve since been on a couple other vacation cruises, a study abroad cruise along the Antarctic peninsula, and this cruise – a research expedition in the Arctic. All this is to say that this last type of cruising, at least to me, feels the most right. To me, a ship is like a kind of regal beast, a hardy entity that was built to be used. She was built to withstand the harsh conditions of the sea, to cut through ice, to mold and teach her crew how to respect the ocean. With due respect to luxury cruisers (if that’s how my grandma wants to spend her retirement and it makes her happy, then that’s great and she should do that), using a ship that way doesn’t give me enjoyment. Being on a luxury cruise feels like putting a tutu on a Clydesdale, like dressing with frills something that should be taken fully at face value, fancifying something I’d prefer instead to have a kind of working relationship with. Being on the Sikuliaq with this team of scientists and crew this past month has felt like the right way to be on a ship. The ship isn’t just a hotel; it’s a learning platform. And I know this ship and crew will continue to be a platform for understanding after our group is gone. I’m so grateful to have been on part of the ride.