August 3, 2018
We thread the strait through the northern summer twilight, coming east of Little Diomede, which from 25 miles away is visible like the tip of a thumb to the base of the nail, sticking up from the water, and seems as tall as the island is wide. On the other side is Big Diomede, which we cannot see at the moment. A great many things run invisibly between these two islands, not least of which is the Russia – United States border.
I was last aboard the R/V Sikuliaq in 2015. April. The sea ice was thick enough south of St. Matthews we never ventured nearly so far into the Bering, much less now, sailing the Chukchi Sea north of the Diomedes and Bering Strait.
Things are different now. Whereas the sea ice in April stretches far south into the Bering, in August we’re week by week approaching minimum sea ice extent, that point in mid-September when the annual summer melt and general ice retreat is beaten back by the scheduled coming of another winter. The ice is not far north of us. We can see its rough edges, via satellite, at the moment lying atop the northern part of our study area. So, we’re torn somewhat. Ice can inhibit some of the science, but everyone wants to see it. Working in the seasonal “first-year ice” environment is what the “Sikuliaq” was designed to do. And who doesn’t love the mere present evidence of sea ice as we blaze our way through the 21stcentury?
The ship different now. Since I was last aboard, it’s transitioned from a period of trials. There are miles on the odometer, and the sea is tough on these things we put into the water. You can weigh rated shackles when they come back from a year in the water and see clearly if rust has got inside.
Where my writing and photo editing desk stood two years ago in a corner of the Main Lab alongside the Ultra-low freezers, now there’s table tennis. The net is taught and rolled about the clamped ends to allow for the narrow playing field. The table surface is a bare-bones 4×8 sheet slowly polished by use. Even the lime green center line, made of label tape, has been here long enough to show wear.
Of course, I’m only aware of the surface details—and only those things that have clearly evolved this decade. There’s a 3D printer on which Ethan has already rendered spare parts in solid, no-void ABS, at sea, and thus saved science. Last year, Steve asked me for a digital model of the ship so that now the ship could print, in effect, make smaller copies of itself. It won’t float, I thought. The model we got from the architects back-when was full of hole. Even so, we worked up the geometry and simplified the deck machinery for an interactive exhibit at the UA Museum. The model was 7-inches long, and floated on a clear acrylic sheet twelve-feet above the floor. Museum visitors could work a joystick to lower a similarly 3D printed CTD rosette on a thread for a winch cable. The distance to the floor was a scale mile of aquatic darkness lit with club lights.
After the yard work, the Sikuliaq’s anti-roll system now makes for a smoother, more comfortable ride than before. By pumping water between tanks in the hull, the ship better maintains level. Upstairs from the Main lab, the lounge now resembles a lounge and not a second cantina. There’s a gaming table crafted aboard ship. There are a pair of couches set for movie watching. The TV has been moved away from the corridor wall and lowered, now less like a platform for PowerPoint and training videos and more like something someone could fall asleep to, while a film plays to the end, rolls credits, and plays the star-spangled banner. The lounge is carpeted, and there’s far less chance, now, we’ll come back tomorrow morning and find all the café chairs piled in a heap and lashed together against the port wall, the paint scratched, on the inside, by the latest storm.
The ship’s had a new paint job. The ice-like, arctic blue of the lower hull has been re-imagined as something deeper, richer, and oceanic. I’ll get used to this, though I’ve been grumbling these last few years how the new look has rendered obsolete all the photos I took of the ship set in the ice, the crew in orange and black—and black and orange suits dotting the frozen ocean, the ship steady as if set-up on blocks in a dry dock. She cleans up nice, but the sea is hard. The rust comes back.
The working deck and the Baltic Room are now a logistical puzzle. The non-skid shows the wear of work been done, and the ship has jobs beyond ours already aboard. There’s a van up on the front deck below the bridge, and the working deck is loaded with containers, three of them, two stacked, and a landing craft we will use tomorrow to put the glider in the water. The remainder of the working deck is either necessarily clear for the next deployment or loaded with framed- shipping crates and shrink-wrapped palettes waiting their turn to be mobilized. The starboard working deck is an array of mooring anchors. At something like $500 a pair, iron railroad wheels are a choice mass, pre-drilled at the center, uniform in gauge and weight—to start with. We should never see them again once they go into the deep.
The coffee and juice machines have taken their turns and been replaced to meet the developing crew’s needs. This morning, my coffee tastes a little like battery acid, but I’m not being critical of the hospitality, or the herculean effort the modest Bunn CW series puts out day and night. I think perhaps, I haven’t washed my cup since the last time I went somewhere. I am not entirely sure where I was when I did use it last. My tin cup isn’t particularly suited for boats. It does not seal and it is not especially wide at the bottom. Nor does it come pre-glued to a sticky pad. But it is the cup I’ve taken places, even if it doesn’t feature in photographs like the kites I travel with. It’s nothing special, but it is consistency while the adventure changes one year to the next. The cup is typically clipped to a backpack, so it can rattle where I go. On ships, it fends for itself. I remember when I bought it. 2013. June, sneaking up on the end of the month. I was looking at a week and more on the Yukon, driving downstream some 500 river miles. So, the tin cup has borne Cretaceous silt, and whiskey, and has probably been used to collect pretty colored pebbles, and camera parts, and the shells of ancient marine mollusks. The cup is only washed with whatever goes into it next.
Today, the ship is in transit, so we can begin the first real work tomorrow, before transiting again. In the meantime, equipment is prepared and all the logistics are thought through. Some equipment has been used before, others are brand new. It is the nature of science and marine science. Improvements can always be made, and issues will always come from all directions as every watch is a cascade of deadlines. We adapt. The ship adapts. Everyone has a plan B, should there be sea ice in our path, should the strobe on the VPR develop a mind of its own, should the glider’s Iridium phone suddenly not test-out, surrounded by all this thick steel.
If I drop my tin cup in the drink or if it gets lost from one deck to the next, I have brought a second one, a new one, one that will no doubt have new issues. Only the sunsets are perfect at sea. At some point, I’ll pull the new mug out from the drawer I’ve stuck in it, swaddled by t-shirts—probably when the laundry runs low and I need those t-shirts—and we’ll get its traveling days begun. Doesn’t mean the old one will be relegated to storing carabiners and leathermen, or pulled palette nails, but something fresh out of the slip can use the beating and the wear. This is what these things are designed for, new recruits under extreme circumstances. Even a coffee cup needs a hard breaking-in. Let’s see if it takes a liking to boats, and see how the coffee tastes after the weekend.
To follow the R/V Sikuliaq, find @Sikuliaq on Twitter and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Feathers on Facebook and @arctic_WFFF on Twitter.
—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.