Because Gliders

August 4, 2018

What? Do you think one ocean is much like another? Not even the same sea is the same sea one day to the next. The moment you get happy with the weather, it turns on you. The moment you think you’ll arrive on station as planned—because the northward flow is adding knots to the ship’s speed, and because the ship is bullying the wind—that same wind has brought the sea ice south out of the high Arctic and made a rubble field of your study site. The Sikuliaq is ice capable, and that’s a technical term. It can cut through several feet of ice if it needs to. It can clear out a small lake or a giant fishing hole so that work can be done, until you remember that the ice too, is continually moving, changing, that the landscape beneath the boat is running one way at the same moment everything feels calm and stable up top.

When one instrument is in the water, another is prepped and waiting. The researchers revise their programs, check the grease on the moving parts, check the charge on the batteries, and prep the nets. Up on the bridge, we spot whales.

Oceans are hard places. They are cold and salted. They are hard on machines. When you put a thing in the water, you have to be prepared never to see it again. Spacecraft have it easy. Falling to earth, or to the bottom, is easy.

I contacted Robert a month before the cruise. He’s a busy guy, what with the radio station and the podcast and who knows what else. I’ve known Robert for 20 odd years, which means I didn’t know him when I was still an oceanographer. I left him a message saying I was headed back out to sea aboard the Sikuliaq. I had stuff to talk about. He sent ahead his first question.

“Why another voyage?”

Robert knows I’m finishing a book of nonfiction and it has something to do with travel and architecture and theatre and sport. Repeat visits are important, and returning to the old life is a mainstay. But, the cruise aboard the Sikuliaq will occupy the whole of August. That’s a long time for a quick poke around a ship for old times’ sake. But Robert’s good at asking questions. He should be a scientist too. It’s the right question.

Another voyage? Because it’s been three years since I was aboard the Sikuliaq. Because the ship-side 24/7 is its own sport and architecture, because I like leaving the day job behind. Because I need to feel again the thrill of leaving port, of spending the night before—watching lightning out at sea, yet a different sea, and walking back up the ramp or down the ramp and pondering how it matters whether the sky is southerly and dark or northerly and stupid bright. Because I like making things—and someone said just recently, living on a research ship is like living on a factory floor—one that is in constant motion, even if at times that motion is blissfully slight.

Because I ultimately like getting off a boat and being disturbed that a thing such as a cup of tea, set on a table unattended, does not immediately break the tenuous friction of the counter-top and slip to the edge and the tiles below. Because I want to find it inexplicably odd the fluid in the cup is not a measure of how much the world is moving.

Because science—even though I’m not a scientist anymore. Robert’s questions led to more questions, which is how it should be. His first question I knew. My first answer I knew. After that, things got interesting. They ran down corridors and got swept up in the prop wash. They glowed. They burned holes in the soft spots. At length, I answered them. Then, more questions.

Because now we might go places I could not have dreamed, or places so familiar I’m astounded by how fresh they feel. Because I love the process, I told Robert. Because every now and then we have to take our instruments and go to a place we can’t predict a damn thing. Yes, I’m talking about marine science, and other things. Expeditions are like this. Carry a knife and a flashlight—Instagram when you can.

Because sometimes I just want to stand at the rail and look out at the ocean.

Because I haven’t been on a bona fide research cruise since 1995. The five other subsequent sailings were either ship trials or a ship ferrying the party to remote islands.

Because I sleep really, really well on ships. Because I will have at least one epic dream when the world is not still. Because I’m still living down the nausea of ’95.

Because there is science aboard I haven’t seen. New nets, big nets! New tools on the CTD, a new mission, and moorings! Lots of moorings to be picked up and to be let behind. Even the familiar tools are noon to a sunset in a different scientist’s hands.

Because I’ve never seen a glider deployed.

Because gliders.

We hung a glider in a UA museum exhibit a few years back, but our budget couldn’t afford even the rental of a pretty but gutless demonstration shell for the year we needed it. We built a rough model instead.

Now I’ve seen the real deal in the water, waited as it dialed Fairbanks, got instruction by telephone, and dove beneath the waves to disappear for months. We expect the glider will surface regularly and find an Iridium satellite, pretty much just to report on the weather down there. “Cold. This is how cold. Salty. This is how salty. This is where we are on the map. Barrow Canyon is a might bit breezy. Oh, and there is definitely a chance of whales to the east.”

The Third Mate drove the landing craft, with Ethan, Kate and myself aboard with the glider. We motored away from the ship so the glider could operate a pair of test dives while we were still close enough to retrieve it, and while the ship was far enough away not to interfere. The photographs do the operation justice. Kate and Ethen mounted the wings and tied-off the sled so that couldn’t be lost to the sea today. The glider slipped down the nylon and into the water. It bobbed with its tail in the air. This is where the radios are located.

The sea was calmer than expected, and at one point the sun came out. After each test dive, we spotted the glider’s bright-yellow hull and wings when it returned to the surface. We drove around the Sikuliaq a couple laps to take photographs.

The glider does not have a engine. It steers by shifting the weight of its batteries; it moves forward by making slight changes to its buoyancy, allowing it to dive and to resurface. Because it is shaped like a glider, it glides forward with any change in depth. The batteries will last several months in the cold ocean.

The machine is equipped for physical oceanography, measuring depth and temperature and salinity as it goes. Glider AK-06 is fitted with a hydrophone on the nose. As it travels north, it will listen for whales. It will telephone home what it finds.

In the meantime, the Sikuliaq is off northward ahead of tiny submersible, and we will return to port long before its mission is done. If all goes well, the glider will beach itself in Barrow—or be picked up by a small boat later in the fall, before the sea ice finds its way back to shore.

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.

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