Sea Ice and Walrus

August 6

I retrieved my coffee cup from the lab and went upstairs to the kitchen. I filled the cup and went back down and through the main lab and through the water tight doors into the Baltic Room where the CTD and rosette sits within the cage. Kate’s hydrophone, the one we recovered from Hanna shoal, lies half in and half out of the box on the other side of the room. Perhaps it is still drying-off, warming-up, and getting used to life in this world and not that other one. Cleaned now, the footprints of the barnacles have not been not entirely made to disappear.

I find no one else on the working deck. At the portside rail, the air is cold above Barrow canyon, and some of the ice is blue and stunning. Some of it is crisp and white and resembles sculptures at a banquet. Some of the floes are huge and thick, keeled and bouldered, making the ship’s course a twisted red line on a map. The satellite images from synthetic aperture radar see through the fog and give us a good picture of the landscape, but the image is updated once a day, and some of the ice moves tens of kilometers in this time.

At about 40 minutes to breakfast, I’ve taken a couple aspirin for a headache risen from all the rushing about the last couple days, the noise of the ship, and the photographing of bright surfaces. As I watch the broad expanse of the arctic summer ice, the ship glances off the odd, yellowing pancake, the ice floes’ submerged edges heavy with chlorophyll. A couple of these blows are what woke me this morning. And something in my stateroom shook and rattled like on a spring. As I poured my coffee, another bump and I imagined we ground down yet another walrus-vacated shelf.

The walrus yesterday were a wildlife treat the sort few will ever see. We drove through a broad flotilla of hundreds of the huddled, social beasts. We were aiming north. They appeared, apparently, to be headed south at the time. They appeared as if they had somewhere to go and had faith in where that was. Likely though, all they cared about was what lay beneath the ice: relatively shallow water and good feeding on the bottom. Their flotilla was expansive like the horizon, and we couldn’t help but pass close to some floes, even with our twisting navigation. We were lucky to see some of the animals pause before taking flight. We got close. And we were luckier still that some of the animals never left their floes. We passed even closer.

The walrus vacating their rafts did not disappear as seals do, but thrashed en masse, as if the start of the Ironman. Likely they sought only another fresh and near-to raft and not the other side of the world, not another dark floor beneath this one.

There are four flights of stairs from the working deck to the bridge. I like to go up from the outside and watch for birds and whales, and water dripped from the instrument mast. Today, beyond the bridge and the deck behind the wheelhouse, beyond the rail, a mosaic of ice and shades of grey water travels the other way. Everything appears isolated out of sight of land.

We are now well west of the armies of yesterday’s walrus, and there are few animals to be seen here, few birds and fewer whales. Over a couple days, we count ten polar bears, but all of them far away and most of them are in the water. There are photos, but they appear as little more than fields of loosely banded ice, a photograph of everything and nothing.

Maybe a keen observer will see the bear, a thin line of yellowing white, its nose out of the water at left, swimming across the ship’s diminished wake. Describing a distant point amidst this landscape is an art one can learn, I suppose. “See the two little chunks there, and then go back three floes and look for the knob of blue near the spot of black, which is the bear’s now abandoned lunch. There’s blood on the snow. That’s the dark bits to the left.”

I just put the bear center in the frame, if only so I could find it again. Because a minute later everything has shifted in relation to everything else. Looking out over the stern, I had to be shown again and again where a bear was.

The art of looking is something I’ve never had the patience to learn properly. I’m more accepting of broad patterns, and where there are details, I want them to surprise me. I expect them to sneak up and grab my attention. Otherwise I stand in a daze.

I’m poor at looking for the seal head popped-up just to the left of the fifth floe a quarter mile out two points to starboard. I’m not going to look for the hermit thrush in the aspen fifteen feet farther down the forest path. I am happy just to listen to it early in the morning.

The shifting icescape is too calming anyway. Compositions that get my attention are the ones that demand it. Not loudly, no. But they know how to want to be seen. I don’t look well, but I think discover find well.

We all know the ice is going away. Now, in August, the ice is departing still, but in a manner that those falling in love with a hunk of ungrounded winter might still hope against hope it might survive another month, holdout, and then perhaps the grease ice will form and begin to knit the isolated floes into another contiguous sheet, encapsulating the stalwart, if only for another winter.

Eventually, the ice will disappear in summers, and what forms-up each new winter won’t grow thick enough to keep through the following year. The walrus will need a new plan. We’re in the third quarter now. This is the season the ice will disappear first.

You can also follow the R/V Sikuliaq @rmtopp@Sikuliaqon Twitter and @toppworldon Instagram and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To further chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Featherson Facebook.

—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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