Portals

August 7

The previous day ended with something resembling a sunset. The low ceiling and the sea ice blurred the line. The horizon went yellow, and in contrast to most everything else in the world, even the white of the ice appeared blue. It didn’t last long, and I wouldn’t normally push color this hard in a photograph, but the heat of the western horizon wanted to burn hotter against the humid skin of the world. At that moment, I wanted all the yellow light it had to offer.

Later, an ice floe glided underneath my window. It was a perfect model for a shield archipelago. The islands’ mountain relief and the dimensions of the bays and straits and inlets now penetrating the flooded half-moon had all the right shape. Those hanging valley lakes not yet connected to the sea were bright blue. Those that had, had gone green. To the archipelago’s southern flank squatted a dirty, round island. The central hump was the very shape of a neighborhood volcano, a not so taciturn sister, the one that will not go quietly. Her wide, dark flanks appeared as if she had grown in recent weeks, and all the while the archipelago had suffered from a warm battery of ripples and jets and old storms. I did not have my camera ready to capture the floe, but there were and are other many other floes sculpted with cut green bays and still blue freshwater lakes.

I’m back on the bridge in the morning, and Kate and Marty are present with binoculars and cameras and computers directly after breakfast. Marty handles the bird side of the bridge, and Kate is over to starboard, scanning for marine mammals. Every Alaska high-schooler knows this includes the bears. They are large and yellow and all far away, and I ask Kate later whether she thinks a killer whale would go after one. She has to think about that for a moment, before deciding that we don’t know. She considers the bear’s claws but supposes it might happen. She doesn’t believe it has been reported.

“In the water,” says Kate, clarifying.

Yes. I cannot see Orca tackling Nanook atop the ice. But even if the bear is a strong swimmer, I think the bear has nerve to be comfortable in the sea, with all its dangling limbs hung down into that other world.

In 2014, we tested the Sikuliaq’s winches over the Puerto Rico trench north of San Juan. The water during those weeks was bluer than blue—and glass—and the sky was hot and also blue. We weren’t allowed to swim, but I imagined diving into that water, knowing there were miles beneath the boat. I could feel the depth without jumping in. I can feel it now. I think I would have jumped in, had we been able, but I would have come back out immediately, heart going like echo backscatter. Steve, an oceanographer for 25 years and more, said today he wouldn’t jump in anywhere he couldn’t feel the bottom with his toes.

Our machines are unique in that they can reach down, bridge the surface and the divide, pluck something from one place and bring it into another. We’ve learned to use sound to our advantage. We’ve learned to use cable, and pressure vessels, and zinc. The moorings and the glider are our untethered probes. They are magic. The CTD and the MOCNESS are tethered with a conducting cable, where information is sent back across the wormhole. Displays anywhere on the ship can be tuned to the data as if changing the channel between news stations. In real-time we see the CTD cage descend through water masses defined by swift changes in temperature and salinity. The bottles on the cage allow us to collect water from various depths on the way back up the water column. We pretend the ocean has this structure, a column, as if it’s a well we can dip a bucket into, bounded on the sides as it is top and bottom. But nothing ever stays put at sea.

Sea ice exists on the boundary between this world and the other one. Ice has the ability to crystalize on a moving ocean, begin as a film and to stretch and thicken and then to enforce an armistice in the war between water and air.

The ice, though, causes us difficulty. Drifting floes threaten to sever our hold on anything extended across the boundary, and to trap our machines on the other side. The ice has prevented us fishing the last couple days. We are able to collect plankton with the ring net, and plankton and larval fishes with the MOCNESS, but with ice present and without the mid-water trawl, we’re not going to fish for arctic cod. That’s a part of the picture of the shelf-break we want. The fish are not invisible to us, but we have so far been unable to pluck them out of their world.

We’re in transit again, so the only break in the boundary is the ship’s hull and the suite of instruments on the underside, the echo sounders, the hydrophones, the sonar, the temperature and salinity probes just inside the sea chest, the chlorophyll, dissolved oxygen and dissolved nitrate sensors deeper inside. The ship operates sonar at one frequency to map the sea floor and other frequencies to map migrating bands of half-inch copepods, inch-length krill, and the six-inch arctic cod and larger jellies. While we’re on station with one net, Mike and Jennifer calibrate their depth sensor for the chance we can trawl soon. The sensor relays its depth back to the ship via an acoustic signal and hydrophone dangling over the rail. This way they will be able to fish and know the exact net depth, even with the slanted line trailing back from the stern. We have to believe our ears.

Once deployed and passing through the skin of the sea, the instruments transform from solid, visible things into half-selves, funhouse reflections, and then into howling, grotesque versions of their prior bodies. Looking back across the skin between the worlds, they might say we look very similar, having become shimmery ghosts in the rearview, because perspective is everything and everyone knows you enter the deep on your back, looking upwards towards the light.

I cannot prevent myself from reading the reflections in the water. They all resemble my handwriting. And the accompanying refractions are brazen attempts to re-surface memories, the wavering contrasts that allow us, for brief slipping moments, to clear away a little of the surface veil.

From watch to watch, the hard, abstract ice has remained. The marine life that can emerge and to disappear through portals: the whales, the porpoise, the seals, the walrus, the bears—the mammals—these individuals are come and go, and we must imagine they will appear next on the other side of the world.

I last sailed on the Sikuliaq three years ago, during the ice trials. Near the end of the voyage, we drove through fields of powdered and cracked white toffee the size of plywood boards. At one point, all the jagged pieces were separated but remained floating along-side their once bonded neighbors. Across the gaps, we could see the run of snow drifts and pressure ridges and older, mended cracks. We could see how all the pieces could lock again together, if only all the winds would blow towards the center at once.

I scanned the frosted candy for a sign of our earlier passing: footprints from the previous week, bore holes, red lines in spray paint we’d left in our old tracks, when we could walk for hundreds of yards across the ice, and the whole ocean seemed to be a single thing. But when the amplitude in the swells to the West began to flex the sheet past breaking, we retreated and the ship found open water. The energy between the worlds tore the ice apart. Soon, slim, grey cracks were wells for letters and other slips of paper, and the longer we drove, the bigger the things that could have been slipped between them. If we had remained at sea through that summer, one assumes conditions would have become much like now, where a boat can drive through without brushing the fractions, those rafted until thick and well keeled.

Back on the Bridge, Kate sees a bearded seal surface to port, just its head, and then drop and disappear through the portal. She guesses he will appear next in the South China Sea. “That’s the problem with portals. You never know where you are going to pop-up.”

The curious and lengthy name of this website, The Well and the Wicked, comes from the title of a story that takes place on an archipelago where the islands are in a few short generations being eaten by the sea, and in the quiet, inland areas, even ground water is turning feral, as if from below, not salt-water dikes, not chlorophyll coating the blue, but some magic more the nature of portals. When we put an object into the sea, we must keep ahold of the thing. In the story, even objects dropped into puddles by the side of the road can disappear as fully as being dropped into the ocean. If they do appear again, we do not know that place.

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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