We Look. We Find.

August 8

The ship navigates by radar, changing course before we can see the large floes out the window. The ice emerges from out of the fog. This is the difference between a cruise where we want to break ice and go where the ice is and try and find a large enough floe to walk on—and a cruise where we want to fish, and to follow a line of open water stations that were determined a year ago. Where the ice is in our way now, it will continue to be a problem if an east wind does not move it.

Marty has a ‘fog seas’ setting on his computer, and another for ‘ice percent.’ He dials these in, ready to log the conditions for any bird he sees. This morning, the only significant birds we’ve seen so far—are made of ice.

Marty says, “We have names for those too. Ice Murrelet, Ice Loon.”

I point out our latest contender.

“Oh yes,” says Kate. “Looks like an Ice Goose.”

It does look very like that. I might have named it myself except I’m poor at identifying birds or anything else people close by care about: a piece of hardware, a song, a particularly grey spider. I might as well pronounce a friend’s name wrong. I think about the latest chunk of ice, just as I had been thinking about it when I mentioned how so much of the ice today looks like birds. I take too long, and Kate is right, of course. It’s a goose. Clearly. But I notice Marty does not log it into his computer.

Sculpted ice is like clouds except it holds a shape, and out there it’s all birds as far as the eye can see. Not a one is a lion or a giraffe or a spaceship having made a water landing. Only birds, carved from once shore-fast ice. Marty doesn’t log the goose, and I don’t pick up my camera. I tell myself to go easy on the photography today—heck, go easy on the words—and give my eyes a rest. I keep telling myself this, but a working ship is not about stillness and dreaming. We need to put things into the water and we need to take things out of the water. We need to look and we need to find, and with ice floes, we need to get creative at 71 north latitude and 151 west longitude and sandwiched between tens of meters of sea and a low grey ceiling.

Even blue-sky clouds are grotesque and all out of proportion. I’m talking about chunks of ice that are exactly the right size. The white bits, which stick above the water and the green keels, are exactly the right size to cause an observer to raise their binoculars. From a distance and in the fog, the quality of the life-carvings beats those in any banquet hall.

After a night of CTD casts, we aim for the short-duration mooring station first thing. We will deploy it now and then retrieve it later. It’s another set of eyes, a set that can stay put and log a dense stream of data over the next two weeks. Everything it sounds-out will be a real thing, not some sculpture to fool the eyes. Maybe. Interpreting acoustic backscatter can be tricky. The properties the machine senses are barely tangible.

The short-duration mooring does not look anything like the others we’ve deployed. This one is alien, a red tripod from War of the Worlds, except that the ADCP’s ‘eyes’ are on top. At most it hunkers a meter tall on the bottom. It does not require a railcar wheel, and if everything works out, we get all of it back. When we return in a couple weeks, the acoustic release will trigger the yellow drum attached to the side of the tripod and pop a float on a rope. Ice willing, we will lasso the mooring and haul it back aboard.

So that the mooring sits upright, we lower it all the 21 meters down using the A-frame and a second acoustic release, which we use immediately to detach our line and leave the bottom-grounded mooring behind. The Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler will look upwards to measure currents over the Beaufort shelf and to range the diurnal migration of plankton up and down the water column.

The ship, meanwhile, heads to another line beaded with planned stations. At each, a CTD cast will plot the physics, and if the ice allows it, a net cast will capture fish larvae and zooplankton at depths chosen from the sonar imagery. We look. We find. We collect. We study, from above and below. The office printer kicks out temperature and salinity plots and in the lab, specimens are sorted and photographed under microscopes and then moved to the ship’s -80 freezers. In the computer lab, Mike and Jennifer refine our interpretation of the acoustic data.

You can also follow the R/V Sikuliaq @rmtopp @Sikuliaq on Twitter and @toppworld on 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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