Return to Ocean

In a week, I return to life on ship. And being at sea has been more frequent this decade than I had any right to expect. But our old lives come back, don’t they, I think, because we allow them to, want them to. We need them to bust in the door and rock the boat and crack the ice.

In the last year, the stories have had the luxury of privacy, of fermenting in coffee shops and the dry windowsills of whisky evenings. They’ve become journal and magazine-sized and likely a little too smooth. Next week, back to the rough stuff, where life is made present and compressed, and for a month this blog will be become frighteningly active.

This week, I’m collecting what I need, planning ahead, and as always, looking back…

April 2015.

All that bumping around and door and drawer rattling last night was us meeting ice we could not break. In this case, the rubble field was ice previously broken and pushed back together by wind and ocean currents. We were hoping for ice approaching a few feet thick, and we wanted it to be consistent. When we hit a wall, we backed away and found a route around. Last night, retreating from the last ‘log jam’ took too long, wiggling back and forth, applying both finesse and force. Eventually, we chopped the ice at our stern and cut a pond to turn around inside and returned to ocean.

So, we’re not trying for the polynya. We could probably get inside the open water pond by skirting around one rubble field and between others, but the winds have blown consistently from the north. If they change direction, they could push the  ice-edge floes back together, capturing us in an area it could take a Spring to escape. Perhaps I overdramatize. Perhaps not.

We find a wide floe and stop for our fourth ice station. The crew disembarks to set the ice anchor and promptly re-boards as massive cracks begin to open in the floe. Even though the boat has cut a fresh driveway, it rolls as if in open water. The swells are significant and we can see, from the working deck, the ice rise and fall. No ice station today. Instead we drive on into evening towards established stations on the 70-meter isobath. As Carin said over dinner, “We’re switching from relative to geographic coordinates.” Less floating in the grey, more paying attention to the hard world underneath.

Before night fell, Liz saw three belugas from the Bridge, first a white calf and then two (greyer) adults just behind. Quick. Then gone. We we were in a tight lead with ice all around. We watched for them after passing but saw nothing more.

As Rob said, “The weather won.” The best we can do is look for a decent floe and perhaps the weather will shift when we get there, or tomorrow, or the next day. Who are we kidding? We can work off the boat, but the weather will keep us off the ice. Unstable, the toffee pan is bending under eight foot swells I don’t need time-lapse or my imagination to see. Everything is moving again. 

The Board of Lies warns us to secure our gear. Upstairs, a sign in the mess says, “That swell in the ice means it’s going to suck.”

—Thanks to the National Science Foundation, and the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, UAF (2015)


March 29. 2015.

“We are more than half way through our cruise, and the food is running low. Last evening, Annie told us there were no more chips. She’s from Wisconsin, so I suppose chips do not include Cheetos. Those appeared today as usual. This morning she put out a single grapefruit. Carin snagged it, saying she was going to save it for tomorrow. She also said she would give half to John the Bosun. I think she hopes in turn he will share his grapefruit knife. This could be our last grapefruit until we return to the hot, sunny coves of Dutch Harbor. Or perhaps another grapefruit will appear tomorrow.”

—Thanks to the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, UAF (2015)


When we fly into Utqiagvik (Barrow), we come across the ocean, and on Monday there was a wide lead open northwest of the point and clearly visible on the descent. The whaling crews were setting camps. Everyone was excited the the season had begun, but the winds did not remain in our favor.

The next day we drove snow machines out onto the ice, mapping the trails of the whaling crews. But the lead was closing. The crews were hurrying towards shore. The lead may have been a mile wide at the start of the day, but by evening kilometers of ice sheet had snapped shut. It would remain shut for a fortnight.

Two days later we went back out on the ice. No hope of getting to the open water, but Kate wanted to put a hydrophone down through a crack and listen for whales. Where two days before one captain had set his camp at the edge of ocean, the landscape was now jumble ice and pressure ridges where the sheets had crushed back together.

We found water, but the slush was too thick and too deep to sink the hydrophone. We fell back, a half mile closer to shore, where there was a significant crack in the sheet. There we listened to the ocean under the ice, and ourselves, restless on top. From below, the sheet was a massive drum head and our slightest scuffle was clear as bells at night in the dark water below.

We listened to the alien, spiraling tones of bearded seals, but we heard no whales. The lead and their breathing corridor closed, they passed farther out to sea.

—Thanks to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management; the Cooperative Institute for Alaska Research; the Center for Global Change and Arctic System Research; University of Alaska Coastal Marine Institute & School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences (2013)