The Larvaceans

August 13

Rumors of a super-secret Internet abound. This is what happens when people raised on social media and on-demand news cycles and ready-precision answers to everything are forced to stare at blank loader windows while the barest threads of even html script struggle to fill the vacuum and clog the ports between the serial register and the video buffer. Internet service at sea is slow, expensive, and unpredictable. I’d look up better terms regarding how data comes in the Wi-Fi and stuffs up all parts of our machines, but forgive me. I’m not going to use a piece of my daily 150MB ration to look that up online. No doubt the data would come with routing diagrams that are stupid heavy. Google is not smart enough to know both where I am and what this means, and I think the AI can remain in the dark for now, because my eyes have glazed as anyone’s, waiting for information to load. I will drift away in the dark and jerk excitedly at every flicker of light or life, when there’s probably something else I should be doing, like actually scratching these words down—yes, on paper—at first, with a black micron 01 pen. Always. Low tech. This one’s label has faded from the cap and I still haven’t figured out how that wear comes about. The part that matters, the nib too, is worn down, and I have begun to feel the steel against the paper as I continue to scrawl this very sentence. I think the final death throes began at the start of the page, back when it was fresh and newborn, and now I’ve come to the part where I start imagining capping the pen one last time and tossing it in the bin. I’ll have to get up to do that, make ceremony of it, say a few words—no light dragging it across a frozen wasteland of a laptop screen.

I suppose I could save this pen and keep it as a memento, perhaps label it so I’ll know it put in a hard 13 days travelling and half the cruise before giving up the ghost—when I notice it again in drawer half a dozen years down the road. Otherwise it’s just one of many, many, unnamed pens—and I have done this, just once, brought a pen back from a life and a death in backpacks. That one is in a box at the moment, back home in Fairbanks, buried with a decade’s worth of memorable detritus I swept off a shelf back in May. I didn’t label that pen. I know what it is. What it is was used for. Where I was sitting when I ground out a dozen pages in a little coffee shop in Stirling, Scotland in 2017. What that pen did that day was both sublime and earthshattering. I’ll talk about it someday. But in the meantime, note that the Earth shifted a little in orbit because of it. Science has not yet noticed this. Science is looking at other things.

Writing by hand better weathers distraction, because even though I know we’re pointed within a few degrees of true north and the satellite is blocked by the mast and there’re a couple dozen people squeezing words and pictures through that narrow pipe, I’ll try anyway. Then there’s that screen again. And I’ll be staring at the blankness like it were pitch black and I some blind filter-feeder collecting debris from the water. A word here and there. A flash of something edible sucked into my house, such as it is.

I walked into the electronics lab earlier today and asked if anyone could tell me if had the correct capitals on the password for the ship-to-shore server. Didn’t help the rumors that those in the room talking acoustics and pinging data from swarms of copepod and krill a hundred meters beneath the boat had no idea what the ship-to-shore server was. I shut my mouth and left, and found Ethan, who is in the know.

There are rumors of a high-speed government funded satellite orbiting just where we need it, and it can send those who have the codes all the good YouTube videos and refill our podcasts and download all the eBooks that the crew has recommended each other. Personally, I think the science techs go around at night and leave cat videos under all the pillows of all the good little boys and girls, which is to say, our Internet history buffers, where we can be surprised and entertained, and assume naturally that they were there all along.

Phil has the right idea. He gathers up new video every time we do a CTD cast. He babies the camera on the DAVPR like it’s his personal YouTube channel sending him all the wildlife shows. It’s one way to get Animal Planet. Phil won’t share the videos, but after days of begging he’s sent me a few stills. I’ve put GoPros on the CTD cage and down to 50 meters recorded bottle trips and air-bubbles and the fading light as the rosette sinks beneath a camera’s ability to see. Phil’s camera is more sophisticated and aims for the near microscopic. Firing a strobe, the camera grabs 30 frames a second.

There’re no vistas to look upon tens of meters below the surface. Light has a hard time down there. The Digital Autonomous Video Plankton Recorder (DAVPR) camera images a field of view 17x13mm. What results is a storm of plankton streaming past the camera: copepods (Calanus glacialis and Pseudocalanus spp. most common), larvaceans and their houses, marine snow particles, chaetognaths, diatoms, barnacle nauplii, jellyfish and ctenophores, and crab zoea.

Focus varies, but with our lack of proper Internet goods, I’ve not heard him complain. Phil’s laptop spools through the 50,000 some frames of a half-hour cast. It identifies suspects dramatically, much in the same way facial recognition software appears to work on a TV show taking license, pulling up candidate snapshots like digital polaroids and saving these for later analysis.

Okay, they are not cat videos, but the larvaceans are quite wonderful in situ. They and their inflated houses, red guts and serpentine tails make for quite a show amidst the other surprised plankton. Not to mention, they have a terrible fondness for clogging the Mocness nets like scraps of wild rumor. No pointing fingers when someone’s got a saltwater hose aimed for payback. I can only confirm the gunk in the nets is real.

 

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.

The Colors Does It

August 12

Steve failed to wake me for the sunrise, but I’ll forgive him. Celia showed me the pictures and impressive though they are, I’m not sure the clouds have moved since the previous evening’s sunset, which all by itself took several hours to perform—and every time I sat down to type something Celia came back inside to tell me how different the light looked now, and even better than before—and I had to come outside to the back deck and take a look. She wasn’t wrong. The resurgences of the new day fell softly upon the slow death of the old, and I’m sure no one complained whose watch it was to work through, cleaning nets and flying the Mocness* in the midnight sun.

And now get to journey into a world of color again, if only for an evening and a day—all the yellows and oranges and shades not quite turquoise we needed, a breather from the grey on grey. The night watch gets to work through a sunset and a sunrise—thought isn’t that all the same thing here. The sun at best is giving the world a glancing blow, and the color gradients that Celia tells me really are changing, because look at the latest pictures, and I need to go back outside and see, “because it’s better than earlier.” It’s always better than earlier. I’m tired. I’m done with pictures. I should make a case that all my memory cards are full, that the portable hard drive and the thumb drive backups are stuffed and the laptop itself has begun to fit files into uncomfortable places. When I’m not looking, it shoves them onto the phone for safekeeping, which makes the Instagramming pretty, but then the phone and the laptop are dogging like they’re homesick.

Today, I began to pick on members of the science crew I feel are a little underserved by the current bursting-state of the photo archive on the ship’s server. I have their names written into my notebook. So, I spent a day stalking some of those who’ve shown skill at ducking behind machines as I approach.

I should tell Celia I’ve had to jettison all the videos and audio books and podcasts I brought with, erased from my own memory half my recollections of growing up in suburbia. They were all wrong anyway, the wrong parts sticking, and too many felt like photographs taken from angles that should have been impossible, or backwards. Now need the space for sunset panoramas, the 11-photo-stitched 200 megabyte vistas that—well, where are they ever going to be printed larger than my head?

But Celia’s right. The sunset does keep getting better. One band of color gives way to another, and then the sun pops out and then it goes away again, but not in a sad way, because there it is again and we didn’t have to wait a whole day, and now a blue cool chunk of ice comes into the frame like an actor making an entrance from stage right. It’s a float on part, but where it falls across the bands of light, I just hold down the motor drive. The camera’s so hot the frames are going to stick together. Now I have to look over the gunwales to see what’s coming next, what in this parade of blue and white party floats is trying for their once in life time cameo. Don’t look at the sun; time’s shorter than it would lead you to believe. Not a floe changes course to avoid me. For this I thank them.

Eventually I go to bed.

And behold, the sun is still there in the morning, and beaming in my porthole when I open my eyes. I live in Fairbanks right, so I don’t even bother shutting the curtains when I fall asleep. If I’m ready for sleep, I sleep.

The winch is what wakes me up anyway, generally. Cal’s and my stateroom is the farthest aft, right up against the CTD control room. The winch is two decks down, but the Baltic room is just a deck away and the great big door that opens in the side of the ship to let the CTD out takes a minute to open or to close on hydraulics. Then the boom that tracks out is louder still. It’s really quite okay. The night watch stations are only every couple of hours and most of time I sleep right through them.

So, maybe it’s not the sunlight and not the winch. Probably breakfast then. The aroma of bacon and eggs sunny side up floods under our door at the same time every day, like the best of alarm clocks, smells so rich you can see the colors. The kitchen is right across the corridor, taking up most of the width of the ship, this deck, this far aft. We don’t need much room to sleep, not with sunsets and sunrises, and fresh berries (still) at breakfast.

Cal’s not in the lower bunk this morning, so he’s still on deck with the night watch. He’ll go to sleep shortly after breakfast. He’s Alaskan through and through. He leaves the light on, and sometimes even the door open, because, this is a skill.

Which is all just preamble to the really big news of the day. We are going to fish, and Jennifer and Mike will take point on the Tucker Trawl. The acoustic sounder is hung on the net and will allow them to target the depth at which the ship’s echo sounder says the fish are.

And for the first time this trip I’m shooting photographs in the sun, which feels odd, to finally be able to drop the iso. I also have to contend with hard shadows.

But the paint and the rust on the trawl’s doors look great in the direct, raking light, and the odd ice floe passing behind everyone to remind us where we are.

The trawl doors are shaped like airplane wings but work like kites—underwater. While they swim behind the boat, they open as far laterally as the bridal allows, until the net’s mouth is some 10×12 meters wide. The amount of wire let out depends on the depth of the water. Today, the wire goes out more than 700 meters. I suppose that’s like seven and a half football fields, if that is something people have a sense of the length of anymore. I dream of a day we can think in terms of things much larger.

The wire and the net and the doors put more than 2 tons of load on the winch, and in the end, we’ll catch mostly jellies. The fish, the arctic cod, when we do go after the right water, will only be a few inches long. This is a test run today, the first time the ‘fish people’ have got the team working on the deck with the big net. We’ve chosen this spot on the chance we’ve found a lake in the ice field. The lake’s not where we want to be—but it’s open water.

And I need to worry about where the sun is, at noon as well as sunset.

 

*MOCNESS: Multiple Opening and Closing Net Environmental Sampling System

 

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.

That Old Hardware

As of our arrival in Nome, I think I’d gone two years without picking up a camera that wasn’t my phone. Even in Nome, I used the phone rather than open the sea bags. I mean, I picked it up to check the battery a week before the trip, sure—but… Now I’m thinking that I haven’t shot a project since Unalaska and Kasatochi in 2016. The very idea of this sounds both obscene, and completely understandable. That was the last year I’d been to sea, even if was just an island hop—if that has anything to do with it. But I brought a camera aboard the Sikuliaq, if not the heavy redundancy of previous voyages with spares and video backs and lots of bits and pieces I never used in the Bering. At the moment, we’re getting more photographs from me than I think anyone wants to see—going on 600 approved shots in 11 days. I am afraid that’s likely a small percentage of the wear put on the shutter, but I’ll do that tally later. Safe to say, I’ve cleared 200GB already. But in a way, it works. If I need to procrastinate from typing, I go take pictures. Then I can stay up late editing, and when the night watch comes down to the lab at 8pm, they too need to be harassed by a photographer. I’ve made note I need more pictures of Phil and Celia and Bern, and Steve, and Pete. And it’s quieter at ‘night.’ The ship works 24/7, but not all work runs through till morning.

At the moment, my list of wants includes some open water in which see the use of the Tucker trawl on a single wire winch, more birds, more bears, and maybe even a proper sunset. As the days go by, twilight is deepening. It is still summer in the Arctic and there is still no real night to speak of.

Last I checked today’s a Saturday, so in the spirit of pretending we take any days off at sea, I’ll keep this brief and post a stack of flashback photographs from my very first research cruise, way back in 1995, aboard the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ prior R/V, the Alpha Helix. On that cruise, we explored the Gulf of Alaska and various glacial bays between Prince William Sound and Yakutat. So, there are sunsets, like there should be—and because we went to Yakutat, there’s a big tidewater glacier or two. So, ice and sunsets and deck ops with CTD. Somethings haven’t changed.

Don’t see me uncorking the Helix photos as cunning planning. They were on the computer because I should have shared them to the website a while back—except of course for the one picture I always share. Long hair. No hard hat. No PFD. Hands on the cold CTD cage like I could keep it steady. Those were the days, I suppose. The rest of the photos have cleaned up ‘not bad’ from the color slides and the B/W negatives. I am reminded, selecting the photographs, that we shot a lot less back then. So, times have changed too.

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.

All Hands

August 10

I shot club photos for the yearbook in collage, and I later fooled with aurora borealis and studio photography while I was a graduate student—but I never felt as if I had found something in photography, and even videography, that I loved for the sake of standing with a camera, stooped, or in the cold, or on my knees—until one day at the UA museum in 2000. Wanda Chin, then Director of Exhibits, called my attention to an artist working in the museum lobby. This was Selina Alexander, Athabascan artist, who was demonstrating caribou hair tufting for museum visitors. The museum didn’t have much for group-use cameras back then, and at home I still shot on slides and only when traveling, but Wanda suggested I take a look and get what Selina was doing on film. I wasn’t in any way known as a museum photographer. I’m still not, so I can only assume Wanda couldn’t find anyone else that afternoon. The only digital photographic camera in the building was an Olympus used by the Fine Arts Collections Manager, Barry McWayne. The education department, where I worked, had a smallish digital video camera that lived at the front of a file drawer. I grabbed that camera to film the artist in the lobby.

Selina had dyed the caribou hair bright colors to produce a design in forget-me-nots. The lighting was decent due to Selina’s work lights, but the wall at her back was a dull off white, and the tablecloth on the folding table she worked at was cluttered. So, except for a basic establishing shot, I shot everything as close as I could while staying in focus. I spent half an hour finding, tracking, and watching the artist’s hands move over her materials. From the small digital video screen mounted on a rickety tripod, I expected I’d find a few seconds here and there where I had found the focus and the center of the breadbox-sized action. I would later stitch together a story of the process that led to the moment that had inspired the Exhibits Director. Selina pulled tight on the threads, and the tufted hairs spread like blooming thistles against the brown felt. After that, I filmed the hands of more than 30 other artists at museums and artists’ studios throughout in Alaska.

So, really, much of the time I’m pointing a camera at you, I’m looking at your hands and sometimes, only your hands—what they are making happen, or just making… The hands of an artist and the hands of a scientist are not so different, I think, whether painting or tightening a bolt, arranging nets, carving wood, or positioning specimens on a slide.

The hands speak volumes.

So, really, those facial expressions you make when a big piece of glass turns your way—they might already be cropped out. With my eye to the viewfinder, I can’t even see you making them—some of the time. I can’t always just look at your hands, of course, though I might like to. Often, I’d like to forget the big picture, because it’s complicated and scary.

Maybe this is inevitable, being on a ship and looking at very small and very important things: the water chemistry, the zooplankton, the fish. We’re here in the Beaufort Sea because we can’t learn about the effects of upwelling on the shelf-break without going to the shelf-break and getting our hands dirty in the process.

I’m not going to stump for the quality of these few shots, but I will say, I really enjoy sneaking these into the trip’s photographic catalog. Maybe the odd one will make it into a report somewhere, or a PowerPoint presentation.

There’s perhaps a lot to say regarding big ideas captured by the small, bare business of working hands. And I could say something about the continued strengths and the need for dexterity and hands-on labor in a world of heavy machines, but I think I’ll save that for tomorrow morning, and scratch it into my notebook in handwriting far too small to read back easily. I’ll confess, I started to write something but bailed, preferring just to look at the pictures.

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.

Then We Wait

August 9

Some days are not as busy as we hope them to be. At sea, this occurs a lot. There are researchers aboard Sikuliaq who have been waiting a week to begin the core of their work. Today, everyone waits out the thick, icy bulk of the morning. Float coats are put on and they are taken off again. Lunch comes and goes. We want to recover one of the Upwelling’s moorings, but it’s beneath dense ice floes, at least relative to what we’ve seen. So, we wait, first as the ship gets a more precise fix on the mooring’s position, which can be imaged by the ship’s multi-beam sonar—and by taking three slant-range readings from an acoustic ping’s time of flight there and back from the mooring release. So, we know exactly where it is. We could drop a penny over the rail into the 80 meters of water and we would be pretty sure to miss the aluminum cage and the red Viny floats. But we wouldn’t miss by much.

Then we wait because one large floe is moving though the area, large enough the ship is more likely to break it into pieces than push it safely away. There are plenty of ponds to recover the mooring, but it’s easy to forget we don’t get to choose. We cannot see the mooring. We can see the ponds, and the frustration at waiting plays tricks on our sensibilities. The ice is moving. The ship is holding steady. We must wait for a lake to manifest in exactly the right spot, and if we convince ourselves the ship is a good reference point—because it knows exactly where it is to within half meter anywhere on the globe—we know where we should be looking.

Then we wait because there’s enough floes generally, we’re concerned we can navigate the ship effectively through the ice and to the mooring once it surfaces. We debate whether it’s best to leave it and come back later in the cruise. The mooring can bide its time. The release batteries are good for another year, and it has already spent a year under pack and frazil ice, grease windrows and isolated floes.

If it pops up now under a floe, things could get delicate. I am almost too embarrassed to say I think of how this would play on reality TV. I can hear the narrator now. “If the mooring comes up under the ice…it could spell disaster…yada, yada, yada.” It won’t. We will make sure it doesn’t. And if it did, we’d work a solution there too. It’s what you do.

Ultimately, the decision is made to put the landing craft in the water and to fetch the mooring when it surfaces, then tow the mooring back to the ship. This way, we won’t worry so much about the ship’s positon and what it takes to maneuver to the mooring without pushing ice ahead of us. Because, once the mooring is on the surface, it is delicate. Things could get tense!

When we pop the release, the mooring surfaces clear off the port bow, dead center of a made-to-order pond, as per plan. The landing-craft scoots out to get it and ties it off with a rope. It’s a small mooring and easy to haul. We bring the hardware back aboard so we can get at the data, a years-worth of physics over the shelf break, a years-worth of listening for whales, a years-worth of fish profiling. Mike and Jennifer shut down the AZFP transducers via laptop. Verification is as old-school as a portable am bedside radio tuned to hear the chirp and then the lack of chirp. Later, the mooring’s batteries will be swapped and the instruments readied for another deployment and another year on the shelf-break.

Back to what else we were doing.

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.

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.

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.