Night of the CTD

August 17

Last night we cast the CTD for the 100th time this cruise, and then kept on casting. The rosette went out the baltic door again and again against a background of ice floes and water so still, the ripples of the submerging cage were the only things moving on the surface. They made lasting impressions.

But excepting a few liters of collected water where we saw the chlorophyll levels to be the highest, and excepting where the ship’s acoustics saw the zooplankton scatter in the cage’s wake—and scatter wider when the VPR strobe was flashing, the CTD is a passive observer, describing the fundamental characteristics of the water from the surface to the bottom: changes in salinity, changes in temperature. Sharp changes in the column’s properties over depth indicate independent water masses that have remained in character over great distances. The drum on the winch is loaded with 10,000 meters of cable. Last night we needed only 300, but beneath us a relatively shallow sea, there are clear layers, from the fresh summer meltwater to the Alaska Coastal Current, Pacific water, and off the shelf, in the depths, Atlantic water.

The photographs below are of CTD casts aboard the Sikuliaq in 2014, 2015, and 2018, in the North Atlantic, and the Caribbean, Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

 

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.

Polar Bears

August 14

Mom and a pair of cub polar bears interrupted a great game of table tennis and for that I can forgive them. I hadn’t picked up a ping pong paddle in at least 10 years, and not played the game in—ever—really. It’s one of those I-hate-running-for-the-ball sort of games, no better than tennis when you start to include all the garage or lab furniture to go fishing under. Unlike an old lawn-mover, the -80 freezers are something to watch out for.

So, I was surprised I’m not yet completely inept, and there’s something wonderful about basic reflexes and the judgement of angles and an instinctual desire to put english on everything served—and while badminton and fencing are nothing like table tennis, muscle memory can be something blissfully in-specific. All that work put in early can last a lifetime swimming between interrupted ice floes.

I am happy to report that polar bears in the wild look exactly as I expected them to, and move perfectly.

The polar bears interrupted most work happening on ship, including several crew who had planned on sleeping. But three ice bears together on a floe within shouting distance of the port side rail is something to wake a few mates for. This must be the gold standard.

9pm in the Arctic on an August evening. The horizon and the water had already begun to turn gold, but it was easy to miss that. Not only weren’t the three bears running and then swimming away like all the solo bears we’d seen so far—the family walked towards us. Mom lifted her head. She checked us out. She looked right at us plenty. And the polar yearlings played bear cub games. They nursed. They tried to throw chunks of ice. One of the cubs practiced pounding on seal dens.

The bear cubs were snow white puffballs next to their mother. She was characteristically yellow, round and healthy, her face slightly bloody from her last meal. The cubs were clean and still nursing. One cub picked up a plate sized chunk of ice in his mouth and carried it like dog toy towards his mother.

The low sun and the stiff wind gave the sea a hard look—crazy shallow like a frozen pond. And my heart skipped a beat in some form of misplaced worry for the lone parent and the cubs at the edge of the ice. One cub lagged behind. Another ran out in front. Because where that ice ended and the edge became water, the water is 50 meters deep over the shallow shelf and several hundred down across the break. That seemed to matter.

The ice floes in snapshot look static, grounded, and immovable. But as time rolled on towards twilight, the evening ice shifted like stage flats in a Gaumont animation. Of course, the Arctic is changing. No one sees a polar bear today and does not think this. The bears use the ice to hunt seals, and there is less ice now.

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 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.