Music is Not Made for the Adventure

August 22

Would have been sublime to hear London Grammar the night I stepped off the plane and rode the train from Heathrow to Houndslow, but the tickets to the pre-tour show at Round Chapel were impossible to snag, even with preregistration, even with staying up very, very late. Some fans said after that the tickets had sold out in seconds. Others said it took a few minutes, at most. For me, it would have been a squeeze to get across London that night, and I hadn’t exactly slept on that gorgeous 787 from Seattle. So, all things considered, I was okay making myself at home at my cousin’s house in Twickenham, and sitting out on the back porch and garden while they were vacationing in the south of France. I had my notebook and a cup of tea. And, starting there, in that place with my feet up and the night sounds complicating my thoughts, it was even more okay, even surreal perhaps, to discover this perfect modern band, and Hanna Reid with her expansive voice, playing their final set of the night live on the Internet.

The night was warm, and those were not bad seats, and when the band was finished and the stage lights winked out on my laptop screen, I began that journey—three weeks in Europe so that I could begin to ask some new questions and listen to the sounds, the voices of people I only ever hear every few years or even every decade or so—and let that adventure prompt other memories, the way sounds when coupled with sights and half-remembered smells always do. All my best memories are married to sound—and sometimes music.

My college acting teacher told me, “Sometimes, things don’t go as planned.” His name was Jeremy Caplan. For the longest time, I’ve remembered him as ‘Robert,’ but IMDB has set me straight, even from way out here in the Arctic Ocean.

Jeremy played a deputy sheriff in Toy Soldiers. He’s the one who runs down the hill near the beginning of the film and says, “Sheriff, there’s been shots fired at the school.” So, Louis Gossett Junior and Wil Wheaton were in town that fall, and me pretty close to working fame at the city bars, and at the Culbreth theatre—Tina Fey was there too, a year ahead, but I don’t remember running into ‘Elizabeth’ in the corridors or the prop shop or the stage or the green room. There’s no reason I should remember. I can’t even remember the name of the plays I directed, or any of those from which I acted scenes. Streets at night and theatre corridors are too quiet to be remembered well, unless there’s shouting, or a raccoon in a garbage can, or my heart’s going fast because all theatres are in the wrong part of town. But remembering is too often not a part of the plan.

We deal with the unexpected when it comes, and if it’s memorable, I think there’s usually a quality of sound attached. I planned to find a working cash machine in the Underground that afternoon (thin, echoing spaces and too many voices to concentrate), and I planned to have a wallet in Kyoto years ago when I needed to pay for the hotel (a rolling suitcase cutting through loose gravel on the road). I planned to have an unexpired driver’s license in order to rent a car out of Manchester (yes, there, just the pounding of my heart). That’s to say, things work out even if the details go astray. And the psychological pressures that come from driving a month, illegally (because the agent hadn’t noticed), on the wrong side of the road, probably add something to the overall adventure.

Nothing in the last ten years indicated sea ice would be factor in our survey of the Beaufort shelf-break. Once upon a time, say 2005, sure. But things have changed, and this year it’s not that things have changed back, but perhaps the old memories haven’t gone altogether. Maybe we’ve come upon a lingering, fringe chance to collect data now about conditions that have become so rare they might not happen again, not in our lifetimes. We don’t know. A sombre note, because the seascape beyond our portholes is stark and beautiful and more than ever a sign of times gone by.

We can’t direct the details. We can’t know what’s beneath the surface until we go there, dip a toe and think it’s warm and then sink to our knees and discover that warmth was just a skin exposed to the sun, and that there’s much more going on beneath. We have no idea what our actors had for breakfast. We have no idea what our shipmates will be going back to next week. But because that future affects these details, time is nested eddies.

For our college acting class, I directed two other students in a somewhat quiet scene on a couch in the green room. It was exactly the type of scene I like to write, minimal characters hesitant to fall in love, and everything that should be scripted isn’t. I think this is a good example of why I should not direct and not make films—because I overproduce—sometimes. I had a couch in the green room and two talented students, and I wanted music as well, because sound is important to me, because while I was never a huge fan of Tangerine Dream, in 1990 I’d fallen in love with the first dozen bars of a little B-side track called “Underwater Twilight,” and I wanted that to play from a cassette tape and portable stereo to close out the scene. I probably wanted to make a statement that this was a sublime moment. Would have been, could have been heavy-handed, but the tape stuck, or something like that, or maybe another of the students hadn’t understood the cue, or maybe Jeremy had a hand in it—I don’t know. The point is that the music, shoehorned in, wasn’t needed—except that the process of planning it and failing at it is likely the reason I even remember the couch and the green room at all. I had married the occasion to music, even ineffectually, even if the music hadn’t actually played.

You can’t direct the details, but you can learn from them. You can sleep on them and adapt. We are here on a ship in the Beaufort Sea to survey and to see how the distribution of animals along the shelf-break (zooplankton, fish, birds, belugas) changes under conditions of upwelling, when winds from the east push the surface water north, and deeper, more nutrient rich ocean upwells in the water column. But the actual story plays out as it must. Today, we deployed the mid-water trawl under conditions we could not have done two weeks ago. We did it in record time. The fishing is late in coming this cruise, but the crew’s movements are now practiced and informed by our repeated attempts. The ice is still an issue, but we’ve been looking for routes through the labyrinth that allow us to use even our largest net most days.

So, a plan is a good starting point. From there we can see just how good we are at figuring things out. Just the other day, Randy remarked how the Sikuliaq is still young for ship and hasn’t found herself yet. Over the last three years, the crew has worked the ship into better and better shape.

I most remember the sounds of the very young ship and the too many things that didn’t fit together when she had only just met saltwater, the way the north Atlantic swells rattled the coat hangers from one end of the closet to the other, the way some of the drawers wouldn’t latch and then opened and closed two feet deep on every crest and every trough—and there seemed too many other things to do to find the duct tape—and these are just the silly surface details. Then the anchors bounced in their pockets and the chains rang like bells in their tubes.

Emerson Eads wrote music for the Sikuliaq’s launch, recorded by the Fairbanks Symphony orchestra. They played it the day we dropped the ship into the Menominee River. They played Emerson’s piece at the reception—but people were more in a mood to talk about the future of the boat and the future of the Arctic and arctic research than listen to music that had never seen the boat run, or grow, or settle into itself. Music is not made for the adventure. It arises from it. Sometimes it is just the song playing on the radio, or the quartet at the top of your last playlist. You can’t force the show, and no one had yet heard the voice of the Sikuliaq. The ship had barely gotten wet, despite the rain in Wisconsin.

The delicacy of the symphony orchestra’s recording was lost to the poor playback from someone’s laptop and a neglected speaker system. All this hoity-toity theatre, dress-up, and presumption, and they didn’t get the sound right. It’s fine. This is art. This is science. We work at it and we work at it with big plans and little control of the details. They fall out as they must, and we work at it some more and some more until people begin to take notice.

The Sikuliaq’s song is strongest when she’s running and the swells grow large. You can hear it best in the forward hold below the chains. There the rhythm of the sea and the moan of the engines come together in the steel to create a sound all her own. I have it recorded. I listen to it sometimes to remember.

I drove by Marinette this last spring. I was on my way round the lake and wanted to re-find a particular café I’d discovered when I was there for Sikuliaq’s launch, a little place in Menominee with great pie. I didn’t have much of a plan to find the place five years on, but I’ve found these things are not so hard, finding the old places once you’ve got the music of it.

For better or for worse, a bit of the music I’ve most played over and over again this cruise:

Moon in Your Mouth — Goldfrapp, Silver Eye

Different Skin — Vogel, Imperium

Let it Go By — Fiora, Let it Go By

So Just Hang On, Beautiful One — Au4, And Down Goes the Sky

                   Move It — Prinze George, Illiterate Synth Pop

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 Feathers on 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 Thing Not Moving

August 19

We had barely begun the mooring recovery when I returned to the lab to grab another dozen rolls of film. Weeks now into the cruise and my daily planning has gone janky. If tomorrow I have a battery fail mid-operation, I won’t be surprised. I tell Celia how I’ve just burned through sixty photos, and the mooring is still far out in front of us. It is barely a bright speck of dust to get caught in the eye. For twenty minutes, we’ve watched the buoy on the surface, dragged under one ice floe after another. Marion on the rescue boat is gunning it between the floes and doing donuts in every parking lot he can find. Betty also drives, but she’s the one with the hook to snag the buoy when the time comes. The third mate can stretch his legs for a spell—the ship takes time to maneuver into position and to wait for a hole big enough in the ice to conclude the recovery. The weight of the mooring prevents the rescue boat from dragging the thing back to us.

Now past eight in the evening and the light is fading very slowly. I tell Celia I’ve taken naught but one photo all day, and now I’m making up for it within an itchy finger and an over eager eye for patterns in the shuffling ice. I also say something about wondering if we could just slow things down even more and wait on the sunset—you know—turn the boat about to line everything up just right, as if we planned this whole venture just for the photographs. The captain knows what I’m talking about. “Make it so,” he calls down from the bridge, about something else entirely, but the boat does begin the turn.

While we wait, I can’t for the life of me remember what that one photo was of. Breakfast seems such a long time ago, like the distance all the way back to the start of the cruise.

The day was slow to start, because of the fog and the ice and the ship trying to find a good place to fish and then moving on to collect the mooring. And at some time near lunch—before or after, who can tell—I heard the ratcheting of a socket wrench coming from the Baltic room. I got a little excited. Until then there hadn’t been so much as a table tennis match to photograph.

In the Baltic room, Mike was working on a mooring we will deploy near Barrow Canyon on our way west back through the Chukchi and the Bering Seas. We have the hardware recovered earlier in the cruise, and it appears to function well on deck and to be up to another year’s service under water and under arctic ice. We take the opportunity to redeploy hardware to record the yearlong physics and to listen for belugas in a neighborhood where the whales have been spotted before. Because of the currents, the area is typically ice free in summer, and there are ships of opportunity that will be able to collect the instruments many months from now.

Tonight, we recover the short-term mooring we deployed on the 8thof August. While we waited for the ship to draw close, huge, rounded mountains appeared to the east. Phil said that through binoculars from the bridge, he could see the details down to the trees and the leaves on the trees. I asked him if he could see elk. There are no elk here, and there are no mountains, only cold water, warmer air, and a heavy fog sculpted by the wind as if it were a series of towering sand dunes or massive ocean swells.

We pinged the enable and release commands to the mooring, and when it appeared the buoy was just a small point of yellow amid the floes. I took a while to see it, more to starboard than the previous moorings we’ve recovered. I took a couple pictures before it disappeared again. I searched for it with the telephoto lens and found it, now no more than a refracted shadow, unnaturally yellow, hiding under the offending ice. I took a couple more photographs, and then a couple more, and before I realized it, I was out of film. I hurried for more where there was no hurry.

I’m not sure why I am surprised the buoy was dragged under the ice. Perhaps our mobile state of affairs on the skin of the world ocean convinces me the buoy should be pushed out in front of the ice, bob like a beach ball resisting being grabbed at by children, and then trend in the same direction, like two equally buoyant things in a deep tub. This is not the case. Our three-legged lander is still on the muddy bottom. The acoustic release has popped the syntactic buoy and 50 meters of tether in 20 meters of water. So, it on appears as if the buoy is swimming off against the prevailing current. The buoy is the thing not moving.

The short-term mooring is loaded with a small Conductivity, Temperature and Depth recorder (CTD) and an Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (ADCP). Once we get the devices back, we hope there’ll be small signal in the temperature and salinity data showing water mass changes due to an upwelling event on the shelf-break. In addition to currents, the ADCP measures acoustic backscatter reflected by zooplankton in the water above the mooring. The zooplankton migrate daily, vertically to and from the surface, and the extent and timing of this movement should be seen in the eleven days of data.

This mooring is structured differently from the others we’ve recovered. It is situated in the relatively shallow water of the Beaufort shelf. At this 20m depth, there is significant risk of the bottom being scoured by sea ice. While the vast majority of the sea ice is hardly meters thick, pressure ridges develop during winter and spring as ice overrides ice, driven together like a rapid model of plate tectonics, building mountains with metaphorically deep roots. Records have shown historical ice scouring deeper than a hundred meters.

The short-term shallow water mooring’s squat design allows us to recover the entire device. No part of it, no railcar wheel is left on the bottom of the sea. It all comes back, hoisted into the air over the transom, muddy in the fading light of a preemptive sunset. Just like we hadn’t planned.

This is my first oceanographic cruise where collecting bottom samples has not been a part of the mission. Turns out we’ve collected mud anyway. The length of the tether necessitated the ship drag the mooring some distance before it left the bottom, and so by chance scoop mud with the yellow canister that had held the coiled line and the release buoy. Naturally, Phil saves some in a jar before washing down the mooring.

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.

A Fishing Trip

August 18

We had every reason to believe we wouldn’t see a shred of sea ice for the duration of this cruise. Last year, the project’s cruise was run in September, and there was no ice then. Sea ice hasn’t been observed in August in this part of Beaufort since 2006. Not that there’s more ice this year than in the previous decade, only that the winds move it around, and the pattern and strength of the winds this year seems to have shifted into an older regime.

Today, we make an attempt to reach a pair of moorings to the east of us where the sea ice has covered their positions thus far this expedition. At the moment, the ice there is patchy, so the ship pulls up the acoustic centerboard and begins to drive through. Someone clarifies that the Sikuliaq is not an ice breaker. It’s an “ice pusher.” Technically yes, it is not an ice breaker, but it does break ice. The Sikuliaq is ice capable—capable of easy driving through young, year-old ice—‘sikuliaq.’

As we crack through the longer ice floes, we scare up the arctic cod we’ve had trouble hunting en masse with the Tucker Trawl and our sounding pings. When the cod swim over the edges of the blue ice, they are clearly visible. Marty sees one trapped in a blue pool and be quickly scooped up by a gull. They are small fish and especially vulnerable from above when backlit, sandwiched between an overcast sky and the bright blue ice. It’s cold. It’s raining, but Jennifer and Kristina put on Mustang suits so they are impervious to anything the sea has to throw at us. I deposit my camera bag in a puddle on an upper deck. It doesn’t matter. It’ll dry out later and in meantime I can feel a little less encumbered and enjoy the sounds of ice cracking under the hull.

The ship makes headway, but the going is slow. Considering the limited work days left to our calendar, we soon decide to turn around. Too much time would be spent getting to the moorings with few chances to recover them once we’re on station. The batteries on the moorings are good for another year. A different ship will be asked to recover them.

In the evening, we pull down the work boat. The fish team want to go after a few of the cod hiding under the ice floes. I’m happy for that and the chance to photograph the ship again before the fog finds us.

So, again I’m in a small boat on the sea, and amongst ice floes for the first time in 14 years—then one of my first photographic expeditions on any terrain. In 2004, I was in the Chukchi Sea on the other side of Point Barrow, photographing Inupiat hunters take seals from 14-foot open boats with a rifle and a harpoon, stalking about the floes and then racing through the gaps to get to the seals before they sank. We spent whole days on the water, eating packed sandwiches and drinking coffee from a thermos. I made the mistake of loaning my lens wipe to the man with the rifle, only to see it flutter away in the wind. This time I’ve brought three. This time, our fishing trip sees us much farther out to sea and always within foggy eyesight of the mother ship.

Before we go, with rod and reel and cameras, so many cameras, Steve makes a joke about how if I don’t come back, can he have my stuff? I tell him I’m carrying it all with me. So, no running off and leaving us out in the middle of the ocean. I’ve done this before—loaded with a backpack and a duffle bag and cameras. We’ve gunned the motor so as not to be captured by ice floes, and we’ve been stranded on an ice floe as the pilot fixed the outboard—and we’ve raced for Barrow as the pack-ice pushed us to shore and we walked the last few miles to the end of the road where we were met by trucks. So, sure, if we don’t see you again, I’m confident we’ll make it somewhere. I’m content to see where that story goes. Trucks and a wet road. I know how this works. Adventure. You just keep going until there’s a bed and some food in a cupboard.

On the Beaufort, the boat motor gurgles and the world is pretty silent except for all our moving about in boots on the aluminum. I remember that sound, I think. I’ve watched the video. I wonder if I could I catch the Sikuliaq’s Wi-Fi on my phone and fire off a selfie from the shadow of an ice floe. But the fish team casts their lines, and I take photographs of them instead. Time is short and I was never here. And the fog closes in.

We never lose sight of the ship, though it is sometimes reduced to the weight of a ghost drifted across a little used road. And we are not so far away as we were on Kasatochi a couple years ago. We drove that skiff out from the volcano in dense fog to find the Tiglâx (Tec-la) waiting in one of the many straits where the Pacific meets the Bering Sea. For a long while, we saw only that boat’s red light atop the mast. Then, when we were right upon her, she appeared and we were home. Another away-party. Another all-returned.

Now too, the Sikuliaq appears as a great wall in the sea, to bump up against as the davit’s hook comes down and picks us up and pulls us away from the surprise of the August sea ice. If it takes another 14 years, this will be the last time. Steve does not get my stuff. Not yet.

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.

Green Room

August 15

In the green room, Tavin said I walked like one walks in a park, like it was warm out, like the sun was shining even though we were underground. The green room is often underground. The green room is without sunlight. The walls are painted black. The furniture is second hand, and painted black. There is usually a couch. The green room is only green if the green room is a forest. Make no mistake, this is still underground, and it is still a difficult place. For the mind, not for your feet, not for walking. Your shoes are well worn by this point, and perfect for forded streams, scratched tiles, metallic strip, or nonslip deck. Your jacket too, and your bottle of water, or coffee, or a weak green tea in a thermos you have opened and closed so many times—during rehearsal and quiet mornings and the whisky evenings you’d sooner forget if you could remember them—the lid pops free of the threads now and again. The tea is not green. It is a brown teardrop on your thumb.

Tavin said I walked like I was happy to see her. I waved, the way I do, a lift of the forearm and the wrist, but she noticed I did not stop walking. No hesitation. Of course, this was a part of the instruction. Acting 101. Class was held in the green room. Two students started at opposite ends and walked past each other. What happened then was supposed to be natural, spontaneous. We were not supposed to act a part. We were not supposed to make something happen in the middle of the green room. We were supposed to be ourselves.

On a ship, we do not want to linger in the green room. We stay busy at sea. We remain on the stage. You rail against the isolation. On ship, I put a camera to my face. I comb through the day’s few hundred photographs of people and boats and machinery, under fog, under sunset. When I run out of photographs, I’m caught out in the center without business to perform. I write, scribble really. I could burn the notebook afterwards and it’ll have still done its job. Afterwards, when I look up, I’ve walked off and down, back into the depths where one stops and thinks, “How was that? Was that me?” This is why sailors make things. All travelers make things along the way, if only a shaped stick or a cairn for the next traveler. This is why all travelers are well read.

I cannot remember how Tavin walked across the room, and maybe it does not matter. When I recall walking across the green room, I see the moment as if I’m with the other students watching two people greet each other in passing. I find the boy gangly and aggressive. I cannot recall her specifically, how she walked across the room, and obviously I can’t properly recall myself either, because the image I have of the boy is an imprint, a relic from elsewhere, a perspective created in editing. Maybe the instructor knew this. Maybe he knew the epiphany would come eventually, if a quarter century late: Being ourselves is an act, and deliberate.

I am most myself in sport. In sport, the green room is a perimeter. Forget the myth of the locker-room. In sport, the green room is no wider than a line. The line is typically black, and the act of stepping across that line makes this green room what it is—if done well, if done right, a razor’s edge. If done wrong, you will likely be impaled. When on strip, or the court, you cannot think about that other you. You cannot afford to see the audience in the stands. You feel them is all, and sometimes you hear your own name, and realize this is why your parents gave it to you. The familiar echo.

The before is the worst part, the before-the-business-at-hand where we are most vulnerable, when the Internet doesn’t work, when we are unable to shout, the idle times where we begin to watch ourselves and how we can’t seem to be anything but awkward. But we step across the line, and we transform, and we do it very quickly. Weshrug one set of clothes for another, one persona for another, thinly veiled or not, as needed. In the green room, we are proud of nothing. There is no pride in being between things. At best, you freeze in order to weather the storm. In the green room, we say hello and goodbye. Everyone moves through on their way to something else.

But whether you are stepping along a journey or onto the court, or into a first date or ascending the stairs to the stage, it is all the stage.And in fields, the green room is broad as the forest, as the tundra over mountains, as the sea, thick with old ice. Here you can feel the isolation and fragility of the green room. This is why there is a room, a ‘safe’ space, the beach, the barrel of a wave, a fey glen, a place of transformation.

I’m more comfortable being the one walking, the one waving hello-goodbye. When walking, I am not watching myself. When walking, I am comfortable in the park. I’m comfortable on the stage, not waiting to go up. But that happened, right? It’s done. Impatient, we walked across that stage and now it’s over with. Those moments before we cleared our minds of the baggage and became something else, the green room was tumultuous and heavy with spray. We were rare, hard, old ice—reclaimed by the sea, or perhaps just tasting of salt after.

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.

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.