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.

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.

Sea Ice and Walrus

August 6

I retrieved my coffee cup from the lab and went upstairs to the kitchen. I filled the cup and went back down and through the main lab and through the water tight doors into the Baltic Room where the CTD and rosette sits within the cage. Kate’s hydrophone, the one we recovered from Hanna shoal, lies half in and half out of the box on the other side of the room. Perhaps it is still drying-off, warming-up, and getting used to life in this world and not that other one. Cleaned now, the footprints of the barnacles have not been not entirely made to disappear.

I find no one else on the working deck. At the portside rail, the air is cold above Barrow canyon, and some of the ice is blue and stunning. Some of it is crisp and white and resembles sculptures at a banquet. Some of the floes are huge and thick, keeled and bouldered, making the ship’s course a twisted red line on a map. The satellite images from synthetic aperture radar see through the fog and give us a good picture of the landscape, but the image is updated once a day, and some of the ice moves tens of kilometers in this time.

At about 40 minutes to breakfast, I’ve taken a couple aspirin for a headache risen from all the rushing about the last couple days, the noise of the ship, and the photographing of bright surfaces. As I watch the broad expanse of the arctic summer ice, the ship glances off the odd, yellowing pancake, the ice floes’ submerged edges heavy with chlorophyll. A couple of these blows are what woke me this morning. And something in my stateroom shook and rattled like on a spring. As I poured my coffee, another bump and I imagined we ground down yet another walrus-vacated shelf.

The walrus yesterday were a wildlife treat the sort few will ever see. We drove through a broad flotilla of hundreds of the huddled, social beasts. We were aiming north. They appeared, apparently, to be headed south at the time. They appeared as if they had somewhere to go and had faith in where that was. Likely though, all they cared about was what lay beneath the ice: relatively shallow water and good feeding on the bottom. Their flotilla was expansive like the horizon, and we couldn’t help but pass close to some floes, even with our twisting navigation. We were lucky to see some of the animals pause before taking flight. We got close. And we were luckier still that some of the animals never left their floes. We passed even closer.

The walrus vacating their rafts did not disappear as seals do, but thrashed en masse, as if the start of the Ironman. Likely they sought only another fresh and near-to raft and not the other side of the world, not another dark floor beneath this one.

There are four flights of stairs from the working deck to the bridge. I like to go up from the outside and watch for birds and whales, and water dripped from the instrument mast. Today, beyond the bridge and the deck behind the wheelhouse, beyond the rail, a mosaic of ice and shades of grey water travels the other way. Everything appears isolated out of sight of land.

We are now well west of the armies of yesterday’s walrus, and there are few animals to be seen here, few birds and fewer whales. Over a couple days, we count ten polar bears, but all of them far away and most of them are in the water. There are photos, but they appear as little more than fields of loosely banded ice, a photograph of everything and nothing.

Maybe a keen observer will see the bear, a thin line of yellowing white, its nose out of the water at left, swimming across the ship’s diminished wake. Describing a distant point amidst this landscape is an art one can learn, I suppose. “See the two little chunks there, and then go back three floes and look for the knob of blue near the spot of black, which is the bear’s now abandoned lunch. There’s blood on the snow. That’s the dark bits to the left.”

I just put the bear center in the frame, if only so I could find it again. Because a minute later everything has shifted in relation to everything else. Looking out over the stern, I had to be shown again and again where a bear was.

The art of looking is something I’ve never had the patience to learn properly. I’m more accepting of broad patterns, and where there are details, I want them to surprise me. I expect them to sneak up and grab my attention. Otherwise I stand in a daze.

I’m poor at looking for the seal head popped-up just to the left of the fifth floe a quarter mile out two points to starboard. I’m not going to look for the hermit thrush in the aspen fifteen feet farther down the forest path. I am happy just to listen to it early in the morning.

The shifting icescape is too calming anyway. Compositions that get my attention are the ones that demand it. Not loudly, no. But they know how to want to be seen. I don’t look well, but I think discover find well.

We all know the ice is going away. Now, in August, the ice is departing still, but in a manner that those falling in love with a hunk of ungrounded winter might still hope against hope it might survive another month, holdout, and then perhaps the grease ice will form and begin to knit the isolated floes into another contiguous sheet, encapsulating the stalwart, if only for another winter.

Eventually, the ice will disappear in summers, and what forms-up each new winter won’t grow thick enough to keep through the following year. The walrus will need a new plan. We’re in the third quarter now. This is the season the ice will disappear first.

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.