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.