Music is Not Made for the Adventure

August 22

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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

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.