Morning in the Arctic Ocean

Morning in the Arctic Ocean

The bottom beam trawl reveals its bounty from the Arctic seafloor bottom. Photo by Brendan Smith/NPRB

The bottom beam trawl reveals its bounty from the Arctic seafloor bottom. Photo by Brendan Smith/NPRB

Eto rano?                                                         [Is it morning?]

Da, 6 chasov                                                   [Yes, 6AM]

Dobroye utro                                                   [Good morning]

Dobroye urto. Kak tebe spalos?                 [Good morning. How did you sleep?]

Cholodno                                                         [It was Cold]

I ty?                                                                   [And you?]

Prohladno.                                                       [Coldly]

Eto normalno - mi v Chukutskom More               [It is normal. We are in the Chukchi Sea.]

We are at 73°N on the edge of the North American Continental Shelf, 100 miles from the international dateline, and on the edge of the Arctic Basin. Its August and its 34 degrees. Its warm. There is no ice. The ice is 200 miles to the north.

We started this cruise at station CH-01 just east of Russian waters and we have two Russian scientists aboard, Igor Grigorov and Natalia Kuznetsova. Igor is an Ichthyologist at the Faculty Biology, Ecology and Biotechnology at the Far East Federal University. Natalia is a legend and has spent more than 2000 days at sea. Both are at the Russian Federal Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography (VNIRO). They are part of an international collaboration and a 14-person science team and 11-person crew on the Ocean Starr, part of the Arctic Integrated Ecosystem Research Program. This program has been surveying Arctic waters in the northern Bering Sea and Chukchi Sea for three years (2017-2019). After three weeks of mooring deployments and recovery and transects along the Barrow Canyon, this portion of the 2019 cruise left Nome in mid-August and started the northern-most transection the Chukchi Shelf.

Libby Logerwell (background) shows one of the AB’s, Austin, a recent sample from the bongo net. Photo by Brendan Smith/NPRB.

Libby Logerwell (background) shows one of the AB’s, Austin, a recent sample from the bongo net. Photo by Brendan Smith/NPRB.

After completing nine stations along the Chukchi Shelf, we are now traversing the Chukchi Slope, leaving the broad continental shelf and heading northeast into the Arctic Basin. At 1155 meters, our 10th station is exploring new waters. The CTD descends to 300m. As the temperature sensor descends with the array, it leaves the relatively warm 6°C surface waters and enters subzero temperatures of -1.85°C at approximately 50m. Below that, at 200m, lies Atlantic water that has traversed the Arctic and extended its reach all the way to the North American and Asian continental shelves, which line the gateway to the Pacific. In the Atlantic water, temperature and salinity rise. This is one of two poles where the Pacific and Atlantic waters exchange.

Libby Logerwell processing the fish samples collected by the bottom Beam trawl. Photo by Brendan Smith/NPRB.

Libby Logerwell processing the fish samples collected by the bottom Beam trawl. Photo by Brendan Smith/NPRB.

Other gear is deployed, the Juday net to sample phytoplankton, the bongo net to sample zooplankton and larval fishes, the Van Veen grab to sample surface sediments and deposition, the beam trawl to survey the bottom for demersal fish and benthic invertebrates. And finally, the mid-water trawl – the Marinovich. Robert Levine has been at the computer monitors, watching the acoustics for backscatter, indicating plankton and fish in the water column. Until now, the midwater Marinovich trawl has exploring waters above 40m bringing in pelagic isopods, small crustacean zooplankton, Chryosaora melanaster, predatory jellies with bell diameters half a meter long, and 2-5cm Arctic sand lance and age0 Arctic cod. On this haul we extend out 800m of wire reaching a headrope depth of 225m.

Photo by Brendan Smith/NPRB

Photo by Brendan Smith/NPRB

From the depths we finally find adult (age1+) 14-30cm Arctic cod. These older fish have been elusive in past sampling efforts. These Arctic cod are a keystone species in this marine environment, supporting marine bird and mammals that comprise the top predators in this system. With the Arctic cod, we also find myctophids, plate-eyed lantern fish with photophores on their ventral sides, lighting up their bellies to mask their form against the light above from predators lurking below. Myctophids are present throughout the mesopelagic (200-1000m) zone of marine systems. While little studied, they represent one of the largest biomasses of fishes in marine oceans. Separated by hundreds of miles of shallow shelf from viable deep-water habitat in the Pacific, they are here in the Arctic Basin as well.

The last fish is processed.

Choroshay rabota. [Good work]

Getting on the Ocean Starr

Getting on the Ocean Starr

Anna Mounsey carefully working on one of her samples in the lab on R/V  Ocean Starr.  Photo by Brendan Smith/NPRB

Anna Mounsey carefully working on one of her samples in the lab on R/V Ocean Starr. Photo by Brendan Smith/NPRB

On an unusually warm winter morning in Seattle, I met with Dr. Kathi Lefebvre, a scientist at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. I hopped out of my truck in the facility parking lot ready to make a good first impression overdressed, and a little sweaty in jeans and a button-down shirt. A few weeks prior, I reached out to her asking to meet while I was home from Bozeman during spring break. Mainly, it was a meeting just to chat about her work and inquire about graduate positions at the University of Washington. Instantly, I was inspired by the way she talked about her work, and it was like I’d known her much longer than 60 seconds. She was the embodiment of an adventure scientist -a career I had only dreamed about. 

Dr. Lefebvre studies Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) which are colonies of algae that grow out of control and produce toxic and harmful byproducts. These harmful products can cause debilitating or fatal illnesses and may occur more often as a result of climate change. HABs can be found anywhere from lakes to oceans. Recently, due to warming ocean temperatures, blooms have been increasingly prevalent in the arctic. 

Within the first five minutes of talking with Dr. Lefebvre, she asked if I would be interested in an “arctic cruise”. While onboard, I would be taking and processing water samples from various depths to look for HABs. In typical form, I jumped at the opportunity. It would be just days after finishing up the salmon season in Bristol bay, and I would be on board from August 1st until September 14th. 45 days at sea. When including the Bristol bay season, this trip to Alaska adds up to 107 nights in a bunk, rocking back and forth with the waves. My mother’s cooking and the thought of a long hike shine like a beacon at the end of a long tunnel.

Anna shows off some sample collected from surface water at an expected plankton bloom. Photo by Brendan Smith/NPRB

Anna shows off some sample collected from surface water at an expected plankton bloom. Photo by Brendan Smith/NPRB

On July 31st, I disembarked the plane in Dutch Harbor to meet the R/V Ocean Starr. Sporting just under three hours of training, a picture of what my lab bench set-up should look like, and a methods binder, I boarded the ship on the morning of August 1st.

The fog ushered us north through the rough Bering Sea. Scientists anxiously mingled while awaiting the first moorings and CTD casts. I was able to set up my lab bench space and run some samples in the lab through the underway seawater hose. Getting a few samples out of the way early calmed my nerves about the first CTDs to come.

Processing water samples for harmful algal blooms incorporates two different methods for each depth of water collected. On this particular cruise, I am taking water from the surface, the chlorophyll maximum and 10 meters. For each depth, I measure 600mL to be filtered under a vacuum for Pseudo-nitzchia. ­The filter is like a small piece of paper, and filtering about 1.5 cups of sea-water concentrated with phytoplankton is like filtering muddy water through a cheese-cloth. When the water is done filtering, leaving the filter dry, I carefully maneuver forceps in a fashion that will ultimately lead to a circle-turned-into-a-taco shape, eventually stuffing the filter in a small vial. I’m convinced my finger dexterity is greatly improving by the day. While filtering, I strain another 2 liters of sea-water through a sieve fastened in PVC piping. Then, I backwash the concentrated sample on the sieve into a tube where it will eventually be suspended in methanol in hopes of preserving whole-cell Alexandrium samples. Altogether, the process takes about an hour. An hour and a half on the slow days. Usually, we’ll take 1-3 CTDs a day, not including the two days we took 7 casts!

Portrait of Anna leaning against the hatch to the wet lab aboard the R/V  Ocean Starr . Photo by Brendan Smith/NPRB

Portrait of Anna leaning against the hatch to the wet lab aboard the R/V Ocean Starr. Photo by Brendan Smith/NPRB

The difference between work on a fishing boat and work on a research vessel is like night and day. I went from spending 18+ hours on deck a day to under 20 minutes. Without sight of shore, the ocean is darker and the waves move the larger ship in unpredictable patterns. 6 weeks at sea seemed like a long time after a grueling fishing season. However, it is also a chance to hear stories. I try to go out of my way more often that I usually do and ask questions, digging for exciting stories from the scientists and Ocean Starr crew about life on deck and in the arctic. The scientists on board are passionate about their research and eager to help the few of us who are just stepping up. Our crew consists of mainly physical oceanographers and biologists who spend their summers out in the field, and their winters back in the lab processing the data.

This trip to the arctic has pushed me out of my comfort zone, which may have been what I was initially looking for when I accepted the position. At the time of the meeting, I was a senior in college looking forward to finishing up a Bachelors in Microbiology. During the summer season, I work as a commercial deckhand in Bristol Bay and Ketchikan, Alaska. In the future, I aspire to continue biological research and still spend time on the ocean. To frequent sea-goers, the ocean provides a kind of solace unique to each person. The rolling of the boat as it glides to the next station, or the hum of the pumps filtering fresh sea-water. Early mornings clutching a coffee mug while the sun warms your feet through steel-toed boots.

Floating Reflections

Floating Reflections

Sunrise (and moon set) at 0500 on the back deck of R/V  Ocean Starr . Photograph by Sarah Donohoe of author.

Sunrise (and moon set) at 0500 on the back deck of R/V Ocean Starr. Photograph by Sarah Donohoe of author.

Dusk sifts through the cumulonimbus clouds settling where the ocean meets the sky. The past few days these puffs of billowing water vapor have become permanently fixed to the horizon like colossal sentinels guarding the gates south to Nome. Tinges of orange and pink, mere wisps of a greater power obscured by this barometric wall, wedge their way through the cracks kissing the air and seas with warm repose. Lately, when science and ship crew have retired for the evening, I find myself up in the bridge gazing at the Arctic waters lost in its vast expanse. My mind races, agitated and turbulent, a meld of rambling prose and pensive reflections. It’s as if Bach with all his symphonic thunder clamors on inside my head using my tympanic membrane for cymbals—yet only silence can be heard on the bridge. Cymbals clashing, drums pounding, violins concerto-ing have become a constant discordance reverberating against my thoughts, but still Bach plays on.

I think back to Caitlin Forster, Alex Poje, Caitlin Smoot, Rachel Lekanoff, Sarah Seabrook, Jess Pretty, Heidi Islas, KoFan Lu, Stephanie O’Daly, and Brittany Jones in 2017 and 2018 ASGARD cruises to name but just a few and now Haley Cynar, Anna Mounsey, and Sarah Donohue of this cruise. I see such promise in these young women, and hope that my daughter has the same drive, passion, and wonder as they do. Or that she may meet some of these esteemed women in science already pioneering Arctic oceanography and marine biology—the Libby Logerwells, Lisa Eisners, Phylis Stabenos, Kate Staffords, Catherine Berchoks, Sarah Hardys, Katrin Ikens, Carin Ashjians, Laurie Juraneks, and of course the Opik Ahkingas of today. Maybe the stories of her old man will inspire her to hop on a ship like I did many years ago…to find adventure, excitement, love, or to simply discover herself. I have been so fortunate that these waters that we are steaming on have provided me all of that, and so much more—especially my friendship with Pete Shipton. He and I have steamed on three cruises together laughing more each time as he photobombs my photographs, finishes movie quotes, and fills my repertoire with dad jokes I can use when I get home. I can’t wait for the day when my daughter asks to look through pictures of this Arctic expedition and point to Pete asking why he’s always wearing the same clothes.

As the swells start to pick back up again as we head further south into the formidable North Bering Sea, it seems only appropriate that the R/V Ocean Starr rolls on through with science and ship crew tucked in safe and sound. Her bones may be old (built in 1965) and engines pre-dating the ship, but her crew have tended to her neatly. In 2017, she barely reached 7 knots according to Chief Scientist Ryan McCabe, but now she hums comfortably at 8.5 knots; she even made it to 10.6 through Unimak Pass. In many places the Ocean Starr looks tired, weathered from more than 40 years of oceanographic research with NOAA. Pipes showing signs of saltwater corrosion, cables lining the bulkhead that probably have no start or end, generator panels that still use incandescent light bulbs, air ductwork that hasn’t been fiddled with in years but she still sloshes through the Bering like any other modern ship. And if you look carefully at the bridge with its flat screen monitors adorning the helm next to the original gyro and magnetic compasses, computerized HUD engine room displays, and a science lab with all the latest scientific instruments from a portable mass spectrometer, underway nitrate, fluorometer sensors synced to a raspberry PI, you would think she was still in her prime. The Ocean Starr is a beautiful juxtaposition of old and new working together in tandem, very much like the entire crew currently aboard.

Bosun John Loane in the crane house about to deploy a mooring. Photograph by Brendan Smith/NPRB

Bosun John Loane in the crane house about to deploy a mooring. Photograph by Brendan Smith/NPRB

So how does a ship in her twilight years run better than the way than the way she did two years ago? This perhaps is one of the easiest questions to answer—her crew led by Captain Pete Hall and his surrounding cast. I look down at the crew roster and pause. Each one of the men on this list have impacted me in their own way, some big and some small but still impacted nonetheless. I have listened to many of their stories, from Brian Ripley (Second Assistant Engineer) wanting to see the Northern lights and Larry Weeks (AB #2) trying to Facetime in the mess with family from back home. Chief Steward Gregory Davis yarned with me about life back home in the south always referring to me as the “TV man.” I found out that First Engineer Frank Hutton has a home near Norwalk, Connecticut only a stone throw away from where I grew up. Even though it took awhile for me to find my connection with Chief Mate Terry Reilly, we soon were sharing stories about his granddaughters and of my own daughter about the same age with dreams of visiting Disneyworld. Bosun John Loane promised me a drink at the bar he owns near Western Somoa where he grew up. Jose Valentin (AB#1) endured my terrible Spanish translation of moorings coming to the surface, and OS Austin Goss was always on deck with a smile, cup of coffee, and memories of Astoria, Oregon. Even OS James Smith and I had a chance to talk about Alaska in detail, and while I may not agree with his grand plans of urbanizing the 49th state, it was great to hear what others might think of the land under the midnight sun. But let’s not forget the Chief Engineer Terence Faulkner who amid tales of 7’ bodyguards, the ’67 Mustang Pony, and barely limping into Greenland under power, I met a man whose rough, salty exterior protects that which he holds dear to him—working hard on the things he loves (his car, and whether he admits it or not the Ocean Starr) and his family.

I fear that this may be the last time I am ever in the Arctic or that this may be my last voyage period. And yes, I have said that in 2017 and 2018 when R/V Sikuliaq returned from her ASGARD voyages to Nome. But this time…it feels real. It feels emotional and it weighs down on me. While I have been away from my family on these voyages these past three years, I am reminded that if it weren’t for the Arctic, I wouldn’t even be where I am today writing this blog that probably only my mother really reads. But it’s true, I would have never met my wife in the Arctic or much less pictured a life at sea more than a decade ago when I stepped onto the Norseman II.  Steaming south to Nome feels like an end of a chapter to a wonderful adventure that hopefully some of the folks that I have met aboard the Sikuliaq and Ocean Starr will finish.

R/V  Ocean Starr  underway. Photographed by Brendan Smith/NPRB using an aerial drone.

R/V Ocean Starr underway. Photographed by Brendan Smith/NPRB using an aerial drone.

I can’t help but return back to the bridge and lean up against the chart table. Evening watch has started and Christopher Wahlers, Second Mate, has relieved Chief Mate Reilly. Instantly, Chris goes to the chart on the computer and starts clicking away on our location, zooming in an out on the screen with such zeal that everyone watching the screens knows that he just took the helm…like clockwork. I never understood why there were warning signs on video games that might cause seizures until I met Chris, our self-described millennial, working that navigational system. Lately though, I’ve been staying up late to keep Chris company or maybe perhaps it’s vice versa.

Young, quick-witted, and confident, Chris packs so much in his tall, lanky unsuspecting frame. When we chat, we often both look out into the horizon, but I can hear his enthusiasm, feel how excited he is to be in the Arctic and to experience an adventure like this. Every once in a while, I’ll turn and glance at him when he talks about his future and what it’s like being on the water, and I can actually see his happiness exude from his countenance. In those moments, I see a little bit of me in him. While I fear that Bach will continue to play in my head for quite some time, Chris at least in the meantime has soothed those tempestuous ballads in my head for I couldn’t be happier to see him be a part of this great journey that we have all been a part of on the R/V Ocean Starr.

The Arctic Explorers Green Flash Club

The Arctic Explorers Green Flash Club

Dawn breaks on R/V  Ocean Starr  (0500) as Chief Scientist Ryan McCabe awaits for the release codes to be entered for releasing one of the moorings.

Dawn breaks on R/V Ocean Starr (0500) as Chief Scientist Ryan McCabe awaits for the release codes to be entered for releasing one of the moorings.

Across from me in the small airport terminal in late July sat a man in his late 30’s, square jaw and a five o’clock stubble growing along the periphery. Most likely a climber or trail runner, this man had his choice of empty seats in the waiting area, but selected a seat next to Libby Logerwell, a scientist joining me on the R/V Ocean Starr. His choice got me thinking that if he knew her, I probably should know him too. But I was struggling to put a face with a name, and certainly choosing a seat right next to Libby wasn’t a coincidence. I recall looking down at his small Patagonia backpack and then down at my gear—two huge camera bags—and wishing that I could pack light like this guy. My assumption that him packing light correlated to some unencumbered lifestyle would later confirm that I should never ever enter the psychic profession unless I want to lose money. Libby kindly introduced us which also confirmed my earlier suspicions that he was not some weirdo at an airport who would intentionally sit next to a random person.

Chief Scientist Ryan McCabe was quick to smile and crack a joke when we met. Coupled with a hint of southern drawl, I knew I was going to like this guy. Unfortunately, when I meet someone that seems cool, I tend to ask way too many questions, and in hindsight, I probably didn’t leave the best impression. Karma—it can sneak up anywhere. Fortunately for me, Ryan was incredibly patient and did his best to answer what he knew.

Fast forward a month, and the first leg of the 2019 Arctic Program cruise is nearing completion. Ryan and I have had a chance to get to know each other a little better, and well…he still is a cool guy, that much hasn’t changed. In this short time, however, he has also earned my trust and respect, two attributes I do not throw out lightly to just anyone.

For the sake of brevity, this cruise has been challenging. I mean all research cruises have their blips and bumps so I’ve learned. Yet this leg had all sorts of adversity thrown its way throughout the entire month. From severe weather in transit requiring two crew changes and two separate trips to Nome which meant days lost doing research, lack of a 24-hour work schedule, fouling a propeller ceasing all research operations for more than two days, I felt like we were living out the tale of Odysseus. Ryan, our Odysseus in this analogy, just wanted to do science like the rest of us, but extemporaneous obstacles continued to hinder our Arctic sampling. Fortunately, the Ocean Starr ran better than 2017 saving precious time when it counted most thanks to the ship’s crew who provided all the extra care and attention a 54-year old ship would need.

Chief Scientist Ryan McCabe preparing to deploy the CTD off the port side of R/V  Ocean Starr .

Chief Scientist Ryan McCabe preparing to deploy the CTD off the port side of R/V Ocean Starr.

Despite these challenges, however, Ryan remained steadfast, calm, and poised. At every opportunity when he wasn’t on deck assisting with mooring operations, CTD casts, or nutrient sampling, he would be at his computer or up on the bridge trying to find ways to streamline transits to maximize research and make the tough decisions to eliminate sampling due to time lost. I know this took a toll on him, and I think everyone on the ship knew how tireless he worked to try and squeeze out as much science as we could. And we did. More than 40 CTD were cast, 31 mooring recovered and 19 deployed, 16 phytoplankton production experiments were conducted, over 400 samples of chlorophyll collected, two beam trawls, and 9 bongo net deployments—AND we were able to get to the Beaufort Line which we all about scrapped because of all the lost time. However, Ryan found a way. He earned my respect and I think that of the entire ship. He kept spirits up throughout, and I think the science crew fed off his drive, commitment to the research, and attitude.

Now most evenings, Ryan would be holed up in the computer lab either working until late hours writing his daily summary report that would be distributed the following morning. I could feel his sense of responsibility each time we would converse. Only on rare occasions (six times to be exact), have I seen him let his guard down and truly enjoy the trip.

Marty Reedy, our marine animal observer, stops in the middle of the computer lab doorway. “Ryan,” Marty calls out softly so as not to wake the captain in the stateroom next door. Ryan turns around and the only exchange that happens is a head nod by Marty, but that was all that was needed. The Arctic Explorers Green Flash Club has commenced.

Second mate Chris Wahlers, one of the founders of the Arctic Explorers Green Flash Club, looking off at a sunset opportunity—one of six during the cruise.

Second mate Chris Wahlers, one of the founders of the Arctic Explorers Green Flash Club, looking off at a sunset opportunity—one of six during the cruise.

Unbeknownst to the rest of the crew, Marty, Ryan, and second mate Chris Wahlers have formed a secret society indulging in the rare spectacle of green flashes. A green flash may occur when the sun sets at the ocean’s horizon without any obstructions. It lasts for only a brief few seconds, and then it disappears. Some say that it is just your eyes playing tricks on you after staring at the sun for too long, but others contend its veracity—the Arctic Explorers Green Flash Club among them.

While I am not a member, I have been an invited guest to these rare outings. All three of these men at all different stages of lives share this spectacular phenomenon. Luckily for the Green Flash Club, there were four reported sightings, more than I have ever seen in my lifetime. What strikes me during these outings on the bridge, however, is how for a brief minute, Ryan lets go of the weight of the cruise and its responsibility. He’ll stare with the other two and soak up the last of the sun’s rays, relishing in the exclusivity. Pretty soon his laugh returns, and it reminds me of the guy I met a month ago at the airport in Anchorage.

Phyto Team Assemble!

Phyto Team Assemble!

Chaetoceros spp.  images acquired from the R/V  Ocean Starr  Flow Cam.  Chaetoceros spp.  are a diatom found in the Chukchi/Northern Bering Sea.

Chaetoceros spp. images acquired from the R/V Ocean Starr Flow Cam. Chaetoceros spp. are a diatom found in the Chukchi/Northern Bering Sea.

“See anything yet?” I asked Marty Reedy, our marine animal observer, several times today or in the span of days, I can’t seem to recall—time can become irrelevant on a boat. I can only imagine the question has become borderline pestilent for him as I’m sure I’m not the only one asking him. In all actuality, he is now keen on the sound of my footsteps (and others) approaching the bridge, sighing upon hearing my Clydesdale hooves clamber up the stairwell.

“Either a house or a cow,” replies Catherine Berchok, one of the science crew upon entering the bridge, saving Marty from any kind of disparaging retort. While I was eagerly waiting for Marty’s response—a bowhead, beluga or magic unicorn—perhaps, in a way, Catherine’s remark has summed up a rather lackluster performance of marine life for seabirds and marine mammals in the recent days. Aside from a tug and barge we were steaming towards for most of the morning, there wasn’t a whole lot more to see. The recent grey cloud ceiling and an even greyer ocean is like a liquid desert, stark and devoid of color and life. Or is it? What if I were to tell you that under the ocean lies a scene completely different from what was just described?

Now before I divulge into these probing questions, a prelude is absolutely necessary to capture my current train of thought. You see, I have been watching a ton of Marvel superhero movies lately—all the blockbuster hits and even non-comic book movies too. The multiverse, infinity stones, intergalactic space invasions have entirely saturated my feeble cerebral latticework that I call my brain. And it seems all my shipmates have seen the final Avengers movie which has me postulating far-fetched theories to them ad-nauseum that they too probably recognize the Clydesdale trot like Marty. Be that as it may, let’s answer our earlier question from before…as if written by James Cameron, Michael Bay, or Stan Lee himself.

~~

“In a world…” wait. Let me start over after clearing my throat and adding a raspy undertone for cinematic effect. Lights, camera, roll the 30 second trailer and the ensuing narrative a dabble of creative science fiction. Ahem.

“In a world where creatures like Triceratium, Chaetoceros, and Dinophysis roamed the earth, one doesn’t need to look up…but down. Join an intrepid team of phytoplankton as they journey through the frigid [well not anymore, thanks climate change] waters of the unrelenting Arctic in a time and place of clashing colonies of diatoms and dinoflagellates to defend their populations from certain peril. This August, the Arctic has a new batch of superphytos.”

Lisa Eisner prepares a size fraction chlorophyll sample, part of a phytoplankton production experiment. Photo credit: Brendan Smith/NPRB

Lisa Eisner prepares a size fraction chlorophyll sample, part of a phytoplankton production experiment. Photo credit: Brendan Smith/NPRB

By day, Dr. Lisa Eisner, Haley Cynar, Anna Mounsey, and Brendan Smith aka Bobo filter thousands of liters of Northern Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort sea water aboard the R/V Ocean Starr. All this to measure abundance, biomass, growth, and species of phytoplankton. Called primary producers, these tiny microscopic organisms transform inorganic carbon using light (photosynthesis) to generate energy and happen to be the first organisms served up on the dinner plate called the food web. Beneath the confused waves of Bering Strait lies billions of these phytoplankton—dinoflagellates, diatoms, coccolithophores, euglenophytes (most likely a word featured in the National Spelling Bee). Never again will you gulp seawater willingly after surfing the big kahuna with the thought of coccolithophores on the tip of your tongue. As for our star team of researchers…well their goal is simple: to better understand the phytoplankton community in the waters they are sampling, especially because the Arctic has been changing so dramatically in recent years with more light and increased temperatures.

But by night, Dr. Eisner, Cynar, Mounsey, and Bobo reveal their true alter egos.

Alarm bells sound from the -80°C freezers where our team of scientists store their phytoplankton filter samples. That can only mean one thing. Danger in the photic zone. Dr. Eisner looks to Cynar and Bobo in their super secret phyto lab only to see Mousney already gone from the lab. This couldn’t be a coincidence. **Disclaimer** for the purpose of the story arc, someone had to the be villain. Thankfully, Anna kindly agreed since her project is well studying the subject matter that comprises her villainous alter ego.

“Where’s Anna?” Bobo looks at Haley concerningly. Both seem stunned at her disappearance.

Sea water sample (foreground) being processed through the Flow Cam (background) revealing different phytoplankton species including diatoms and dinoflagellates.

Sea water sample (foreground) being processed through the Flow Cam (background) revealing different phytoplankton species including diatoms and dinoflagellates.

“To the Flow Cam,” Dr. Eisner announces as she turns towards the super computer used for identifying phytoplankton. Haley grabs a sample of water collected from the last CTD at the chlorophyll maximum and runs to the machine.

“Don’t forget the cryovial and pipette,” Bobo bellows from across the lab, and in cinematic form throws the two in the air in slow-mo. Suspense. Pause…only for Dr. Eisner to snatch the two mid-air and engage the Flow Cam machine.

The Flow Cam whizzes, whirs, and wuzzles. Instantly, Dr. Eisner, Haley, and Bobo are miniaturized, shrunk like Ms. Fizzle’s Magic School Bus into the vial of seawater. Only our three super scientists have transformed into Superphytos: Dr. Ceratium [Eisner], a dinoflagellate with three long delicate horns shaped like a trident; Thallasiosira [Cynar], a diatom chain made of silica that looks like beads strung together with a small string; Chaetoceros [Bobo], another silicate diatom with the appearance of a men’s green metal watch band with a whole bunch of spines at the corners of each link. As for Mousney? Well this is where the story gets interesting.

“The Acrobat is gone,” Thallasiosira notices quickly. She is referring to the Superphytos’ oscillating transportation device that measures temperature, salinity, and depth.

“It must have been Alexandrium. When she spoke of blooming near Ledyard Bay, I thought she was only kidding.” Dr. Ceratium looked more concerned than ever. Our Superphytos have experienced past outbursts of Alexandrium in the North Pacific, but they thought those days were behind it.

“Everything makes sense now. The warming temperatures in the Arctic waters could be a perfect place for Alexandrium to spread its toxins.” Thallasiosira looked worried.

“We have to save the bivalves,” yelled out Chaetoceros as he flexed his spines. Once known to cause lots of damage with his spines, our Superphyto has changed its ways since joining Dr. Ceratium. **Another Disclaimer**notice the backstory opportunity for a character-specific prequel like Wolverine from X-Men perhaps.

Thallasiosira  spp. photographed by the Flow Cam system. Courtesy Lisa Eisner/NOAA

Thallasiosira spp. photographed by the Flow Cam system. Courtesy Lisa Eisner/NOAA

Just then Alexandrium swooshes by on the Acrobat and veers to Ledyard Bay. “It looks like she engaged the fluorometer,” Thallasiosira exclaims while pointing at the Acrobat. A beam of light begins scanning our three Superphytos from underneath the Acrobat measuring their chlorophyll. The light has caused the team to fluoresce, saturating their photosynthetic pigments. A microplastic ball floats in front of the light sheltering the team. And like that Alexandrium disappears into the light blue hue of the photic zone.

“We have to find a way to stop Alexandrium and fast too. I…I can’t believe it would do something like this right under our frustules” Dr. Ceratium replies faintly. “After all we have been through” **Disclaimer** another potential prequel. “If we are too late, it could trigger a huge, unexpected phytoplankton bloom, or perhaps even worse…a Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning event!” Thallasiosira and Chaetoceros trembled with fear.

“Quick. Hop on!” Thallasiosira points to the microplastic ball. All three desperately use their spines, horns, and flagella to reach the microplastic. In despair, they cannot reach the ball.

“Superphytos…you need to colonize” Dr. Ceratium said desperately. Chaetoceros went first and began dividing its cells (i.e. links) into new cells with spines. Thallasiosira went next and filled the gap. Like a bridge, Thallasiosira and Chaetoceros stretched and pulled towards the ball for Dr. Ceratium to connect.

“Onwards to Ledyard Bay,” Chaetoceros shouted into the photic zone. But what is this? The water appears blurry ahead. “Oh no, the thermocline and halocline…what do we do?”

Will our Superphytos navigate through the physical oceanographic barriers? Will they get to Alexandrium in time to stop PSP? How will Dr. Ceratium, Thallasiosira, and Chaetoceros transform back into the people we love? Will anyone outside the science community even understand this terrible attempt at anthropomorphizing phytoplankton?

Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion of our courageous Superphyto team….

Towing the line

Towing the line

R/V  Ocean Starr  retrieving a bottom beam trawl on the Beaufort Line station at a depth of more than 300 meters!

R/V Ocean Starr retrieving a bottom beam trawl on the Beaufort Line station at a depth of more than 300 meters!

The Beaufort stirs with excitement. Ocean water travelling from the Gulf of Anadyr, Russia, and the Bering Sea smushes and bruises—both very technical terms—into the Arctic, zipping over Barrow Canyon and hugging Alaska’s continental slope. Along for the ride are micro and macronutrients riding the flow like an underwater locomotive (I’m thinking like the Polar Express…and yes…I have a three year-old daughter so most of my recent analogies stem from children’s books) after being advected from 50 meters below. Krill and other euphausiids feast on the plankton smorgasbord. Bowhead whales careen the coast with mouths agape filtering sea water and trapping larger zooplankton and larval fishes. A euphony of species competition, predation, growth, and deposition are all on display in the Beaufort underneath the turbid waves and grey façade. The Beaufort has been waiting for us, like a dog wagging its tail anxious to greet its new visitor.

A mild breeze touches the faces of those on the back deck of the R/V Ocean Starr, a sharp contrast to the focused countenances fixed with tense jaws and furrowed brows. The deck is adorned with trawl gear and bongo nets, tools to fish for creatures living beneath the visible depths. There is a general buzz on the back deck as more science and vessel crew have descended upon the narrow stern of the ship.

The new vessel crane operator, John, inspects the trawl gear. Normally in the crane box slinging our research moorings over the side like a boss, John has found a new role in the trawl operations. He has fished for most of his life for tuna, mahi mahi, and swordfish all over the Pacific. So a beam trawl is a walk in the park for him. Already, he has started modifying the gear to make it easier to bring aboard. Holding a fid and a line, he methodically snakes the line over and under the netting like sewing a giant blanket. Hard hat, life jacket, hoodie, shorts, and flip flops, John taunts the Beaufort with his acclimated physiology. In a matter of minutes, John has fixed a new hand loop to pull the beam gear up and over the trawl ramp on the stern of the ship.

Libby Logerwell surveys the trawl gear splayed out on deck. Sarah Donohoe and Pete Shipton inspect the shackles holding the net to the horizontal steel pipe in place. The ship’s A-frame is moved inboard in preparation for the beam trawl deployment. Manning the gears is the Ocean Starr’s youngest AB, Austen—an eager, hardworking young man from Astoria. David Strausz and Catherine Berchok man the winch that will drop the gear to the bottom of the ocean. Careful, methodical, and extremely calculated, the crew prepare their final checklists before deployment. If it sounds like the crew is extra careful, well—hopefully that has been conveyed.

The Ocean Starr approaches the station location on the GPS display. Captain Pete eases the pneumatic levers controlling the main engines. A soft whish emanates from the levers knowing the engine has lessened its load. That whish sound is one of the most distinctive sounds on the ship. In all the years I have worked on ships, I have never heard that pneumatic air sound that controls the main engine.

Libby heads back into the lab to check the depth. Three hundred meters—the deepest depth we have sampled on this leg. Based on the CTD that descended earlier to these depths, the water is super cold at the bottom, -4°C. A few last-minute calculations and confirmation of the seafloor topography from the ship’s fish finder, Libby comes back out on deck. The seafloor looks ideal for deployment. The crew hustle to their deployment positions.

Controlling the A-frame, Austen starts to walk the gear outboard, dragging the heavy net and weights on deck towards the trawl shute. David Strausz eases the winch cable, and in a matter of seconds, the gear exits the stern of the ship like the Jamaican bobsled team. The cable descends at about 3m/s. At a 1 1/2 knots, the vessel moves slowly and methodically as hundreds of pounds of gear and cable navigate to the Beaufort seafloor. Everyone on deck starts postulating what type of creatures will be brought to light.

“Maybe we’ll catch a sleeper shark,” I reply coyly. Haley Cynar, who was helping with filming the operation, smiles slightly. We both know that catching something like that would be extremely rare and downright crazy. What was I thinking?

But as the cable descended to the bottom, I could only think that everyone else was imagining the same type of wonder that I was. All of a sudden, the cable slackened. We reached the bottom.

For five minutes, the Ocean Starr dragged the bottom trawl across the seafloor bottom; an eternity for those on deck. And as the cable started to reel in, what Libby didn’t know was that what we caught would surprise even her.

“100 meters,” Dave trumpeted over the sounds of the winch cable, main engines, generators, and crane. The anticipation is building. Soon the trawl bar peeks at the surface with the net bouncing along in the waves. The beam trawl has surfaced, and with a full net full of….

Mud. And brittle stars. Thousands of brittle stars and enough mud for every crew member to make the best sand castles. There were a few adult snow crabs, but mostly juvenile pinchers grabbing ahold of Sarah and Haley’s gloves. An adult crab grabbed hold of both of Jordi’s blue fishing gloves crippling his ability to subsample the haul. But don’t forget about the mud. Muddy boots, muddy Grundens, and muddy faces all gathered around the fish box to see what lay on the Beaufort seafloor.

Libby Loggerwel explaining about the ocean currents moving into the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

Libby Loggerwel explaining about the ocean currents moving into the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

And why was this haul somewhat surprising for Libby? Well, due to the currents ripping through the continental slope where we were sampling, she expected the substrate to be different than the muddy bottom as well as more adult Arctic cod in the beam trawl. The bongo net deployment she did afterwards only confirmed her suspicion. Where she was hoping to find large abundances of larval Arctic cod, the bongo came up empty handed. In 2018, Libby and her team sampled larval and adult Arctic cod in the same region where we just sampled. According to her, larval cod are expected in the Hanna Shoal, Barrow Canyon, and Beaufort. Perhaps the our team just missed the honey hole.

“It’s only one sample,” Libby replied when I asked her about what she thought about the trawl and bongo results. “We need to sample more to get a better idea of what’s really going on down there. One trawl and bongo at this station is just not enough.” But time has run out for the crew on Leg One and our journey back to Nome is upon us.

The next day, I sit down with Libby to review a paper by Seth Danielson, Lisa Eisner, Calvin Mordy, Carol Ladd, Leandra Sousa, and Thomas Weingartner. Admittedly, she noticed that I was incorrect with some of the currents previously described. But our conversation turned to the vast expanse of the Arctic and where she thought the cod might be. I was reminded by Franz Meuter’s model of Arctic cod spawning grounds south of the Beaufort and asked Libby why adult Arctic cod have not been sampled in between the spawning grounds and the sample location we just finished in the Beaufort.

“It’s a mystery,” Libby reflects. “We have definitely caught adult Arctic cod in the area, but the numbers are just not enough to account for the amount of juveniles we find.” Sounds like a mystery definitely worth trying to uncover.

The Pings, the Pongs, and the Hunt for Red October...

The Pings, the Pongs, and the Hunt for Red October...

Shearwaters, small black sea birds found commonly in the North Bering and Chukchi seas, undulate their flight patterns along each crest and trough of the waves. Sometimes eight or more visit the bow of the R/V Ocean Starr, but often you see them solitary. Flying solo. Their wings come careening so close to touching the water on a downward descent only to flap their way back into a feathered climb. It’s like they surf an imaginary wave above the ocean surface, tip-toeing that fine line between graceful dance and reckless thrill. Up and down they go, millions of times throughout the year, a new wave…a new ocean…a new latitude. Welcome shearwaters, to the Beaufort Sea.

Circling the ship, our resident shearwaters ride their “airboards,” goading and taunting each wave as we cruise to our next research station. Coast Guard cutter Healy is roughly five nautical miles to the starboard beam of the Ocean Starr yet is not visible despite its proximity. The time is 0530 with a low ceiling window—in other words, the visibility is not the greatest. A muted grey horizon and slate grey ocean blurs together like a charcoal rubbing interrupted by the infrequent white cap. The ship eases off the main [engine] and slowly approaches one of the BF stations—the Beaufort Line. The Beaufort transect line is the furthest east our science crew will sail on the first of three cruise legs for the 2019 Arctic Research Program. The RPMs lower, and the boat is quiet for a moment.

Pete Shipton radios to the bridge. “Permission to deploy the transducer,” breaking the momentary silent pause. “Permission granted,” replies Chief Mate Terry Reilly. Attached to a 30-meter cable, the transducer plops into the water off the ship’s starboard. Catherine Berchok stands by a sound receiver and begins entering a series of codes into the machine. She holds one side of the headphones to her ear like a radio DJ with the other ear free to listen to the transducer’s communication to the mooring below.

Catherine Berchok preparing to deploy one of her passive acoustic moorings in the northern Chukchi Sea. Photo credit: Brendan Smith/NPRB

Catherine Berchok preparing to deploy one of her passive acoustic moorings in the northern Chukchi Sea. Photo credit: Brendan Smith/NPRB

Now imagine this mooring sitting on the ocean bottom in 45 meters (135 ft) of cold arctic water—for a year. The instrument casing is a long cylindrical tube filled with batteries, a hard drive, and a listening device, all sealed air-tight to withstand the harsh northern environment. An 800-lb train wheel serves as its anchor. And the mooring suspends in the water column swaying with the current. For a year, the mooring records the sounds of the Arctic.

Catherine Berchok checking the acoustic monitoring instrument called an Aural. Photo credit: Brendan Smith/NPRB

Catherine Berchok checking the acoustic monitoring instrument called an Aural. Photo credit: Brendan Smith/NPRB

There’s a ping sound that rings throughout the ship. Lonely, searching, the ping penetrates the ocean to the bottom seeking the mooring about to be recovered. Then, a pong…and another…and now the two devices are speaking with one another in a series of sequential pings and pongs. The hull of the ship sounds as if a submarine has acquired our location like in the Hunt for Red October. Eight, now nine pings—the mooring indicates to the transducer that it is upright. Catherine programs the release code for the mooring to remotely disengage from the anchor. More pings and pongs, and now I am sure that Sean Connery is going to fire a torpedo at our ship. About 200 meters from the bow of the ship, the mooring surfaces.

“Can you hear the ice form?” I ask Catherine in a tonal pitch that drips of incredulity and wonder. Looking up from one of her instruments on the back deck, she smiles. “Actually, you can hear lots of things under water, especially the ice. You can hear it collide with each other…you can hear ice sheets sheering against one another.” While you may not hear the ice particles forming, she assures me that the ice can be heard…or not heard. She goes on to explain that the mooring can also hear wave action and wind, phenomena that have become increasingly frequent in the Arctic waters due to rising ocean surface temperatures.

“It’s [Arctic] also getting noisier,” Catherine continues. There isn’t ice to dampen the wave action and blanket the wind.

Catherine Berchok unbuckling the train wheel anchors for her acoustic mooring. Photo credit: Brendan Smith/NPRB

Catherine Berchok unbuckling the train wheel anchors for her acoustic mooring. Photo credit: Brendan Smith/NPRB

But that’s not all the noise emanating underneath the ocean’s surface. Vessel traffic and marine mammals are also recorded. Bowhead whales can be heard shrieking, moaning, and making gunshot sounds—all audible to the human ear. From her computer, she plays me a sound like a bomb going off similar to those I hear at the shooting range at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER). It comes from a bearded seal. Walrus make a knocking and gong sound underwater, but above the water, they sound completely different.

Catherine goes on to explain that fin whales have also been heard and observed in the Arctic waters, something that has also received recent attention by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Sightings of fin whales have been reported north of Barrow, although special acoustic monitoring is required for these huge animals as their vocalizations cannot be heard by the human ear. But it’s the North Pacific right whale that has interested Catherine in the Northern Bering Sea. Due to being one of the most endangered species in the world, understanding the presence, abundance, and relative location of these animals are of critical concern. With Catherine’s passive acoustic moorings, she will be able to listen for these incredible animals, and hopefully as technology improves, gather abundance information so critical for marine mammal management and protection.

The shearwaters return around the ship as Catherine continues to talk to me on the back deck. There is a huge smile when she talks about marine mammals and sound. A visible joy as if she is speaking about her husband and young son. That same kind of smile. I have come to realize that she is one of the hardest working people on the ship, always willing to lend a hand. Selfless and so much to give, it has been a pleasure getting to know her on the ship. She spoke with me about her work all the while setting up an experiment for another science crew member—truly amazing.

As we end the conversation, the shearwaters catch my eye one last time before I head into the ship’s lab. And yes, if you are still reading this, you are probably wondering why I started with these seabirds to begin with. At that moment, it dawned on me that their pattern of flying also resembles that of a wave, like the ocean waves they parallel or how sound is carried underwater. And so, I begin thinking about soundwaves, how far they travel, how different substrates can absorb sound. How singing in the shower sounds different than singing in the living room filled with carpet. I look down at my watch. It’s 0645, and then I wonder how I am thinking about all of this at this time of morning.

…only on a day that includes the ping and pong of science and the Hunt for Mooring BF-2 (our last mooring recovery of Leg One). 

Downtime

Sometimes I think that being on a research cruise is similar to being a firefighter, without the risk of loss of life and limb. Because, like firefighters, our days often alternate between periods of intense, focused activity and long spans of time waiting.

Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day

The stateroom I share with Jordi Maisch is pitch black, as if twilight itself went to sleep. It’s 4:59am, and I woke up just before my watch alarm would vibrate my wrist.

Dragging

Dragging

We crossed into the realm of the Arctic Circle on August 10th, 2019 aboard the contract vessel Ocean Starr west of Kotzebue Sound at 66 degrees and 33 minutes north. This is my first time crossing the Arctic Circle.

Mining for Water

Mining for Water

It is 5:20am, and the galley begins to stir. Shuffled footsteps tread heavy around the buffet line as bleary eyes blink quickly to adjust to the fluorescent lighting, a sharp contrast to the pitch-black staterooms from the night before. The coffee can’t brew fast enough.

The Sound of Science

The Sound of Science

Marty is one of those guys who gets along with everyone—the old salts, the greenhorns, and the guys like me who know enough to get in trouble. He’s quick with a joke, always eager to help, and truly diligent with his work.

All Aboard the Bering Sea Blues

All Aboard the Bering Sea Blues

The R/V Ocean Starr shoved off the dock from Unalaska with clear skies and calm seas—at least in the harbor.

Another Asgardian Joins the Ranks

Date: June something or another, it doesn’t really matter with the round the clock work and the endless sun.  Each day starts at a new station, mostly with the view of open ocean and sometimes with the occasional landscape of the Arctic coastline where you get to play the game Alaska or Russia. 

An Insidious Irony

An Insidious Irony

One of the aims of the Arctic Integrated Ecosystem Research Program is to build on our understanding of how Arctic marine ecosystems are responding and will respond to a changing climate.  Few places on Earth are experiencing the same degree of warming as the Arctic.

There is, however, an uncomfortable reality to the whole enterprise of observational oceanography.  Namely, our scientific activities are themselves contributing in a small way to the very problem we are trying to understand.

The Amazement Park

The Amazement Park

The R/V Sikuliaq makes a living in amazement, it’s a verifiable amazement park. This is revealed in a quick glance at the faces of the scientists while they work.

The (Seabird) Heart of Bering Strait

The (Seabird) Heart of Bering Strait

Surveying (or trying to survey) seabirds in the Chirikov Basin and the Bering Strait region in general can be an exercise in frustration – the winds whip up the seas too high, or the fog rolls in and you barely see beyond the ship’s bow, or the low midnight sun covers the sea ahead in glare. Nonetheless, it’s worth the effort, because nowhere else can you see these numbers of auklets…

Mysteries of the Sea

Mysteries of the Sea

The curiosity about nature that drives us to be scientists gets a particular boost when we find something we haven’t seen before – even if it is just a few inches long. This happened to me yesterday when we were sampling a station in the northern Bering Sea.

Spring Sentinels

Spring Sentinels

As I watch the slate gray waves moving rhythmically away from the bow of the vessel, a shocking white cloud erupts ahead of my field of vision. My eyes, momentarily blurry from the hypnotic motion of the waves, focus on the spot where the white anomaly appeared. Again, a spout appears, stark white against the ashen sky and sea. ‘Whale’ I whisper with enthusiasm….

Ode to N1

Ode to N1

Searching the ocean with bated breath

Will the mooring return from the watery depth