There are familiar faces in the galley the past few mornings. Each face telling a story of a hard night’s work. Among us are blank stares, stale breath, and clothes undoubtedly worn the previous day(s). A silent pause lingers around the table like the fog that continues to follow R/V Sikuliaq. An empty dessert tray stands watch on the yellow non-skid—a gluttonous memory from last night for many of us. Hands are curled around porcelain and steel, clutching anything warm that offers just an extra jolt of energy. My jokes are a string of rambling incoherency, but invoke laughter among the group that only sleep deprivation can explain. We are a tired mass waiting to fill empty bellies before a short, morning sleep. The clock read 0730, and aside from a 20-minute nap, I had been awake for more than 24 hours.
1130. Awake. My bunkmate was stirring. I look at the clock in disbelief. Although it was only four hours sleep, I felt like I missed an eternity. And perhaps I did. I brushed my teeth quickly, donned a set of clean clothes, and hurried down the stairs to find the computer lab all in a buzz.
Chief Scientist, Seth Danielson, had taken some CTD casts earlier in the morning and discovered some large chlorophyll maximums and nutrient rich waters—in other words, the water column was full of small algae and abundant plant fertilizer. He showed me the latest NASA satellite imagery for the Bering Strait, Chukchi Sea region, pointing out the greenish hue coloration of the water from the image. R/V Sikuliaq was right in the middle of it. Seth walked me to another set of computer monitors (there are twenty-five in total), this time to the SONAR readings—not just phytoplankton were capitalizing at this location, but some bigger things too! Anxious to see what was in the water column, science experiments shifted priority to accommodate earlier than anticipated mid-water trawl nets. As I listened to Seth’s explanation of what was going on in the water, I could also hear his excitement—the quick words, short breaths, and a smile that just wouldn’t leave his face. I was reminded by a Deadliest Catch phrase, “on the crab,” only R/V Sikuliaq and the Arctic Program were on the spring bloom 60 miles southwest of Point Hope.
Our conversation shifts to weather, GoPros, 360 action cameras, and the off-chance of flying a drone around the ship. In the corner of my eye, I caught one of those familiar faces I had seen earlier in the morning. Kate Stafford, marine mammal scientist, walked by the lab with binoculars around her neck. Compared to my disheveled state, Kate looked refreshed and invigorated. She had been up the previous night up in the bridge scanning the placid seas for any hint of marine mammal activity while Sikuliaq was in transit.
Nearly ten days have passed on the cruise, and only a handful of marine mammal sightings—two of which were dead walrus. I can only imagine the frustration of scanning the horizon during each of her transects to come up empty handed. From my times in the wheelhouse, I keenly recall that desire to see something in the water, to know that you weren’t alone in the vast expanse of ocean.
Yesterday, however, the transects Kate routinely observes were much different than the normal vacant parking lot she has encountered. Research crew alerted me to the news. Signs were posted on the galley doors. Whales! Grabbing my largest lens and camera, I rushed to the back deck to observe one of the few marine mammal sightings that left me breathless. In a rare moment of marine mammal sightings, I put my camera away. Too far away to photograph and too vast of an area to cover photographically in a single frame, gray whale blows, heads, and flukes filled the distant horizon.
Many of the research crew broke from their experiments to absorb into memory this particular moment of the cruise. They were all witnessing one of the longest migratory routes of any marine mammal species in the world. On the back deck, I found Kate who had swapped out her binoculars for a camera setup similar to mine slung around her neck.
There was a different kind of quiet between us than earlier before. It was not out of tiredness, but of awe. After a couple minutes, she broke the silence. “Imagine what it must have been like before whaling. Imagine what the horizon must have looked like back then.” A gray whale and her calf surfaced a few hundred yards from the starboard quarterdeck. The first blow from the female was strong and hovered in the air for several seconds. The calf followed. This was one of many pairings we encountered throughout the afternoon and even into the night. Kate estimated that over a hundred gray whales were within viewing distance from the ship. Slowly, researchers withdrew from the railing and returned back to their research stations. More sampling to continue before the day’s end.
2300. Still awake. Huddled masses like Kate and I return to the galley for some coffee. R/V Sikuliaq is en-route to another sampling station which means Kate has gone back to the bridge to resume observing. She is joined by another diligent and ever-present seabird observer, Catherine Pham. The two have scanned countless hours of the Chukchi Sea. Birds have followed us throughout many parts of our journey with swift grace and agility, but today, we all joined Kate with every blow we saw on the horizon.
0230. Still awake. Pondering about aerial photographs capturing the largest whale migration.