Blood may be thicker than water, but when salt courses through your veins, sea water may be even thicker yet. There is a natural comradery between those whose hearts pump with the rhythm of ocean currents. I don’t count myself as the saltiest of sea dogs, but my childhood on Whidbey Island, Washington has guaranteed that I crack a grin at the promise of a salt breeze and the sight of land to my stern.
It is probably not surprising then, that I found my way to a career where I spend my time thinking about the ocean. Back on land, I am a student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, studying to be a fisheries scientist. As a part of this research cruise on the R/V Sikuliaq, I am a member of the three-person fish trawl team. Our task is to pull a net along the seafloor to check out the fish and other animals living along the bottom. At this point, it’s only fair that I tell you that I am entirely biased; I think fish, especially these Alaskan fish, are fantastic. I’m worse than a proud parent who pulls out their phone to show you a picture of their 2 year old picking their nose.
Our first task onboard was to put our nets together. Working on deck with tools and getting dirt under my fingernails is always better than the time I spend working at my computer screen. Kids love Legos and Lincoln Logs for a reason, building things with your hands is fun and rewarding. The moment of truth came the next day as we set the net for the first time. Excitement seemed to bubble up from my chest and out of the top of my mustang suit as I saw the wire pay out and watched the net disappear beneath the surface. “Let’s go fishing!” we crowed into the wind.
No matter what kind of nets you fish, whether they be scientific, commercial, or subsistence, there’s got to be a stirring of anticipation in that heartbeat before the net comes out of the water. “What have we got today?” I think, and then the end of the bag pops up to the surface. With a whoop and a holler we haul the wriggling bag of fish onto the deck. We rinse any mud from our catch and dump it into a tote before we put our scientist [hard] hats on to count, measure, and weigh everything that we found.
Taking the catch back to the sorting table is a production all its own. Our excitement on deck to see what we caught is no match for the enthusiasm once our fishy treasure is laid out on the table. Folks from other teams cluster around to help us sort the catch. It is no understatement to say that ooh’s and ahh’s are audible as purple sea stars and brilliantly patterned fish are pulled out of the tote and sorted into trays. Jokes are made about fish called “eel pouts” and there is the occasional gasp as someone squeezes an orange jello-like blob too hard and gets a face full of water. My favorite moments are when members of the crew come by our table to check out our haul. Worse than any helicopter parent, I’ll proudly display the catch, picking up a dragon-like specimen known as an alligatorfish for show and tell. Nature is beautiful and I can’t help but share it with anyone who asks.
On the ship, different scientific teams have to take turns deploying their gear. While we were waiting for our turn to trawl, the ship cruised over to a patch of sea ice to measure the temperature, depth and salinity of the water. I found myself considering the human boundaries that we impose on the natural environment. That day, our ship had crossed the line into the Arctic Circle quietly, the ocean before the demarcation line looking remarkably similar to the ocean beyond this northern boundary. There was no arrow floating on a marker saying “ARCTIC, this way, watch your step.” Without sitting in the wheelhouse and looking at a chart, you wouldn’t have ever known that you crossed a boundary at all. And yet, this patch of sea ice, ephemeral and ever moving, got scientists and crew alike to put down their work or get out of bed to congregate on deck. Imaginations whirred as chunks of ice bobbed serenely by, and we pointed out shapes in the ice, rather than the more standard game of finding shapes in the clouds. With every face turned out to sea bearing a smile, it was apparent that the real signposts in the Arctic have nothing to do with lines on a chart.