With seas calming from 15 feet and winds dissipating to five knots, the Chukchi Sea has once again given R/V Sikuliaq a brief respite from weather. Even though conditions were less than ideal during that time, operations still continued. CTD deployments were cast from midships, and a few multi-cores were deployed off the stern of the ship with the A-Frame. During these times, I take to filming the skies and attempt some aerial footage of the ship in action—its blue hull and white house juxtaposed against the steel gray ocean of the Chukchi. For the majority of our sampling and transit, R/V Sikuliaq has been the only focal point interrupting a horizon that blends into neutral sky and fog.
On the ship, labs, deck space, galley, wheelhouse, engineer rooms are all in a blur throughout the day. R/V Sikuliaq is the center of all our world right now—our nucleus. Our lives depend on her stability, her crew, and the judgement of so many people. But when I pan out with the drone, and see the ship alone in the Chukchi Sea, even a 260-ft boat seems small and inadequate to fully understand what oceanographic changes are happening here. Both feelings of inclusion (on the ship) and insignificance are met with equal humbleness. When flying, I tend to reflect upon the spatial vastness of the Chukchi, a body of water that by no means is the largest, but is of critical importance to the Arctic ecosystem.
Something so large as the Chukchi Sea and its relationship to the Arctic Ocean depends upon some of the smallest organisms that inhabit its shallow, productive depths. Each corner of the wet and dry labs on the ship—even the walk-in refrigerators that are normally meant for food—are set up for laboratory experiments on creatures small and smaller that inhabit the Chukchi or make their way up into these waters via the Alaska Coastal Current (ACC). In essence, R/V Sikuliaq is a floating microscope steaming from one location to another, looking to see what is here, how they grow, how they survive, and how they fit in the big picture of the great carbon cycle.
Drip by drip, Rachel Lekanoff gets one step closer to this answer. At almost every CTD station, Rachel, a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, joins the line of sleep-deprived scientists waiting to collect water from the niskin bottles on the CTD rosette. Several 1-liter bottles and an orange safety vest in tow, Rachel draws water from the bottom, middle, and surface waters to sample the smallest of organisms in the water column—bacteria or single-cell organisms. Through a series of water filtrations at different sizes (think small, smaller, and then even smaller yet), she is able to remove everything organic in the water samples except the single-celled organisms.
Why are these important in such a large ecosystem like the Chukchi Sea and Arctic ecosystem? Bacteria and other single-celled organisms break down organic matter in the water, regenerating nutrients needed by larger organisms, and they are the first organisms that contain organic carbon in their cellular structure. Whether they are consumed by other prey, become suspended particulate matter, or fall from the ocean surface, they form the primary basis of the carbon cycle. And how much carbon can have significant impacts on overall ecosystem health and vitality. Phenomena like ocean acidification, which is happening across the globe and at alarming rates in Alaska waters, are the direct result of carbon flux in ecosystems.
Sitting by her filtration station, Rachel opens her arms, arches her back, and takes a big stretch. It has been a long several days for both her and Stephanie O’Daly, another graduate student at UAF/CFOS. Stephanie has actually spent more time on the ship than at the University of Alaska as she just arrived from North Carolina. Stephanie is studying how much particulate matter is suspended in the water column.
I overhear Rachel mention that her family is from Unalaska, with Russian and Eastern Aleut lineage. Although she has visited Unalaska many times over the years visiting family and participating in culture camps, I could sense that when she arrived at Unalaska at the start of the voyage, that this particular visit was a major milestone in her life. I asked if she knew Reid Brewer, a friend of mine who lived in Unalaska for many years, and immediately she leaned back and her eyes had that look of nostalgia. Reid instructed her several years during the culture camps, and Rachel vividly recalled an experiment dealing with PSP or paralytic shellfish poisoning. She mentioned his sense of alacrity, so it’s no wonder that he was one of her inspirations to venture into oceanography.
With the ocean coursing through her blood (her father was a fisherman), she felt the call to learn the ocean…appreciate it…respect it. Her home is in Washington State, but her family, and perhaps a part of her soul, lives along the coastal waters of the North Pacific. Although reluctant to admit it, Fairbanks I think has a bit of a pull for her as well. Friendships are missed, a loved-one moving to the region, and the music seems to bring a smile to her face. Rachel laughed and said, “If you live in Fairbanks, you have to, by default, like bluegrass.” I can’t help but think that for Rachel, with her exposure to marine science and her Aleut background, she, by default, will continue to be a critical contributor to understanding the waters surrounding the Bering and Chukchi Seas.