Over the past couple of days, R/V Sikuliaq has been beating into a southerly swell. Gusting winds upwards of 30 knots have stirred surface waters, forming white caps, churning the upper meters of water, and mixing temperature and salinity profiles in the greater Kotzebue Sound area. And while the sea froths and boils about, crew continue to conduct science off the ship. CTD casts travel to depths underneath the surface confusion revealing patterns of salinity, temperature, and fluorescence; sediment cores are collected from a stern shifting, rocking, heaving from the swell; fish trawls continue on schedule despite tension loads from a ship surging with the seas; bongo nets sway in the wind like bell-bottom pants hanging on a clothes line waiting to dry.
Staterooms line the starboard hull of the ship, some closer to the bow than others. Those closest bunks to the bow can feel each blow Sikuliaq delivers to an unyielding sea. At night, it is as if the seas have magnified. First is the sound of impact like a discordant symphony of drums—snare, bass, tom-toms—and clashing cymbals. The bow lifts from the force, and then a pause. It is in that moment that your body prepares for Newton’s third law of motion—will it be a roll inboard or outboard, a limb or other extremity flinging in a random direction as if the ocean is a marionette’s apprentice? On certain occasions, the impact of the wave will send a ripple through the hull that can be felt like a sonic wave. You think the ship is going to buckle with that type of force, but Sikuliaq is built specifically to handle the rough seas and thick ice cover (when it is present). Sleep is scattered for most, but for Caitlin Smoot and Alex Poje in Russ Hopcroft’s lab, a welcome reward no matter how turbulent after several days of little sleep setting up another zooplankton study.
Even the simplest of things prove to be difficult with rolling seas. Take a shower, for example. The water from the showerhead moves like a lawn sprinkler, your body pressed against one of the walls in the event the marionette decides to catapault you out of the shower, and when the soap falls, well…make sure your life insurance is all in order. Standing becomes a modern dance interpretation. Feet placed more than shoulder width apart and a subconscious sway in every opposite direction the waves roll. Should your stand become a walk, a turbulent tango might ensue with a hallway, stairwell, or lab space—not the best of partners so it’s best to hold on to a rail, wall, or bulkhead. Although Sikuliaq is a dry ship (meaning no alcohol), if you were to chance the vessel on a rough day at sea, you may question every sailor by their walk. Don’t leave a coffee cup unattended, especially near electronics (unless it’s a mac), or fill it to the top unless you need to warm your hands up from cold to scalding. Sitting in a swivel chair could perhaps draw roller coaster enthusiasts from all around.
Now imagine trying to do precise scientific measurements aboard, round the clock, 24 hours a day. Try counting zooplankton or siphoning exactly one copepod from a petri dish under the microscope with rolling seas. Or imagine filtering water with utmost precision to remove everything in the water except the smallest of bacteria! I often marvel at what our scientists can do on this ship. Then I think about the equal challenge of deploying the gear over the side. The calculation of wiring out scientific instruments worth more than my car and the clear communication needed from the deck to the winch control rooms. Ethan, Paul, Simin, Steve (x2), and Colonel, vessel crew who we all depend upon on deck for safety, for data collection, for our gear to come back in one piece.
Yet despite these challenges of day to day life aboard a rolling ship, I find that it renews my energy and enthusiasm, like a feeling of visceral energy. Perhaps that energy is drawn from the forces of wave and wind or the thrill that every journey needs a challenge or two to overcome. I know that the weather has come at a time for some when research experiments have ramped up and has further dampened their constitution. It has made them more exhausted, more aware of the constant grind of scientific routine at each sample site. Many of these tired souls are graduate students collecting data for their theses, for the greater good of the Arctic Program. My only hope is that my energy, high-fives, positive deviance, and terrible jokes and movie references can somehow be transferrable. After all…I could be home trying to write this very blog post at a desk that does not move and in an office without a water tight door. That, or mowing my lawn that never ceases to grow. But how would I be able to capture the essence of everyone’s hard work, dedicated crew, and stalwartly nature of R/V Sikuliaq? I miss my family more than anything, but I know that I have been given a rare opportunity to work with some of the best scientists, best crew, and in one of the more pristine environments in the world. How else can I be but thrilled to be here?
The seas are not big by vessel crew standards, but they are humbling. I find myself donning a mustang suit that much easier, as if being on a deck is a challenge I want to overcome. My cameras are wrapped in a makeshift weather cover made from torn up garbage bags and electrical tape. The sea spray has already affected my camera once to the point where it was randomly firing and not focusing. Off to the bow to photograph Sikuliaq charging our unrelenting marionette. The sea spray showers the windows on the bridge and part ways to port and starboard. One hand holding the rail, the other hovering above the shutter on my camera. My right eye is glued to the viewfinder, waiting for the right swell to send the ocean in a panic. I can’t tell you which wave will produce the spray, but it’s like a sixth sense knowing when it will happen...waiting for the right moment to feel the spray on my own face and feel that much more alive.
Later in the evening, Captain Piper walked into the computer lab where I was processing the photos from earlier today. When I came across the bow photos, I asked him if anyone had ever gone out on the bow when the weather was that inclement. Without skipping a beat, he said, "Yeah... one."