The fish and invertebrate crew just finished hauling in a bottom trawl. The contents shift restlessly in the cod end of the trawl net like a biological bounty of benthic treasure. Ann, Caitlin, and Lorena hustle to move the gear aside as another research operation is about to commence. A blue bucket finds its way on deck, a colorful contrast to the orange mustang suits surrounding it. Then, two arms, short sleeves, and a light blue phone jostle for position amid orange flotation sleeves—the air temperature is 42°F. The first out of the net and into the bucket… a blue king crab, an Arctic sculpin, and mounds of juvenile opilio (snow crab).

“Yum. Tasty.” I thought Opik was looking at the blue king crab, commonly called Diomede crab in her village, but instead, she was holding the Arctic sculpin. This is a fish that doesn’t commonly make the menu in most restaurants in the U.S.

 Caitlin Forster shows Opik Ahkingathe latest catch from the bottom trawl. Photo credit: Brendan Smith

Caitlin Forster shows Opik Ahkingathe latest catch from the bottom trawl. Photo credit: Brendan Smith

For our three fish and invertebrate biologists, the blue bucket contains Myoxocephalus scorpioides, Arctogadus glacialis, Liparis gibbus, volume measurements of fish and invertebrates, lengths, weight, age and sex identifications; these numbers and statistics are recorded into data sheets. But I wonder if that was what Opik was thinking of the first bottom trawl she saw on the R/V Sikuliaq, or if it was more like what tastes better with a little seal oil, salt, and pepper.

The contents in a blue bucket are the same, but what the contents mean to each person may be different.

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Ever since meeting my wife almost ten years ago, I began a tradition to always come home with a gift after a long trip without her. Some trips it was a necklace, or a pair of earrings that were carefully wrapped in my carry-on. The search has meandered into antique shops, jewelry stores, clothing stores where I didn’t know what to call anything (dress or skirt…I still don’t know the difference), even grocery stores late at night in parts of Anchorage where I really don’t belong. There was one time I seriously considered bringing home a weathered wooden block and shackle from a fishing boat from the early 1920’s—probably something she would not have been entirely too excited about.

This same tradition has extended to my daughter after she was born. Books for us to read during our nighttime routine, a pair of earrings tucked away for safe keeping, a stuffed animal whale, and of course that deep exhale when I come home and gaze upon her sleeping softly in her crib. I’d like to think that these mementos that I bring home will stir questions and allow an opportunity for a father to yarn a tale or two about his past.

The journey upon the R/V Sikuliaq is the longest I have been away from my daughter, and so, naturally, the gift I would like to present to her should reflect that same level of magnitude. Luckily for me, I have stumbled upon that something…

…a story, and a name.

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Opik Ahkinga introduced herself to me in the galley the day we departed Nome, almost three weeks ago. I was greeted with the kindest eyes, a sincere smile, and a glimpse at her heartfelt honesty. “Too many names in one day, I am sorry if I will forget,” she said as we were going through introductions. I mentioned that I had a nickname upon which she and I both laughed. And luckily for me, my name stuck, and in that extemporaneous moment, we became friends.

Opik is a daughter, a sister, an aunt, and mother. Her family extends beyond her small village in Diomede to Wales, Nome, Fairbanks, Anchorage, and beyond. Family, the nucleus of our mutual bond, is what she holds most dear. Second only to her culture and where she came from. She has a picture of her dog on her smartphone, a big white and black Newfoundland mix. The phone she carries with her everywhere is connecting her with friends and family at home and taking photographs of the R/V Sikuliaq through her eyes (and putting me out of my job to boot).

 Opik using the the rare opportunity to call her dad with cellular service. Little Diomede is in the background. Her dog was waiting by the beach. Photo credit: Brendan Smith

Opik using the the rare opportunity to call her dad with cellular service. Little Diomede is in the background. Her dog was waiting by the beach. Photo credit: Brendan Smith

I am a son, a brother, an uncle, and a father. My family extends beyond my small town in Sherman, CT to California, Arizona, Connecticut, Iowa, and Georgia. My family is what I hold most dear in my life, and the constant nostalgic pull of my childhood home in Sherman still pervades my memories. I used to have a picture of my dog on my iPhone, a white and black border collie, until my daughter became his successor. I carry my camera gear everywhere on the ship, documenting the research and ship crew throughout our voyage.

We are not too different where it matters. And we both ended up on the ship in similar ways…being communicators. We both are quick to laugh, to joke, to smile, to listen, to talk, to hug, to wear our emotions like a coat of armor. Our emotions are what make us stronger, to feel more, to learn more, to appreciate more. I think we both share that common sense of inclusivity with the research and ship crew—to feel like we belong here. Opik has the natural ability to make everyone around her feel special, feel important, and feel like you and her are the bestest of buds.

 Photographer Brendan Smith and Opik hug after an amphipod eating contest. Photo credit: Jessica Pretty

Photographer Brendan Smith and Opik hug after an amphipod eating contest. Photo credit: Jessica Pretty

But we also have lived different lives and tell different stories. I’d like to think we have gained new perspectives and understanding by sharing these experiences. I have learned how important she is in her community; how much she cares about protecting and preserving Diomede through her efforts in recycling, beach clean-ups, providing employment opportunities, and learning new ways to be a greener, cleaner Diomede.

Opik has been everywhere on the ship. I have observed how helpful she has been in each of our sampling stations. She has been on deck and in the labs learning the different scientific methods. Rain, shine, or high seas, there is always a smile and a willingness to assist. Her enthusiasm is unyielding, contagious, and seeps into your heart like the warmth of hot chocolate on a cold day.

 During a search and rescue operation for two boys from Diomede/Wales, Opik tirelessly stands watch on the bridge with fellow lookouts from the research team. Photo credit: Brendan Smith

During a search and rescue operation for two boys from Diomede/Wales, Opik tirelessly stands watch on the bridge with fellow lookouts from the research team. Photo credit: Brendan Smith

She has not been just an observer, but an active participant in almost all the sampling procedures. She gets as muddy, if not muddier, than the sediment group when they sieve mud (I’ve seen her grab a hose to her mouth and siphon the seawater to start the filtering process). She has separated out small gadids in the midwater trawl and all sorts of benthic creatures in the bottom trawl. She has filtered water for fatty acid analysis (a way to tell the quality of food in the water) and bacteria, and I have seen her on a few occasions with her eyes glued to one of Russ’s microscopes. She even managed an opportunity to nab a sea peach and eat it! She offered one to me too, but if I recall correctly it was still morning and pre-coffee. Needless to say, however, I cordially declined.

One evening, she came and sat by me at one of the computer stations in the main lab. We had a long chat while I waited for the internet to finally allow a 1.5mb upload to our blog (about an hour or so). Our conversation meandered. We listened. We spoke thoughtfully. I mentioned to her how amazing she was, being so active with each of the science experiments aboard the ship. Without skipping a beat, she said, “If I don’t learn how to do all of the science and why the scientists are doing it, then I can’t tell my village what you guys are doing.” That made all the sense in the world to me, and I certainly appreciated the position she was in to inform her community. But she said something else to me that stuck, just like my nickname for her.

“I am learning all of this so one day we can do the same things and understand our waters. So I can teach science to the children of Diomede.” She then began describing to me how important it was to report back that the little things in the water column like copepods and phytoplankton are critical to the ecosystem and the food they fish for on Diomede. All was said with such sincerity and concern. I could feel her deep connection with Bering Strait and the northern Bering Sea in that moment. I could feel that this journey on R/V Sikuliaq may mean more to her than anyone else on the ship.

 Village of Little Diomede. Photo credit: Brendan Smith

Village of Little Diomede. Photo credit: Brendan Smith

Opik and I continued talking, this time about life outside the ship. We talked of traveling, our families, and of her job at Diomede… the role both she and her sister play in the community. I spoke about my time working in the northwest Arctic in communities like Shungnak and Noatak. I shared with her my motivations to continue working in the field of photography and storytelling—to make my family proud… and one day my daughter proud of her father.

She told me about her daughter. I listened and took my time to process. There was an extraordinary calmness to her as she looked at me, and then she smiled. She told me a story about her grandmother, and how her daughter got her Eskimo name. Typically, an elder (in this case, Opik’s grandmother) dips two fingers in a bowl of blessed water and places the fingers on the forehead of the person to be named. Now in the instance of Opik’s daughter, her grandmother was not able to get the water in time, so she licked two of her fingers, and smacked them straight on her daughter’s forehead. “Your name is Yalallee.” And that was that. A lick, a smack, and her daughter had her name. The name came from her daughter’s great great grandfather, a hunter from Siberia (North Side) and the furthest over from Uelen.

With her eyes wide and full, Opik said to me, “I would like to give your daughter her Eskimo name.” It was an honor I was not expecting.

This particular trip to the Arctic, there is nothing to stuff in my carry-on or hurriedly dash to a gift shop to purchase. My gift to my daughter is the story of Opik Akhinga, how we became friends, and how my daughter got her Eskimo name. She let me into a part of her life, part of her journey, and I feel honored to have that privilege.

About a week later, I asked Opik if she thought of a name yet for my daughter.

She replied, “Yalallee.”

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There are many journeys taking place on the R/V Sikuliaq. There are personal journeys of education, career, experience, adventure, or escape. There is the journey of the vessel itself, traversing the expanse of the northern Bering Sea and Chukchi Sea. There is one of scientific pursuit, to understand how climate change is impacting the Arctic marine ecosystem. Opik is a part of all of these journeys, but there is one that is hers and hers alone on Sikuliaq. Bering Strait and the northern Bering Sea is her home… her backyard. This body of water has meaning beyond oceanography, trophic levels, sediment—there is love, loss, life, subsistence, and a spirit nestled beneath the shallow waters that only Opik knows.

For this short time, all of us on the Sikuliaq have been visitors in this beautifully different place that Opik calls home. Yet, she peered into that proverbial blue bucket and she listened, learned, and participated so that she may be able to share with her community.

I hope that others on the ship have followed her lead, and looked in only to find something different, too.