Across from me in the small airport terminal in late July sat a man in his late 30’s, square jaw and a five o’clock stubble growing along the periphery. Most likely a climber or trail runner, this man had his choice of empty seats in the waiting area, but selected a seat next to Libby Logerwell, a scientist joining me on the R/V Ocean Starr. His choice got me thinking that if he knew her, I probably should know him too. But I was struggling to put a face with a name, and certainly choosing a seat right next to Libby wasn’t a coincidence. I recall looking down at his small Patagonia backpack and then down at my gear—two huge camera bags—and wishing that I could pack light like this guy. My assumption that him packing light correlated to some unencumbered lifestyle would later confirm that I should never ever enter the psychic profession unless I want to lose money. Libby kindly introduced us which also confirmed my earlier suspicions that he was not some weirdo at an airport who would intentionally sit next to a random person.
Chief Scientist Ryan McCabe was quick to smile and crack a joke when we met. Coupled with a hint of southern drawl, I knew I was going to like this guy. Unfortunately, when I meet someone that seems cool, I tend to ask way too many questions, and in hindsight, I probably didn’t leave the best impression. Karma—it can sneak up anywhere. Fortunately for me, Ryan was incredibly patient and did his best to answer what he knew.
Fast forward a month, and the first leg of the 2019 Arctic Program cruise is nearing completion. Ryan and I have had a chance to get to know each other a little better, and well…he still is a cool guy, that much hasn’t changed. In this short time, however, he has also earned my trust and respect, two attributes I do not throw out lightly to just anyone.
For the sake of brevity, this cruise has been challenging. I mean all research cruises have their blips and bumps so I’ve learned. Yet this leg had all sorts of adversity thrown its way throughout the entire month. From severe weather in transit requiring two crew changes and two separate trips to Nome which meant days lost doing research, lack of a 24-hour work schedule, fouling a propeller ceasing all research operations for more than two days, I felt like we were living out the tale of Odysseus. Ryan, our Odysseus in this analogy, just wanted to do science like the rest of us, but extemporaneous obstacles continued to hinder our Arctic sampling. Fortunately, the Ocean Starr ran better than 2017 saving precious time when it counted most thanks to the ship’s crew who provided all the extra care and attention a 54-year old ship would need.
Despite these challenges, however, Ryan remained steadfast, calm, and poised. At every opportunity when he wasn’t on deck assisting with mooring operations, CTD casts, or nutrient sampling, he would be at his computer or up on the bridge trying to find ways to streamline transits to maximize research and make the tough decisions to eliminate sampling due to time lost. I know this took a toll on him, and I think everyone on the ship knew how tireless he worked to try and squeeze out as much science as we could. And we did. More than 40 CTD were cast, 31 mooring recovered and 19 deployed, 16 phytoplankton production experiments were conducted, over 400 samples of chlorophyll collected, two beam trawls, and 9 bongo net deployments—AND we were able to get to the Beaufort Line which we all about scrapped because of all the lost time. However, Ryan found a way. He earned my respect and I think that of the entire ship. He kept spirits up throughout, and I think the science crew fed off his drive, commitment to the research, and attitude.
Now most evenings, Ryan would be holed up in the computer lab either working until late hours writing his daily summary report that would be distributed the following morning. I could feel his sense of responsibility each time we would converse. Only on rare occasions (six times to be exact), have I seen him let his guard down and truly enjoy the trip.
Marty Reedy, our marine animal observer, stops in the middle of the computer lab doorway. “Ryan,” Marty calls out softly so as not to wake the captain in the stateroom next door. Ryan turns around and the only exchange that happens is a head nod by Marty, but that was all that was needed. The Arctic Explorers Green Flash Club has commenced.
Unbeknownst to the rest of the crew, Marty, Ryan, and second mate Chris Wahlers have formed a secret society indulging in the rare spectacle of green flashes. A green flash may occur when the sun sets at the ocean’s horizon without any obstructions. It lasts for only a brief few seconds, and then it disappears. Some say that it is just your eyes playing tricks on you after staring at the sun for too long, but others contend its veracity—the Arctic Explorers Green Flash Club among them.
While I am not a member, I have been an invited guest to these rare outings. All three of these men at all different stages of lives share this spectacular phenomenon. Luckily for the Green Flash Club, there were four reported sightings, more than I have ever seen in my lifetime. What strikes me during these outings on the bridge, however, is how for a brief minute, Ryan lets go of the weight of the cruise and its responsibility. He’ll stare with the other two and soak up the last of the sun’s rays, relishing in the exclusivity. Pretty soon his laugh returns, and it reminds me of the guy I met a month ago at the airport in Anchorage.