Many people think of Northern Fulmars as the marine equivalent of pigeons—flying rats. I used to think that too, when I worked as a fisheries observer aboard large commercial fishing boats in the Bering Sea. Hundreds of fulmars would follow us in hopes of getting a free meal. Even though they are not the only species to follow boats, they are often singled out for criticism, maybe because they are rather homely in comparison to birds like kittiwakes and shearwaters.
On any boat, there is an unspoken trust. It is not earned or rewarded, but expected. It can be taken away… stripped and torn down by trepidation, sloth, and distraction. On any boat, trust is yours to lose.
Looking down at my mud encrusted, dry, tired hands and mud covered clothes I see the unmistakable marks of being part of the benthic team. No amount of soap or lotion has seemed to rid me entirely of the remnants of a day outside on the deck spent bringing up multi-core tubes full of mud from the floor of the Chukchi Sea and the hours of processing that follow.
“Where do you live?” This is one of the first questions people will ask you when you board a research vessel. This question is so common because researchers with different backgrounds and from different universities collaborate on projects, each bringing their own technicians and students.
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.
A Brittany Jones sighting on the boat can be rare. She exists, I promise, but her experiment and dedication to her work have unintentionally positioned her from the rest of the scientists that share common space for sediment and fisheries work.
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.
We had our blue nose initiation yesterday for crossing the Arctic Circle (N 66°32’) into the Realm of the Arctic, the Northern Domain of the Polar Bear*. I won’t say much about it, just that we pollywogs-turned-blue noses came out of it sodden cold. What happens in the Arctic stays in the Arctic.
The first time I saw plankton under a microscope was in 10th grade. My instructor brought a plankton net into class, which he used that morning. When peering into the eye piece, I saw a miniature aquatic ecosystem. Instead of grasses and shrubs, there were diatoms —a single cell plant plankton, i.e., phytoplankton, with a distinctive glass shell. Instead of cows or sheep grazing on grass, diatoms were being consumed by copepods (an animal plankton, or zooplankton). Instead of insects munching on grass blades, there were ciliates (single-cell zooplankton, which are much smaller than copepods) grazing on phytoplankton. Some moments in life have immediate impact, but how could I have known that 20 years ago, that the little ecosystem which caught my gaze would be the beginning of a career path which brought me here?
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.
There are familiar faces in the galley the past few mornings. Each face telling a story of a hard night’s work. Among us are blank stares, stale breath, and clothes undoubtedly worn the previous day(s). A silent pause lingers around the table like the fog that continues to follow R/V Sikuliaq.
R/V Sikuliaq cuts through the calm waters of Kotzebue Sound at 9.3 knots to the next CTD station. The Chief Scientist, Seth Danielson, added several CTD stations in the evening before we arrived at the major processing station in the morning. Kofan Lu, Steve Hartz, and I are taking the graveyard shift to complete the CTD run
Onboard the R/V Sikuliaq with us, we are fortunate to have Opik Ahkinga from the native village of Diomede. Opik has a unique blend of traditional and scientific knowledge, and a deep desire to protect her community’s long-term future.
Two days ago, two boaters from Diomede went missing. A man and a boy on the verge of becoming a man.
For the past hour, I have stared blankly at my laptop computer. The cursor on the screen blinks incessantly, almost yelling at me against the stark white background from which I am writing. My headphones are on full blast to one song in particular, Holocene, by Vitamin String Quartet attempting to quell even the noisiest cacophony within in my brain. Its soft, somber, melodramatic tones of violin strings plucking and strumming match the rhythm of the blinking cursor, match the emotion that I am feeling, and yet still offer layers of complexity that I continue to explore each time I listen.
Last night, R/V Sikuliaq had a long steam over to the northwest tip of St. Lawrence Island. About a 10-hour steam, it was the first opportunity many of us had for some downtime after working some long hours the first couple days. How people chose to use their free time was quite interesting.
We woke up at the crack of dawn (I’m using the word “dawn” very loosely here since we don’t really have nights) to find the boat surrounded by pea soup fog. Back to sleep!
"I was on deck until 3:30am, and then back up at 6am," said with a heavy sigh as Lisa Eisner was working with me on deck with her phytoplankton chambers. A kink in the outflow water hose was holding her up, and with some extra muscle, we were able to get her back going again. Despite the lack of sleep, however, her enthusiasm was still evident, as I had to keep up with her as she returned back inside the ship.
23,000 pounds of research gear loaded, secured, and distributed among the deck and main labs. Five deck levels of a ship well equipped to handle any ocean with a crew busy from bow to stern. And twenty-five scientists officially called R/V Sikuliaq, a small island, home for twenty days starting yesterday.
The 2017 Arctic Shelf Growth, Advection, Respiration and Deposition Rate Measurements (ASGARD) expedition got off to an unofficial start this week as several members of the science team boarded the R/V Sikuliaq in Dutch Harbor. While in port, Sikuliaq crew and the science team loaded up the vessel with many tons of gear, equipment, supplies, fuel, and fresh food, and hosted a vessel tour for members of the Dutch Harbor/Unalaska community.
For a brief moment, I was thinking what most travelers think before a plane departs. Am I really going to have the seats next to me empty? The plane appeared to have all its passengers, so I resumed my conversation with a gentleman across the aisle from Gambell, a small coastal community on the the northwest tip of St. Lawrence Island. He showed me a beautiful bearded seal claw pendant that he fused with baleen and ivory. We were speaking of his children when suddenly a little girl appeared in the aisle in front of us.