Green Room

August 15

But whether you are stepping along a journey or onto the court, or into a first date or ascending the stairs to the stage, it is all the stage. And in fields, the green room is broad as the forest, as the tundra over mountains, as the sea, thick with old ice. Here you can feel the isolation and fragility of the green room. This is why there is a room, a ‘safe’ space, the beach, the barrel of a wave, a fey glen, a place of transformation.

I’m more comfortable being the one walking, the one waving hello-goodbye. When walking, I am not watching myself. When walking, I am comfortable in the park. I’m comfortable on the stage, not waiting to go up. But that happened, right? It’s done. Impatient, we walked across that stage and now it’s over with. Those moments before we cleared our minds of the baggage and became something else, the green room was tumultuous and heavy with spray. We were rare, hard, old ice—reclaimed by the sea, or perhaps just tasting of salt after.

You can also follow the R/V Sikuliaq @rmtopp@Sikuliaqon Twitter and @toppworldon Instagram and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To further chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Featherson Facebook.

—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.

Night of the CTD

August 17

Last night we cast the CTD for the 100th time this cruise, and then kept on casting. The rosette went out the baltic door again and again against a background of ice floes and water so still, the ripples of the submerging cage were the only things moving on the surface. They made lasting impressions.

But excepting a few liters of collected water where we saw the chlorophyll levels to be the highest, and excepting where the ship’s acoustics saw the zooplankton scatter in the cage’s wake—and scatter wider when the VPR strobe was flashing, the CTD is a passive observer, describing the fundamental characteristics of the water from the surface to the bottom: changes in salinity, changes in temperature. Sharp changes in the column’s properties over depth indicate independent water masses that have remained in character over great distances. The drum on the winch is loaded with 10,000 meters of cable. Last night we needed only 300, but beneath us a relatively shallow sea, there are clear layers, from the fresh summer meltwater to the Alaska Coastal Current, Pacific water, and off the shelf, in the depths, Atlantic water.

The photographs below are of CTD casts aboard the Sikuliaq in 2014, 2015, and 2018, in the North Atlantic, and the Caribbean, Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

 

You can also follow the R/V Sikuliaq @rmtopp@Sikuliaqon Twitter and @toppworldon Instagram and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To further chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Featherson Facebook.

—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.

Polar Bears

August 14

Mom and a pair of cub polar bears interrupted a great game of table tennis and for that I can forgive them. I hadn’t picked up a ping pong paddle in at least 10 years, and not played the game in—ever—really. It’s one of those I-hate-running-for-the-ball sort of games, no better than tennis when you start to include all the garage or lab furniture to go fishing under. Unlike an old lawn-mover, the -80 freezers are something to watch out for.

So, I was surprised I’m not yet completely inept, and there’s something wonderful about basic reflexes and the judgement of angles and an instinctual desire to put english on everything served—and while badminton and fencing are nothing like table tennis, muscle memory can be something blissfully in-specific. All that work put in early can last a lifetime swimming between interrupted ice floes.

I am happy to report that polar bears in the wild look exactly as I expected them to, and move perfectly.

The polar bears interrupted most work happening on ship, including several crew who had planned on sleeping. But three ice bears together on a floe within shouting distance of the port side rail is something to wake a few mates for. This must be the gold standard.

9pm in the Arctic on an August evening. The horizon and the water had already begun to turn gold, but it was easy to miss that. Not only weren’t the three bears running and then swimming away like all the solo bears we’d seen so far—the family walked towards us. Mom lifted her head. She checked us out. She looked right at us plenty. And the polar yearlings played bear cub games. They nursed. They tried to throw chunks of ice. One of the cubs practiced pounding on seal dens.

The bear cubs were snow white puffballs next to their mother. She was characteristically yellow, round and healthy, her face slightly bloody from her last meal. The cubs were clean and still nursing. One cub picked up a plate sized chunk of ice in his mouth and carried it like dog toy towards his mother.

The low sun and the stiff wind gave the sea a hard look—crazy shallow like a frozen pond. And my heart skipped a beat in some form of misplaced worry for the lone parent and the cubs at the edge of the ice. One cub lagged behind. Another ran out in front. Because where that ice ended and the edge became water, the water is 50 meters deep over the shallow shelf and several hundred down across the break. That seemed to matter.

The ice floes in snapshot look static, grounded, and immovable. But as time rolled on towards twilight, the evening ice shifted like stage flats in a Gaumont animation. Of course, the Arctic is changing. No one sees a polar bear today and does not think this. The bears use the ice to hunt seals, and there is less ice now.

You can also follow the R/V Sikuliaq @rmtopp@Sikuliaqon Twitter and @toppworldon Instagram and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To further chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Featherson Facebook.

—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.

The Larvaceans

August 13

There’re no vistas to look upon tens of meters below the surface. Light has a hard time down there. The Digital Autonomous Video Plankton Recorder (DAVPR) camera images a field of view 17x13mm. What results is a storm of plankton streaming past the camera: copepods (Calanus glacialis and Pseudocalanus spp. most common), larvaceans and their houses, marine snow particles, chaetognaths, diatoms, barnacle nauplii, jellyfish and ctenophores, and crab zoea.

Focus varies, but with our lack of proper Internet goods, I’ve not heard him complain. Phil’s laptop spools through the 50,000 some frames of a half-hour cast. It identifies suspects dramatically, much in the same way facial recognition software appears to work on a TV show taking license, pulling up candidate snapshots like digital polaroids and saving these for later analysis.

Okay, they are not cat videos, but the larvaceans are quite wonderful in situ. They and their inflated houses, red guts and serpentine tails make for quite a show amidst the other surprised plankton. Not to mention, they have a terrible fondness for clogging the Mocness nets like scraps of wild rumor. No pointing fingers when someone’s got a saltwater hose aimed for payback. I can only confirm the gunk in the nets is real.

 

You can also follow the R/V Sikuliaq @rmtopp@Sikuliaqon Twitter and @toppworldon Instagram and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To further chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Featherson Facebook.

—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.

The Colors Does It

August 12

Steve failed to wake me for the sunrise, but I’ll forgive him. Celia showed me the pictures and impressive though they are, I’m not sure the clouds have moved since the previous evening’s sunset, which all by itself took several hours to perform—and every time I sat down to type something Celia came back inside to tell me how different the light looked now, and even better than before—and I had to come outside to the back deck and take a look. She wasn’t wrong. The resurgences of the new day fell softly upon the slow death of the old, and I’m sure no one complained whose watch it was to work through, cleaning nets and flying the Mocness* in the midnight sun.

And now get to journey into a world of color again, if only for an evening and a day—all the yellows and oranges and shades not quite turquoise we needed, a breather from the grey on grey. The night watch gets to work through a sunset and a sunrise—thought isn’t that all the same thing here. The sun at best is giving the world a glancing blow, and the color gradients that Celia tells me really are changing, because look at the latest pictures, and I need to go back outside and see, “because it’s better than earlier.” It’s always better than earlier. I’m tired. I’m done with pictures. I should make a case that all my memory cards are full, that the portable hard drive and the thumb drive backups are stuffed and the laptop itself has begun to fit files into uncomfortable places. When I’m not looking, it shoves them onto the phone for safekeeping, which makes the Instagramming pretty, but then the phone and the laptop are dogging like they’re homesick.

And for the first time this trip I’m shooting photographs in the sun, which feels odd, to finally be able to drop the iso. I also have to contend with hard shadows.

But the paint and the rust on the trawl’s doors look great in the direct, raking light, and the odd ice floe passing behind everyone to remind us where we are.

The trawl doors are shaped like airplane wings but work like kites—underwater. While they swim behind the boat, they open as far laterally as the bridal allows, until the net’s mouth is some 10×12 meters wide. The amount of wire let out depends on the depth of the water. Today, the wire goes out more than 700 meters. I suppose that’s like seven and a half football fields, if that is something people have a sense of the length of anymore. I dream of a day we can think in terms of things much larger.

The wire and the net and the doors put more than 2 tons of load on the winch, and in the end, we’ll catch mostly jellies. The fish, the arctic cod, when we do go after the right water, will only be a few inches long. This is a test run today, the first time the ‘fish people’ have got the team working on the deck with the big net. We’ve chosen this spot on the chance we’ve found a lake in the ice field. The lake’s not where we want to be—but it’s open water.

You can also follow the R/V Sikuliaq @rmtopp@Sikuliaqon Twitter and @toppworldon Instagram and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To further chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Featherson Facebook.

—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.

That Old Hardware

As of our arrival in Nome, I think I’d gone two years without picking up a camera that wasn’t my phone. Even in Nome, I used the phone rather than open the sea bags. I mean, I picked it up to check the battery a week before the trip, sure—but… Now I’m thinking that I haven’t shot a project since Unalaska and Kasatochi in 2016. The very idea of this sounds both obscene, and completely understandable. That was the last year I’d been to sea, even if was just an island hop—if that has anything to do with it. But I brought a camera aboard the Sikuliaq, if not the heavy redundancy of previous voyages with spares and video backs and lots of bits and pieces I never used in the Bering. At the moment, we’re getting more photographs from me than I think anyone wants to see—going on 600 approved shots in 11 days. I am afraid that’s likely a small percentage of the wear put on the shutter, but I’ll do that tally later. Safe to say, I’ve cleared 200GB already. But in a way, it works. If I need to procrastinate from typing, I go take pictures. Then I can stay up late editing, and when the night watch comes down to the lab at 8pm, they too need to be harassed by a photographer. I’ve made note I need more pictures of Phil and Celia and Bern, and Steve, and Pete. And it’s quieter at ‘night.’ The ship works 24/7, but not all work runs through till morning.

Last I checked today’s a Saturday, so in the spirit of pretending we take any days off at sea, I’ll keep this brief and post a stack of flashback photographs from my very first research cruise, way back in 1995, aboard the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ prior R/V, the Alpha Helix. On that cruise, we explored the Gulf of Alaska and various glacial bays between Prince William Sound and Yakutat. So, there are sunsets, like there should be—and because we went to Yakutat, there’s a big tidewater glacier or two. So, ice and sunsets and deck ops with CTD. Somethings haven’t changed.

 

You can also follow the R/V Sikuliaq @rmtopp@Sikuliaqon Twitter and @toppworldon Instagram and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To further chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Featherson Facebook.

—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.

All Hands

August 10, 2018

Much of the time I’m pointing a camera at you, I’m looking at your hands and sometimes, only your hands—what they are making happen, or just making… The hands of an artist and the hands of a scientist are not so different, I think, whether painting or tightening a bolt, arranging nets, carving wood, or positioning specimens on a slide.

The hands speak volumes.

So, really, those facial expressions you make when a big piece of glass turns your way—they might already be cropped out. With my eye to the viewfinder, I can’t even see you making them—some of the time. I can’t always just look at your hands, of course, though I might like to. Often, I’d like to forget the big picture, because it’s complicated and scary.

Maybe this is inevitable, being on a ship and looking at very small and very important things: the water chemistry, the zooplankton, the fish. We’re here in the Beaufort Sea because we can’t learn about the effects of upwelling on the shelf-break without going to the shelf-break and getting our hands dirty in the process.

I’m not going to stump for the quality of these few shots, but I will say, I really enjoy sneaking these into the trip’s photographic catalog. Maybe the odd one will make it into a report somewhere, or a PowerPoint presentation.

There’s perhaps a lot to say regarding big ideas captured by the small, bare business of working hands. And I could say something about the continued strengths and the need for dexterity and hands-on labor in a world of heavy machines, but I think I’ll save that for tomorrow morning, and scratch it into my notebook in handwriting far too small to read back easily. I’ll confess, I started to write something but bailed, preferring just to look at the pictures.

You can also follow the R/V Sikuliaq @rmtopp@Sikuliaqon Twitter and @toppworldon Instagram and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To further chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Featherson Facebook.]

—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.