Sunday, December 18, 2011

The end of it all

We docked at a little after 1400 yesterday.  The end of a cruise is always sad but at the same time welcome.  Cruises are exhausting, so much energy is expended taking advantage of every available opportunity and sample.  Now we must re-enter the real world.  There will be too many people, I already know that.  Airports are particularly difficult.  Driving a car is going to be different.  And the excitement of bringing up a sample to see what we caught, well, we will miss that too.

This has been a very successful cruise, despite the weather in the Bering Sea.  The work in the Chukchi Sea was particularly notable.  We reached and worked at every planned station north of the Bering Strait.  This despite challenges imposed by the extreme cold.  Everyone pitched in to come up with solutions to mitigate those challenges so that we could use our instruments and collect our samples.  The work in the Bering Sea was hampered by the sheer intensity and frequency of winter storms that raged through that Sea.  When we could work there, we did so very well.  We have collected new and exciting data, in regions where no one has been able to work before.  Ahead of us lies a period of analysis and synthesis to put together the story.  This has been a fantastic opportunity, an opportunity of a lifetime for me.

Part of what made this cruise so successful is the wonderful cooperation and collaboration of the science party and of the Healy crew.  Many thanks to all for a great job.
Me (Chief Scientist) with CMDR Laura King, the first female EO (Engineering Officer or Chief Engineer) of Healy and CAPT Beverly Havlik, the first female Captain of Healy.

The top drawer of the Chief Scientist’s desk on Healy, with the cards of Chief Scientists who have come before me.  Just to put it all into perspective.

All of us on the helicopter deck.  It was very cold that day.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Almost home

We sailed into Dutch Harbor this afternoon, dropping anchor in Summer Bay at about 1600.  We can see the lights of the town and the docks in the distance.  The Aleutians surround us, with constantly changing curtains of light and cloud.  The cruise is almost over, tomorrow we will dock in Dutch.

Light over the Aleutians on our way to Dutch.
Going over information prior to anchoring at Dutch.
In the meantime, we are busy finishing our packing and cleaning our rooms and lab and living spaces.  And…one of the most important activities of the cruise….we cooked dinner tonight for the entire crew of the ship.  It is a tradition that science will cook on one of the Saturday nights of the cruise, on Morale Night when a group on the ship cooks and gives the galley crew a break.  Since we are docking on Saturday, we cooked on Friday night instead.  

Dave the Cookie Chef at Work
Phil rolls out dough for yeast rolls

The effort began on Thursday night with the construction of the vegetarian chili and the baking of Dave’s Chocolate Chip Cookies.  On Friday morning the “sponge” for the rolls was started.  And on Friday afternoon we moved in to cook the rest.  Lemon squares, cole slaw from scratch, roast pork loin, baked salmon, spinach with butter and garlic, baked brussel sprouts, and brown rice. After it was all cooked, science served up dinner, standing behind the counter and receiving the plates to serve.  Hats were worn, as required in the galley.  Dishes and pots were scrubbed, and the mess deck floor was washed after the meal was over.  A grand time was had by all!

Donna was part of the team that made the chili
Scientists lined up to serve dinner to the crew.
Our first customer for dinner.
The crew is making a movie for fun. These two crew members are playing the “leads”.

Friday, December 16, 2011

And the Bering Sea Roars

I didn’t quite expect the Bering Sea to be quite this nasty in December.  Bad yes, but perhaps a few hours to sneak in a few samples before roaring in again with another storm.  No such luck, the storms are just rolling in like freight trains.  We had the worst yet last night, with winds of 50-60 knots.  The “house” of the ship (the tall structure in the front where the living quarters and the bridge are located) was almost shaking.  Even inside, I could feel the tension as the winds buffeted the ship.  We sailed into the wind.  Most of the time we pitched fairly gently but occasionally we would come down on a wave with a thud and crash and the spray would rise from the bow, plastering the front of the ship.  Once again, we took water on the fantail.   This time we were not so lucky as before, the aft staging area door took a bad hit, breaking in the bottom 4 or so feet and flooding the compartment with water.  We were very lucky, we did not lose any science gear.  The red toolbox that amazingly washed off the top of a 4’ metal cabinet was found on the deck, intact.  The front arm on the frame on our VPR, which was tied in and sustained the torrent of water, was bent 90 degrees and had to be sawed off in order to pack the instrument back into the shipping crate (the VPR itself is fine).   All in all, a dramatic reminder of the strength of the sea.

Wind records from four amenometers.  Depending on the orientation of the ship, the four sensors may or may not agree.  For most of this record, the red one seems to be showing lower winds than the others.
(L) The broken door in aft staging.  Note the watertight door to the right that is about the size of a regular door.  (R) Phil saws off the bent piece of the VPR frame while Joel braces the frame.  

We are nearing Dutch Harbor, our final destination.  We are in a packing frenzy in the labs, washing everything, organizing, finding crates.  In addition to packing, we have to clean the labs and our living spaces. We plan to sample again tomorrow morning to catch more of the elusive copepods, a final fishing before we take apart the last net.   Although our sampling in the Bering Sea has been difficult, we still hope to collect some animals from the southern part of the Sea. 

Steve relaxes after his shift in the science lounge/library.  In addition to a beanbag chair, we also have comfortable chairs and a flat screen TV with DVD, limited cable, and movies that the ship shows every night.  We also have many paperback books and three large tables on which to work.
Bob and Kristina on deck in their cold weather gear.

Chad shining his boots. As a member of the Navy, Chad wears his uniform every day and keeping his boots in good shape is important.

Senior Chief Frank Donze fixing the winch controls.   Thanks Frank!

Joel takes a turn at picking krill from a recent sample.  The krill are in the beaker to the right, note the “sesame seed” eyeballs.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Crashing Waves

Another day, another storm.  The Bering Sea is relentless!  We managed to sneak in three stations yesterday afternoon and early this morning but then the weather deteriorated and our sampling operations were shut down again.  This time we were out in the open, far from the safe shelter of the sea ice or even an island.  The pitching and rolling began while many of us were still sleeping, turning a normally comfortable sleep into a fight to remain in position on the bed.  As the day dawned, conditions worsened.  Healy is a wonderful ship in a storm, she rides well and moves with a ponderousness that I find comfortable.  However, we had waves breaking on the bow and then, in the afternoon, waves washing onto the fantail.  No small feat considering that the edge of the fantail is about 18’ above the water line!  The afternoon was no picnic for the ship drivers and Captain, as waves crashed on board at both ends of the ship, spreading foamy seawater in swirls across the decks.  We were safe on board but no one would venture out lightly!

A wave breaks over the fantail and then spreads across the deck.  This is particularly impressive because the deck at the stern usually is about 18 ft. above the water line. Note the height of the wave behind the A-frame.  The winch on deck in front of the towing bit (the yellow structure in the front of the photo) is about 5' tall.
View from the aft conning station during a roll of the ship. Note the horizon relative to the deck of the ship.  The aft conning station is from where the winches are operated and has wonderful window views.
We are running out of time here in the Bering Sea.  We are due in Dutch Harbor on Saturday at 1400.  The weather is not looking promising for doing more stations.  After this storm passes by, we may have a lull during which time we will sample.  But there is another, even more menacing storm building to the south that will no doubt shut us down again.   Now we start to strategically plan our exit.  We know that we won’t use the fluorometer again, so we can start to pack it up.  We know that we won’t use the Multinet again, so it is packed.  All part of a campaign to clean, list, and pack.  The amount of stuff we have brought is monumental and now it must all go back into the packing crates again.
The windows on the bridge need frequent washing from all of the sea spray.
LTJG Evan Steckle on the bridge of Healy.  Evan was the OOD (Officer of the Deck) yesterday afternoon. This photo was taken on a more relaxed day.  The controls of the ship are behind Evan.   In addition to his duties on the bridge, Evan is the Marine Science Officer.
Chantelle on the bridge, readying her "helmet cam" (a video camera on her helmet) to go out and film the storm. I am not sure why she was so excited, it was nasty outside!
Yesterday morning the moon shone brightly over a calm expanse of frazzle ice (young ice in very small pieces) as we transited to the south to where we wanted to work.  A stark contrast to the angry Bering Sea of today.  

Moon over a sea of frazzle ice, morning of Dec. 12 near Nunivak Island.  

Monday, December 12, 2011

Blue Lights

We spent yesterday sheltered in the ice, at a place called “refuge”.  We moved here two nights ago to enjoy the calm afforded by the sea ice as the latest Bering Sea storm raged over us.  Today the weather has moderated and we sampled across a line of stations that extended towards the Yukon River Delta.  The goal was to see the impact of the freshwater from the river on the biological and physical properties of the adjacent ocean.  The salinity became fresher as we moved east, as should occur with an influx of fresh water.  The water became increasingly turbid and the sea ice very dirty with embedded sediment.  Our plankton nets started to bring up dirt, in addition to phytoplankton and then, at the station closest to the river delta, what looked like material of terrigenous origin, coming from land plants.  At the last station, I abandoned the use of the Video Plankton Recorder since it cannot see very well through suspended sediment.
Two photographs of the Video Plankton Recorder. On the left, the instrument is lowered into the water. On the right, the instrument is seen just before coming out of the water. Note the faint light of the strobe shining between the two black “arms 
 The Video Plankton Recorder is an underwater microscope that uses a camera and strobe to take photographs of plankton “in-situ”, in their natural habitat.  Depth is also recorded so that we can calculate the concentration of each plankton type with depth in the water.  The light from the VPR is a cool blue as it flashes, descending down into the inscrutable sea to yield photos of remarkable clarity and detail.  Rather than seeing the plankton lying in a dish under the microscope, one can see them as they swim in the water.   A fascinating glimpse into the underwater world of the plankton. 

Four plankton seen by the VPR.  Note, the photos are not to scale. Top left: A euphausiid, or krill.    Top right:  A Calanus copepod.  Bottom left:  A chaetognath, or arrow worm, voracious predators of copepods.  Bottom right;  Another voracious predator of both copepods and krill, a ctenophore.
All is not work here on Healy. Last night was Saturday night, the big night “out” so to speak.  As a Saturday night morale event, there was a “rave” in the helicopter hanger complete with blue lights, light sticks, and “smoke”.  The place was transformed from a utilitarian barn to a misty world of blue light, flashing glow sticks and throbbing music.  It was quite a shock to the sensations but refreshing.  After a few hours, the smoke was cleared, the normal lights restored, and a semblance of order re-established. 

Krista spinning glow sticks.

We are moving south now, heading towards Nunivak Island and the locations where we had planned to sample three days ago but were foiled by the storm.  There is another big storm on the horizon, threatening with 50 knot winds on Tuesday.  We are hoping to sneak in a few more stations before this monster catches up with us.  For now, the ride is gentle, with a few bumps as Healy pushes aside the soft sea ice.  Time is running out, we return to Dutch Harbor on Dec. 17.  But the weather is what it is.

Captain Havlik enjoyed the rave.

An oceanographic buoy was part of the surreal canvas of the rave.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Racing the Storm

We’re racing a storm across the Bering Sea, going 15 knots between stations to try to get as many done as possible before the storm catches us from behind.  Fifteen knots feels really fast, Healy shudders a little bit as she goes.  The wake is white and green, and as the sea is building, the bow is increasingly sprayed with sheets of white spray.  There is a sense of urgency to our going, knowing that we are going to run out of time before we can finish this line.

The Bering Sea has turned out to be just as bad as reputed.  One storm after another rolls through, from southwest to northeast. Our strategy is to position ourselves to be close to where we want to work when conditions permit after the storm passes and then to strike and sample as fast as we can.  We were weathered out the last time I wrote but then got in about a day of sampling before the next storm hit.  That time we were weathered out for about two days, during which time we moved to the far west, along the shelf-break and the Russian border.  We were calculating that we could fit in some sampling in between the last storm and the next.  And the gamble paid off, we sampled at seven locations across the shelf.
Krista (l) and MSTC Kurt Stewart (r) recover the CTD earlier today when the seas were still relatively benevolent.
Last night we sampled at a deep station, off of the shelf. Here the oxygen content in the water dropped off dramatically at depth, becoming of such low concentration that it was anoxic, or virtually devoid of oxygen.   This was pretty exciting since we had not expected to see this.   It made up for the multiple ripped nets we sustained working there. We think that the pitching of the ship was great enough that it ripped out the nets as the water surged through on the up-swing. Nonetheless, we have copepods and krill on the plankton wheel, going around and around and hopefully munching away on the phytoplankton and microzooplankton in their bottles.
Samples collected to determine oxygen concentration in seawater.  Immediately after the CTD/Rosette comes on board, water is drawn from the Niskins and chemicals are added to bind the oxygen and precipitate it as a solid. The more oxygen in the water, the more solid.  The sample on the right is typical of what we have been seeing.  The three on the left are what we saw in water collected in the oxygen minimum zone.  Quite a contrast!

Locations where we have sampled so far in the Bering Sea.  We sampled the line across the top before the first storm, the line down the middle before the second storm, and the line across from W to E before the present storm. 

Now there is another monster storm breathing down our back, threatening to stop us from working once again.  This is a big storm, occupying much of the Bering Sea and with very high winds and substantial waves forecast.  We have moved far enough to the east that the ice edge is once again within striking distance  (~150 miles) and we plan to move there to take shelter in the lower waves once we can no longer work. 
A wave breaks and sprays the bow as we move at 15 knots and as the seas start to build in front of the storm.  Note that the bow is now essentially free of snow and ice, since we have been working in the Bering Sea where air temperatures are warmer than in the Chukchi Sea.

The waves building as the storm catches up to us.  This photo was taken looking aft along the starboard side of the ship.
In the meantime, life on board continues.  Today was drill day, when the CG practices responding to a disaster so that if something was to actually happen, they would be ready.  Today’s drill was a leak sprung in cargo hold 3, the one just below the lab where the science gear is stored.  I never realized that there are really huge wooden “plugs” that are ready to be jammed into a hole. 

Members of the Healy Crew in their gear practicing response to a leak in the hold during today’s drill.
As I write later today, the storm has caught us.  We were unable to sample at the last station and now are beating a hasty retreat to the NE and the ice edge.  Sometimes being strategic and hiding is really the wisest course of action!  We have tied everything down in case the ship rolls and pitches enough to dislodge things.  We are ready for another Bering Sea Monster.

Krista picks some ctenophores out of a beaker to be used in an experiment. Ctenophores, or comb jellies, are the smallish jellies that we often see at the beach.  They are voracious predators on copepods and krill.
Donna holds the beaker full of ctenophores.  You can see one of them just above the white streak across the beaker.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Bering Sea Lashes Out

The Bering Sea is gnashing its teeth and flailing around. Clearly it took offense at our attempts to wrest the secrets of plankton overwintering from its icy depths.  We have been unable to work for a day and a half now because of bad weather. Two nights ago, we were working across a line of stations that lie to the south of Saint Lawrence Island.  We knew that a low pressure system was going to come in but we thought we had time to finish the line.  No such luck.  At around 3 AM the winds were blowing 40 but Healy was able to hold station and the team conducted a CTD cast, Bongo ring net tow, and Video Plankton Recorder cast.  By 430 AM the winds had increased to 50 knots.  The intrepid team suited up to tackle the next station but didn’t get much further than the door before realizing that they were prone to being blown off of the deck.  Wisely, they withdrew and admitted defeat.  We then turned to the east to reach the shelter of sea ice where the waves and swell would be dampened.  As we moved east, the winds increased, with gusts of up to 70 knots.  The ship pitched, flinging spray on the bow and upper levels of the “house”.  In my room, the spray hitting the front of the ship sounded like wet plaster slinging across a wall.  In between the smacks of plaster, I could hear frozen bits of snow needling the side of the ship like windblown sand.   Luckily, the wind speeds dropped to 40 knots after a few insane hours of 60+.  We reached the shelter of a tongue of ice extending across the northern Bering Sea and remained within the relative calm for over a day.  Right now, we are moving slowly back towards the location where we had to abandon sampling. Winds have dropped to 30 knots and seas are moderating.  We hope to be able to sample later tonight.
The view from the bridge this afternoon.  Winds were about 40 knots at this time.  Note the water streaming off the surface of the waves.  Despite the high winds, Healy rode very well and was quite comfortable. 
Two days ago we diverted to Nome, AK, for a personnel exchange.  It was strange to see the lights of civilization after so many weeks at sea with no lights and no other ships.  The ice was quite beautiful in that region but also very dynamic with a lot of movement and with the ice under a lot of pressure.  As we lay quietly waiting offshore for the helicopter flight, the path that we had broken through the ice closed behind us.  Ice from the two sides of the path continued to push together, crumpling and rising up in a ridge of jumbled, ice chunks.  I could hear screeching as ice moved past the hull, somewhat akin to the sound of fingernails on a chalk board.  Strange to hear, since we were not under locomotion and pushing against the ice, we were just sitting still.   By 1330 the personnel transfer was successfully completed and we moved off to the south to sample the Bering Sea.  

The sunrise as we moved close to Nome, AK on Dec. 1.  This was taken at about 10 AM.
 The moon is visible over the sea ice in the waning light of the day as we move south from Nome towards the northern Bering Sea.

Very thin ice.  The white chunks are about the size of my fist and were propelled across the surface of the sea ice by the ship, leaving scraping tracks.
The low pressure systems just keep rolling through the Bering Sea, one after another.  We are going to spend the rest of the cruise dodging bad weather, snatching precious sampling opportunities between bouts of laying low and riding it out.  No one ever said that working in the Bering Sea in December was going to be easy!

Bob picks copepods in the “cold room”.  We pick the animals from experiments out in this room that is kept at ambient temperature, in this case about -1C or just above the freezing point of seawater.  Plankton are very temperature sensitive and we cannot warm them up or the will not be in good condition for the experiments.

Joel rides his miles on his bike in the main lab.  

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Moving south with the ice

We have now bid farewell to the Chukchi Sea and are in the northern Bering, working north of Saint Lawrence Island.  Most fantastically, the ice is coming with us!  Winds have been from the north, bringing cold air south and also blowing the ice south so that we are still in ice.  Right now the ship is rumbling and bouncing up and down as she cuts through the ice.  The ice consists of pancakes cemented together with new ice.  In the image from the “aloft con”, or “happy”, camera the ice is clearly visible in the flood and ice lights from the ship.  We are heading to a station to the east of St. Lawrence Island and should arrive there at around 11 PM.

View of the bow of the ship and new ice in the flood and ice lights from the "happy cam"
Yesterday we worked across Bering Strait.  We arrived at our first station as the sun was rising and lightening the sky, although we never actually saw the sun (too cloudy).   Note also that we were there at about noon, showing how late in the day the sun actually rises here.  We had a beautiful view of the Diomede Islands that are located in the center of Bering Strait, with Little Diomede on the US side and Big Diomede on the Russian Side.  Little Diomede also is the home to a small community of about 100 people that clings to the southern tip of the rocky island.  

Little Diomede Island viewed across the new ice from our sampling location.

Today we sampled to the south of Bering Strait along the US-Russian border.  Here we caught a fantastic number of krill!  Bob, Celia, Donna, Kristina, Joel, Phil, and Chantelle all worked to sort out the krill and some Calanus copepods and set up a grazing experiment to see how much and what the animals are eating.  So as I am writing this the experimental bottles are on the plankton wheel in the cold room, rotating slowly to keep the food in suspension and available to be filtered out by the small crustaceans.
Dish of krill viewed through a microscope. 

What are these animals going to eat, one might ask, in the dark and cold of early winter here in the Bering Sea?  Well, there are low numbers of phytoplankton present as seen in the low quantity of chlorophyll or plant pigment in the water (measured by Dean and also by the fluorometers on the CTD rosette and in the system that measures temperature, salinity, and fluorescence constantly from the seawater) and seen by Sam in his system that photographs phytoplankton to see what types and how many of each type are present.   So the crustaceans might be eating the scant phytoplankton.  We expect also that there are smaller zooplankton, or microzooplankton, present that the larger copepods and krill can feed upon.  After we do our experiments, we will count the numbers of microzooplankton in the bottles to see if the copepods and krill have been eating them. 
Sam and Dean watch the computer screen as Sam’s instrument catches images of phytoplankton from a sample.  Sam and Dean both study phytoplankton.

An example of a phytoplankton image from Sam’s instrument.

As we have moved south, the sun has risen again and now remains above the horizon for a few hours.  A few weeks ago we entered the dark of Arctic winter; now we have emerged from that darkness and are once again enjoying the light.

View of sea ice with sun today.         
The CTD and rosette enters the water near some recently broken ice.