The bright orange garment I’m struggling into looks something like the strange love child of a traffic cone and a spacesuit. This seems fitting because I feel as though the Arctic Ocean, where we’re headed, is nearly as isolated as outer space. If I do end up in the water, I want to stand out like a roadblock in the middle of the ocean so there’s no chance I’m overlooked and left in the wake of the giant ship that I’ve just fallen off.
The ship is the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, one of only two ice-strengthened ships in the U.S. fleet. The Healy serves as a research vessel transporting scientists to remote portions of the ice-covered poles to collect data for many disparate scientific fields: biology, climatology, ecology, chemistry, oceanography. Equipped with all kinds of lab equipment (including refrigerators and freezers, which I find ironic given the frigid temperatures we’re heading into), the Healy is a data collecting machine.
I’ve ended up on this three-week trip through bizarre circumstances involving a wonderful friend who made the right introductions and a couple of perfunctory follow-up emails. Researchers spend weeks writing proposals to get time on this ship, and yet here I am, along for the ride. People seem slightly confused when I say that I’m just here to volunteer.
My own dissertation research doesn’t extend beyond the 190 square inches of my computer screen. I’ve only known the region of the Arctic that we’re headed into, up through the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia and into the Arctic Ocean, as blue pixels illuminated on my laptop. While I study the ecological impacts of shipping in the North Pacific, my research primarily relies on data collected by satellites. These satellites give me information about ship movements, ice distribution, and the paths of marine mammals. All without ever leaving my desk.
So when people ask me what I’m doing here, struggling to stand in the pumpkin-colored Michelin Man suit, I say that I want to experience my study area. Not just as pixels on a screen, but as frigid salt water and high winds, as long hours of sieving sediment, and as searching blank horizons for the 10-foot-high spray of a whale’s exhaled breath.
Once the safety drill has ended and my space suit has been stored for safe keeping, I quickly climb up to the bridge. Situated at the front of the ship and about 80 feet above the sea surface, the bridge commands a 180-degree view of the surrounding ocean. While aboard the Healy I’ve been given two jobs. My first job is working on the benthic team, sieving samples grabbed from the ocean floor using a giant claw known as a van Veen grab. My second job is monitoring for marine mammals. This job was a late addition to my duties but one that I am extremely excited about.
After a few hours of observing from the bridge, I quickly learn that identifying whales involves more than knowing what they look like. I’ve memorized the pictures in the guidebooks that I brought along, but it has become readily apparent to me that whales spend a lot of time under water, rarely presenting a full-bodied portrait like the illustrations in my guidebook. Over time, and with the help of the extremely kind bird observers who tolerate sharing the miniscule desk space that we were allotted, I begin to learn the more useful cues for identifying whales. Fin whales tend to be alone. Humpback whales make a triangle shape with their backs as they submerge. Grey whales don’t have dorsal fins, but they do have knobs along their back that you can just make out before their flukes emerge.
In addition to whales, we see many other interesting creatures atop the waters. On one particularly strange twilit evening, I see a boulder floating towards us. That is, until it rolls over and reveals the foot-long tusks of an adult walrus whom we had woken up from a relaxing face-first nap in the Arctic Ocean.
Puffins flying by remind me of winged footballs. Unlike many of the other birds I see, puffins pump their wings rapidly and incessantly as though they are frantically trying to make it in time to their own wedding (for which they are impeccably dressed).
However, despite the many amazing things above the surface, the biggest surprises come from under the sea. While I’d always known in the back of my mind that there must be things at the bottom of the ocean, I never appreciated just how much there could be. And how alive it could be!
Dredging up sediment from the sea floor reveals a wriggling mass of angry creatures seeking to burrow their way back to their formerly dark and quiet lives. Tiny shrimp-like amphipods are bright red, about the size of a black bean, and wriggle in your hand. Creepy toothed worms hide in tubes shaped like miniature ice cream cones. And of course, clams. I had always thought that clams moved slowly, like snails. But I was proved very wrong the day I saw an irate clam stick its tongue-like foot out of the side of its shell and bury itself entirely in the mud in the span of a few short seconds.
When I’m at home, it’s so easy for me to get caught up in the pixels on my computer screen, breaking up entire oceans into thousands of equally-sized squares, each with a color or value corresponding to a variable: shades of blue for open water and white for sea ice. Sea surface temperature, distance to land, ocean depth. It’s easy to forget that these data points encapsulate the lives of millions of creatures, from the tiniest of amphipods to the largest of whales.
This trip to the Arctic serves as a grounding point for me. Staring out across the ocean brings me an overwhelming sense of awe and respect for the enormous complexity of a region that is often characterized as remote, barren, and isolated. I am also amazed by the dedication of the scientists and crew who spend long hours working to solve their piece of the puzzle that is the functioning of the changing Arctic ecosystem. I am humbled to realize the enormity of what we know, and the even larger share of the things that we still do not fully understand.
Just as daunting is the amount we do know but that I still have yet to learn. Sometimes when I feel overwhelmed by this realization, as is often the case in graduate school, I think of a whale. A grey whale swimming through the Bering Sea on her way south for the winter. I think about what she must be thinking. What her concerns are. The things that I know that she’ll never see, and the things she’ll experience that I can never understand. Thinking of her helps me position my research, but also myself, in this vast world. My experience on the Healy is a humbling reminder of what my research is all about and why I became a scientist: to bridge the gap between the world scientists study and the world as it is; to bridge the gap between computer screens and the Bering Strait; between me and that whale.
ALL PHOTOS (IF NOT SPECIFIED): KELLY KAPSAR