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R/V Sikuliaq connects scientists to a sea of research

After over a month spent docked in Seward, the R/V Sikuliaq set sail last Wednesday.

The vibrant blue-hulled, 261-foot oceanographic research vessel left on a 10-day trip out to the Gulf of Alaska and then down to Seattle, taking a roundabout route to pick up scientific instruments along the way before it pulls into port for a winter of maintenance.

As one of just five global class ships in the University of National Oceanographic Laboratory System, the R/V Sikuliaq, pronounced see-KOO-lee-auk, can be found in waters across the world, but calls Resurrection Bay home.

“The fact that we’re global class allows us to go worldwide,” said Third Mate Arthur Levine, who has been working on the R/V Sikuliaq for nearly three years. “Generally, though, we stay around here to support Alaska research… Some of the other global ships are comparable to us, but they’re not up here as much. They don’t have that inherent Alaska connection, our ability to operate in the Pacific Northwest, and up here in Alaska is our bread and butter.”

Levine has travelled north, south, east and west with the research vessel, spending a majority of the year away from his home in Massachusetts to help facilitate the scientific research conducted with the R/V Sikuliaq. The vessel is owned by the National Science Foundation, but operated by the University of Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, which provides logistical support from its office, the UAF Seward Marine Center on Railway Ave.

Captain Diego Mello of the R/V Sikuliaq is seen in the bridge of the 261-foot research vessel as it’s docked in Seward. (Photo by Kat Sorensen)

“They’re our support group … You name it, it’s endless,” said Captain Diego Mello, who has helmed the R/V Sikuliaq for about two years. “They’re one of the most important support mechanisms to keep us rolling, to support science, which is a big deal.”

Tools of the trade

The vessel hosts a consortium of scientists to conduct research using a wide array of tools on the ship. Since it was delivered to the crew in just 2014, the Sikuliaq is a newer ship with a lot of the bells and whistles.

Although the Sikuliaq isn’t an ice-breaking ship, it’s able to operate through first-year sea ice (ice that has been frozen for a full year) up to 3-feet thick.

The ship is also dynamic positioning capable, meaning the crew can hold position using GPS and a propulsion system to conduct operations within a meter of a specific coordinate, even in otherwise rough weather. The vessel also allows researchers to collect sediment samples with a gravity corer or use the CTD instrument to find conductivity and temperature of the water column (which is housed in a heated room, a welcomed luxury for scientists and crewman operating in Alaska).

“We can set up all sorts of science equipment in our hangar bay,” said Levine. “Scientists love it, especially when it’s nasty outside, you can come in here and avoid all that. The door opens, the crane goes out and collects data then comes back through the door and they work where it’s nice and warm.”

While underway, with cranes moving, nets and moorings being pulled and scientists documenting each step, the back deck of the R/V Sikuliaq gets a bit busy.

The R/V Sikuliaq’s Third Mate Arthur Levine scans the entire vessel on Nov. 27 for safety concerns before the ship departs for Seattle via the Gulf of Alaska. (Photo by Kat Sorensen)

“It’s like a ballet,” Levine said. “When we are doing buoy operations or net operations, the bosun (a senior crew member on deck) will be out here coordinating it all with his head on a swivel. We’re responsible for the safety and deployment of all scientific equipment. The scientists will come to us and tell us how they want it deployed, but we’re the ones responsible for deploying it.”

Away from the vessel’s stern, there are multiple science labs on board with space to make messes, avoid contamination, stay cold, keep hot or whatever else that trip’s research may require.

“Supporting the scientists in all that they do is so important,” Capt. Mello said. “Every mission is new, which is really cool … And most of the folks we have on board are believers in oceanography and science, they want to do the best they can to support the scientist. They enjoy what they do and all the rest is cool.”

A sea of research

Eric D’Asaro of the University of Washington Seattle Applied Physics Laboratory sets up in one of the R/V Sikuliaq’s laboratories in preparation for a 10-day research trip through the Northwest Pacific. (Photo by Kat Sorensen)

Each trip on the R/V Sikuliaq is unique, but the basic operations are the same and keep safety paramount for all scientists and researchers involved, like Eric D’Asaro of the University of Washington Seattle Applied Physics Laboratory.

“This is actually a very simple trip,” D’Asaro said as he unloaded equipment in one of the science labs on board. “We’re going from here to Seattle via the Northeast Pacific. We’re going to be, well, picking up some stuff and putting some other stuff back in … It’s a very simple cruise.”

During the 10 day cruise, D’Asaro and his team will facilitate four different experiments. One looks at how carbon dioxide sinks down into the upper layers of the ocean. Another tests how intense winds in the Central Northeast Pacific impact the ocean.

“Everyone here knows that the wind blows pretty hard,” D’Asaro said. “So it’s a nice place to look at how the ocean mixes up when the wind is blowing, so we have a robotic instrument we’ll be picking up that measures that.”

The other two experiments aren’t under D’Asaro’s purview, he’ll just be putting out developmental instruments for a colleague.

“People going to sea is quite a community, so we do things for our friends and then they’ll do things for us,” he said.

Community onboard

Scientists and crew can find themselves on the R/V Sikuliaq for up to a month at a time, a long enough time for the crew to start calling the vessel home.

Exercise equipment can be found throughout the halls — a treadmill here, free weights there or a rowing machine strapped to the ship’s beams. A living room has all the creature comforts of home, with video games, computers and shelves upon shelves of movies, a cozy room and collection built over the course of the Sikuliaq’s short life.

“I like that it’s a new ship,” said the Sikuliaq’s Bosun Eric Danielson. “We can make it homey. We built everything in the living area because when you spend 30 days at sea, you don’t want to be at the office. You want to feel like you’re at home.”

Danielson has been with the Sikuliaq since it was delivered in 2014. While on board, he’s helped build the shelving units in the living room and has started teaching other crew members how to box in the ship’s gym.

“It’s just a shell of a ship when you first get it,” Danielson explained. “This room, the living room, had no carpet, tin can book shelves and a big conference desk. It was an office, but now even the scientists love it in here.”

Scientists and crew member also agree on the galley — they love it. The vessel’s cooks serve three meals a day with a wide variety, covering all dietary needs (the ship is home to the best vegetarian dining in Seward).

With blues music blaring, like it would be in his kitchen on shore, one of the ship’s cooks Marc Malluda dives into the day’s menu.

“There’s two of us and we switch it up so that everyone gets a different style of cooking,” Malluda said. “He does one thing one way and I’ll do something else. Then we don’t get in a rut … It’s a cook’s dream. I get to ask ‘What do I want to cook today?’ and the answer is ‘Whatever you want to do.’”

Piles of chocolate chip cookies, a full salad bar and dishes full of entree options greets the crew and scientists each evening for dinner.

“It’s very creative,” Malluda said. “I wish I wasn’t getting older because I’d do this forever.”

While in port, though, crew often wander into town. Whether it’s for a meal downtown or hiking up to Mount Marathon Bowl, Levine said that the crew likes to take advantage of everything Seward has to offer while in port.

“I can’t run anytime at sea, even in the nicest weather,” Levine said. “So, when we’re in town I try to get out as much as possible. Last time we were here I went up Marathon three times, hiked over to Alice. It’s great to have Seward as our backyard.”

Heading out

But, the R/V Sikuliaq wasn’t meant to stay in Seward. It was built to bring scientists to the polar regions, to explore the ice-choked Alaska waters.

Even the simplest of trips on the R/V Sikuliaq are paired with days of preparation like filling the kitchen cabinets, loading all the scientific equipment and making sure the engines are running smoothly.

“You can’t just run out to an ACE Hardware or call 9-1-1 while your halfway through a 30 day trip in the Arctic,” Levine said. “We have to be prepared for everything.”

In his role as Third Mate, Levine focuses on the ship’s safety. From the small, one-bed hospital to each fire extinguisher on board, he ensures the equipment and gear is ready.

The final responsibility, though, is Captain Mello’s, who can be found throughout the hallways overlooking preparation before the Sikuliaq sets sail.

“The science mission is always up there, insuring that logistics and the science operations go smoothly,” Mello said. “But first and foremost it’s the safety of the ship and crew, not to mention a little bit of paperwork along the way.”

To keep tabs on where the R/V Sikuliaq is headed, visit https://www.sikuliaq.alaska.edu/.