Book on sale now!

book-coverI’m excited to announce the publication of “To the Top of the World: One Scientist Expedition to the North Pole.” This young adult book is about the 2015 U.S. GEOTACES expedition to the Arctic Ocean, featuring stories and photographs from this blog. Check out our website http://www.healycruisebook.com/ to order online ($14), and read sample pages from the book. All proceeds go to charities described on the website. Thanks for your support!

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Journey to the deep ocean: My first Alvin dive

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This summer I spent an afternoon at the bottom of the ocean, 1,260 feet below the surface in a tiny metal ball filled with computer boards and switches. At the Alvin pre-dive briefing I learned what to do in the event that the solo pilot onboard became incapacitated; flip six silver switches to drop weights and surface, use sound transmission to radio for help, open two blue valves to send oxygen to the emergency breathing apparatus. But these life or death scenarios were absent from my conscience as I climbed into the submarine and watched the metal hatch cinch shut. I settled my mind for the ride of a lifetime, to the deep, dark, bottom of the ocean.

Alvin is one of the world’s first human operated deep ocean submersibles. Since its first launch in 1964 the vehicle has undergone multiple renovations to fit the needs and demands of modern science. Giant robot arms and vacuum tubes allow scientists to collect sediment, water, rock, and animals from 4,500 meters deep – that’s about 2.7 miles below the surface.

Once myself, pilot Bob Waters, and dive partner Colleen Hoffman were sealed inside the sub, Alvin was lifted off the deck of the R/V Atlantis and lowered into the ocean. Two support swimmers sit on top of the sub to detach lines from the ship and do a final safety check in the water. These swimmers wear nothing but a bathing suit, snorkel mask, and fins – a stark contrast to the steel toe boots and life vests required on deck. With the safety check completed we began our decent. Hundreds of zooplankton, tiny clear organisms of all shapes and sizes, swarmed around the sub. As we lowered beyond the reach of sunlight, the darkness of the deep ocean enveloped the sub revealing a dazzling display of bioluminescence. Everywhere I looked there were tiny flashes of light, like fireflies in the night’s sky.

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Extracting the skeleton of a bamboo coral for geochemical analysis.

At the seafloor we switched on the lights and got to work. I was after a deep sea coral, amazing creatures that thrive in cold dark water and live for hundreds to thousands of years. These coral incorporate carbon and mercury from seawater into their skeletons, and we can learn a lot about the history of the ocean by studying these elements. Four hours later with our science objectives completed, we ascended to the surface and Alvin was craned backed onto the ship.

Check out this video to learn more about Alvin and watch me climb into the sub- make sure you watch to the end to see the traditional first dive ice dunk!

The Realm of the Polar Bear

On Sunday afternoon August 16, the USCGC Healy passed through the Bering Strait and crossed the Arctic Circle (66°33’45.7 N). Those who have previously crossed the Arctic Circle are considered “polar bears,” and Coast Guard members with this distinction were allowed to wear special red shirts to celebrate the day, a splash of color added to their everyday navy blue uniforms. Sailing over major latitudinal lines is a right-of-passage that involves a secret initiation ceremony, most especially for equator crossings.

We sampled two stations within the Bering Strait along the border of the United States and Russia. Seawater flows through the strait into the Chukchi Sea which borders the Arctic Ocean and it’s important to characterize this water as it flows north. We do not have permission to sample Russian waters but stayed close enough to the border to capture water flowing through the middle of the strait. Pictured below, the ship is approaching the Diomede Islands in the center of the 51 mile wide Bering Strait – Big Diomede on the left is owned by Russia, and Little Diomede on the right is owned by the United States.

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Steaming towards the Diomede islands – Big Diomede Island (left, Russia) and Little Diomede (right, U.S.)

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Our path through the Bering Strait is outlined in red.

 

Arctic GEOTRACES week one

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The USCGC Healy sailing out of Dutch Harbor, Alaska into the Bering Sea (August 9, 2015).

And we’re off!

The U.S. GEOTRACES Arctic expedition departed Dutch Harbor on August 9th onboard the USCGC Healy. Shortly after departure we had our first safety drill. Everyone onboard has to practice putting on immersion suits which are kept on the boat for an emergency situation that would force us to abandon ship and jump into the water. The suits are bright orange with a flashing light and whistle, and the back has an inflatable pouch for flotation. There is a rubber cap that goes over your head and hugs tightly around the neck to prevent water from flooding the suit. The shoulders of the suits have clips to attach to a neighbor, in the water we would hook our suits together and form a giant circle of bodies that would be easier to spot from the air.

It takes me about one day to get my sea-legs with the help of some medication to prevent motion sickness. After day one I am medication free, unless we run into harsh weather (>20 ft seas make me slightly queasy). Everyone handles seasickness differently. I am lucky to be able to adjust to the motion, but others, even those who frequently go to sea will continue taking medication throughout the cruise. Over-the-counter Bonine and Dramamine are the most common medications used onboard. For extreme motion sickness there is the prescription-only “Coast Guard Cocktail” which is a dose of promethazine (a mild sedative) for anti-nausea, paired with ephedrine to keep you awake. Fortunately, the Bering Sea has been kind to us this week with calm seas and fair temperatures between 40–50 °F.

We had two days to test our equipment before arriving at our first station Wednesday morning. During those two days we had a major mechanical malfunction, broke the frame of our water sampler, had a minor deployment related injury, and some hiccups in the lab. But, with some replacement parts, on-site welding, a few stiches, and some tender loving care to our delicate laboratory instruments, as is well. The biggest challenge of doing science at sea is the isolation. We have only the supplies that we brought and the people onboard to solve the multitude of problems that arise.

Next week we will pass through the Bering Strait and enter the Arctic Ocean. At our current latitude (60 °N) there is about 19 hours of daylight and as we travel north the days will get longer. Stay tuned as we transition from open water to sea ice!

pump team

Dr. Phoebe Lam from the University of California, Santa Cruz and her team prepare to test custom designed pumps. The pumps are manually attached to a wire and lowered into the ocean where they push thousands of liters of seawater through a multitude of filters to collect marine particles.

Station one map

Our current position in the Bering Sea, 179 °W 60 °N.

Bering sea

Smooth sailing in the Bering Sea this week.

Polar TREC

Middle school science teacher Bill Schmoker from Boulder, Colorado will be joining the U.S. Arctic GEOTRACES expedition through the National Science Foundation’s Polar TREC program. Polar TREC (Teachers and Researchers Exploring and Collaborating) integrates K-12 educators with scientists exploring polar regions to bring hands-on field experiences back to the class room. Bill will be documenting his journey on Polar TREC’s website and he’s already posted some great videos from the ship loading in Seattle last month!

The “bubble” is built to create a clean-laboratory environment on a ship filled with metal and dust. Ultra-clean air is pumped into the plastic encasement creating positive pressure that keeps dust and contaminants away from precious samples.