The 26 scientists aboard the Sikuliaq are, by choice, spending the month of November above the arctic circle. The sun has now officially stopped appearing above the horizon. The temperature rarely creeps above 0 degrees F. It has been snowing sideways for 3 days straight. It takes a certain amount of grit and determination to come up here and spend hours every day out on deck taking samples and deploying equipment with numb fingers and runny noses.
There are very few vessels that would be capable of supporting such a research campaign, and the Sikuliaq is the best of them. This 261-foot research vessel was constructed for this precise purpose: conducting oceanographic research in inhospitable places. The National Science Foundation (NSF) commissioned and owns the ship and it is operated by the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences (CFOS) at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF). Its homeport is Seward, AK, but it does not spend very much time at rest; there is always another research expedition to host.
The Sikuliaq is designated as a “polar class 5” research vessel, which means it is certified to operate “year-round in medium first year ice concentrations, which may include old ice inclusions.” What this means, practically, is that it is an extremely robust vessel that is capable of breaking ice up to 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) thick while keeping her crew and scientists comfortable and safe. The name, Sikuliaq, comes from the Inupiaq word that aptly means “young sea ice that is safe to walk on.” It is an appropriate name for a ship that spends much of its time safely carrying scientists through first year sea ice.
It has powerful thrusters, a sloping icebreaker bow, and a hull that is two feet wider at the front than it is in the stern to reduce resistance when it pushes through thick ice. We have not had much opportunity to test these ice breaking capabilities on this trip, however; the thickest ice we have seen has been 1 meter thick at most. The ship has had little trouble trailblazing through that. But in chasing down tiny buoys in a vast icy ocean, we have benefited from her nimble maneuverability.
This agility stems from the Sikuliaq’s unique propulsion setup. She is one of the first ships to use Icepod propulsion units, which are basically large thrusters that can rotate 360 degrees and drive the boat at a cruising speed of 10 knots. These are supplemented with a jet bow thruster for maneuvering at slow speeds. The thrusters are powered by four diesel generators: two that produce 1850 kW and two that produce 1380 kW. These generators can be operated individually or in parallel to generate the necessary power. The vessel can spin 360 degrees on its own axis, an impressive feat for a ship so large.
The Sikuliaq was built to support science research in the polar regions. In addition to its capabilities of ice breaking and maneuvering, it is outfitted with a variety of tools to facilitate the research being conducted on board. This includes two boom cranes, three winches and a large A-frame for deploying and retrieving heavy or cumbersome equipment.
To augment the data that scientists collect while onboard, the vessel is equipped with its own array of sensors that collect and save data constantly. It has an anemometer to measure wind speed and direction, an acoustic doppler current profiler to map the flow of underwater currents, a Rutter ice radar that generates beautiful and essential radar images of the ice over a several mile swath, a multi-beam echosounder that uses sonar to map the seafloor in a fan shape under the ship, and a large CTD/Niskin carousel on its own boom crane capable of taking water samples and measuring salinity and temperature at depths up to 4,000 meters.
It does all of this while seamlessly keeping its crew and guests healthy and comfortable. There are several lab spaces for scientists to spread out, along with a ping pong table, a small gym and a sauna for downtime. The ship’s tanks hold 13,150 gallons of fresh water and it has a water maker that can produce 6,000 additional gallons per day. There is storage space for about 60 days’ worth of provisions for 50 people, and I can verify from personal experience that they are very delicious provisions.
The boat is strong and resilient, the crew is talented, the technology is state-of-the-art. We eat well, stay warm, get exercise and have our own work stations in the lab. What more could you ask for in a ship to take you to what feels like the ends of the earth?
Words by Becca Guillote
Photos by John Guillote