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Life on the Ship

ABOARD THE USCGC POLAR SEA, ON THE BEAUFORT SEA– I discovered a novel way to become seasick. For two days last week we anchored about 20 miles north of the Alaska coast, near Prudhoe Bay. The capture helicopters were used to pickup supplies from Deadhorse, including fresh lettuce (after a couple weeks at sea, this was exciting), mail, and several new personnel. One is a representative from native communities of hunters and trappers on the north slope, who has joined us to observe our operations. After spending two days on the onload we had two days of transit to our next target bear, and recent poor weather has meant that we had many down days in a row. This finally got me into the gym onboard the ship.

The gym is below the foc’sle, meaning it is below the main deck very near the bow. The floor in the gym slopes upward; I tried the treadmill for the first time, and decided to do a “hills” run. So, the already-leaning treadmill slowly tilted more then less, repeatedly, every one to two minutes, while I ran in place for 25 minutes. We were breaking moderate ice (probably around a foot thick) so the ship was rocking unpredictably as well, particularly when we encountered pieces of thick multi-year ice (many feet thick). By the time I stepped off the treadmill and tried to walk across the gym I was tilting pretty far myself. I walked slowly, from equipment to equipment, bracing myself as I went.

The gym is located near the bow of the ship; the bulkheads (walls) around the gym are on the outside of the hull, so the sounds of breaking ice can be incredibly loud. Last week I was in the gym when we were breaking very thick multiyear ice, and the sound was like being inside of a thundercloud. I would have had to yell to be heard by someone standing next to me, and the screeching and crunching completely drowned out my ipod. The large white tube in the corner runs from the foc’sle above to a room below the gym. The anchor chain is spooled below, where it is paid out or retrieved by a diesel powerplant up to the deck, where it hangs over the side and is attached to a 9000 lb anchor.

I have participated in other aspects of normal life aboard the ship as well. Last week I caught one of the movies shown nightly in the theatre: about 35 well-padded seats that rocked, as in a real theatre, facing a big-screen television. I got a haircut at the barbershop – there is even a striped pole in the hallway. “Pie in the face” voting took place across the ship for a week, and personnel who received the top 5 votes each took a turn sitting in a chair, surrounded by the crew, one night in the hangar. A vigorous auction took place for the right to be the person to actually sling the pie (gently; no broken noses were allowed). Last night I played bingo in the mess deck after dinner. Around 30 folks show up, once a week, and everyone plays three cards at once.

For most of my downtime I am trying to keep up with the course I am taking this fall (Biochemistry), reading research articles and preparing for an upcoming conference, and otherwise doing what I would be doing at my desk back in Laramie. Unfortunately space is fairly tight on the ship and desks are hard to come by so I do most of this work sitting on my bunk, which is just about 2 inches too small to allow me to sit all the way up.

I cannot view the dispatches myself, but it was passed on that someone asked about our rooms. Our room contains two bunkbeds (“racks”), four closet spaces (mine is visible at the right), and a chair. It is probably around 10 feet by 10 feet. The beds are narrow and long, and they lift for more storage space directly beneath the mattress. A vent in the ceiling delivers fresh air.

Recently, after the two days of transit the ship was hove to in very thick ice near Banks Island, which is in the southwestern corner of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

This view from the helicopter shows an area that may show up in a satellite image as mostly-covered with ice, but once we get out there and see it the ice pans are small and separated by open water, making it impossible to capture a bear.

This is the view from the portside main deck this morning, facing south. Thick, multi-year ice from the central Arctic flows south into this area, so the ice conditions are much better for captures. The ridges indicate areas where multiple ice pans have crashed together, and because they are thick pans the broken pieces stack up high where they catch windborne snow.

For captures, we need calm winds, good visibility, thick continuous ice, and a good bear location. Those factors came together to allow us to recapture an adult female we first sampled on May 8th. She was in excellent condition, carrying lots of food reserves in the form of body fat: she had about 6 cm of subcutaneous fat near her rump. All of the sampling went well, but it was slow, partially because of the cold. Temperatures were around 15 degrees (Fahrenheit) during the sampling, which took several hours. It was our first fairly cold day, and a good reminder of the difficulties we may encounter if it gets much colder. Temperatures have continued to drop; as I write, it is 8 degrees with a windchill of -11 degrees.

This 22-month old cub belonged to one the bears we recently recaptured.

This adult female had two 10-month old cubs with her. We waited in the helicopter as the bears walked past, until they got into a good position for a capture.
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5 Responses »

  1. Wow.Life on the ship sounds like they try to make it as close to being at home as they can.Very cool about having a place to go and work out.Loved all the pictures of the ship and of the bear too.
    Ann Mishmash

  2. I was stationed on that ship from 96-98. Yeah, it is well-appointed, including a library and coffee shop (last I knew), laundry, lounges…..Reading your descriptions made me a little homesick. Heh.

  3. My son is currently in food service aboard the Polar Sea. Finding your website and reading your journal make me feel that much closer to him. Thanks.

  4. Hi Folks,

    Thanks for reading. The ship does have some nice touches to make it a little more comfortable – there was a part-time coffee shop, Polar Tullys, which was definitely popular.

    The folks in FS were great – good food really helped make the trip enjoyable. In particular, I am not sure if the same person does all the baking, but the breads and rolls were really, really good.


  5. Our son in in the CG and I was interested in reading more about the researchers that are sometimes on board the cutters. Very interesting. I’m going to read the rest of the site to learn more about what you do.