A photo recap

It’s been two weeks since we docked in Dutch Harbor and I danced in the rain to celebrate our return to land. Life on land moves pretty quick. I find myself looking back on this trip feeling very fortunate for the experience, skills learned and friends made. Given that photos say more than I can, here’s a photo recap of our cruise. Please excuse my elementary photography skills.

The C-130 that flew out for the air drop

The C-130 that flew out for the air drop

Lauren and the Canadian Coast Guard Cutter Louis S. St-Laurent

Lauren and the Canadian Coast Guard Cutter Louis S. St-Laurent

Team Mercury at the North Pole!

Team Mercury at the North Pole!

The Polarstern, the German research ship one of my lab mates nicknamed "The Party Ship"

The Polarstern, the German research ship one of my lab mates nicknamed “The Party Ship”

Making sure the jolly man brings me something other than coal this year

Making sure the jolly man brings me something other than coal this year

For better photos from this cruise, take a moment to check out some of Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory Mendenhall’s photos and a story about the at-sea oceanography class on the Coast Guard’s blog.

For those of you interested in videos, check out the PolarTREC Youtube page for some neat footage from the cruise. This video Bill Schmoker took of the aurora borealis is a beautiful snapshot of what we got to see our last week at sea.

Finally, I’d like to thank you for reading my blog and following our journey through the Arctic Ocean. Your kind comments and emails throughout the trip made many hectic and stressful days better. I’ve truly enjoyed the opportunity and am looking forward to processing the samples and data I brought home to learn more about mercury in the Arctic and what it means in the context of our changing world.

Thanks and until next time,


Helicopters, islands, fruit raffles, whales

Earlier this week a helicopter landed on the ship bringing two Coast Guard members aboard to check out sea-going operations aboard the Healy. Due to safety reasons, we had to watch the helicopter land via closed circuit television. It was still very exciting to observe, and it might be the closest I’ve been to a helicopter. The helicopter brought a limited amount of fruit, so the ship had a fruit raffle. One of my friends won and was kind enough to share an apple slice with me. It was very delicious, and a teaser of the fresh produce we’ll soon enjoy on land.

The following morning the ship took a detour towards Barrow, Alaska. Another helicopter landed to remove a crew member who had kidney failure. Although it was unfortunate, it’s a good thing that he’ll get the medical attention he needs.

Due to high winds (about 45 knots), we have concluded science operations. Although many of us were bummed to skip the last two continental shelf stations to study sediment-water interactions, we were all glad we could begin packing. Tearing down the lab spaces happened at a quick speed, considering the amount of time and care that went into building them. It’s weird to see things packed and countertops cleared off. Although we have more packing and cleaning ahead of us, it’s nice to get a bit of a break for the last few days at sea.

Yesterday was a big day for two reasons. First, we saw some islands off in the distance. This was a relief to those who are itching to get off the ship. Second, we saw some killer whales swimming by the ship. Unfortunately I saw them, and when I returned with my camera, they were gone. I’m hoping to see a few more in the next two days. In other news, tonight is a big night because the science party is in charge of cooking the morale meal. More on that soon!

Stormy Seas

This past week has been odd. The nice part about being in the ice was the relatively smooth water, which helped make our casts and sample collection much easier. After leaving the ice, the seas have become more typical, with larger swells and waves. The waves cause the ship to drift while sampling, which can be a problem when we have gear over board. Unfortunately, last week the GEOTRACES rosette was in the water and the ship couldn’t maintain position, causing the wire to scrape the ship. The wire lost some of its water-proof shell, leading to a period of no sampling.

Around the same time we hit some bad weather. Winds quickened to 40 knots, forcing us to abandon one of our super stations. This was frustrating because the station was a crossover station with the Canadian section of the GEOTRACES cruise track. This means that had we sampled at that location, we could have compared our results to the Canadians. Due to the damaged GEOTRACES wire, we were unable to collect samples. To make up for the lost station, we collected duplicates at the following station to send to our Canadian friends. The other bummer about the storm was I started to feel a bit sea sick. Luckily I only felt queasy, and I didn’t actually get sick. I learned my lesson and am prepared to pre-medicate for our next storm, which we should hit sometime on Tuesday.

In other news, one of my friends in the Coast Guard is in charge of the engraving shop. He let me follow him around and learn how to engrave signs. I learned that there is quite a bit of artistry and skill involved. After completing the requested jobs, we made a sign for the mercury lab, which turned out well.

On top of sampling, the last week I’ve been busy lesson planning. There is an introduction to oceanography class aboard the ship that a few of the crew are enrolled in. The class is held for 45 minutes in the morning and evening so that people on different shifts can attend. Some of the scientists volunteered to teach some of the lectures. Lauren Kipp (a student at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) and I were asked to teach the last two lectures on pollution and climate change. We present Tuesday and Wednesday, which should be fun.

Sea showers and paper plates

It’s been an odd week here on the Healy. At the beginning of the week we were under water restriction, which usually occurs during super stations. During water restriction, we must take sea showers. The shortened cleansing routine is as follows: water on, get wet; water off, soap up; and rinse off, totaling about 2 minutes of water use. We also cannot do laundry, and use paper plates and plastic utensils in the mess. All of these efforts are done to prevent the ship from filling its waste receptacle while we are on station. We cannot dump our waste at station, because then we would be sampling our waste.

Previous super stations familiarized us with the rules of water restriction, so when mechanical problems arose, we were old pros. An evaporator that provides half of the Healy’s fresh water had gone offline. Luckily there are two evaporators, so we were not completely out of water. After 3 or 4 days of the engineering team working day and night, the system was fixed. Unfortunately, it was just in time for a super station, so our water restriction remained in effect for three more days.

Around this same time, the CTD (conductivity, temperature depth) probe on the GEOTRACES rosette had broken. This is a problem, because not knowing the depth of our samples makes the analysis and interpretation of our results almost useless. After replacing the probe, problems persisted, further frustrating the technicians. After a day of maintenance, the CTD was fixed and we were able to resume sampling.

After resolving the two above problems, our luck got worse. The incinerator that burns our paper products had a fuel leak. Since there’s no garbage collection at sea, we keep all of the trash we produce on board with us. Due to the large volume of trash produced over 2 months, we burn as much as possible. Unfortunately, this problem will most likely remain unresolved while at sea. We now have to hold onto a lot more trash.

On a more positive note, I’ve had the pleasure of exploring more of the Healy. Befriending crew members has perks, including seeing areas of the ship scientists are typically not allowed to enter. I was invited to go up to aloft conn, which is 7 stories above the main deck. For better visibility, navigation occurs in aloft conn when the ship is in ice. Since you need permission to be there, not many scientists get to go that high on the ship. It was pretty neat to have a bird’s eye view of the Healy and the surrounding seas! Another off limits-area I had the opportunity to explore was the engineering main control room. The Healy is more high tech than many ships, and the main control allows the engineering team to monitor most of the machinery on board. Things such as engine fuel level, water levels, heating and electricity use are some of the parameters they control and monitor.

All in all, it’s been a good week. I’m glad to take regular showers again. Soon we’ll have internet again, and hopefully I’ll be able to post more pictures.​

Ship life (Q & A from readers)

I’ve been busy with sampling and analyzing water and ice. After receiving a few emails from friends and family on land, I’m writing a post about life aboard the Healy.
Ship life, especially with the Coast Guard, is different than life on shore. Although we crossed the international dateline at the beginning of the cruise and are now back in the western hemisphere, the Healy has maintained Alaskan time throughout our trip. Planning and sticking to a schedule is very important for keeping a ship full of people organized to complete the science mission. Time is especially important for meals. There are four meals throughout the day, breakfast (0645–0745), lunch (1100–1200), dinner (1700–1800), and mid rats (2300–2345). Short for midnight rations, mid rats is designed for people working the overnight watch, and also for scientists who work through the night. Mid rats is a bit of a food gamble, because unlike the other meals that have a posted menu, mid rats can be anything from fried food to leftovers to breakfast or something new the mess staff cooks up.

As for the other meals, there’s a bit of a schedule, including taco Tuesday, wok Wednesday, fish Friday, morale meals on Saturday nights, and usually a carved meat served with potatoes on Sunday. The morale meal is when the mess/galley/cooking staff gets time off, and other departments take turn cooking and serving food. Usually the meal is something that’s easy to cook, such as pizza, and dessert is usually ice cream, which increases my morale! As some of you know, the ship has run out of fresh vegetables. We’re on our last bit of fresh fruit, grapefruits and oranges. When we get back I’ll be eating lots of fresh produce.

Free time on the ship is spent in a variety of ways. There are some group activities planned, which occur after the morale meal on Saturday evenings. This event varies, with past events being Harry Potter movie marathons, Christmas movies when we were at the Pole, sumo night (with the large sumo suits), and this week’s event is a talent show. On Thursday evenings there is trivia. I’m on a team with other scientists, and thus far we’ve done pretty well. Every round has a Coast Guard question, which my team struggles to get right.

Working out on the ship is also a free time activity. The Healy is nice because it has two gyms, one on the 2nd deck (the ship basement), and one in the helicopter hanger. The gym on the 2nd deck has free weights and also weight machines, and the hanger gym is mostly cardio equipment. I prefer to run, which challenges my balance when we are underway. The waves act as hills, which is a bit odd to get used to. Sometimes the motion is too much, and I have to hold onto the machine to not fall off! There are also group workout sessions, however, I’m usually busy at those times, and have not attended.

The scientists have a lounge space, with tables for working and playing games. A favorite activity of most of the scientists is working on the New York Times crossword puzzles. We receive an abbreviated version of the daily paper, and we work on the puzzles as a group. A few people play cribbage or other games, with Bananagrams, Bonanza and Monopoly Deal being a few favorites. There’s also a TV, which shows the ship’s two movie channels. The daily feature films are posted in the Plan of The Day, or the posted schedule for each day. We also watch live feeds around the ship, because it’s a lot warmer to watch sampling gear deployment inside rather than outside.

That’s all for now. If you have any other questions or would like to say hi, feel free to email my ship email address: alison.agather(at)healy.polarscience.(net).​

Ice Liberty

We completed our North Pole water station and found an ice floe suitable for photos and sampling. A brief ceremony was conducted to congratulate the entire ship on making it to the North Pole. We received certificates and Arctic Service medals for our time above 66 °N. Everyone gathered for a group photo, after which we were allowed one hour on the ice for ice liberty. During our ice liberty we took photos with Santa, a pole that we brought out (it is not always there because the North Pole is not a landmass) and other various photos. People smoked cigars to celebrate and some started a football game. Everyone was ecstatic to be off the ship for a bit.

After our ice liberty, we had a 10 hour ice station. I helped out with snow sampling for a radionuclide group sampling cesium 137 (an isotope that decays after two years) for influence from Fukushima. After sampling a few one meter square plots, we helped other groups tote gear to and from the ship. Ice sampling is a lot of work due to the transportation of the equipment, tromping through the snow followed by working long hours, and toting all of the gear and samples back to the ship. We push, pull, and drag our gear to our sampling spots on the ice using sleds, which is not quite like the sledding I’m used to.

After completing our ice station, the German ship the Polarstern stopped at the same ice floe as the Healy. The German scientists walked over to the Healy for a tour of the ship and lab space. They then were gracious hosts and showed us around their ship. The Polarstern is very different from the Healy, because it is a research vessel operated by the Alfred Wegener Institute (named after the scientist who first discovered continental drift), rather than a military operated ship. Notable features of the Polarstern are its swimming pool, sauna, and bar. Scientists rotate serving the crew in the bar to show appreciation for their hard work. This is a lot different compared to American ships, which are dry.

90 Degrees North

Greetings from the North Pole! Wahoo, we made it! At 0747 this morning we arrived at the North Pole! This is the first time a US ship has gone to the pole unaccompanied by another cutter. There is a buzz about the ship, a sense of accomplishment. After being at sea for almost a month, we’re all relieved to reach our most iconic station. Currently we’re sampling, but once the station is finished, we have some fun things planned. The Coast Guard has a party planned in the helicopter hanger with Christmas movies, hot chocolate, snowflake cutting and Santa. I’m looking forward to the festivities. In the meantime, Elf is currently playing on the TV in the science lounge, I have a Christmas playlist for today’s lab work, and this morning I passed out candy canes I saved for the occasion. The candy canes brought a lot of cheer to everyone, and I wish I’d brought more.

Life aboard the ship has been pretty crazy otherwise. We finished our super-station, which was hectic. My instrument was acting up again, so I didn’t sleep very much during the station. The GEOTRACES wire broke as the last cast was lowered onto the deck, dropping the carousel onto the deck. Luckily, no one was hurt, there was little to no rosette damage, and the GEOTRACES crew was able to repair the wire during transit.

After the super-station, we spent a lot of time looking for an ice floe large enough for an ice station. Unfortunately the ice has been too thin at our previous stations, preventing us from sampling ice. The lack of ice has frustrated the ice team because they have been at sea for almost four weeks without collecting a single sample. Due to my sleep deprivation, I fell asleep watching 30 Rock with some friends. I went to bed, and when I woke up the following morning I missed the first ice station. Shucks! One of my roommates was going to wake me, but she thought I needed sleep and let me rest. I’m bummed I missed it, but hopefully there will be another that I can report about later.

A few days ago, we passed two Canadian Coast Guard ships. The Louis St. Laurent and the Terry Fox headed southward, passing the north-bound Healy. Most ships sail into the ice cap accompanied by another boat, which prevents getting stuck in the ice. As I mentioned above, it’s unique that the Healy is up here without another ship, making today more momentous.​

Team Mercury featured on PolarTREC Blog

We’re now closer to the North Pole than we are to any land. It’s expected that we’ll be at the pole sometime at the end of next week. Currently we’re steaming to our first super-station, which is when we take high resolution vertical profiles to better understand the chemistry at those locations. After our super-station, our next stop is the North Pole!

I don’t have too many updates, so I’m going to send you over to Bill Schmoker’s PolarTREC blog, where he recently featured Team Mercury. He spent the day with Katlin and me in the van, learning about mercury and taking some good action shots. So check it out here:


Thicker ice, another bear sighting

Two days ago the ship came across another polar bear. We received pages telling about a bear spotted in the distance. Again, everyone immediately dropped what they were doing and headed outside to watch the bear. We were stopped at a station, so the bear trekked across the ice to get a closer look at the Healy and all of its inhabitants. We watched in amazement as the bear trotted, swam and walked around to observe us. The bear even hunted for food by sticking its head in the water.

Ever curious, the bear paced around the ship, observing the boat and its inhabitants.

Ever curious, the bear paced around the ship, observing the boat and its inhabitants.

Current estimates indicate that it will be 40 hours until our next station, because the thicker ice slows the ship down. We have started backing and ramming the ice, which slows our speed to about 4 knots per hour. Without ice, we typically average about 11-12 knots while steaming, but the slower travel gives us time to catch up on some sleep and work. I’ve even had the pleasure of playing a few games with friends here on the ship, a true luxury when the majority of my time is spent in lab.

We now have 24 hours of sunlight, and will not see the sun set until about September 16th. Also, for all of those interested, we reversed our track, and are going clockwise due to thinner ice on the side nearer to Russia.

Walruses and polar bears, oh my!

It has been a big week on the ship. On Tuesday morning, the ship began sailing in icy water. Now, the Healy crushes ice while steaming. Sailing over the ice sounds a bit like thunder and feels like a cross between turbulence and driving over the rumble strips on the side of the road. The only differences is that it happens all of the time, whether I’m working in lab, walking around with a bowl of soup or climbing stairs.

In the lower latitudes, there were plenty of walruses to see. A lot of the scientists enjoyed seeing the mammals lazily lay on the ice. But after seeing the walruses, we were more excited to see polar bears. On Thursday afternoon we had our first polar bear sighting! We received word of the bear via our pagers, which was the best page I’ve received thus far. As soon as people read their pagers, everyone dropped what they were doing to go out on deck to look. The bear was over two miles away, and blended in with the white surroundings. It took a while to spot, but eventually I saw a relatively yellowish (compared to the white ice/snow) creature moving about on the ice. The sighting left everyone giddy and ready to see more bears.

We had our first ice operations meeting, in which we learned about bear safety. With the world’s largest quadrupedal predator in the area we have to be on alert at all times when we leave the ship. Polar bears can run 25-30 miles per hour over short distances, and can smell 20 miles away. I’ll have more to report on ice operations when we actually begin sampling out on the ice.

The other bit of excitement this past week was the air drop that occurred on Wednesday. The Coast Guard sent a C-130 to drop a package in the ocean near the ship, which was retrieved by the small boat. The package contained a heater for the GEOTRACES winch (the line that lowers the rosette into the ocean). The winch is rated to 40 °F, which is a problem because current temperatures are below 30 °F and are dropping daily.

In the lab I’m continuing to encounter problems with my analytical set up. Currently, Team Mercury believes my problems stem from the cold temperatures, so we’re doing our best to consistently heat my workspace. I’d like to get the problems sorted so I can do more analysis and less troubleshooting. Carl and I made a lot of progress yesterday, so I’m hopeful that today will be better.


Walruses group on ice floes until they melt or sink, then they move on to another ice floe.

One last note, we’ve reached 80 °N, so the ship no longer has internet. If you’d like to send me a note, please use my ship email, which works because of the iridium network. Send any jokes, notes or updates to me at alison.agather(at)healy.polarscience.net. I’d love to hear from any and all of you!