About the author: Brian Van Pay is a Maritime Geographer with the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. He is currently on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy on the Arctic Ocean.
My previous four entries discussed some of the details of the type of data we are collecting in the Arctic Ocean in cooperation with Canada and why we are doing so. For this entry, I’ll give an overview on what it is like to live onboard an icebreaker for a month.
When not working there are plenty of activities to keep the crew and scientists occupied including bingo and movie nights, the occasional science presentation, and a well-equipped gym. Good pictures can be had from the ship’s bow if you are willing to brave temperatures in the single digits or below zero if you factor in the wind chill, but sometimes temperatures reach the high 20s or even low 30s while in the ice. Otherwise, the bridge offers a good view too.
The scenery is sometimes simply flat and white with fresh fallen snow, but it is usually more varied with open black water or spectacular bright-blue, multi-year ice. Sometimes different ice floes will push into each other and create pressure ridges that can reach four meters high. Even though you cannot observe it from the ship, the entire ice pack is always moving at about 0.25 miles per hour or more, so even if the ship stops in the ice, its navigation systems say otherwise.
There is the occasional jostle when the Healy hits a large chunk of ice or its diesel engines power through an ice field. At night, it feels like someone is rocking you to sleep, although every so often it feels like someone is trying to toss you out of bed! Since there are no waves, there is no regular up-and-down motion, and no need to reach for the Dramamine. Coast Guard personnel who master the art form of driving the Healy begin by learning the ten commandments of icebreaking. Such commandments include: keep power in reserve during difficult ice conditions and avoid wedging a ship into a narrow lead.
Other than the Louis, we have yet to encounter another vessel during our journey and we don’t expect to do so. I haven’t seen a plane fly overhead yet either. We saw eight seals within the first day of departing Barrow and since then about four or five more. We did see our first polar bear and her cub last week, but they were just over a mile away. Even so, we have seen plenty of bear tracks and even a set of fox tracks.
There are three meals a day, plus midnight rations or “mid-rats,” which ensures no one goes hungry. As a precaution, the Healy carries enough food to last the winter, should it become icebound. It has never happened, but it is good to be prepared. There are about 10 hours of darkness now every night and we gain about 10 more minutes of darkness every 24 hours. Fall is definitely here and we are beginning preparations to head back home.
Interested in hearing some answers to the tough questions posed in the comments section below each entry? Then check back for my next entry on DipNote.
Editor's Note: Read Brian's previous entry about cooperation with the Canadians aboard the Louis.