By Heidi Zemach for SCN –
With the magnificent new 261-foot oceanographic research vessel moored just outside at the far end of cruise ship dock, a couple hundred people filled the Dale R Lindsey Alaska Railroad Terminal in Seward Saturday March 7th, 2014 for a Commissioning Ceremony establishing the R/V Sikuliaq ship in its official home-port, Seward. An on-screen performance of “Song of the Sikuliaq,” a symphony written for its christening by graduate music student Emerson Eads in honor of the vessel’s mission, welcomed participants at the start of the ceremony.
It was a historic day for Seward. Having a world-class research vessel of its caliber call Seward its home port is a great claim to be able to make, and the ship’s importance to the future of global ocean research and to document the effects of climate change is immeasurable.
Young welding students from AVTEC’s heavy machine shop toured the ship, along with hundreds of fascinated local residents and visitors from afar. Seward’s own Catalyst Marine Engineering workers also got in on the action, doing some welding to help ready the ship for its journey next week to Dutch Harbor and beyond.
“I cannot emphasize how honored Seward is to be home porting this vessel,” said Seward Mayor Jean Bardarson. “We welcome the Research Vessel Sikuliaq with open arms, and I’m proud to say that one of the most advanced research vessels in the world is home ported in our community.”
The ceremony began with a Presentation of Colors by young Seward Civil Air Patrol Cadets, “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Alaska Flag Song,” sung in rousing fashion by Cinereski family members, and the Invocation by Seward City Church Pastor Max Ingalis followed.
Delores Burnell, of Barrow, dressed in a festive purple Kuspuk and handsome fur hat gave an Inupiaq blessing, and song in honor of the research vessel, which is named for the Inupiaq word for young sea ice. The blessing wished for the crew and scientists’ safety at sea.
The Sikuliaq is the first ice-capable vessel in the United States academic research fleet. It’s not an ice breaker, said Sikuliaq Captain Michael Hoshlyk. But it has a sturdy reinforced hull outfitted with an ice knife on the bow enabling it to cut through two or three feet of young sea ice sort of like a knife, allowing it to operate in the Arctic and harsh conditions across the globe. It also has propellers that can crush the ice, and it can while maneuvering moving forward, backward, or to some extent from side to side. It met its first ice during trials testing in Great Lakes while on its long voyage to Seward.
“We’re experiencing history in the making, both now and in the years to come,” said Brian Rogers, the chancellor of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. A commissioning ceremony, normally performed for military vessels, was deemed fitting for the vessel’s home porting, as the ship had already been christened and launched in October 2012, at the Marinette Marine Corp shipyard in Wisconsin where it was built.
“It’s the final act that gives the ship its purpose or its mission,” Rogers added. UAF will operate the National Science Foundation vessel as part of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System. The fact that the U.S. was willing to build a $200 million asset like the Sikuliaq, with federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding in order to better understand the arctic, demonstrates the recognition of the U.S. as an Arctic Nation, Rogers said. “This vessel is charged to go over the world. We hope that most of that will be right here in the arctic and Bering Sea because of the new opportunities and challenges that we have going on in the arctic today. The loss of the arctic sea ice is opening new areas to oil and gas exploration, transpolar shipping, tourism, but it’s also resulting in severe impacts on coastal communities, on the residents. We have a huge stake in the development and sustainability of our coastal and marine resources, and this research vessel, the Sikuliaq, will provide us with some of the tools to take wise decisions in the arctic to keep the oceans healthy.”
Sikuliaq, or first-year ice, is becoming more prolific as the older and thicker Arctic ice disappears, opening areas where no ships had ever been before. The ships’ importance to world research is in being uniquely able to explore what lays beneath the ice, the expanding plankton blooms whose growth is encouraged by the light streaming through the thinning ice, ocean acidification, sea floor strata discoveries, and other important changes affecting the oceans’ chemistry and the chain of marine life both above, and below the ice.
UAF Dean Emeritus Vera Alexander and Professor Emeritus Bob Elsner, the ships co-sponsors, were in the audience and were recognized as the ships’ founders 40 years ago. They thought up the idea of building a scientific exploration vessel that would be able to explore ocean areas only accessible via the nation’s few icebreakers. Elsner submitted the proposal for the ships’ first design in 1973. They went through several different design proposals and rejections before settling on the current design. By the time it came to construction time, Alexander had retired, she said.
When they began calling for a new vessel to replace the UAF-operated Alpha Helix, scientists were aware of climate variability, but global climate change wasn’t yet on their radar.
“Well we didn’t know obviously what the research was going to be doing 40 years afterwards, but the capability of working in the ice was the big thing we wanted, and the ability to work in seas where we couldn’t really get except on icebreakers,” Alexander said. “There’s definitely a lot more interest in the arctic right now, and concern about it, so I think it comes at a good time. But I’m personally happy and sad that I’m too old to go to sea. Happy, because it’s a miserable thing to be at sea for a long time, but I’m happy because it’s a very exciting thing.”