Skip to content

Sikuliaq in Alaska

February 2015 – The R/V Sikuliaq has reached Alaskan waters.

  • The first stop for the ship will be in Ketchikan. A community reception is scheduled for Feb. 10. Ship tours will be held from 1–4 p.m. starting at the Berth III visitor information center at 417 Water Street.
  • On Feb. 17, the Sikuliaq will visit Juneau. Ship tours will be from 1–4:30 p.m. at the AJ Dock, 1110 Jacobsen Drive. A community reception will be held from 5:30–7:30 p.m. at the Twisted Fish, 550 Franklin Street.
  • A commissioning ceremony and community reception in Seward are scheduled for March 7 beginning at 11 a.m. at the Dale R. Lindsey Terminal. Ship tours in Seward will be available the afternoons of March 6, 7 and 8 starting at 1 p.m. each day.

To sign up for a ship tour or RSVP for a community reception, visit the Sikuliaq website. Alaskans can also follow the Sikuliaq’s homecoming and share their own Sikuliaq experiences on Facebook at or elsewhere in the social web using #sikuliaq.

The Sikuliaq — pronounced see-KOO-lee-auk and translated from Inupiaq as “young sea ice” — is a new 261-foot oceanographic research vessel. The ship is owned by the National Science Foundation and operated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, a leader in Arctic research.

Sikuliaq can cut through 2.5 feet of first-year sea ice and is the only ice-capable vessel in the United States academic research fleet. The ship is outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment to bring scientists to previously inaccessible ice-choked polar regions of the globe. The Sikuliaq will be a powerful vehicle for advancing polar and subpolar research when it begins scientific operations this summer.

UAF scientists conducting ocean research in Alaska have been advocating for a vessel specifically designed for Arctic operations since the first proposal was submitted in 1973. Those years of preparation paid off in 2009 when the NSF announced it would construct the vessel with funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

An exhibit about the ship on display in the Special Exhibits Gallery at the UA Museum of the North features interactive games that illustrate the tasks that oceanographers accomplish. A water column shows the range of depths at which tools must operate in the ocean. A sonar mapping activity lets visitors assemble a seafloor terrain and use an ultrasonic sensor to virtually recreate the topography. Visitors can play in the science control room, examine scientific specimens collected in the Arctic, and explore a six-foot model of the ship.

Arctic Odyssey-01 Arctic Odyssey-02 Arctic Odyssey-07 Arctic Odyssey-08 Arctic Odyssey-09

A mooring for oceanography


Seth Danielson is a physical oceanographer with the UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. Seth’s proposal to use a mooring in the Northeast Chukchi Sea for ecosystem monitoring is featured in the Arctic Odyssey exhibit.

The mooring site was selected because of the biological “hotspot” located on the NE Chukchi Sea shelf, where a thriving benthic community supports a major walrus foraging site during summer and fall months. Also, the site is close to Barrow Canyon and well positioned to record the effects of shelf-canyon exchange. Such a fully instrumented mooring is rare on any continental shelf; this mooring will enable many stand-alone multi-disciplinary and multi-parameter studies and its data will complement numerous underway and planned Arctic physical, geochemical, ecological, and fisheries studies.

We wanted to learn more about the proposal and a recent trip to Seward to test out the mooring, so we asked him a few questions.

1) What kind of mooring is this? Is it unique? Does it represent next-gen technology? Yes, next-gen technology and unique for Alaska’s waters. In fact, finding such a fully instrumented mooring of this type is rare on any continental shelf anywhere.  This package that will be deployed this summer will measure water current speed and direction, ice draft, wave height, wave period, wave direction, size spectra of suspended sediment, temperature, salinity, conductivity, pressure, fluorescence, light, and water clarity.  Future deployments (when we can afford the instruments) will also measure nitrate, dissolved oxygen, partial pressure of CO2 and pH.

2) How did the test go? The test went well – we found that some of the instruments were working properly; we found one problem with one of the instruments, so we were able to send that back to the factory to be fixed before deploying it in the ocean this summer. Here is an instance of finding a problem still qualifies as being a success.  The reason we do a lot of careful testing is to try to expose problems before they have a chance to manifest during a real deployment. We were able to do a limited test for interference between two of the acoustic instruments and found no sign of unwanted crosstalk.

3) How do you explain a mooring to a non-oceanographer? It looks like rubber balls attached to oxygen tanks! What makes moorings such a popular tool for oceanographers? The mooring is a set of instruments that record autonomously underwater for a whole year, attached to an anchor via an acoustic release.  At the time of mooring recovery, we send a command to the release, which lets go of the anchor. The floatation (red balls) pull the whole mooring (except the anchor) back up to the surface where we pull it all back on board and then download the data. Oceanographers like these because they return a long time series of multiple data streams back to us at the end of the deployment. Our task (the fun part, to me) is then to examine the data and figure out what “story” the data is telling. Does it support or refute a hypothesis? Does it look as expected or are there surprises?


SFOS graduate student Jessie Turner and professor Andrew McDonnell review results from a mooring test at the Seward Marine Center, a UAF facility based in Seward.



Mooring technician David Leech works in the shop at the UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences Seward Marine Center facility.


From left: Mooring Technician David Leech, Claudine Hauri, SFOS carbon chemist, and Jessie Turner, SFOS graduate student. at the  Seward Marine Center.

From left: Mooring Technician David Leech, Claudine Hauri, SFOS carbon chemist, and Jessie Turner, SFOS graduate student. at the Seward Marine Center.



Scientists and technicians test the mooring at the Seward Marine Center to try to expose problems before they have a chance to manifest during a real deployment.

Specimens! Specimens! Specimens!


AOspecimens2 small

What is better than a whole array of specimens to discover and explore.

You can look at the shapes, admire the details, read about the objects.

This particular collection is related to Arctic oceanography. That’s the theme of our next special exhibit, Arctic Odyssey: Voyages of the R/V Sikuliaq. Scientists will soon travel to remote waters of the globe on UAF’s new research vessel, the Sikuliaq, to explore the world beneath the sea and ice.

In the meantime, visitors can discover the objects scientists are studying.

Museum Educator Maite Agopian is putting together this hands-on collection. She says it will give people a chance to admire the beauty of marine life and start to ask questions of their own.

AOspecimens1 small

AOspecimens3 small

AOspecimens4 small

AOspecimens5 small

AOspecimens6 small


Putting an Exhibit on the Wall


Tamara Martz was working for local jeweler Judie Gumm in 2005 and taking metalsmithing classes to prepare for what she hoped would be a creative career. She was also serving drinks at the Alaska Coffee Roasting Company to help pay the bills. That’s where she was on the day that the museum’s graphic designer handed her an application. The museum was in the final stages of its expansion and needed someone who could design and fabricate mounts for the new objects to be put on exhibit.

She started as a production assistant, making scores of mounts for the new Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery. “I did a quick count and came up with 172 mounts, mostly metal, some acrylic.” And not one of them has fallen down.

Now Tamara is the museum’s exhibit & graphic designer. She’s responsible for designing the ads and brochures used to promote the museum’s programs and events. And she’s still putting things on the wall. She designs the special exhibits that are created by the production team. From Hibernation & the Science of Cold to the current exhibit-in-production, Arctic Odyssey: Voyages of the R/V Sikuliaq, she brings concepts and facts to a physical form, relying on images and pictures to do what words often can’t.

“I’m a picture person. Words don’t really work for me. When an exhibit does it right, you can figure out the story without reading a word.”

But she makes the words look good, too! Whether it’s laying them out in diary form, as she did in the Denali Legacy exhibit, or building a more traditional panel, Tamara has been taking big creative risks, letting each exhibit evolve from scratch, rather than forcing text into a template.


A rough draft of a panel. The text will be edited and the whole thing may look very different once it’s on exhibit.

“It can be a struggle,” she says. “I usually reach a point where I just want to run away. But by working collaboratively with the rest of the exhibit team, I manage to find my way through.”

That means making a mock exhibit in the weeks before an exhibit opens, putting half-formed panels and graphics on the wall. It’s not until she can see it from that perspective – and through the eyes of her collaborators – that Tamara is able to reach the final stage.

With less than two months left before opening day, Tamara is racing the clock. She needs to get the layout finalized so she can get files to the printers. There are still infographics to design and text to be edited. Still, there is reason to stick around and see it through.

“I’ve always loved art and art museums,” she says. “I am fascinated by the challenge of taking complicated concepts and making them accessible to a large audience. If I can make myself understand what’s being said, I figure anyone can.”

Arctic Odyssey: Voyages of the R/V Sikuliak opens May 10 in the Special Exhibits Gallery.

— Posted by Theresa Bakker, media coordinator

Printing with Objects

The UAMN production unit has just a few months left to finish designing, building, and installing our next special exhibit, Arctic Odyssey: Voyages of the R/V Sikuliaq. It’s a team effort, from the panels that will go on the wall to the large interactive elements designed to give people an understanding of complex oceanographic concepts. A special exhibit is the ultimate in multimedia storytelling. The possibilities for bringing scientific concepts and theories to life — as endless as there is space to contain them.

3D 7

With a new 3D Printer, Modeler/Animator Hannah Foss has been able to create a lifelike model of the Sikuliaq for a water column element that will be located in the far corner of the Special Exhibits Gallery. The 3.5 inch ‘test-size’ ship takes two hours to print, while the full-size, 7 inch ship can be produced in nine hours. The detail is incredible, including railing, cranes, lights and stack funnels.

Hannah says there have been challenges. “With great power comes great responsibility and room to goof up. Many times there are disagreements between the CGI software and the 3D Printer proprietary software- holes, disappearing pieces, artifacts, blobs, failed prints, glitches, etc. It’s not an exact science. Sometimes the mesh is too thin, other times riddled with holes, backwards-facing faces, intersecting planes, unresolved mesh edges. That kind of nonsense.”

I wanted to know more about what might become just another office supply now, before the unimagined is mundane.

3D 2

Is the MakerBot a special brand? Isn’t there a UAF connection? Makerbot is one of the best known brands around, with a comfortingly large user base- this makes a good safety net as far as customer feedback and support when you need help. Yes! It turns out a UAF graduate Nick Brewer works at Makerbot in a Social Media/ Outreach capacity. He has been really generous to offer us assistance and support, it’s great to have UAF connections so far and wide.

What was it like to get the printer up and working? I imagine it wasn’t just an out-of-the-box experience? It was like geek Christmas, like unwrapping a puppy. As far as set up went, it was pretty simple- we had it up and running in an hour and a half, and that was taking into consideration a lot of triple checking and time spent gushing and staring at it. Other than cutting a few restraining bands that held extruder parts steady during shipping, attaching the material-feed spool and calibrating the print plate levels, it was out-of-the-box ready. Everything was very user friendly.

3D 4

Printing a 3D object isn’t like sending a photo image to a printer. What kind of “plans” do you need? Right. It’s like sending hundreds of layers to a printer. In order to ensure a successful print, you have to think like a printer, see like the printer. BECOME. THE. PRINTER.

A 3D Printer prints in layers, like a stack of pancakes. Layer by layer it builds slices of your object in flat planes, one on another, until you have your finished object. This gives you some freedoms and restrictions. Thanks to the precision of the printer, you can print fine angled parts like flaps and flippers with relative ease. Your restrictions are that you cannot build wide platforms and overhangs in midair.

3D 5

Let’s say you’re printing a mushroom all in one piece, from the bottom of the stem up. This print will be incomplete, since the printer cannot start printing the overhanging edges of the mushroom cap in midair. It would therefore be best to print the mushroom on it’s head, this way the cap can be printed completely and cleanly. We used this same method to print our whale (belly up) so that his fins would print cleanly and completely. Some people avoid this problem by printing objects in separate pieces, or split and print bilaterally.

There’s also the matter of making sure your file is printer ready. You want to avoid artifacts that will confuse the printer and perhaps cause a failure. There are situations that can exist in the CGI world, but don’t really jive with reality- these include penetrating surfaces (surfaces sliding through each other), incomplete or hole-filled surfaces and non-manifold geometry. A printer can’t print something it views as a one-sided plane. It might not understand how to print shapes that intersect or collide with one another. You want to make things as easy for the printer to understand as possible. From your native CGI program, you export your cleaned-up and printer-friendly object to the Makerbot’s proprietary software, called Makerware. Here you can translate (move), rotate and scale your object(s), and then save and export it to an SD card.

What have you printed so far? Two files that came with the makerbot on its SD card- Mr Jaws, the shark, and a chain link, to make sure the 3D printer was up and running correctly. We have also printed a mushroom, many whales, and beveled gears. Our sea-faring research vessel was the latest project on the horizon.

3D 1

What’s your dream print job? A dragon. Or a horse. Or dinosaurs. Yeah, like a whole bunch of that combination. Or a kinetic model, like a dinosaur toy.

Maybe that’s something we’ll see in our NEXT special exhibit.

– Theresa Bakker, media coordinator

Fluid – Organic – Physical

Recently we sat down with Andres Lopez, UAMN Curator of Fishes and guest curator for the exhibition, Arctic Odyssey. We asked him some questions about how he came to work on the exhibit, the differences between scientific research and exhibitions, and his expectations for the project.

Sequence 02.Still009To start off, how’d you come to Fairbanks?
“I am originally from Colombia but I have been in the U.S. for many, many years, since I started college, and through grad school. My undergraduate degree is a B.S. in biology, and I followed that with a master’s in fisheries and after that a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology. It’s a mixture of lots of biologies but also always revolving around fish and aquatic systems.
“My training, my master’s degree, my post docs were all related to museum collections. I was at the University of Washington fish collection. I worked at the Field Museum fish collection, and at the Florida Museum of Natural History fish collection. And while I was at Florida a position to serve as curator of the fish collection in the University of Alaska opened up so I came for that.”

Why did you sign up for this great task of being guest curator for Arctic Odyssey?
“I think it’s a great opportunity to let everybody know about the kind of work that goes on at the university, the museum, and worldwide. In general [scientists] write very specialized reports on specialized topics for a very well defined audience. Working on the exhibit is a great opportunity to reach a much broader audience than we’re used to reaching. An opportunity to tell the public that doesn’t read specialized magazines on research, what takes place in research labs, and what kinds of questions are being asked and answered.”

So it’s more about the general presentation of science rather than your own research?
“Exactly, it’s about being able to convey to everyone that is interested in what we do, how it works, what it is that we do, and why it has relevance to a number of questions. Not just specific questions of the science — how oceans work, how fishes work — but also how those things relate to general societal issues, problems, concerns. Just being able to expand the reach of what we do beyond the technical to the social.”

What has come out of the planning process that you didn’t expect?
“One of the things that I didn’t expect in the planning process is working with so many different goals in mind and so many different things that we need to accomplish, realizing that you need to downscale your ambitions because you can easily get in trouble shooting for the moon and trying to do everything within one exhibit. You really have to focus your ideas and find the scope of the exhibit early on so that you can get a really thorough professional-looking exhibit at the end. Otherwise you run the risk of chasing a hundred different leads and not reaching the end of any of them.”

strip1You’re involved in lots of projects that take months and years and even decades to do the research you want to do on a particular area or species. So working on a project that doesn’t necessarily take so long to get an idea and hone it down, what’s the experience been like for you?
“It’s been a lot of fun, I’ve learned a lot of things. The way an exhibit project develops is different from the way I’m used to developing projects. I’m familiar with developing a project based on a standard set of questions. Developing an exhibit project is much different from that. It’s much more open-ended, fluid.”

“Yeah, organic would be a good word, because there is much more creativity involved in coming up with things that will not only be technically accurate but will also be interesting. So that whole component of identifying things that will appeal to a broad audience, that actually connect well with the topics of the exhibit has been very enlightening in project development.
“It also involves a much larger team. With a research project, generally you have a smaller team that has focused expertise, and here you have a big team that spans everything from public outreach to production to the scientists that we’re interviewing and that will be providing content for the exhibit. So it’s interesting from that perspective, too, having a broad range of expertise come together.”

Given that lots of people are on the team, obviously there are many different creative ideas that are sometimes in conflict with each other. So as the guest curator you’ve got to be the person to at some point say ‘this is the direction things need to go, this is the scope of the exhibit, and these ideas are secondary to these other ones.
“And that’s a challenge, because obviously from my background I would tend to err on the side of making everything very technical and have a lot of information on complex ideas that may not really lend themselves to be deployed or shown in an exhibit.
“So another interesting aspect is realizing that there’s a huge difference in the way you convey technical ideas and the way you convey appealing ideas and general ideas about a field. While in oceanography there’s millions of open questions and very difficult questions that remain to be answered, for the exhibit we have to focus on things that are fairly well understood and give the visitor a glimpse of what’s not understood without overwhelming them with too much information that you really need to have a lot of prior experience to absorb.”

Given that the exhibit’s going to show you how the Sikuliaq works, in terms of the water and the ocean, there are a lot of cool, interesting things that people don’t think about. Could you touch on what you thought you knew about the water?
“Oceans are familiar. There’s a lot of documentaries on oceans. People visit the ocean with some frequency. But in reality there’s a huge proportion of the ocean that we can’t get to and study up close without some specialized resources to be able to access them.
“One of the things that we’ve learned in developing this exhibit is how vessels like the Sikuliaq allow researchers to get to places that are hard to investigate. And not just physically get to that location but also deploy instruments that allow them to get an idea of the conditions and the characteristics of the ocean at those locations.
“These are ecosystems that are inaccessible by definition, they’re out there in the middle of the ocean at great depths, but they’re also very interesting from the perspective of how they integrate with water columns ecosystems, with terrestrial ecosystems over the long term, how they are involved with the cycling of key elements that maintain ecosystems throughout the planet.
“So learning and working on the exhibit has given me idea of how these things relate to broader questions of how life works on the planet.”

Journey – Adventure – Odyssey

gulf01Museums do scale very well. We expect a world in a room, an adventure in a box. We go into museums so that we can then look outward. One journey becomes many. In the gallery, we look down at the model of a ship and imagine the impossibly broad ocean stretching out past the way we walked in from the admissions desk, out past our parked cars, farther, past the outskirts of the city.

Fairbanks. Interior Alaskans know about big landscapes and bigger skies. Here is the perfect place to begin a voyage of discovery aboard a brand new research ship, Sikuliaq. It makes no difference the ocean is hundreds of miles away; the Sikuliaq has  decades of adventure ahead, the crew — tens of thousands of ocean miles. Here, at the outset of that journey, the museum will take you across all those miles and through all those years — in the space of an hour, in a room a thousand foot square.


Museums are worlds in miniature, and the UA Museum of the North is a model of the circumpolar north. The best models are those we can get right inside of, something where the walls are part physical and part an abstraction of something much larger, stretching right to the edges of the imagination.

My favorite “models” are old, ruined castles, those tucked away in valleys where so few people visit, you are almost guaranteed to visit alone. These castles are bare bones with nary a standing wall, but they are still complex things, stabilized and sometimes partially reconstructed – where the lines between the object and the landscape are a knit of stone and grass. Here we can stand and imagine the walls as they would have been, the wind as it would have been as the drone of cars on a distant motorway fades to nothing. The sunburned placards on their weathered iron disappear. The protective railings and the wooden ways that make us safe are wished aside. We can walk and breathe and touch. An exhibition should be like that — a collection of protected fragments, not just objects to stare at, but things to imagine — half walls and windows on times and places it is difficult or impossible to visit. The Sikuliaq is like that — a construct of welded modules and instruments and machines and the best of ideas that will take researchers — and us — to those remotest parts of the Earth, those places that exist at the borders of our imaginations. Because what happens there, matters.


Arctic Odyssey exhibition design (looking east).


Arctic Odyssey exhibition design (looking north).

Arctic Odyssey will be the spirit of adventure, the spirit of a machine we experience from inside and out, a physical and a virtual transport. It will be models we experience as much as look at, models that tell stories — in a small gallery, in a museum. These models will take us places. They will tell stories of the sea and make a living space for stories that have yet to be told.

I have not been to sea since 1995, and while it has been more than 18 years, I have a long series of durable memories from three weeks between Seward and Yakutat, aboard the Alpha Helix, the University of Alaska’s prior research vessel.


Pushing ice aside at the bow of Alpha Helix, 1995.


Lowering a CTD cast from the Alpha Helix, 1995.

I remember the morning reveille of ice drumming against the bow, the comforts of the treadmill in the library, the speed at which the Dramamine stores ran dry, the bone-chilling cold of the wind coming across the broken glacier ice in a bay on the Gulf of Alaska. We were a cork in a glass of iced tea, dipping our spoon in, reaching deep to stir the sediment on the bottom — reaching over the starboard rail to grasp a CTD and rosette cage so it could not thunk against he hull before the winch lowered it deep into the fjord.

I remember the wild, rolling sunsets, and the way the world became peaceful again as soon as we drove out of the Gulf and into a bay. I remember the dimly lit CTD control room and the beige desktop computer with which we could queue emails to send back home in a once-a-day burst.

Some technologies have made those days a bygone age, and the remnants of that are exactly the stuff of museums. Other things have not changed in 20 years, and still, going to sea is a big deal. A ship is capable but isolated, advanced but independent. It fends for itself and its crew. It conveys explorers through both calm waters and the most unforgiving environments on the planet. Beyond everything else, the ship is a window on the water. Arctic Odyssey will be a window on the ship.


Arctic Odyssey interactive element design.

traceElements_persp               sonar_persp

Museums do scale very well. All exhibitions seek to touch themes greater than themselves. Arctic Odyssey encompasses a 261ft research vessel, the science of oceanography, and all the world’s oceans. That’s a lot for a room. We will have to imagine the water, I suspect, mostly, but that’s what we do in museums. We enter a framework and then imagine a wider world.


To make that journey, another one must come before – the best of adventures, the odyssey of getting an exhibit made. Those at the museum, the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the Alaska Sealife Center have been revising ideas and making plans for some time now, and yet — there are so many unknowns coming at us in the next eight months. Because really, the Sikuliaq is only just at the start of its journey, but the Odyssey as first imagined is a story of homecoming, and the trials and challenges and wonders of getting there. It took Odysseus 10 years to get home, and on the way, Cyclops, Sirens, Charybdis, … Circe. Advenure is is out there among the odd lands of exhibit design and fabrication. Stay tuned for stories of this odyssey as we bring the exhibit and this new ship home — a prelude, to the making of an even greater story.

— Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits and Digital Media Production)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.