Dear Guildenstern

Sikuliaq Ice Trials
March 28, 2015

Neighborhood walrus. Photo by Roger Topp
Neighborhood walrus.

I saw a walrus I could have hit with a snowball. We are talking about a walrus. Weighs a ton, more than a car. It’s huge. But it was also close.

We were parked. Mike maneuvered the spotlight to light him up a little with the edge scatter. He only seemed more interested. Everyone was chanting, “Get up on the ice. Get up on the ice.”

It was still early morning, the horizon just a thin line of blue, and we were already cheering on the play’s perfect moment. The walrus remained in the water.

The ship’s searchlight. Photo by Roger Topp
The ship’s searchlight. Photo by Roger Topp

The ship’s searchlight is intense, an eight-inch, collimated cylinder, like a laser, thick as a flagpole, a robot giant’s broom handle, sweeping mechanically across ice and water. The walrus was hanging around through a good part of the night, said Mike, close enough, consistently enough he spots it quickly when it surfaces again.

Over breakfast Sam and I come up with a plan to follow up on Brandon’s test of an under-ice camera with a simple rig derived from recent advances in selfie-stick technology (Chance et al., 2011). What begins as pure, joyful, aesthetic design devolves quickly into a a discussion of how the camera can be employed semi-scientifically to gauge ice thickness via light transmission. It’s not the first time in a week I’ve wished I’d cobbled together a stereo video rig for this journey. If it happens again I’ll likely have to inquire what the machine shop can cook up in order to mount a couple of the GoPros.

Camera being lowered into an ice core hole.
Camera being lowered into an ice core hole.

The best feature I’ve found for the newest GoPro’s 4k video mode is the fantastic latitude for image rotation and cropping. Take the center 50-70% of the frame and you get an HD image with very little lens distortion. Put two bodies side by side (and they can be put very close together, the intraocular distance is darn perfect), and you get binocular vision that can be processed for 3D (Experiments, 2015). For once a post-process digital zoom that isn’t outright evil… But what can you do? Any effort following this line of aesthetic inquiry will no doubt be perverted by the forced labor camp of science. If you are going to hang with scientists, they are going to figure out ways to sequester art for the sake of better describing the world, as if a sequence of sunset, cirrus, floating-point derived jpegs could ever be as revealing as a temperature-salinity profile (Method, 1971). It’s not a bad thing when a chance idea at a opportune video angle becomes subjugated by the interests of science and engineering.

When we start to move the boat, the walrus moves alongside until we start pushing into fresh ice. Got a few photos off despite low ambient light, high iso, and reflections from one of the navigation consoles in the window. It’s not poetry but it is proof of life curious. Zooming the image on the camera-back, I can make out the texture of the animal’s skin, and someone aboard can no doubt estimate his length and weight out of water, with or without the EXIF metadata. My aforementioned resolution to spend more time on the Bridge got jumpstarted this morning.

Broken ice seen from the floe.
Broken ice seen from the floe.

Turns out all that bumping around and closet door and drawer rattling last night was us meeting ice we could not handle. In this case, a rubble field, ice previously broken and pushed back together by the vagaries of wind and ocean currents. We want ice that’s a approaching a few feet thick, but we want it to be flat — and consistently approaching a few feet thick. Then we can quantify the power output we need to cut our way through it — or at some point, not be able to. Ship performance testing. When we come to that wall, we need to back away and find a route around. Last night, retreating from the ‘log jam’ took a little time wiggling back and forth, using finesse and force to knock the wedge out from under that door.

At the moment we’re not trying for the Polynya. We can probably get in there by going around one rubble field and between others, but the winds have been blowing consistently from the north for a while now. If they change direction, they could quickly push the currently spreading ice-edge floes back together, potentially capturing us in an area it could take us a Spring to escape. Perhaps I overdramatize? Perhaps not.

This morning we’re maneuvering among floes and getting into position for the 3rd ice station. Going to try that under-ice video and image the algal covered butt-side of the ice. And maybe snap some portraits of the boat, just because — sun. Wondering if the coin toss is going to come up heads again.

It was tails, but this probably had something to do with human intervention dear Guildenstern. Got to take control of your destiny. Got to pay attention to conditions and change them. Adapt. Speak your mind. Listen. Think new things. Influence. Be influenced. When someone says the ground is moving, shut up and take a pause. This might be important…

Sam Laney ice coring. Photo by Roger Topp
Sam Laney ice coring. Photo by Roger Topp

We spent a bright couple hours on the ice. Finally some ship photos with the sun at our backs. Cameras like light, especially ones sunk under 20 inches of ice and drifted snow. The water down there is ‘antiseptic’ clear. Sam refers to it as ‘drinking water.’

The crew checks the ice.
The crew checks the ice.

I’ve sent a video to shore compiling some parts of 3 days ice coring activities. It’s tiny but that’s bandwidth across the high seas net. For the moment only the ship can re-watch in HD. In the clip, from under the ice, we can see the coloration of the algae and variations in ice/snow thickness (if not infer precise values). A piece of gaffer tape helped point the camera in the right direction (Forethought, 2015). We see the coring drill penetrate the ice sheet, the shadows of people walking in daylight. The camera’s microphone picks up some crazy, whistling creaks from the ice and even a bearded seal off in the distance. Detritus floats quickly past the lens. There’s a significant current moving under the ice — or is it the ice moving over the water. We’re at sea. Everything is moving somewhere. Perspective is all.

Ice Corer seen from under the ice.
Ice Corer seen from under the ice.

Ann mentioned soon after we got off the boat that she could feel the ice moving under her feet. I said I thought that was just from spending time on a ship, a residual inner ear and gut sensitivity. But we stopped, stood still, waited, and watched the distant parts of the floe. Could have been my eyes playing tricks on me, but it sure looked like those mountains (ridges) were moving up and down (very slowly) like waves coming into a beach. While we were waiting for our under-ice camera holes to be drilled, I set up a video camera and aimed it at the horizon. Best use of a tripod all voyage (so far).

The ice floe undulated under our feet as ocean swells passed beneath it. We could feel it while we stood there, just, but in time-lapse you can see the entire sheet of ice flex as it rides the ocean. Of course enough energy, enough ocean swell, and the ice begins to break apart, snapping at the weak points, the ridges, the seams where smaller pancakes and polygons have been glued together to form the greater floe.

If I get a chance next station, I’ll put up a camera parallel to the swells for what might be a better shot, but I’ve sent the current video to shore, documenting the ice swells in real-time and 10x time-lapse. Perhaps from the camera data we can figure out the wave height, or maybe not. Should have used a 3D rig. I don’t think Scott is imaging a big enough area from atop the Bridge to see the waves. Should have recorded heading data so we know what direction the underwater camera was facing during the video. I can just about picture it thinking back, the pattern of the holes, the position of the ship and the sun and the orientation of the slot (2 holes) we needed to get the camera down. I can just about picture the direction of the current—.

The crew and Sikuliaq
The crew and Sikuliaq

There are better ways. That big machine off behind us. The Sikuliaq might look like it just sits there, idling, waiting for us, but it’s ingesting data all the while, packing it, storing it, archiving it. Its hydrophones are recording just as Sue’s are, its temperature probes, its gyroscopes and GPS. Our cameras on and under the ice show us a few wondrous things, but by no means express the rigor of scientific measurement. I find that comforting.

Note to self: Next time we try to animate sea ice at the museum, we model it as a flexible semi-surface-conforming membrane, not a stiff board (Topp, 2017). It is affected. It has effect. Oh, that would be beautiful. What’s that they say, ‘Truth is stranger than fiction?”

Truth is still stranger than fiction.

Roger Topp and Sikuliaq
Roger Topp and Sikuliaq

Out on the ice, Ann made a snow angel. Perry laid down in the ice flow and watched the clouds and listened to the bearded seal on Sue’s hydrophone. A small crew led the way beyond the science perimeter, testing with Perry’s ice-sticks so I could photograph the ship from off the bow. Ethan would have guided me out a quarter mile from the boat had I put a lens in my pocket to make the trip necessary. He was disappointed. I was too, but with the ice heaving, that was all right.

After the science, the Captain gave the crew liberty and most everyone took the opportunity to walk down the gangway to freedom, kick drifts, take photos, and chat in threes and fours between the four flags. Elliot asked which way the bar was. Turn left and keep going, and going, and going. Remember your galoshes. Orange suits. A no-go perimeter. It looked like a ‘prison yard.’ A strange, different kind of liberty, still trapped within the story.

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



One thought on “Dear Guildenstern

  1. Sea Story (TANS): In Feb 1973 I was on USCGC Staten Island (this was back when we had more than one functioning WAGB) in the ice S of St Lawrence and the Polyna, part of an international weather experiment. I remember noticing the17 sec (!) period in the residual swell and that the UR ship in open water S of us must have been suffering. We saw large nos of walruses on the ice. At night the ship lay to and I was charged with making hydrocasts with a VanDorn bottle through the ice at minus 40. A walrus (female?) embraced the bottle at the surface and repeatedly tried to swim away with it. When we finally retrieved it, the bottle’s bridles froze and broke on deck. I remember being impressed with the muddy algae on the bottom of the ice as the ship broke it. We saw lots of birds in the open water; Geo Divoky taught me to love guillemots. I’m an SFOS emeritus prof

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