Breaking the Ice in Arctic Research

By Brenna O’Neill, M.S. Marine Biology‘13

I initially thought that adjusting to an Arctic summer with temperatures in the 30s and sunlight for 22 hours a day would be difficult after coming from Florida. However, after a couple of days I actually came to enjoy it. Now, after spending two weeks onboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC) Healy, I barely notice it. My graduate studies, and Professor John Tefry, brought me to the Arctic where I am getting hands on research experience out in the field. Working onboard the ship has been a hectic but fun experience. The science team consists of 35 researchers, including graduate students, technicians and even an elementary school teacher. A typical day consists of collecting water, mud, and biota (collection of organisms from a geographic region) samples from multiple stations, all while breaking through sea ice.  Most work days are around 16 hours and I’m often in the lab into the early morning hours, but the work is definitely far from dull!  My role in the project is to collect all kinds of sediment zone animals (also known as benthic) from a fishing net (trawl) that is towed off the stern of the ship for later use in trace metal analysis. The trawl often comes up loaded with animals and mud, but digging through the mud is well worth it to find creatures like brittle stars, sea cucumbers, hermit crabs, snow crabs, and the occasional fish. It’s also a great excuse to play in some mud!  I’ve also had the opportunity to collect basket stars for my thesis research.

As someone who is mostly familiar with the plants and animals of Florida, this cruise has been a great chance to learn about and see some new Arctic marine species. While leaving port in Dutch Harbor I saw sea otters, puffins, and humpback whales. At sea I’ve seen colonies of walruses, two polar bears, and many seals. Seeing these animals in a zoo or aquarium is one thing but it has been really amazing to see them in their natural habitat in the middle of the ocean.  The sunsets reflect beautifully off the ice and the water. I feel so lucky to be able to see such an amazing part of the world.

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