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Dispatch 16: Another Ending

4th September 2012

Hedinn Valdimarsson (Marine Research Institute), Steingrimur Jonsson (Marine Research Institute) & Kjetil Våge (University of Bergen, Norway)

I was watching Second Mate Piers draw and label his course to Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen, when he looked up and said, “There it is.  Spitsbergen.”  A little dark gray smudge on the light gray horizon smack on Piers’s bearing line—I have missed it.  “Might be this place.”  He pointed to a charted mountain called Hornsundtind, 1,437 meters, at the southern point of this, still another high-latitude wonderland, our destination.  The end was literally in sight.

As I was going down the stairs, sort of liking the idea of telling someone that I’d seen Spitsbergen away on the starboard bow, Piers came on the intercom to announce just that.  I met Bob, going up, on the boat deck.  He was beaming.  “This trip has been wildly successful,” he said.
Just consider what he and his international team (Norwegian, Icelandic, Dutch, and American) had accomplished.  They recovered their twelve long moorings from the Denmark Strait, it being the first-ever array across that vital and violent body of water — with all their data intact — at the loss of only two instruments.  That approaches the unprecedented in even the gentlest of oceans, but in these bellicose waters, right on the mainline express route for icebergs — that’s literally unprecedented.

Steve Murphy (WHOI) & Jim Ryder (WHOI)
Then during the second part of the cruise, the team accomplished a high-resolution view (with 300 CTD casts in ten lines) of the East Greenland Current from the Denmark Strait to the Fram Strait, a straight-line distance of some 1,100 miles.  Other oceanographers aboard other ships have worked the southern reaches of the EGC, but ice had always defied the complete view.  “The Captain always found a way to get us through to where we needed to go,” said Bob.  “I would have bet against it more than once.”  There would have been no unprecedented anything without James Clark Ross and her brilliant complement, he said further, and the flawless science staff.  He paused.  “It’s an amazing feeling, one I don’t normally have.”

Eli Borve, University of Bergen, Norway

I mentioned in the introduction that we, the outreach people, viewed as a privilege our presence aboard and that the ensuing images and journal entries would likely express why.  I hope they’ve done that, but for all its layers—the science, the sights, the people and their professionalism, the weather, JCR herself—the actuality exceeded glowingly even the most fanciful expectations.

I’m fortunate in this work in many ways.  For just one, I get to watch the whole, the unity between science and seamanship, undistracted by piecemeal obligations.  I’ve noticed, among the science staff, on this and every other cruise a recurring rhythm—a sort of three-act structure.  During the first, we get to know each other while we acclimate to shipboard life so distinctly different from the one we left.  Friendships form quickly in the close quarters, communal meals, and the sense of common purpose.  With head-down concentration, technicians and scientists inventory and assemble their tools and hardware, lash down ADCPs, current meters, and miniature CTDs as the ship steams to toward the study area.  It’s a time of expectation, hopes, assumptions, and, because the stakes are high, a dash of anxiety.  But these people have logged a lot of sea miles in multiple ships and oceans, so this act is short, almost a prologue to the second, the long middle of the cruise when the actual work gets done in its well-oiled routine, call it industrial choreography, pros speaking calmly in presence tenses.  Time seems elastic, measured by a clock with an esoteric calibration.  Then seemingly in the blink of an eye, the curtain closes on the second act.  Now, here in act three, people begin to talk of flight schedules and what they’re going do in Spitsbergen and, after that, at home.

Sam Masfield (Outreach) and Ben Harden (Outreach)

There’s something—there always has been—about vessels that work for protracted periods in open ocean that breeds romanticism in even the most literal minded among us.  I’ll cop to that.  In thirty days, we’ve come to know James Clark Ross and her people and each other with a shipboard intimacy that might take years, or never happen at all, in a dry-land context.  Now that context is about to evaporate.  In the adjacent lab I hear the thuds, the squeaks of sealing tape, the clattering of people packing, not much different from the sounds of several weeks ago when people were unpacking, but now the sounds seem to happen in a totally different pitch and key.  Before breakfast, we crossed the Prime Meridian.  Maybe that cued the curtain closing act three.  And many of us, particularly the sea-struck romantics, wax melancholy when the dock and the denouement draw near.

Yesterday, The Guardian reported sources at the U.S. National Snow and Ice Center, the Danish Meteorological Institute, and others saying that this year Arctic sea ice is about to reach its lowest ever recorded extent, melting at the unprecedented rate of 100,000 square kilometers a day.  But I’ll think about that later, when I get ashore and the glow of recollection, the pure delight and sense of privilege at my participation, begins, at least off and on, to dim.  For now, good luck James Clark Ross and all who sail in her.  Maybe we’ll meet again on some still-frozen sea in this or the other hemisphere.

A Spitsbergen, a view at the end of the cruise