Toward the Chukchi Sea

“Passing left at two-four-zero degrees,” called the helmsman as twin tugs, one pushing, the other pulling, spun Healy in her own length away from the wharf.  “Passing left two-three-zero degrees.”

“All ahead forty shaft turns.”  After the big ship had cleared the harbor entrance, the navigator called for a port turn pointing her bow toward the open ocean.

Heading seaward from Dutch Harbor

Heading seaward from Dutch Harbor

And so, at 1650 on May 13, 2014, we left Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island in the Aleutian Island chain (incidentally, the only piece of U.S. territory ever invaded by a foreign power, the Japanese, since the War of 1812.)  We’ll steam north for three days across the Bering Sea, through the Bering Strait and into the Chukchi Sea.  Since this is pretty obscure geography, let’s situate the Chukchi in its Arctic context.  But, first, just what is this region called the Arctic?  What are its borders and boundaries?

Attention on the bridge

Attention on the bridge

We might use the Arctic Circle, 66° 33’ North latitude, and say that everything north of the circle is the Arctic, everything south of it is not.  The Greeks and the Babylonians before them recognized that in the Northern Hemisphere, stars circled one central star and that some stars rose and set during the night, while others remained constantly visible.  The Greeks identified a circle in the sky that marked the boundary between rising and setting stars and those always visible.  They noticed that the circle passed through the constellation of Arktos—the Great Bear—and so what they called the Bear’s Circle we call the Arctic Circle.

But it’s not quite so simple.  That perfectly round circle excludes places such as Hudson Bay, Labrador, and parts of Siberia that share distinctly Arctic conditions.  Then what about an “ecological” border—say, the timberline, beyond which trees must give way to tundra?  Yes, but the timberline wavers.  In Siberia and Canada trees give up well south of the Arctic Circle, while in Scandinavia, they grow far north of it.  This, too, is the Arctic, and so, in that sense, there are two Arctics, one terrestrial, one oceanic.  The question of precise borders will grow increasingly more important as the Arctic-rim nations decide, peacefully one hopes, who owns the resource-rich Arctic.  For our purposes, however, we can concentrate on the oceanic part.

Healy on the eve of departure

Healy on the eve of departure

The Arctic Ocean basin is almost entirely enclosed by continents.  There are two major routes by which water—and ships—can enter and exit the basin, a relatively narrow one through the Bering Strait and a large one between Greenland and Norway.  The central basin of the ocean is ringed by relatively shallow “marginal seas,” among them the Barents, Kara, Laptev, East Siberian, Beaufort, Lincoln—and the Chukchi.  Nature doesn’t care about these fine distinctions, only humans who, to make sense of things, need to name them.  Perhaps in simpler times, ocean scientists could distinguish as the Arctic Ocean that part of the basin that remained more or less permanently frozen, but no longer, not with the seemingly inexorable loss of sea ice.  So, geographically speaking, the Arctic Ocean encompasses the entire basin, including those marginal seas, frozen or not, north of Greenland, Scandinavia, Russia, the United States, and Canada.

A view from Starboard

A view from Starboard

To me and to others now aboard Healy, the Arctic is a wonderland.

There’s something up here, something in the slant of light on fractured sea ice and the distant saw-toothed mountain crests, in the blue-ice glaciers and in the very air of the Arctic that reaches out and grabs certain people—it has for centuries—and never lets go.

When ashore and going about their lower-latitude life, such people sometimes think about that crystalline light, the silence and timeless stillness in the land- and seascape, and they recall that cold, starry night when the Aurora performed for hours its mystical extravagance.  I was in the Arctic aboard the Norwegian research vessel Lance northeast of Greenland seven months ago along with several of our present shipmates, and I’ve missed it with something akin to homesickness.  And now after the excitement of departure, as the snow-clad mountains on Unalaska fade astern and we feel the seaway under foot, that quiet sense of expectation inherent to the beginning of any long voyage, when all things are possible, settles over the ship.

Our destination - the Chukchi Sea - North of the Bering Strait

Our destination – the Chukchi Sea – North of the Bering Strait

About The Author

Dallas Murphy

Dallas is an author with nine published books, a mix of fiction and nonfiction, most recently "To the Denmark Strait", an account of a 2011 oceanographic expedition with Bob Pickart. The Healy cruise will be his sixth Arctic expedition serving as outreach writer.

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