SEWARD, Alaska (AP) — A floating Arctic laboratory four decades in the making has arrived at its home port and stands poised to begin unlocking mysteries of one of the wildest places on Earth.
The 261-foot Sikuliaq (see-KOO'-lee-ak) next month will leave Seward, sail around the Aleutian Islands and tuck into sea ice in the Bering Sea. The voyage will be the final trial for its reinforced hull, propulsion system and array of cranes and booms that will deploy instruments ranging from small submarines and plankton nets to buoys that weigh a ton.
"Knock on wood, I'm hoping that's it's going to be something that people like over the next 30, 40 years," said Terry Whitledge, a University of Alaska Fairbanks chemical oceanographer who has worked since 1999 to see the vessel built.
The Sikuliaq is named for the Inupiat Eskimo word for young sea ice. The ship is owned by the National Science Foundation and will be operated by UA Fairbanks.
It replaces the Alpha Helix, which was taken out of service in 2004. At just 125 feet long, the Alpha Helix could carry only 15 scientists and was undersized for the waters where crab fishermen of "Deadliest Catch" earn their money.
The Sikuliaq, built by Marinette Marine Corp. in Marinette, Wisconsin, has berths for 26 researchers, a crew of 20, and features lacking on the Alpha Helix.
The vessel has nearly 100 feet of stern deck. Researchers can fill a modular container and have it loaded with one of the Sikuliaq's cranes, said Mike Hoshlyk, the ship's captain. The cranes can put people as well as equipment on sea ice.
For heavy lifting, scientists can turn to the double articulated A-frame crane off the stern. The crane can rotate down almost flush with the water for towing or to help hoist a sediment corer sunk 70 feet into the ocean floor, Whitledge said.
"To pull that back out requires many, many tons of pull," Whitledge said.
Just forward from the stern deck is the Baltic Room. It looks like a garage but provides headed space for researchers to stage gear, such as CTDs, devices that measure conductivity, temperature and depth.
"You don't want this stuff iced up and frozen when you're trying to deploy it and have it work properly," Hoshlyk said. "You're just wasting time sending something down that's not going to work."
A door on the Baltic Room slides out of the way to let its load-handling system extend a boom down 45 degrees to release equipment that can descend to 10,000 meters or more.
The ship has acoustic systems designed to map the ocean bottom and profile sediment 70 meters deep, Whitledge said. But it's the ice capability and its extreme maneuverability that makes it stand out.
The vessel's reinforced double hull can be pushed through ice 3 feet thick. It's powered by two thrusters and scalloped propeller blades that can be rotated 360 degrees to either pull or push the vessel. Reinforced propellers can grind ice.
It can be steered by a joystick in the captain's chair, the swipe of a computer screen, or controls on stations on the starboard or stern.
The $200 million-plus vessel is designed to conduct research 24 hours per day. It will cost about $45,000 per day to operate.
There are always issues with new vessels, Hoshlyk said, and it can up to three years to detect problems. That's been the case with the Sikuliaq.
After trials on Lake Michigan, a lubrication problem was discovered in the propulsion units and they had to be replaced, costing more than $1 million. On the transit across the North Pacific, cracks developed in the base foundations of winches holding 36 tons of cable. The A-frame crane will be replaced. Carbon steel was used in places it should not have been, Hoshlyk said, such as the drains going over the side.
"Now you have a light-blue boat with rust streaks," he said. "That piping is going to deteriorate and it's going to have to be replaced."
The Sikuliaq will spend about a month in Bering Sea ice and then head to dry dock for repairs. Science missions could resume in July.