Guest blog by Michael Dessner at Waitt Institute
As we head north from Pribilof and Zhemchug Canyons toward the northern reaches of our water planet I am super excited to be in new seas. I was up here 18 years ago on my third ocean cruise when I went to sea as a foreman aboard the Discovery Star, a 110 foot, flat bottomed ship that had been retasked into a floating processor from its earlier configuration as a Mississippi mud boat. I had worked two cruises on different ship the winter before when I was eventually afflicted with a common disorder to those who worked on Bering Sea processing ships, Crab Asthma. I had been medivacced from St. Paul Island and my employer put me to work in the shipyard installing a new blast freezer in their smaller ‘floater’, as ships that process seafood at sea are often referred. After a few months in the yard, when the Discovery Star prepped to make way to southeast Alaska, Kodiak, Bristol Bay and ultimately Norton Sound in order to process herring, the Captain asked me if I would join his crew, which I did. My previous two trips had carried me from Seattle, though the Inside Passage with ports of call in Petersburg, out into the Gulf Of Alaska, to Seward, Kodiak, Dutch Harbor, through False Pass and into the Bering to the Pribs. The Disco’ went even farther, as far north as the village of Unalakleet (just like its spelled-Oon’ uh lah kleet’) in Norton Sound, back then I pretty much figured that was the top of the world.
I was wrong.
The actual top of the world is a bit farther on, quite a bit actually; on this cruise we added another 900 miles in latitude to my previous trips and when we reached our northern most spot there were still 18 degrees of latitude to the actual North Pole. The voyage took us past Norton Sound and into new ground for me. We transited east of St. Lawrence Island and up into the Bering Strait. In the strait we would pass the east of Little Diomede Island (US Territory and on this side of the international dateline so today) and its larger brother Big Diomede (Russia the other side of the international dateline, the day after tomorrow) with Cape Prince of Wales on the eastern, US side, all of which were visible to us as we traveled. As we passed over the now submerged land bridge that has been so critical to human migrations we were just able to see Siberia to the east (this on a perfect day of visibility from the middle of the strait).
We had enjoyed near perfect weather for our operations down south in the submerged canyons; granted there were a day or two where the fog threatened or wind rose to the point that recoveries of the sub were, ummm, let’s call them a bit dramatic. Not really dangerous to personnel…a good way to say it would be that the potential for harm of the equipment was heightened. Seas topped out at about 5 feet and winds rose to around 20 knots. To those commercial fishermen who work this region this is weather not worth mentioning, as in No Weather At All. The measure of wind that would put us out of business translates to the measure of seas that they continue to work. To put it less confusingly, whereas 20 knot winds might keep us on deck the longliners continue to haul gear in 20 foot seas. When we came out of the canyons and up onto the Continental Shelf, where the water is significantly shallower, for the first time on this trip we saw conditions that reminded me of the Bering Sea I remembered, 25 knot winds, perhaps 8 to 10 foot seas. Those of you who follow the dramatized ‘reality’ TV shows featuring work in the Bering Sea will recognize this as still on the low end of poor weather, well shy of bad. I was fairly certain that we would be in a similar condition for the remainder of the job and when we arrived at our northern dive sites near the area Shell plans to drill that we would be lucky to get any dive time in at all. I was pleasantly surprised to wake up on the second day of our transit to a lessening weather pattern, winds back down to 15-20 kts and seas below three feet. It was laying down quite nicely.
As we continued north it eased even more. It seemed like the ocean swell disappeared entirely and the only water state was a slight wind driven riffle on the surface. If you live around the ocean and spend any time looking at it you develop a certain perception of the horizon. If the seas are rough and you look at the line where water meets heavens you’ll eventually be able to note an irregularity at the edge of the sky, a ragged edge. Even as I age and my eyes become less capable I can still see this with relative ease. It’s a sort of unthinking perception, you don’t really “see” the waves at the horizon, you just know whether its good or bad and develop an instinctual feel for their state. As we went further north this condition of the bottom of the sky became most notable by its absence. We had been traveling and working in a constant fog and low covering clouds and as we neared the Bering Strait the sun reappeared for the first time in weeks. Having spent a significant portion of my life in South Central Alaska where this is the prevailing condition I was mentally prepared for the grey days I thought would likely pervade during this expedition. This gloom, which anyone living in the northwest is quite familiar with, was a prime mover in my decision to leave Alaska. Since then I have lived in primarily sunny places and love it. My mindset in preparation for this work was akin to that of a former drinker mentally girding himself to hang out with a bunch of friends still off the wagon, I wasn’t looking forward to having to deal with the downsides but it was going to be good to see the old familiar faces. And so it went. But a few days ago all that changed, the sun came out, the seas laid down, the atmosphere cleared and the far side of the visible world became a razor sharp edge without the slightest indication of rough water on the reaches of the horizon. It was a crystal clarity that I had not hoped to see up here. It reminds me of the desert, the air has clarity, a quality that reminds you that the sense of sight is a treasure.
As we passed my previous northern limit of Norton Sound things got downright un-Arctic, at least in my preconception. We were traveling through some very shallow waters (at time there was less than 100 feet of water below the hull of the ship) and the sun came out with a vengeance. The passage through the strait was well lit, seas becalmed and we approached the Arctic Circle located at latitude 66° 33′ 44″. Like bears leaving their dens in the spring the crew began to climb out of their racks, poke their heads out of portholes and gather on the quickly warming heli deck, that most open space on board located in the lee of the superstructure and thus free from the wind our passage at 9 knots generated. A couch was dragged onto deck and we began the serious business of human beings regenerating their solar cells, laying about, doing some heavy lifting in the form of books, magazines and the occasional 12 ounce lift to the mouth. I wouldn’t swear to it in court but it is my firm belief that even 40 winks were stolen here and there. This was a seriously needed break for all aboard. After a few weeks of sea even the cheeriest of people can begin to fray around the edges (those of you who know me personally will no doubt be hugely surprised to hear that even I can be subject to this condition!;-) We were traveling past the Seward Peninsula and Kotzebue Sound and headed for Point Hope, the destination we would not see until the following morning. There was nothing to do but relax and perhaps hold an impromptu gathering.
I suppose it gets as tiresome to hear as it is to say but I have been on quite a few different sea voyages and every single one is marked in difference from those that preceded it. A new group of people to meet and interact with, the vagaries of weather and sea, each ship has its own personality and foibles and each expedition brings a unique set of challenges. There is one quality that sets Greenpeace apart from every single one of my previous sailings; I have never before been to sea with a group of people that were, to a person, all motivated by a unifying philosophy. In that aspect the crew and campaigners aboard the Esperanza set a new standard, or perhaps it’s better said that they represent an entirely new classification. The group out here is quite eclectic in nature, there are Argentineans, Germans, Scandinavians, Aussies and Kiwis, people from several former Eastern bloc countries, an Indian, citizens of great Britain and a few folks from African countries (my roommate Sam is Ghanaian and an excellent fellow). US citizens are a distinct minority, and the sub team is primarily Canadian. Aside from the sub team all of them are Greenpeace employees or volunteers and all of them are motivated, indeed passionate, about trying to save the world. It sounds trite when you say it like that and I have no doubt whatsoever that there are many people out there rolling their eyes as they read it. Some reading this probably feel that the work Greenpeace does is a lost cause; that they are tilting at windmills. It might surprise you to hear that some of them feel that way as well, they understand they are a minority, they understand that some people feel the work they do is a puff of breath in a windstorm. Imagine then, if you can, oh jaded readers, what it is like to continue, to know that you are a drop in a rainstorm, but to keep doing it anyway! It is a belief, a philosophy; they have faith that what they do makes a difference (and like it or not the work they do absolutely does make a difference). They fight against conglomerates and developers who pay no heed to the consequences of their actions, huge forces who would like nothing more than to crush them beneath their corporate boot heels. They have literally been made war upon by governments and died for their causes. They risk the regard of large segments of society, their safety, much of their personal lives, even their very freedom, and they do so in thousands of thankless ways in order to make small gains. I believe that the world is changed by the inch not the mile; that you can only hope to make a better world a little bit here and there, one person at a time. And so I admire them, respect the work they do, will continue to support them both financially and with equipment and personnel. I made a personal donation of $7500 to support this project so when I tell you that I have put my money where my mouth is you can believe it to be so. I have sailed with them, been to the bottom of the ocean with them and spent a month at sea under adverse conditions aboard their ship. They are a squared away group of sailors, dedicated scientists, ardent activists, electricians, radio operators and boat drivers, mechanics and computer techs. That’s just the people on this boat; their organization is made up of folks from all walks that fill their offices, volunteer, pass out pamphlets, lobby, advocate, hand out trash bags. They are representative of all of us; the difference is that they ALL believe that the world can be made better by being sensible about energy consumption, promoting sustainability, pushing for development that takes into account the environment before the bottom line. They ALL recycle, use mass transit, try and live as sensible, non violent stewards of their environment. If you find fault in that, if you don’t see the quiet dignity of such a life, in short if you can find a reason not to respect that, then we will never see eye to eye, because quite simply you are in my humble opinion, quite wrong.
Aside from all of that, they are just people like everyone else, individuals deserving of kindness and the basic esteem of their fellow residents of this planet, the home to all of us that they simply want to protect. Their campaigns are usually steeped in common sense and no small amount of humor; as such they know how to have a good time. That is what I will take away from this trip. The images of Sabine, the former German school teacher turned small engine mechanic, wearing a Nordic helmet with ridiculous horns and grinning ear to ear; Julie the videographer playing with an inflatable octopus arm; the Canadian radio operator Texas (who corresponded frequently with my mother on this job) doing his Zoolander act while wearing a rainbow wig under a Waitt Institute hat. Dub music playing in the background, the sun shining on us as we crossed the parallel that put us officially in the Arctic; Daniel the captain and Bent the chief engineer sunning themselves, Mario and Hernán running the grill; dancing and laughter of a group of people who are all in sync with a common goal and mission as well as trying to be in equilibrium with their environment and fellow human beings. We certainly have more work to do; it is equally true that over the next couple weeks patience will fray, tempers will shorten and as we come up on a month at sea people will tire and long for home, but it this moment I will hold in my heart: the afternoon in the arctic when the sun shone, laughter was the rule of the day and a group of people who fight the good fight enjoyed each other’s company. I envy them their dedication; I respect them, I love their optimism and drive and I will happily sail with any single one of them in the future. I will miss them and I only hope we can all work together again to do our small part in a sometimes thankless and always monumental task. To save the world, a little bit at a time.