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Sikuliaq Comes Home for Commissioning, Readies to Research ‘The Great Waters’

Tim Ellis/KUAC

The Research Vessel Sikuliaq was officially commissioned Saturday in a ceremony at the boats’s home port in Seward. As KUAC’s Tim Ellis reports, the commissioning marked the end of decades of efforts to design and build it; and the beginning of its mission to research the Earth’s rapidly changing and increasingly important polar regions.

Early-on in the ceremony, Inupiat elder Delores Burnell of Barrow gave an invocation in both English and the native tongue.

“Receive into your protection all those who go down to the sea in the Research Vessel Sikuliaq,” Burnell said, “and occupy their business, and the advancement of science, in the great waters of the globe.”

The bilingual invocation was only appropriate, given the Sikuliaq got its name from the Inupiaq word for the kind of ice in which the vessel will be operating, in waters off the land where the Inupiat live.

UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers, speaking for the institution that’ll operate the vessel, says the Sikuliaq and its crew busy will spend much of its research time in the Arctic around Alaska. But Rogers says it’ll also range far and wide in search of data scientists worldwide will pursue with the Sikuliaq.

“It’s a global-class vessel, so science crews can charter this vessel to work all over the world,” Rogers said. “Now, we hope most of that will be here in Alaska and the Arctic Ocean, the Bering Sea, because of the new opportunities and challenges that we have going on in the Arctic today.”

Matt Hawkins, project manager with the National Science Foundation, which owns the one-of-a-kind vessel, says its advanced technology and capabilities will provide the researchers with the sort of platform they need to understand more about the dynamics of climate, as well as numerous other areas of scientific inquiry.

“Please remember that our scientists would be incapable of conducting their valuable work without technologically advanced and highly capable infrastructure behind them,” Hawkins said. “And that of course is represented in Sikuliaq.”

Credit UAF
The 261-foot vessel can accommodate 20 crewmembers and up to 26 researchers.

Dan Oliver is director of the UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences’ Seward Marine Center, and he’s one of the driving forces behind the Sikuliaq. Oliver says many research projects are planned to study the ocean from many scientific perspectives – from the biology of the life within, to the geology of its floor to the atmospheric science of the air above.

He says much will be coordinated with such world-class organizations as the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Scripps Research Institute.

So Oliver expects the Sikuliaq and its crew will stay busy.

“Y’know,” he said, “as we do more research and the reputation of the ship and its capabilities gets further and further out within the science community, I fully expect that our problem’s not going to be lack of work, it’s going to be everyone wants to get up there in the same period of time.”

Oliver says the Sikuliaq will alternate research cruises during the summers in the northern and southern polar regions. And it’ll fill the transit time en route with other projects.

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
Michael Castellini, associate dean of UAF Graduate School and former Fisheries and Ocean Sciences professor, fields questions from tour-group members Friday.

Another UAF academic who’s played a major role in the development of the Sikuliaq is Michael Castellini, the associate dean of UAF Graduate School and former Fisheries and Ocean Sciences professor.

He says he’s aware that many members of the public may not fully appreciate the importance of those research that’s about to get under way. But he says it’ll have a directly relevant to everyone, regardless of where they live.

“The oceans determine, basically, most of the life on the planet, and how it works,” Castellini said. “And the heat flow of the planet, and where the water goes, where it rains, where it doesn’t rain. It’s all tuned into the oceans.”

It’ll all begin later this summer, says Mike Hoshlyk, the Sikuliaq’s captain.

“We’ll then proceed to start in, like, July-August timeframe, and that’ll be in the north Bering, and Beaufort and Chukchi seas,” Hoshlyk said.

The research can begin now that the Sikuliaq has been officially commissioned in a ceremony before about 375 guests that was concluded jointly by Hawkins and Oliver.

“On behalf of the National Science Foundation, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks,” the two said, in unison, “we hereby commission the Research Vessel Sikuliaq as a member of the U.S. Academic Research Fleet.”

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.