This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic Voices blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.
Text and Photos by iLCP Fellow Esther Horvath
The newest and most technologically advanced polar icebreaker in the United States fleet is the US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy. The Healy is involved in research in the Arctic, where 80 crew members and 50 scientists are often at sea for weeks on end. The Healy is 9-stories high and 420 feet long and mostly sails on her North Polar missions during the summer month since the ice is at its thinnest and there are 24 hours of light to do all the necessary work.
The Healy functions like a small city with a doctor’s office, hair salon, coffee shop, souvenir shop, laundry, gym and one of the highest latitude working restaurant. For the crew, one of the most important places is the eatery and the chief chef tries to keep everybody happy with four daily meals: breakfast, lunch, dinner along with a midnight meal. Everybody has to pay attention to the schedule of the meals, since the kitchen runs on a very tight schedule. It opens and closes on the dot. Fresh vegetables and fruits are the greatest treasure, which run out a few weeks after the crew starts its mission. During the first few weeks, the crew tries to eat as much of the fresh fruit and vegetables onboard because afterwards only canned and frozen fruits and vegetables will be available.
The dining room is in the bow of the ship and as the metal hull breaks through the ice, a loud sound permeates the inner environs. It is a very special experience, not only hearing the ship’s body break through the ice but also feel the entire ship shake and shudder in response to the breaking ice.
The crew and scientists are housed in rooms with three or six bunk-beds each having one bathroom. Because of the 3 different shifts that each sailor may be working on, it is important to be quiet and respectful of fellow bunkmates who may be trying to get some rest in these tight quarters. It is also easy to lose a sense of time because of the continuous light where nightfall never arrives.
As the ship reaches the ice-covered area, scientists often stay for long stretches on the bridge, with binoculars in hand searching for unique fauna of the Arctic Ocean.
The ship has many special rules, which must be followed by everyone on board. The direction of traffic on the stairs, the security clothing during operations on deck and including the ban of wearing the color red before crossing the Arctic Circle. Red is the color that can be worn only after crossing of the Arctic Circle and only to someone who will be inaugurated during a ceremony. Wearing the color red is a special privilege that bonds crew members.
Each person on ship must log in to an internal system twice a day to confirm they are on board. This is an important security mechanism for the captain.
Another security practice is the repeated emergency drills, which everyone must follow strictly. These could involve fire or the need to abandon ship along with a number of other emergency drills.
Long days can feel tiring and being at sea for weeks on end can affect the crew’s mood. Therefore, for the crew’s entertainment, there is a fully equipped gym, a TV room, and daily music training in the helicopter hangar,. In addition, they can play cards and chess in the dining room and table football in the bow of the ship.
Communication with the outside world is very limited. There is no cellular coverage and no wi-fi on board. Only a few computers are available with limited internet access, so there is no Facebook or other social media outlets. In addition, alcohol and drug use is prohibited and intimate sexual contact is strictly forbidden.
Every person has a buzzer, and the bridge provides information for everyone about the daily activities or ever if there is any polar bears sighting visible from the ship.
2015 was the warmest year on record keeping which began in 1880 by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Due to the warming temperatures, Arctic is undergoing unprecedented change as the summer sea ice continues to shrink. As the ice contracts, shipping within and across the Arctic along with oil and gas exploration and tourism will likely increase. In addition, fishing will expand as fish continue migrating north to cooler waters. This increase in shipping may have serious environmental consequences because much of the Arctic marine environment is a relatively pristine area, yet highly vulnerable to disturbance and pollution due to the changes in the Arctic sea ice and the generally sensitive nature of the Arctic marine ecosystem. Potential impacts from shipping include: the release of oil through accidental or illegal discharge, ship strikes on marine mammals, disruption of migratory patterns of marine mammals, increased anthropogenic noise and increased atmospheric emissions. Bering strait is a pinch between Pacific and whole Arctic. It is a very narrow passage, though which a mass migration of marine animals passes twice a year.
In 2015, there were nearly 500 trans-Arctic crossings, which is more than double the traffic of a decade ago. With the increasing traffic, the US Coast Guard has to be prepared to respond to boat accidents and environmental disaster in this remote area of the Arctic Ocean.
The US Coast Guard Cutter Healy, embarked on July 2015 for its “Rescue and Research” mission with 50 scientist and 100 US Coast Guard crew members on board.
During the mission of the icebreaker Healy scientists from various agencies collected oceanographic and atmospheric data, deploying buoys and wave gliders, which would take long-term measurements of wind speed, air temperature, humidity, cloud coverage, solar radiation, water temperature, acidity, salinity, dissolved oxygen, and many other environmental conditions—key baseline data with global repercussions from a little-studied part of the Arctic.
US Coast Guard Research and Development Center tested and evaluated new technologies to improve capabilities in search and rescue by Coast Guard units in the Arctic.
This work is crucial to help prevent and manage environmental catastrophes to protect this important marine habitat in Arctic Ocean.
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