by J Pennelope Goforth
Earlier this month Seward welcomed the Polar Class 5 ice-capable vessel SIKULIAQ to its homeport. The name derives from the Inupiaq for ‘young sea ice’ and is pronounced ‘see-KOO-lee-auk’. She is a new 261-foot oceanographic research vessel. A commissioning ceremony and community reception for the SIKULIAQ was held in Seward.
The ‘commissioning’ of a vessel is one of the major events in a ship’s life, right up there with launching, christening, sea trials, and sinking. For example, when U. S. Naval vessels are commissioned, the crew stand attention at their stations, the flags are raised, the orders of the vessel are read aloud, and the ship is said to ‘come alive’. She has her name and now she has her mission. This is only the second such ceremony to be carried out in Alaskan waters. The first was the USS ANCHORAGE on May 4, 2013, in her namesake port of Anchorage. Over 4,000 Alaskans packed the dock just north of Ship Creek to witness the new vessel come alive.
The research vessel will be home for scientists in the U.S. and international oceanographic community through the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System as they conduct high technology arctic waters studies. Researchers can collect sediment samples directly from the seafloor, host remotely operated vehicles, use a flexible suite of winches to raise and lower scientific equipment, and conduct surveys throughout the water column and sea bottom using an extensive set of research instrumentation. The ship will also be able to transmit real-time information directly to classrooms all over the world. The vessel design strives to have the lowest possible environmental impact, including a low underwater radiated noise signature for marine mammal and fisheries work. The state-of-the-art ship will have accommodations for up to 26 scientists and students at a time, including those with disabilities.
The newest discoveries of the mysteries of icy northern waters and its inhabitants will come from the voyages of SIKULIAQ over the few decades. Sufficient ice strengthening will allow the vessel to work safely in moderate seasonal ice, operating over a longer period than formerly possible in the North Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Alaska, and the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas. Equipped with both bow and stern thrusters, the ship also is propelled by innovative ‘ice pod’ type Z drives developed by Finnish marine engineers at Wartsilla.
The vessel is owned by the National Science Foundation and operated by the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, as part of the U.S. academic research fleet.