Sitka to Seattle

by Sarah Lake Upton in

Another summer is over and like many creatures the Sea Lion has begun her long migration south for the winter.  I met the boat a little over two weeks ago in Sitka and over the course of a two week trip with guests we worked our way down to Seattle.  The weather was generally proper Alaska late summer, which is to say cold and always somewhere between fog and rain.  

Going though my photos just now I am amazed by how many of them I took (or rather, “made” according to the current lingo of our photo instructors, nothing has been “taken” when one “makes” a photo - I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that usage) though I do remember feeling like every time I poked my head up on deck I was struck by the need to photograph something. I am still relying on our ship’s slow and expensive internet system, so I can only post a few at the moment, but here are some of my favorites. 

Steller Sea Lions


And bubble netting humpback whales (working very close to shore)


But even more than the wildlife, I found myself drawn to the colors: 

Icebergs calved from Dawes Glacier

And what I came to think of as “tree portraits”. 

And finally I got to take myself for a morning walk in Alert Bay, and fell in love with the green of the waterfront. 


by Sarah Lake Upton in

One of my favorite things about the Alaska season (aside from the weather, and the mountains, and the marine mammals, and the ravens, and the glaciers - really I just like Alaska) is getting to hear Andy Szabo from the Alaska Whale Foundation do his talk.   His talks each week have the same outline, but like most very smart enthusiastic people he is easily persuaded by guest questions to go on tangents about killer whales (not his area of research, but clearly something he knows quite a bit about) and fishing techniques and random stories of human whale interactions up here. I try to listen to his talk every week, because every week I am reminded of something, or learn something, that totally reshapes my view of whales.

For example:  There are two distinct populations of killer whales up here, fish eaters and mammal eaters.  Despite looking basically identical to us, they have completely different social structure, “speak” totally different dialects, and have not interbred in a very very long time.  (To go an a tangent of my own, in the traditions of Pacific Northwest peoples there is an “killer whale - wolf” creature distinct from the killer whale, that is generally taken by modern folk to be mythical, but hearing about the two populations of killer whales I have begun to wonder if the folk up here had noticed the same behavioral differences in their killer whale population and named them accordingly).

Killers whales, July 2015, Southeast Alaska.  I'm not sure where we were (Kelp Bay?) but we spent a lovely evening watching this pod go about their business.  

Killers whales, July 2015, Southeast Alaska.  I'm not sure where we were (Kelp Bay?) but we spent a lovely evening watching this pod go about their business.  

And; Humpback whales up here cooperatively bubble net for herring in groups of eight to twelve.  The members of each group are no more related to each other than to any other whales in the area, which makes their cooperative feeding a bit of an anomaly in the animal world.  The members of the group seem to be task specialists, with one member of the group acting as the “caller” who, through making a very distinctive noise at just the pitch that herring will apparently do anything to get away from, drive the ball of herring up into the net of bubbles blown by a different task specialist in the group.  The bubble net itself, being something deliberately shaped and external to the body, meets the definition of “tool”, which makes the humpback whales up here task-specialist cooperative tool users.  Which is just cool.  (Also, only a very small percentage of the whales up here cooperatively bubble net - most of them feed by themselves on krill, which is actually a better calorie source than herring). 


Bubble netting humpback whales, Wrangell Narrows, Alaska,  September 2014.   -   

Bubble netting humpback whales, Wrangell Narrows, Alaska,  September 2014.   -   

When the herring are in season we often get to watch this group bubble netting behavior.   The group of whales dive in a specific order, do their flipper-flashing bubble-net creating thing, and then appear as a mass, all eight or ten at once inside the boundaries of the net they created, mouths agape and then quickly closed to expel the extra water with their tongues, straining out the herring.  They are so close together when they do this that from the surface it can be difficult to sort out one whale from the next.  They pause for a moment or two on the surface, then re-line up to do it all again.  Apparently when they are done for the evening, or when the fishing just isn’t that good, one of them will breach, then the rest will breach a few times, and everyone will go on their way.  Andy refers to this as a “disassociation ritual” in his talk. 

The Alaska Whale Foundation relies on college and grad students to collect a lot of the observational data they use.  They have just acquired land up here to create more of a permanent center for field schools.  I am very much wishing that they had been around when I was still college student.  

So, anyone with a college student who is interested in Marine Biology should maybe check them out.  (High school and college students interested in Marine Biology or Marine Ecology should also check into Sea Education Association - I worked for them for a bit and their programs are amazing). 

In other news, while I was home I got certified in dry-suit diving.  I am not a natural at dry suit diving, but I am practicing and getting better at it and I have now been diving twice up here.  

In a dry suit.  

In Alaska.  

About two years ago now, during my job interview for this position, the port-engineer asked me if I was a diver, and over the course of the conversation it became apparent that what he actually wanted to know was whether I was dry-suit certified so that I could dive in Alaska.  I managed not to say what I was actually thinking, which ran along the lines of “no, of course I’m not certified to dry-suit dive, and only really crazy people dry-suit dive in Alaska, I’m also not a certified pilot of float planes”. And yet here I am.  (And it was seeing the footage brought back by the undersea specialist last year in Alaska that convinced me to get my scuba certification to begin with - I am not thinking about what that implies).   


So here I am.  The gnome was brought along by some of our guests, who very nicely asked if we could get photos of the gnome with undersea creatures on our dive.  For some reason Ashely (our current undersea specialist) decided to take my photo with the gnome too.  The photo was taken at the end  of our dive, and I am very very very cold.  (And very happy).

Gloomy Knob

by Sarah Lake Upton in

I am back on the Sea Lion, and we are back to our summer season in Alaska.   On Wednesday we motored slowly through Glacier Bay, spending the morning along the aptly named “Gloomy Knob” looking for mountain goats.  We came up very slowly on this one, 

who I was worried might be dead, given how still she was. 

And then she lifted her face.

She was unimpressed by our presence, and decided to continue her nap.

In Which I Admit that Yet Again I was Wrong.

by Sarah Lake Upton in

If you had asked me about my opinion of boats and/or SCUBA diving when I was 26, I would have said that boats involved too many people living too closely together and anyway I get ragingly sea sick and taken all together boats were the worst idea ever and if I never went out it one again it would be okay.  I would have been likewise (though less passionately) negative about SCUBA diving; I probably would have said that the very idea of being under all of that water made my breath shorten and my adrenaline spike and it all seems like a Very Bad Idea.  

By the time I turned 27 I was madly in love with a fully rigged ship in New York harbor.

By my 28th birthday I was working full time on a traditionally rigged schooner and living on said fully rigged ship.  

It has taken me a little longer to come around to SCUBA diving, but because we carry an Undersea Specialist who takes underwater footage every trip, and because said Undersea Specialist needs a dive buddy, getting certified to SCUBA dive is encouraged and the cost of classes is reimbursed, and being able to dive on the hull is a useful skill for an engineer and another skill to add to my resume.  So finally and with much grumbling I went ahead and took the classes to become certified in basic open water diving.   

I actually ended up doing the required open water dives to complete my certificate in Maine in November, because sometimes I am terrible at planning.  This occasioned much more grumbling, nay whining, on my part.  The water was 47 degrees. 

But, we are in the Sea of Cortez, and I have come up twice in the roster to be the Undersea Specialist’s dive buddy, and yet again I must admit to being utterly wrong.  I am now 37 and a few months old, and last week I was fifty feet down (after a small panic attack at the surface) looking for interesting sea life for Paul to film, being watched in turn by a curious and bored sea lion who occasionally entertained herself by nipping at my fins. 

Diving is the best thing since boats, which is to say, absolutely magical.  

photo credit - Billy O'Brian

photo credit - Billy O'Brian

My Day Job - Sunday

by Sarah Lake Upton in

At some point very early on Sunday morning we hauled back the anchor and made our way to an anchorage off of Barro Colorado Island in Lake Gatun, where we anchored again.  Before the creation of the locks the area that became Barro Colorado Island was just a patch of anonymous high ground. As the waters rose after the locks were built various animals fled higher, and in 1920’s the Smithsonian built a research station there to study the newly isolated flora and fauna of the island.  We stop by whenever we are in the canal so that guests can go for hikes or take zodiac cruises around the island.  On Sunday mornings I take the opportunity for quiet and semi-decent internet to call home before work.  According to Sam, if one looks at Barro Colorado Island on Google Earth and zooms in a bit, one can see the Sea Lion at anchor.  We are the blue hulled mid-sized cruise ship with racks of yellow kayaks on the lido deck. 

To back up a little bit, because until I started traversing it once a week I only had the vaguest idea of what the canal actually was, a brief explication of the structure of the Panama Canal: 

There are two ways to make a canal.  The first is to basically dig a big ditch to connect two bodies of water, so that boats may traverse it basically at sea level - this is how the Suez Canal was originally built, and this is what everyone was hoping could also be done in Panama.  The problem down here is that the spine of mountains that start down in Tierra Del Fuego and end somewhere in northern Alaska continue, though much much lower, through Panama.  In the area where the canal was built they are more like medium sized hills, but they were enough of an impediment to building a sea level canal that for a while it looked impossible that a canal would ever be built.  Enter plan B, a system of locks that would raise boats 90 ft to save having to dig down as far.  

On the Caribbean side heading south one encounters the Gatun locks; basically a set of three steps to bring the boat up to level of the canal.  Then there is a large lake (Gatun) created by the building of the canal, then a very narrow ditch, which despite being deep enough for containers ships to traverse is still small enough that in Maine it would probably be one of those rivers no one could remember the name of (though if it were in Colorado it would be a major named geographical feature that would provide water for every state around it - the importance of rivers is relative).  Eventually one arrives at Pedro Miguel Lock, which is a single step down, since we are traveling south, then the relatively small Miraflores Lake (it normally takes us about fifteen minutes to travel through this bit) and then Miraflores Lock, which has two steps down, and then we are back at sea level on the Pacific side.   In order to stop at Barro Colorado Island we cross the canal is two days, though given how short it is (about 50 miles) we could easily do it in one.  

So, on Sunday morning we were anchored off of Barro Colorado Island.  Once I came on watch I attended to various small problems (I think I fixed the shower mixer and drip in 304 for instance) and preventative maintenance items (I have a weekly checklist) and then at some point we hauled back the anchor, tucked ourself in behind the boat we would be sharing locks with, and began making our way down towards Pedro Miguel Locks. 

Once we arrived at the lock I was once again on standby. I used the time to take a few photos of the container ship that was next to us, and once again marvel at the impossible scale of things. 

Dublin Express.jpg


The main limiting factor to the size of modern container ships are the dimensions of locks built in 1914.   A ship can either be called  “Panamax” for measuring either the maximum length or width that will fit inside a lock in the Panama Canal.  The locks are 1050 feet long and 110 feet wide, so a ship can get away with being 973-ish feet long and  and 106 feet wide (the math is a bit fuzzy, because ships are not square, and the actual space inside the locks is not square, and the need to be able to use one’s propellers also confuse things and there are also problems with how deep a ship rides, but how much of a problem this is depends on the current water depth in the canal and how recently things have been dredged - apparently a few weeks ago a ship was stuck on one of the small sandbars that can form just outside of the locks and required the help of many tugs boats to get free).  The Dublin Express is Panamax in all dimensions.  Currently the canal is in the midst of an expansion project, with new sets of locks at both sides that will be able to accommodate much larger ships.  The new locks were supposed to be completed for the hundredth anniversary of the opening of the canal, i.e. 2014, but as usual with large construction projects there were delays and etc. and now no one is really sure when they will be completed, other than “next year?”.   The old locks will continue to handle all of the normal traffic, and the new locks will handle the “Post Panamax” traffic.

Once we were through the canal we anchored in the Flamenco anchorage in the harbor off of Panama City.   The chief engineer used the time to dash to shore to pick up a small part we needed to fix the galley air conditioner, and I attended to my evening chores (transferring fuel, running the O.W.S., topping up oil, checking bilge levels, peering suspiciously at various gauges).   The plan for the night involved getting underway at 0230, so I again knocked off a bit early, this time to take a nap before waking up at 0215, lighting off the main engines, and then waiting until we were three miles offshore to dump our slops tank. 

My Day Job - Saturday

by Sarah Lake Upton in

I find myself somewhat reluctant to blog about the specifics of my day job.  We have enough of a PR department that the office may well be watching, and as the bulk of my job involves fixing things that break, a list of my daily activities, when read from afar and without context, may well make it sound like the boat is in a constant state of breaking (which is sort of true, in the sense that to work on a boat is to be in a constant battle with entropy, but we are also a well maintained boat, and if something is not broken I do not generally get to interact with it, aside from an occasional quick to make sure that it is still not broken).  But my day job is also a bit unusual, so absent the ability to upload all of the photos I have been taking of late, I thought that I might try to capture what a week out here is actually like. 

Saturday was turn day in Colòn.  Guests depart in the morning and controlled chaos ensues.  Stores arrive, cabins are turned inside out to clean, decks are scrubbed down, I try to attend to engineering issues in that cannot be easily attended to with guests on board.  Each of these activities gets in the way of other activities and generally all of this happens at once.  On this particular Saturday my work-list included: fixing this dripping faucet in cabin 301, opening the collision compartment to check on the gear oil for the bow thruster (the annual oil change was done before I came back onboard, and we’re still working air out of the system, so the tank needs to be topped up from time to time) running the emergency generator to make sure that all was well with it, restarting the walk-in freezer after it had been secured by some refrigeration techs, helping to bunker lube oil and offload waste oil, and a number of other small projects that I have already forgotten.   New guests were supposed to arrive starting at 1645, but this being Panama, none of them did up 1715, when they all arrived at once.  We needed to be off the dock at 1800, but we were unable to start bunkering water under 1700 because the boat down the dock was using the hose, and then the valve on the dock could not be opened, and then there was a long conversation between the chief engineer and the guard on the dock and various tools were employed and it was decided that we probably had enough water on board already but it would be nice to top up the tank and because I wasn’t necessary to any part of this conversation I helped bring luggage to guest cabins.   And then in very quick succession, the water was turned on, the tanks were topped up, the pilot arrived, potable water hoses were disconnected and stowed, I fired up the main engines and the forward generator for the bow thruster, the deck crew lifted the gangway and we were off.   After that it was fairly quiet until we arrived at the first lock in the canal (Gatun Locks, heading south - because we all think of the canal as running east-west, but really because of the shape of Panama it runs more north-south).  Our bow thruster is powered by our forward generator and can only be engaged or secured in the engine room (once it’s running it is controlled by a switch in the bridge).  For various reasons it can’t be left to run too long, but we need it to get into the locks and then to move between locks, and so for me the canal involves standing by, waiting for the order to engage or secure the bow thruster.  The second mate is a knitter, and was also spending our lock time standing by, so I decided that I could stand by just as well whilst knitting, and we had a lovely evening of knitting punctuated by quick dashes to the engine room (me) and answering the occasional operational question (her).  

After we cleared the locks, and I was cleared from standby, I went about my normal evening routine of transferring fuel (we have a fuel centrifuge to clean the fuel before it goes into our day tank) running the Oily Water Separator, and attending to any small issues that cropped up, including a condensation drip in 304.  The guests in 304 turned out to be from very nearby Portland, Maine,  and as we chatted we discovered many other points of contact in common, so while I couldn’t fix the condensation drip that night (it involved taking down a ceiling panel) we had a really lovely visit. 

There was nothing else terribly pressing that evening, so I knocked off a little early and made use of the exercise bike on the sundeck. By this point we were at anchor amongst a field of tankers and freighters and massive container ships, and as I peddled away in the still night air I pondered their contents and nationality and where they might be going and global trade generally, as one does.  I failed to come to any conclusions on the subject, beyond the obvious wonder at how much stuff gets moved about the globe. 

And that was Saturday.