This blog is part of a series of posts following Coast Guard Cutter Healy on their journey through the Arctic to the North Pole in support of Geotraces 2015. Stay tuned to learn more about the mission, the cutter and the crew!
Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory Mendenhall
The solid, frozen expanses of ice and snow had given way to open water. Sea birds once again drifted lazily in the cutter’s wake and the night hours had reclaimed their darkness. For the first time in weeks, the blankets of clouds and fog parted long enough to reveal the moon and stars. All were signs that Coast Guard Cutter Healy was heading south.
The 420-foot icebreaker homeported in Seattle was underway this year from August to October, supporting the National Science Foundation-funded research program GEOTRACES, an international endeavor to study the distribution of trace elements in the world’s oceans. As part of the research cruise, the cutter reached the North Pole Sept. 5, becoming the first unaccompanied U.S. surface vessel to do so.
As Healy plied the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean, several crew members would gather high above the waterline in the cutter’s wardroom for a daily oceanography class taught by Cmdr. William Woityra, Healy’s operations officer.
“We are holding classes so members of the crew can accumulate college credits and work toward a degree,” said Woityra. “In the case of oceanography, it is also incredibly valuable for them to gain a deeper understanding of the science that underlies the missions that Healy spends all summer at sea performing.”
During the 65 days Healy was at sea, the class met 40 times, twice a day to accommodate watch schedules. The cutter hosted visiting professors several times over the past few years to teach college-level courses to the crew. This course, however, holds remarkable relevance to the crew and the important oceanographic research their missions enable. It also marked the first time a member of the ship’s crew led the class.
Fifty scientists joined Healy during the cutter’s most recent mission, including several world-renowned researchers in the fields of oceanography, chemistry, and biology. Considering the science party onboard, the rich waters below, and the sea birds punctuating the skies above, one would be hard pressed to find a more ideal location for an oceanography course.
“This is an unheard of opportunity for an undergraduate class,” said Woityra. “We are lucky to have some of the leading oceanographic scholars in the world onboard with us. We have had eight of the Ph.D. scientists lead lectures in their areas of specialty. To receive lectures day after day, week after week from these scholars is priceless.”
When guest lecturers weren’t teaching, the mantle rested on Woityra, a certified instructor whose credentials, experience, and dedication to oceanography made him an ideal fit for the job.
“I have a personal passion for oceanography and science,” said Woityra. “I am very excited to see the enthusiasm from the crew to learn more about these things I hold so dear.”
About 20 percent of the crew attended the course, including members from almost every department and division onboard.
“I think it’s important to learn more about the environment we operate in,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Ben Ahlin, a boatswain’s mate aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy and a student in the oceanography class. “It’s great to get perspectives from all these different fields of science.”
Many of the crew’s more junior members had a scientific interest sparked by the class taught by Woityra, whose own bond with oceanography was forged early in his career.
“As an ensign, I was the marine science officer on Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star,” said Woityra. “I fell in love with oceanography.”
After serving aboard Polar Star, Woityra applied and was selected for the Coast Guard post-graduate program in oceanography, which enabled him to continue his studies at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography.
“I am fascinated by the sea, and by the biological, chemical, and physical processes that govern it,” said Woityra. “I love learning about the different animals that live in the ocean and how they all fit into a larger ecosystem. I am humbled by size and power of the ocean and how important it is to our lives on land.”
Interest in the Arctic continues to increase as the receding ice opens the region to development and higher levels of maritime traffic. Currently however, it still takes an icebreaker of considerable capability to access the furthest reaches of the Arctic and enable scientists to study there.
“We are on the leading edge of oceanographic research,” said Woityra. “Healy is carrying scientists to this icy frontier and enabling them to document and understand the changes that are happening. In addition to this core scientific research, Healy is also heavily testing applied technologies that will support Coast Guard missions in the Arctic and we are getting all this done on one of the most complex, most advanced ships in the Coast Guard’s inventory. The level of engineering that went into the design and build of Healy is matched only by the sophistication and engineering that it takes to keep the ship running.”
The Arctic region, while physically difficult to access and to study, provided the students with opportunities for first-hand observation of animals, seascapes, and atmospheric phenomena seen nowhere else on the planet. During Healy’s most recent mission, crewmembers observed polar bears, whales, walrus, seals, an Arctic fox, as well as optical phenomena such as fogbows and aurora borealis.
“Spending time in the Arctic is an adventure,” said Woityra. “We see so many things that have a tie to oceanography. Whether it is the polar bears living and hunting on the ice, or the moonbows, sundogs, and fata morgana that appear in the atmosphere, we are exposed to oceanographic phenomena every single day.”
The benefits of being in the Arctic are not lost on Woityra, whose appreciation and passion for the region shine through during his lectures. In the Arctic, he is truly a man in his element.
“I hope to keep going to sea on icebreakers for as long as the Coast Guard will let me,” said Woityra. “I love breaking ice, I love working in the Arctic, and I love Healy’s scientific mission. This is truly my dream job. I can’t imagine ever wanting to do anything else.”