Coast Guard Cutter Healy: Still breaking the way

Scientists traveling aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy conduct studies on the Arctic ice. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Scientists traveling aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy conduct studies on the Arctic ice. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher Yaw

All it takes is a quick glance out the porthole. If one didn’t know better, they’d think they are sailing through the midst of a J.R.R Tolkien novel. The mountainous terrain seemingly rises straight out of the sea, their peaks obscured by numerous thick clouds. Sometimes, an eagle or other winged creature is seen when the weather does break. Inland, other beasts roam the landscape. Musk ox, deer and mountain goats all reside here as well. Large herds of reindeer roam the land, forage for food and travel vast expanses to and from breeding grounds. But it was not always this way.

Alaska in the 1860s saw a significant decline in whale and seal populations, causing food shortages for the native peoples. To fix this, reindeer were introduced from Siberia to Alaska to provide food, clothing and other necessities. Behind this was none other than U.S. Revenue Service officer, Capt. Mike Healy, the son of an African-American mother and Irish father. He enforced the Alaskan waters and acted as judge, doctor and policeman to the Alaskan region, among many other things.

Crewmembers aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy, homeported in Seattle, work together onloading the ship, Aug. 12, 2016 in Seward, Alaska.

Crewmembers aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy, homeported in Seattle, work together onloading the ship, Aug. 12, 2016 in Seward, Alaska. The gear will be instrumental to the researchers mission success.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher M. Yaw

In carrying on the example and traditions of his namesake, Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a medium polar icebreaker based out of Seattle, has been devoted to service in Alaskan and Arctic waters since it first sailed.

Healy’s unique story is mirrored by the ship that bears his namesake today. Coast Guard Cutter Healy is the United States’ most technologically advanced high-latitude research vessel, able not only to break ice but conduct ground-breaking scientific research throughout the harsh and unforgiving Arctic Ocean. Just as Mike Healy explored the Alaskan wilderness throughout its inception, the crew of Healy continues to make new discoveries at the literal end of the earth.

In addition to breaking ice, Healy is designed to conduct a wide array of research activities. It provides more than 4,200 square feet of scientific laboratory space, numerous electronic sensor systems, oceanographic winches, and can house up to 50 scientists. The cutter is designed to break 4 1/2 feet of ice continuously at three knots and can operate in temperatures as low as -50 degrees Fahrenheit.

“The United States is an Arctic Nation and has been since William Seward helped purchase Alaska in the 1860s. Since then, the Coast Guard and its predecessor service, the Revenue Cutter Service, has provided presence and access to the Arctic region on behalf of the nation,” said Capt. Jason Hamilton, Healy’s soft-spoken, quick-witted commanding officer. “It is imperative that we are able to provide this while conducting the other Coast Guard missions for years to come.”

Already this summer, Healy’s crew and scientists from both the University of Alaska-Anchorage and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have made several ground-breaking discoveries while plying the frigid waters of the Arctic Chukchi Sea.

Scientists discovered multiple new species of jellyfish in the rarely explored Arctic depths. During the first mission, a remotely operated vehicle was used to collect living samples for laboratory study, and trawl nets and box cores were utilized to assess the bio diversity of the entire ecosystem living within the sea ice, throughout the water column and all the way down to the sea floor. This vastly helped improve knowledge and understanding of the rapidly changing region.

Petty Officer 1st Class Sean Carrillo, a marine science technician aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy, deploys sensory equipment to help calibrate research instruments, Aug. 18, 2016, while underway off the southern coast of Alaska.

Petty Officer 1st Class Sean Carrillo, a marine science technician aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy, deploys sensory equipment to help calibrate research instruments, Aug. 18, 2016, while underway off the southern coast of Alaska. Carrillo works hand-in-hand with scientists to facilitate their missions while underway aboard Healy.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher M. Yaw.

Finishing the second of three missions, Healy worked closely with researchers from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, and the Office of Naval Research.

During the second expedition, the crew and science party are deploying an array of acoustic bottom moorings to collect data on how climate change and decreasing ice coverage are affecting the Arctic Ocean.

“It’s kind of a two for one if you will. We’re studying how sound propagates and we’re using sound as a tool to measure the ocean that the sound is propagating through,” beams Peter Worcester, the bespectacled lead scientist with Scripps, his face lighting up as he continues. “It’s kind of a win, win.”

Worcester explains that a much more detailed and long-term study can be done nowadays thanks to advances in equipment — a task not as easily done in the past, such as during the Cold War.
The process is more precisely referred to as ocean acoustic tomography—using sound to measure the ocean.

The acoustic devices the research team plans to place will transmit through the water to receivers, creating a grid of crossing acoustic paths to precisely measure travel times. The planned 150 kilometer radius grid can be used to draw maps to show the evolving Arctic waters over time.

“If the ocean in the grid is becoming warmer, the sound speed will be higher,” continues Worcester.

Similar experiments in non-Arctic regions have been going on since the 1980s, Worcester adds, while explaining the science. He likens the mathematical technique to using X-rays to map the human brain.

For Worcester, this expedition is his first time working aboard Healy.

“It’s the largest research vessel I’ve sailed on,” he laughs, recounting other smaller vessels from the past. “We really had to use this ship [Healy] because Arctic ice conditions are really unpredictable. We’ll have to see what the ocean has in store for us.”

No doubt the strong command, crew and scientific research teams will continue to set the gold standard for future U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers. Just like Capt. Healy, the cutter commissioned in his name, has and will continue to forge ahead and smash not only ice, but scientific barriers as well. Healy will either find a way, or they will make one.

Seaman Matthew Weesner, a deckhand aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy, guides a bouy marker aboard the cutters deck under the supervision of Petty Officer 3rd Class Benjamin Ahlin, Aug. 12, 2016 in Seward, Alaska.

Seaman Matthew Weesner, a deckhand aboard Coast Guard Cutter Healy, guides a bouy marker aboard the cutters deck under the supervision of Petty Officer 3rd Class Benjamin Ahlin, Aug. 12, 2016 in Seward, Alaska. Weesner and Ahlin worked together with other crewmembers to load the deck full of scientific research gear.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher M. Yaw.

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