|  April 20, 2014  |  
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Sikuliaq to winter in Great Lakes, test hybrid underwater vehicle

The National Science Foundation’s research vessel Sikuliaq will spend its first winter in the Great Lakes before making its long journey to its home port in Seward, Alaska. The Sikuliaq, pronounced “see-KOO-lee-ack,” is slated to arrive in Alaska during the spring of 2015.

The ship is owned by the NSF and will be operated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks. It had been scheduled to leave the shipyard in Marinette, Wis. prior to winter, however construction of the 261-foot, ice-capable vessel has progressed slower than anticipated. While it wasn’t planned, the delay does offer some advantages.

“A late delivery for a ship is never good. That said, the best part of this news really is that the crew will be able to test the ship’s ice-cutting capabilities close to the shipbuilder, and even more exciting, it offers a fantastic, cost-effective platform for researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to test a new autonomous underwater vehicle right there in the Great Lakes,” said Matt Hawkins, National Science Foundation program officer. “This is a great example of NSF divisions coordinating activities to the benefit of both science and the taxpayer.”

A team of Woods Hole engineers will be using the Sikuliaq for several days in March to test Nereid UI, a modification of the deep-water autonomous underwater vehicle Nereus, for future use in polar and other icy environments. Nereus cut its teeth in the deepest part of the world’s oceans at 11,000 meters deep at the Mariana Trench and has been modified to work in a polar environment.

“Oftentimes, we get funding to build a tool, but not to test and prepare it at sea,” said Andy Bowen, a Woods Hole engineer and director of its National Deep Submergence Facility. “Here we have a transformative tool being tested on a transformative platform. We have the rare opportunity to walk before we run in this Great Lakes environment.”

Ultimately, Nereid UI will help polar researchers by providing high-quality underwater imagery, particularly from under the ice, while also collecting biological specimens, and information and measurements on salinity, density, ice/water interaction and water chemistry.

Work to prepare the ship and crew for science operations will continue through the winter months. Other activities throughout the winter will include testing of the Sikuliaq’s connectivity.

“It is truly inspirational to see Sikuliaq under her own power on trials in Lake Michigan,” said Michael Castellini, dean of the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, “To have the ship this close to science operations after three decades of work is a wonderful time for the university, Alaska and marine science.”

Upon exiting the St. Lawrence Seaway in late April, the Sikuliaq is scheduled to participate in ice trials near Greenland and ultimately make its way to Washington, D.C. and Norfolk, Va., for a port visit and dry dock inspection before the transit to the Pacific Ocean. Science operations are expected to commence fall 2014, which is too late for the arctic research window. The Sikuliaq’s first funded science projects will not occur among sea ice and polar caps, but rather in the South Pacific and along the west coast before making its way north. The ship is expected to arrive in its homeport of Seward, Alaska for a ceremony in early 2015.

The R/V Sikuliaq was designed by Seattle-based Glosten Associates and is being built by Marinette Marine Corporation in Marinette, Wis. The Sikuliaq is uniquely equipped for operating in ice-choked waters. The Sikuliaq will primarily support oceanographic research in polar and sub-polar regions of the world.

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