Alaska News

Alaska gets a preview of the Sikuliaq, a cutting-edge research vessel

Alaska's newest research vessel combines aspects of an icebreaker, state-of-the-art science laboratory and high-tech college classroom. It has the ability to boldly explore new underwater worlds where none before have gone. And it has a propulsion system that looks like something from "Futurama."

But though the University of Alaska Fairbanks took delivery of the Sikuliaq on June 6, the 251-foot oceanographic research ship will be outside Alaska waters for several more weeks. "Ironically, our first two missions involve sailing out of Honolulu," said Daniel Oliver, director of UAF's Marine Center in Seward, the Sikuliaq's home port.

However, Anchorage residents will have the chance to get an armchair tour of the craft at the Campbell Creek Science Center on Dec. 17 when Oliver presents a free lecture about the ship's unique design and capacities. Not the least of those capacities is its ability to perform research in ice up to 2.5 feet thick.

Oliver knows ice. Prior to taking the job at the Marine Center, he was commanding officer of the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy.

After being constructed by Marinette Marine Corp. in Wisconsin, the Sikuliaq -- the name is the Inupiat word for "new sea ice" -- passed through the Great Lakes and down the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic. It went through the Panama Canal and on to Hawaii. It is scheduled to head to Guam beginning the week of Dec. 15.

The crew is currently working bugs out of the ship, a process that can take from one to three years, Oliver said, particularly when the ship is a one of a kind, like the Sikuliaq.

From Guam the ship will go to Ketchikan. The Navy has an underwater noise range testing facility in a fjord near there where "we'll get a good reading on the ship's radiated noise signature," Oliver said. The ability to move quietly while doing research was part of the ship's design.


When those tests are complete, probably in mid-February, Sikuliaq will make a short stop in Juneau and then sail to its permanent base in Seward. There it will be commissioned and the public will be invited to take a tour.

Then, in early March, it will depart for Dutch Harbor and the Bering Sea where, for the first time since it was launched in October 2012, the Sikuliaq will finally encounter the ice for which it is named.

As a general-purpose oceanographic research ship, Sikuliaq is intended for broad scientific use -- taking water samples from different depths to determine salinity, acidity and other factors; mapping the ocean floor; collecting and analyzing plant, animal and geological specimens; counting populations of sea life from giant blue whales to tiny pteropods.

The vessel is owned by the National Science Foundation, Oliver said. UAF is designated as the operator. It's part of a fleet of scientific craft working with institutions from the University of Washington and University of Hawaii to Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts and known as the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System.

"What makes Sikuliaq unique is that it can operate year-round in first-year ice," Oliver said, "and even some multiyear ice." He declined to call it an "icebreaker," preferring "ice-capable." With half the heft and horsepower of the Healy, Sikuliaq doesn't have the muscle to go through heavy ice packs, he said. Nonetheless, it can work in the Bering Sea in winter and in Arctic and Antarctic waters in summer. Oliver said he anticipates it will be used in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Sikuliaq will be particularly adept at maneuvering in marginal ice zones, "where you have leads and broken floes," Oliver said.

Enhanced maneuverability is made possible by the ship's propulsion system. "It has no rudders, no conventional shafting or screws," Oliver explained.

The system is called an "azimuthing Z-drive." The "Z" refers to the rough shape of a system of gears that transmits power from the engine to the propellers in a series of 90-degree angles.

The props are mounted on two pods that can be rotated 360 degrees. They steer the ship as well as drive it. "It provides exceptionally good positioning capability," Oliver said. The ship can go backward in two ways: either by reversing the spin of the props or by turning them around to face the stern.

Rather than pushing the ship, as is the case with most boat props, including those on outboard motors, these screws pull the ship, like the props seen on most aircraft.

"When we did the model testing we found that we got a little bit of improvement in ice breaking with the tractor propellers," Oliver said.

In addition to moving the ship, the azimuthing design can direct water flow to one side of the ship. That helps move ice away from the hull when equipment is being hoisted in and out of the water.

The Sikuliaq will be able to accommodate 26 scientists and students on board for a voyage, but it will host a much larger virtual crew. As an educational facility, it's equipped to transmit real-time information and video to classrooms around the world.

"It's a very complex ship with very complex science systems," Oliver said. "I think it's going to be a very capable platform for the U.S. scientific fleet."

CAPT. DANIEL OLIVER, director of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Seward Marine Center, will discuss the Sikuliaq at a fireside talk at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 17, at the BLM Campbell Creek Science Center. Complimentary hot drinks and cookies will be provided. The talk is free.

Mike Dunham

Mike Dunham was a longtime ADN reporter, mainly writing about culture, arts and Alaska history. He worked in radio for 20 years before switching to print. He retired from the ADN in 2017.