SEWARD — In this picturesque Alaska port town more than 400 miles south of the Arctic Circle, two big symbols of U.S. Arctic ambition loomed over the harbor.
Docked side by side, both preparing to head north, were the cutter Healy, the only polar-class U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker working in the Arctic, and the Crystal Serenity, the huge luxury cruise ship destined for an unprecedented journey through newly ice-sparse waters of the Northwest Passage over the top of Canada. Both ships' paths converged in Seward, a tourist destination, fishing center and recreation hub that is emerging as a support center and port for Arctic marine and science activities.
The high-profile Crystal Serenity cruise is drawing the world's attention to Seward's Arctic connections, said local City Manager Jim Hunt. The ship, its lights aglow, departed Seward's harbor Tuesday night for a monthlong journey that will end in the Port of New York.
"Seward to New York, in all the press — that's priceless," Hunt said.
Other Arctic connections in Seward, a city with a moderate climate and a lush, non-Arctic forest setting, have been building for years, though with less fanfare.
The small city, in addition to boasting a full-service deepwater port, is home to branch offices of government and academic institutions studying marine science with projects extending to the Arctic.
It is the homeport of the Sikuliaq, a new National Science Foundation-owned, University of Alaska Fairbanks-operated research vessel designed to sail through the edge of the Arctic sea ice. It is the headquarters of Kenai Fjords National Park, where scientists are doing research on changing glaciers and other climate-related subjects. It is the site of the nation's only Coast Guard-certified training center for polar ice navigation. It is the home of the Alaska SeaLife Center, where scientists are studying cold-water ecosystems and the creatures that dwell in them.
Seward's role as, in effect, an Arctic port is the product of both serendipity and deliberate strategy, Hunt said.
The deep and ice-free waters of Resurrection Bay, which have long made Seward a logical port site, factor in, he said. So do the city's convenient geographic location and transportation links, which put Seward about two-hour drive or an easy rail or air trip from Anchorage, he said.
"We are the last place in Alaska before you turn the corner and go past Homer that you can operate on your own schedule because we have the road, the railway and the airport," he said.
Seward's Arctic links have also been strengthened by policy decisions, Hunt said. Seward is improving its harbor, putting in a breakwater to enable more service to big vessels, including those headed for the Arctic Ocean. The city also lobbied the Alaska congressional delegation to include Seward in legislation about revenue-sharing from potential Arctic offshore oil development, he said.
In the absence of a U.S. Arctic Ocean port, several non-Arctic ports are doing Arctic-related business. Each has advantages and drawbacks. Seattle, the homeport of the Healy, has been a staging area, as has Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, the nation's top-volume seafood port.
Kodiak, the headquarters of a major Coast Guard complex, has been used as a base of Arctic air support. Unlike the other ports, Nome, just south of Bering Strait, is geographically close to the Arctic — about 140 miles away — but its shallow water cannot accommodate deep-draft vessels like the Crystal Serenity.
The "beauty" of the emerging Arctic-related marine business is that the port sites are complementary, Hunt said. "We're not in competition with other ports because no one port can do it all," he said.
Some mariners on Arctic-bound ships have gained their skills at the Alaska Vocational Training and Education Center, a vocational educational school in operation for decades in Seward. A portion of the AVTEC campus is devoted to maritime training, and course offerings include a new program in ice navigation.
It is the only Coast Guard-certified polar navigation training center in the United States, with standards meeting the new international Polar Code, though there are equivalent centers in Canada, Norway and probably Russia, said instructor Mike Angove.
The ice-navigation program was launched when Royal Dutch Shell was on the cusp of what appeared to be the start of a long offshore Arctic oil development program, Angove said. Mariners hired for Shell's operation needed and received training in Seward.
Shell abandoned its oil exploration program, but the ice-navigation instruction continues. When the Healy stopped in town, for example, some junior crew members spent two days in the AVTEC mock ship bridges, where they practiced ice navigation using simulators. Putting their hands on the controls was "stuff that a junior officer, their first year, wouldn't get to do" aboard the real ship, Angove said.
The instructional facilities are now being upgraded. The center has three mock bridges, and the upgrade will allow two of them to offer full 360-degree imagery, Angove said. Students will also be able to use the simulators in connection with each other, replicating situations where ships are traveling together, he said.
A few blocks away from the Maritime Training Center, a de facto science campus is in business on the downtown Seward waterfront.
The Alaska SeaLife Center, a combination tourist attraction and research facility, is edged by buildings housing the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Seward Marine Center and offices used by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The SeaLife Center, which in its early years focused on marine mammals and seabirds of the Gulf of Alaska region, has branched out to projects studying the Bering Sea and locations north. That is deliberate, said Markus Horning, the center's science director.
"Even though we are not physically located in the Arctic, we are a gateway," Horning said.
He is hoping to expand the center's work into more study of fish, and he has ambitions for a program to monitor Pacific sleeper sharks, a species of interest to him and one that is now established in Alaska's Arctic waters.
Some current denizens of the SeaLife Center hail from the Arctic. The center serves as a rehabilitation site for ailing marine mammals, and has served that role for animals found as far north as Barrow; in the past, walrus calves were sent from there to the center. Now there are some ice seals who were rescued after they were abandoned as pups, some with their umbilical cords still attached.
The rescued seals, once taken from their home habitat, cannot be returned to the wild. They are now part of a project being conducted by the SeaLife center and the University of California Santa Cruz to learn more about the physiology of ice seals and their potential responses to environmental changes.
The scientists are studying metabolism, energy needs and other characteristics as the seals grow and pass through various life cycles, said Colleen Reichmuth of the Santa Cruz campus, the project's principal investigator. The information will be important as Arctic sea ice dwindles and as seals encounter new problems, such as the still-mysterious 2011 die-off that has been designated by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as an "unusual mortality event."
For marine researchers, Seward has long been an important staging area. UAF research ships have operated out of Seward since 1970, and the city's long-standing support of research and its harbor facilities are among the reasons the Sikuliaq is homeported in Seward, said Lauren Frisch, the ship's science liaison.
In some ways, Seward's ties to the northern frontier date back even earlier.
The southern tip of the traditional Iditarod Trail, the snowy route used by dog mushers to reach far-north mining sites, is at the Seward waterfront. Steamships carrying Gold Rush prospectors from the south called in Seward.
Arctic history was on the minds of some of the 1,000 passengers and 700 crew members now aboard the Crystal Serenity on its Arctic cruise.
"I'm a retired high school principal from Brooklyn, and I used to teach about the Northwest Passage," said Harriet Oxman, one of the passengers preparing to board the ship on Tuesday. "So I'm looking forward to going to where I've been teaching about all those years."
Crystal Cruises is already taking reservations for a repeat Seward-to-New York cruise in 2017 through the Northwest Passage.