Spring is here

I signed my contract with SFOS in late 1988, but I was still at UC California during March of 1989 preparing to move my lab and projects to Fairbanks. That spring, the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound and Fairbanks set record low temperatures. Everyone knew Maggie and I were moving to Alaska and we almost had T-shirts made that said “Yes…we know how cold it is in Fairbanks today” or “Yes…we have heard about the Alaska oil spill and the otters” (We were living in Santa Cruz, very sea otter “aware” location on the California coast).

That was 24 springs ago and every March, I remember what is was like to be moving to Alaska and our great new adventure, and how special spring is to everyone who lives in Alaska. The Iditarod winners came in last week, UAF students are wearing shorts and light sweaters, the ice-carvers are out in force, the number of graduate theses showing up on my desk is increasing and planning is spinning up for UAF Commencement, just two short months away. You can simply tell from the “spring is in the air” attitudes and the general buoyancy of everyone, that another winter has passed.

For us in SFOS, spring is getting students ready to graduate, theses defended, preparing for field seasons, internships, and looking ahead to new careers for students who are leaving. I enjoy attending the graduate defenses, reading and commenting on the theses and hearing back from the students. As our undergraduate program grows, it is a pleasure to congratulate students and hand out diplomas at the graduation exercises. Being part of the ceremony for the graduate students is wonderful. Commencement is an important component of our academic programs; please attend if you are in town.

Spring is also when we look ahead to new workloads for the coming year, meet with our various Advisory Councils, and plan for operations and support. This coming year, for the first time, we have operations support for the Sikuliaq, which should arrive in Seward in mid-January, 2014. UAF and SFOS are moving into a whole new world when the ship comes on-line. Sikuliaq business level meetings are now several times a week here in Fairbanks, and many times per day in Seward. We are setting up scientific meetings, events and philanthropic tours of the ship for February 2014 while it is in dock in Seward. Spring next year will be one like we have never had before in SFOS.

Our SFOS research teams are extending their operations from winter field work into the spring/summer mode. The number of research related travel authorizations coming through my office is increasing as the days lengthen, and faculty prepare to head out to field sites and collection schedules with their graduate students and teams.

I was in Southern California last week, where spring is not nearly as precious as it is here in Alaska. I told everyone that we still have more than 2 feet of snow in our backyard, but that is was warm, sunny and the students on campus were out and about…..my friends and colleagues mostly like to hear stories about Alaska, but still can’t figure out why we call it “spring” when there is still snow on the ground. I usually just smile, and remember.

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Holidays, cold weather and solstice 2012

I am sure that we all have the same story from talking with friends and relatives who live Outside:
How cold does it get during the winter?; How do you stand the darkness?; That’s not as cold as we get in …..(pick location); How do you like living in Alaska?

Based on the level of hectic activity across SFOS this week in the last few days before the holidays, I would guess that we are all ready to slow down a little, get grades turned
in, enjoy the quieter time and take a deep breath. Yeah, it’s cold right now (-40 something in Fairbanks at the moment), we know EXACTLY when solstice is going to occur and we are ready to answer those questions for our relatives and friends. I admit that I did take a “noon” picture the other day and send it to my sister in California. But, would we have it any other way? UAF talks about us being “Naturally Inspiring” and I think we live that every single day. I was out shoveling snow over the weekend and getting really cold…better than being stuck in freeway traffic though.

It has been an amazing year for SFOS…Some very high points, some low points and a great deal of the “everyday” points that keep us going between the peaks and valleys. I read, edited and signed so many theses this semester that I lost track of the count (great problem to have); we rallied some really strong pushes to get multiple research proposals out the door; teams travelled around the world on research cruises, trips and projects; classes were designed and carried out; some students graduated, others started; high school and middle-school students learned about marine science; we even put a long-awaited ship into the water. This all happened because SFOS put in long days, sometimes longer nights, and we do this because it is who we are….because we enjoy answering the question: How do you like living in Alaska?

Have a great holiday break…get some well-earned rest….stay warm if you are staying in Alaska…enjoy relatives if visiting…and here’s to the adventure  that will continue in 2013.

Below is the cover of the SFOS Holiday Card we sent out today to our supporters across the country.




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Sikuliaq Launch

Posted for Michael Castellini by John Haverlack

This is a blog that I have been waiting to write for a very long time. I am in Marinette, Wisconsin about ½ of a mile from where the R/V Sikuliaq is now in the water after her successful launch yesterday morning. I can’t begin to express how amazing and meaningful it was to watch her slip sideways into the river with a huge splash and to the noise of the cheering crowd. Despite the rain and cold weather, over 1,000 people were at the site and more across the river and local bridges to watch the launch. To be at this point in time, after close to 30 years of effort, is almost impossible to believe…but I had the chance earlier today to help escort Vera Alexander and Bob Elsner onto the ship so that they could see her and walk on the deck, through the bridge and into the labs. To see them there, the two sponsors who yesterday christened and launched the ship, was something that I will always remember.

For everyone in Fairbanks, we have our big celebration planned this coming Saturday (Oct 20) at the Davis Concert Hall at 4:30 PM. Video and photos of the launch, the Song of the Sikuliaq music, cake and other treats. We will be sending out more information to everyone on Monday.

In any event this complicated to coordinate, there are bound to be some items that did not work as planned: The one that caught us off-guard was that UAF was shutting down its Web access today for power upgrades on the campus in Fairbanks. So, while we have edited pictures and video, we don’t have any means to get them to UAF servers. Many views are on YouTube, and UAF put some pictures on its site late last night. By Monday AM, the links and information should start flowing as we catch up. Be sure to go to Facebook and YouTube for some incredible images and videos.

Despite this mismatch in digital timing, the end result is good: the launch was a success and the Sikuliaq is in the water for the very first time…may she begin a long and safe journey on the seas.

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70, 360, 520, 27, 30, 1

For close to three decades, we have been thinking, dreaming and designing what a
new, ice-capable research vessel would look like. As of today, the launch of
the R/V Sikuliaq is now 70 days away and coming on fast. Just this last week, the impressive “Z” drives were installed on the ship and 2 weeks ago I had a chance to walk through the vessel and see it at about 60% completion. Bob Elsner came by my office today
on his way to Massachusetts for about two months and the next time we see him,
he will be helping to launch the ship on October 13. Vera Alexander and I were
together this week at science meetings in Juneau and everyone kept asking her
about “breaking the champagne bottle” over the bow. The launch ceremony committees,
invitations, press, video, even a musical composition, ship preparations, construction
meetings and general Sikuliaq activities are coming on full-speed now and it would
be very easy (and fun!) to turn almost all our attention to October. We are
even looking into an Air National Guard C130 flight from Fairbanks to Wisconsin
to take a color guard, local community members, Native dancers and more. Plan “B”
for the ceremony is if President Obama accepts the invitation to be at the
launch….if we think this is complex……

After the launch ceremony in October, the most important target is about 360 days from now. In late July 2013, the ship is to be “delivered” to NSF/UAF and we take over operations, begin science trials and testing. After a summer of trials in the Great Lakes,
she will sail out the Saint Lawrence Seaway and work up and down the east coast
in ocean trials. When those trials are complete, we take her through the Panama
Canal, up the west coast of the US and expect her to be in Seward the first
week of January 2014, about 520 days from now. We are already planning on having the 2014 SFOS Advisory Council meeting on board when she is in dock at Seward in January.

Below is a picture of the “Z” drives taken just a few days ago.

While is it very easy and tempting to turn all this attention to the ship, it is
essential to remember that Fall Semester  classes start in just 27 days (August 30) and there are a host of activities for the new students, welcoming events and lots of preparation to start them on their academic years with us.  More and
more of them are showing up and I have enjoyed meeting them in the hallways and
around campus. This year, we have a large class (30) and I urge you to read the Academic Programs Blog about our new students  (https://web.sfos.uaf.edu/wordpress/academics/)

Finally, we are a “success” when we graduate our students and see them off to their new
careers. This last week,  I read the first SFOS fall semester MS thesis submission (Martin Schuster; Brenda Konar, Advisor). I can report that I only found 1 single
formatting edit in the entire thesis (a missing period after an abbreviation).
Great job Martin, and I hope adding that period did not take too long.

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Venus transit from Fairbanks

I am back in the office at 2030 hr on Tuesday, June 5 and the NASA live site is showing that the Venus transit is almost complete. We had a great day out in the front of O’Neill where I had set up a solar protected camera for viewing and photography of the transit. We were able to watch for about 1.5 hr, had to come inside due to storm clouds for a while, and then were back outside from 1700 until 1900 when more clouds came in low on the horizon. Many students, staff and faculty from SFOS and IAB came by to look. Graduate student Jonathan Whitefield  and IAB researcher Øivind Tøien were there with their cameras , too. As with most astronomy events, it is fun to help someone look through a large lens for the first time and be amazed at what they see…in this case, a small but obvious dot on the face of the sun…when they realized that this dot was almost the size of Earth, the massive size of the sun becomes very impressive. I heard that the viewing was good in Seward, but don’t know about the rest of the SFOS locations.

Update: 2035:  It has cleared up enough that I am able to watch the transit exit through my solar binoculars. I don’t have the camera set up, so the exit image is from NASA and is what I am seeing right now.

My images show Venus from just about the beginning of the transit through to almost 6 hours later. We missed some in the middle, but you can see how Venus made it’s path across the sun.

If any of you want these images to send to friends, just let me know. These are compressed for the Web, but I can email originals to you. Notice the three sunspots to the lower left, most visible in the 1701 exposure and in the NASA image.

1438 hours

1507 hours

1701 hours

1830 hours

1918 hours

NASA exit


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First Day of the Rest of Your Life

I have been listening to quite a few commencement presentations over the last few weeks and they have ranged from funny, to obscurely “deep”, to really very good. UAF graduated the most PhD students and had the largest total graduating class on record this academic year. From my side, I could see those patterns by the number of theses on my desk to read, and the growing size of our SFOS undergraduate program. Congratulations to all the SFOS graduates and to the faculty and staff that helped get them there. My youngest son graduated from Lathrop High School this week and while the class was much smaller than UAF’s, it was interesting to be in the same venue and to see the similarities between
the students who are all wondering what the next few years will be like. The
best comment was from the high school Salutatorian who said that she had no
words of wisdom because “I am only 17 years old…what do I know”?

Beyond these “end of the academic year” activities, it has been an eventful spring and I am happy to report no weird border crossings, plane malfunctions or other unusual travel events. Well, except maybe for the small wind-up rental car in Anchorage right after their last snow storm and that little problem of going through an intersection side-ways. First
Day of the Rest of Your Life, indeed.

I had a long week in DC in April working on an Office of Naval Research site visit, and while I was there, the space shuttle Discovery was flown into DC on its 747 carrier and we went outside to watch.  David Policansky, our SFOS Advisory Council Chair works in downtown DC and took this picture of the fly-over. A great coincidence in timing and I’m glad I had the opportunity to see it.

On the way home from DC, I stopped in Wisconsin to tour the Sikuliaq…it is amazing, and huge, and looks like a ship now!  Only a few short months left in construction
before the launch in October. Through NSF there is an official invitation to
President Obama to attend the launch. I don’t know if he will accept, but it’s
pretty exciting, regardless. So much is happening for the launch that I can
barely keep track, including a proposal we got funded with Rolf Gradinger and
the UAF music department to write music for the event. I believe we should
provide KnightHood to Dan Oliver, Terry Whitledge and Gary Smith when the ship

Too many other meetings to bring up here, but I continue to help Alaska Airlines enjoy a health business economy, am looking forward to a wonderful summer for SFOS and a great First Day of the Rest of my Life.

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Scholarships, contests and interesting names

I just completed a week of fun and rewarding student-oriented events.  The 15th Annual National Ocean Sciences Bowl (NOSB) was held in Seward last week with 20 high school teams from around Alaska. Phyllis Shoemaker and Dean Stockwell continue to provide an impressive organizational and educational event for these teams. The number of volunteers from Seward, SFOS, NGOs, UAS, agencies, and service organizations in Seward continue to grow. This has become a large and significant event in Seward. If you have not volunteered to be part of it, you should consider it in the future.

Juneau Douglas High School won (again!) and Cordova jumped from 12th place last year to 2nd this year. A suite of scholarships were given out with highlights by Icicle Seafoods (five $5000 scholarships) and Crowley Marine with their team sponsorship at over $5,000. Development officer Teresa Thompson led the effort to secure that support. UAF/ SFOS and UAS provided $2,000 in scholarships to each of the two top team members. 

The teams had some very clever names including:  Pelagic Magic (Juneau Douglas); Echinoderminators (Ketchikan) and my favorite: The Omega Fours—”The Not So Fatty Acids” (Kenny Lake Copper Center)

The  2012 NOSB web site is:  http://seagrant.uaf.edu/nosb/

Later that week, we held the Rasmuson Fisheries Research Center Fellowship meeting in Anchorage. We heard presentations from the six SFOS graduate students who hold fellowships and reviewed applications for new fellowships. This program has been supported for 20 years by an endowment from the Rasmuson Foundation and family. Public Information Officer, Sharice Walker, prepared a “second decade” report with the abstracts from the many students funded during that time. This is a great day to be part of the educational support team for SFOS as we approved $250,000 in fellowships.

More information on the Rasmuson/SFOS fellowships can be found at:  http://www.sfos.uaf.edu/rasmuson/index.html

I arrived in California on the 11th for two days of National Academy meetings where I chair the review process for selecting life science postdoctoral fellows. Fellows are placed in Federal research laboratories across the country after our review. Anne Beaudreau (newest FISH faculty member) and several of the Fisheries candidates for the Alaska Cooperative Fisheries Research Unit (positioned in Fairbanks) came through this same postdoctoral program.

I left Anchorage after the Rasmuson event and spent the weekend in Vancouver BC before traveling to California. I was not stopped at the Canadian border, no engines quit on the five flight legs, the hotel room and rental car were all OK, and they announced over the Alaska in-flight PA that I reached 1,000,000 air-miles on Alaska Airlines.  Twenty-three (plus) years’ worth of flying on Alaska Airlines since I first came to Fairbanks for my job interview in 1988….many miles and many stories, including several good reasons NOT to carry vinegar or other such food items in your luggage: more on those stories next time.

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Other than losing an engine at 37,000 feet…

You know that vibration in your car when you get a flat tire at high speed? The thump, thump, thump that resonates through the entire car?  When you feel that vibration in an airplane at 37,000 feet, you find yourself thinking, “There is only one thing on this plane that is spinning…the engine, and it should NOT be creating that vibration!” You look out the window to your right and see that the engine is visibly rattling around on its mount, shaking the entire plane.  You also notice that the plane is slowing considerably and that the starboard engine speed is dropping.  The vibration goes away, but you are now much lower and traveling much slower. 

I am on Delta flight 1457 from Seattle to Salt Lake City to attend the Sikuliaq science-planning meeting when the pilot announces:

 “You may have noticed some vibration from the right side of the plane (no kidding). It was coming from the engine, and we have turned the engine down to idle to stop the vibration. We are flying on one engine, but this is perfectly normal operating procedure (for an emergency!) and we are continuing on to Salt Lake City. We expect a normal flight. This plane can easily fly on one engine.  We will have more information for you as we approach the airport, but we have notified the control tower and they will have fire trucks on the runway. Again, this is normal procedure and these are routine precautions.”

 The flight attendants tell us twice to buckle in and to put everything away.

There was definitely no circling the airport or being put into a holding pattern on this approach:  straight in, a totally empty runway, and fire trucks and emergency vehicles spread out over a mile of runway. We stop in the middle of nowhere.  Vehicles, with all of their lights flashing, race up to us and examine the miscreant engine: no smoke and nothing is falling off.  After a few minutes, they leave.  The pilot says we are good to go to the gate, and then the flight attendant announces,  “Thank you for flying Delta. We are pleased to bring you to Salt Lake City…really pleased.”  

The friendly gate agent greets us as we come off the plane and lets us know that Delta is going to credit our accounts $50 because of this bother to our travel plans. 

Several SFOS faculty here at the Sikuliaq meeting say they are going to make sure they never get on the same plane with me. 

More about the Sikuliaq meeting and other recent SFOS events in my next blog, but for now, remember this story the next time you get a flat tire and the car starts vibrating.

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New Year, new students and big times for SFOS

Relative to my last posting, at least I have not been arrested at the border yet, though Alaska Airlines took my drivers license into the “backroom” for about 10 min when I was trying to fly out of Fairbanks for Christmas.  Is there something about my background that I don’t know?

Anyway, it is a new and very big year for SFOS and I will get to that in a moment.

2011 ended in a flurry with a suite of Allied Fisheries meetings with the Governor, the Rasmuson Foundation, President Gamble, UA Chancellors, Fishing industry CEO’s etc. The Alliance is picking up speed and intensity quickly with weekly meetings, forums, industry surveys, etc and President Gamble is speaking about “cold water fisheries and research, education and job training” in public arenas now. We will be producing WWW pages and more as this program continues to grow.

Good news came at the end of the year as a group of significant donations were given to us for scholarships, support of the NOSB, research and other activities in SFOS. Teresa Thompson was at the head of this effort and you should contact her for the interesting details.

Promotion and tenure files (21 this year) and a large stack of MS and PhD theses covered my desk in December, but we got them done. In fact, I have already blocked out many hours of time for November and December this coming year, so if you need to see me at 1400 hr on Tuesday, Dec 4, I will be reading files.


Welcome to our new students and to those returning for spring semester classes, which started today. This is A Big Year for SFOS and you are going to be right in the middle of it.  It is our 25th Anniversary of forming the school, the RV Sikuliaq will be launched in October and we have a newly re-organized division in Kodiak (Kodiak SeaFood and Marine Science Center).

We have committees working on special events, logos and the history of our School for our Anniversary Year and we will be letting everyone know soon about those. I am planning on activities throughout the year.

What can I say? The ship launches on Oct 13 and I can hardly believe it is actually happening, after all these years. As you might suspect, there is significant planning going on as we complete major construction, move into the launch, finish outfitting, testing and then, start science and outreach operations in just two years from now.  This project is getting so large and involved that I now say it is “creating its own weather”.

Take a look at our SFOS Home page about our re-structuring of our Kodiak operations. The Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center was formally adopted by the UA Regents in early December in the place of FITC. We are very enthusiastic about bringing Kodiak operations into closer alignment with our ongoing academic and research programs.

I had a chance to visit the Darden Group in Orlando early in the month. They are interested in supporting our crab resesarch program and I visited with their seafood buyers. This is the group that owns and operates Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Bahama Breeze, etc. In addition to talking with them about SFOS research and fisheries, I also got to meet the head chefs from several of their restaurants and their research kitchens there in Orlando. Amazing to see a research kitchen for Red Lobster. I was taking notes for next years “UAF Iron Chef” cookoff (see my blog for Oct 24, 2011).

It is a balmy -16 as I write this and much warmer than the -46 from a few days ago. Did I mention that I got back the other night to the FAI airport at -44, went out to start my car and found out that the owner of the beater car next to mine had taken the extension cord off of my car and plugged into theirs? Everyone always says “Mike..how can you be so calm in the midst of all the SFOS things going on”? You would have seen a much less calm  person that night out at the airport parking lot!

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“Is this your car, sir?”

 I should have known that crossing the border from Canada into the States was not going to go well when the Customs dog circled my car twice and then sat down near my door.

Some background: I had been finishing up a particularly intense travel schedule and was at the Marine Expo in Seattle with Teresa Thompson and Amy Voigt where we had our SFOS booth on display (that went really well by the way as we were the only University at the event and attracted considerable attention).  I took the weekend off and drove up to Vancouver in my rental car to visit my son in University. Driving back to Seattle on Sunday AM, I approached the border at the Peace Arch at about 0900. Lots of time for my 1500 hr flight from SEA back to FAI. Also,  my apologies to those with significant foreign adventures, such as faculty member Russ Andrews who was arrested by the KGB in Russia on a research cruise…ask him about it sometime.

As I was in line and not paying much attention, the Immigration Officer with the drug/bomb sniffing German shepherd dog was working its way up and down the line of cars. Came past my door, stopped for moment, but then went on. I continue in line. About 10 min later, they come back. This time the dog circles the car again, and then sits down.

Immigration:  Tap, Tap, on my window:  “Is this your car, sir?”

Me: “It’s a rental car” (Colorado license plates).

Immigration: “Where are you going, where did you come from? etc”. Standard questions.

Me: “In Seattle for work, drove up to Vancouver to see my son, home today from SEATAC”.

Immigration: “Please turn off your car, remove and hand me the keys and open the trunk”.

Me: “Do I get out with you?”

Immigration: “No sir. For all of our safety, please remain in the car.”

At this point the dog JUMPS into the trunk of the car and starts nosing around my gear. I have my computer, suitcase and my backpack, nothing unusual. This is not going well. The officer comes back

Immigration: “Thank you, here are your keys, please continue in the line.”

Naïve me to myself:  “OK, I guess that’s over…weird, but over”

Reality me: I see in the mirror that the Immigration officer is walking behind my car, holding the next car off and talking in his hand-held radio to the officer in the crossing booth. OK..correction…this is not going well.

Officer in Booth: “What’s the story?” (Honest, that was the exact quote of what he said to me)

Me: “On my way home”.

Immigration: “Where’s home, why, when, etc. “ Standard questions. Meanwhile he is writing on a large, orange sticky note that is now on my passport.

Immigration: “Please drive over there to secondary inspection, see the officer, park the car and take this and your passport inside.”

Me: Drive, park, go inside. Approach officer.

Immigration:  “Let me see your passport”. OK Mr. Castellini, please wait over there” and walks away with my passport.

Me: Waiting, waiting, waiting…..

Immigration: Two officers come up:  “Mr. Castellini? May we have your car keys?”

Me: Give them the keys and watch them go through the inside of the car. They come back inside.

Immigration:  “Here are your car keys back sir, you may leave now, be sure to give this note to the officer at the exit gate”

Me: “Can you tell me what the problem was with the car?”

Immigration: “Problem sir?  There was no problem, just a routine inspection”.

Me: To myself: I wonder what was in that car before I got it? I have crossed that border too many times to count and I KNOW that was not just a routine inspection.

I made it SEATAC just in time.

More next week as SFOS gets ready for the Holiday Break.

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