Archive for February 12th, 2007


When I was fresh out of college I landed a job working at the Institute of Marine Science on the campus of the Unviersity of Alaska.  I worked in the Hydrocarbon Lab as an organic chemistry laboratory technician.   My duties included the care and feeding of our solvent stills: hexane, methanol, benzene, water and acetone.  It turned out I had a knack for plumbing and the gas chromatographs seemed to like me, so I was also in charge of maintaining those machines and in creating standards to run so they could be calibrated correctly.

Our main job at the time was to create a base line of the hydrocarbons present in the marine environment of the Gulf of Alaska.  This was considered important information.  The brand new Alaska Pipeline had not been finished yet.   Consequently, crude oil was not being shipped through the Gulf of Alaska and there had not been any oil spills.   Pretty much everybody figured that inevitably there probably would be a spill (there was),and in order to know what the effect of one had been once it occurred, it would be important to know the status quo beforehand.

Our lab went out on sample collecting expeditions regularly.   Sometimes we went out on a NOAA ship, sometimes we utilized the oceanographic research vessel owned by the University of Alaska, a converted fishing boat called the MV Acona.   Getting to go to sea and collect samples was premium duty, and our boss was very fair about it.   Everybody got to go at one time or another.

On one such trip, we were hot on the trail of natural oil seeps.  It turns out that there is a fairly large amount of oil that seeps in the ocean on a daily basis.  Most of those seeps occur deep below the surface on the continental shelf, but some of them exist along the coast as well.  There was some anecdotal evidence that one such seep existed in Oil Bay, and so that was a place we were scheduled to visit.

The Acona pulled into the bay and anchored out where there was enough water to float her.  Oil Bay happens to be one of those harbors that has a very wide and shallow mud flat, our captain was not anxious to find himself aground.  Four scientists and a crew person loaded up into the Boston Whaler and motored in to shore.   We all hopped off the boat and helped the crew person seat the anchor quite a ways up on shore.  This was done so that when the tide turned the boat would not float off and leave us.

Then we all picked up the sampling equipment and hiked up over the bluff along the shore to the little creek where fishermen and hunters had reported seeing slicks in the water.  You have to actually sample such slicks in the laboratory.  As you may or may not be aware, oil forms when thick peaty vegetation is buried deep under tons of sediment and is changed by the experience.  Thick peaty vegetation by intself is quite capable of making a slick appear when it begins to break down at the surface.  The only way to tell whether a slick on water is petroleum or vegetative in origin is to run it through a chromatograph.

It took quite a while to tote the stuff we needed for our sampling up and over the hill.  Then, once we found the stream, we had trouble finding anything that looked even remotely slick like.  Finally, after a certain amound of trudging around, we found a spot that had some sheen on the water, and did our collection.   We admired the views, and then headed off back to the boat.

Alas, when we returned to shore we found that rather than coming in, the tide had unexpectedly ebbed.  Our boat was resting in the middle of a large expanse of mud, tilted coyly to one side, resting on her keel.  It was right around a quarter of a mile to the “edge” of the sea at that point in time, and if we had been in a Zodiac raft, we might have been able to horse it out to the water.  The boat we were using that day was far too heavy for that sort of nonsense.  The crew person looked annoyed, to say the least, but immediately got on the radio and apprised the master of the Acona of our situation.

We were highly entertained by the passionate recriminations that were bandied back and forth over the airwaves for a few minutes.   No one could believe that the tide tables had been mis-read so severely.  Not only was the situation extremely embarrassing, having to wait for the tide to come back in was going to put us severely off schedule for our next sampling station.  And we folks stranded ashore were going to miss lunch.

Nothing for it, we were stuck on the beach for at least 5 more hours, when high tide would occur.  Everybody was “pretty sure” that the high tide would be high enough to float our boat.  If it wasn’t, then the one twelve hours after that one would definitely provide enough water.   We were instructed to go find something to do during the interim and be back at the boat in four hours.  It was suggested that we might want to do a little asking for divine intervention so we wouldn’t have to spend a chilly, hungry night on shore.

I went beach combing, and while I was stomping around the beach in my rubber boots and life jacket, one of my comrades shot the picture of me you see at the head of this post.  I was extremely lucky.  In addition to a few clam shells and dessicated star fish, I discovered a small treasure tucked away under one of those big driftwood piles you see in the picture.  I found a beautiful antique glass net ball, lost years ago by a fishing boat, and waiting for my sharp eye to detect it shining amidst the flotsam and jetsam.

I still have it.  When I hold it in my hand and look into its blue interior, it takes me back to those days of adventure and exploration.

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