- Associated Press - Sunday, June 22, 2014

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - Next summer, there’ll be a new ship docking in Dutch Harbor and Nome on its way to the Arctic. But first, the research vessel Sikuliaq is headed to Honolulu for its inaugural research cruises.

This summer, the 261-foot oceanographic research vessel will make its way from the Great Lakes to the Pacific via the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Panama Canal, stopping for testing and research along the way. By February 2015, it is expected to arrive in its homeport of Seward.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks will operate the ship, but it is owned by the National Science Foundation, and scheduling research cruises is done in conjunction with the University National Oceanographic Laboratory System, or UNOLS, said Dan Oliver, the marine superintendent at UAF’s Seward Marine Center.

UAF took delivery of the ship June 6, almost 3 and a half years after fabrication began in January 2011.

The total project cost was $200 million, including $123 million from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (also known as the stimulus bill) for the construction contract.

Scientists will contract the ship at a cost of $44,000 per day, said UAF spokeswoman Sharice Walker. Annually, the operating costs are projected to be about $16 million, Walker said.

The first research cruises will take off from Honolulu this fall.

One is a 50-day look at the ocean floor at the western end of the Hawaiian Island chain in an effort to gauge the impacts of bottom trawling. The ship’s autonomous underwater vehicle and mapping systems will both be used to look at three areas, about 300 to 600 meters deep - one where trawling is underway, one where trawling has never occurred, and one where trawling stopped 30 to 40 years ago.

The goal is to compare the bottom, and see how the former trawling site has recovered, Oliver said.

The second will look at the geologic structure of the Hawaiian Jurassic basin, west of the Hawaiian Islands. That’s about a 30-day trip, and will end in Guam, Oliver said. The research team will use the autonomous underwater vehicle, and conduct a magnetic survey at about 5,000 to 6,000 meters deep. But first, the Sikuliaq and her crew must finish their preparations. Oliver and the ship’s 20-mariner crew and two marine technicians are readying the boat for its first voyage.

Oliver said the crew is loading the boat with spare parts, outfitting equipment, and getting the computer network installed. The crew is also undergoing training to get ready for operations.

As marine superintendent, Oliver will hop on the Sikuliaq for some transit legs to get to know the crew, but he’s primarily based out of Seward. He’s in Wisconsin now to help prepare the ship.

The Sikuliaq is expected to set sail in early July from the Marinette, Wis., shipyard where she was built. The last task before they set sail will be passing a presail inspection from the U.S. Coast Guard, Oliver said.

Then it’s off to the ocean, where the crew will test her systems in deep saltwater, including the sonar and over-the-side gear, like wenches and cranes.

“We functionally proved that they operate here in the Great Lakes, but we’re not putting out a lot of wire because it’s relatively shallow,” Oliver said.

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