Some cool clicks
Running around in her pajamas trying to catch a snapshot of a polar bear was just a routine task for Rachel Fletcher ’98. In September, Fletcher disembarked from the Healy, a cutter ship for the U.S. Coast Guard, after an Arctic Ocean expedition as a freelance photographer. Her brother-in-law, leader of the expedition, had asked her to fill the open photography position, and she insists it has changed her life.
The Healy, a 420-foot-long icebreaker designed specifically for polar research, is the most technologically advanced ship in the Coast Guard’s fleet. Reaching their destination in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska’s North Slope, the Healy’s team of scientists included marine-mammal experts, plankton experts, ocean chemists and ornithologists. Their assignment was to measure water circulation and characteristics, ice movement and density, oxygen levels and marine wildlife in an attempt to understand the nature of the Arctic climate change. They hope to use these findings to discover the root causes of the warming climate and whether it can be stopped or reversed. Fletcher’s assignment as part of the education and outreach team was to key an online journal of the findings as a way to call more attention to this growing threat. As a photographer, she was tasked with capturing the expedition on camera.
Although she loved every minute, Fletcher admits the ship wasn’t always the easiest place to live or work. “The first day was basically spent getting our bearings because the ship was so huge.” She also found it difficult to navigate the ship’s narrow stairs while carrying her equipment, “…especially if I had coffee in my hand,” she says.
Fletcher was frequently paged to the deck if something interesting happened. During one 4 a.m. call, she hurriedly grabbed her camera gear, slipped boots over her pajama bottoms, threw on a coat, and dashed up on deck, not sure what she would see. She joined other crew members who were watching a polar bear sitting on a nearby ice pack. As Fletcher snapped photos, the polar bear moved on the ice to get closer to the ship. She didn’t realize until later that the bear could have easily closed the remaining distance between them with one leap. Despite her momentary brush with danger, she still regards this experience with awe: “He was close enough to lick the boat,” she says.
Now back home in Knoxville, Tenn., she says witnessing the polar bears’ struggle to find food due to a lack of ice in the Arctic really struck a chord. “A few times we couldn’t even find the ice because it was further away from shore than usual,” she says. Receiving daily briefings from the team of scientists also increased her interest in the threat of the warming Arctic climate. “It just made me think that I’m really not as cool as I think I am,” she says.
by Trisha Wheatley ’11
The complete article appeared in winter 2010-11 issue of Millikin Quarterly magazine.