M/V Qualifier gears up for research projects in a warming Arctic
• New 105-foot research vessel readies for remote work this summer
By Naomi Klouda
A new research vessel home-ported in Homer adds to a specialized fleet increasingly in demand as melting Arctic ice opens new possibilities for research along Alaska’s coast.
David Mastolier, co-owner of the M/V Qualifier 105, recently brought his vessel north after purchasing it in California. It’s a 105-foot vessel made for heavy sea conditions and rugged contract work for everything from supporting under-sea gold mining prospects to scientific work.
HOMER TRIBUNE/Naomi Klouda David and Bonnie Mastolier stand on the bow of their 105-foot research vessel – for hire. A busy season lies ahead in remote work off the Alaska coast.
“It took two weeks to make the trip. We saw how she operated in rough seas – and she did great even when we encountered 25-foot seas,” Mastolier said. The wide 30-foot beam makes for steady going. Another feature that will make the vessel useful for a variety of work is its shallow draft. It can go in areas as low as six-feet of water, its maneuverability matched to a foreward and side-scanning sonar system.
The M/V Qualifier carries a history of working 4,000 miles out to sea. Its bow is trimmed in teak, still bearing the groves where the deep sea fishing rods once went. It was built in 1970 at San Diego by Rohr Marines, a company that previously built aircraft.
“No other boats were made like it. Everyone I spoke to said its one of the best riding boats, but nobody knows why the design isn’t used to make more boats,” Mastolier said.
From its port in San Diego, Calif., its primary role was deep sea fishing excursions for large groups. It also took on researchers working on whale studies and other environmental research. The vessel is made for long-range, remote work and self-sufficiency out to sea. Alaska’s remote work means ships need to have large carrying capacity for fuel and food since places to resupply are far and few between, he said.
When Mastolier and his partner, Jared Bradshaw purchased the vessel, they spent two months in California making modifications. One major factor was in order to get it ready for the north, the air conditioners had to go and heaters needed to be installed.
There are many special features onboard: large storage spaces, 14 berths, three showers and every berth has a television installed. A large galley with stainless steel counters and deep refrigerator spaces allows for stocking up. The ship also has a water conversion system to purify sea water for drinking, which makes for an endless supply for use aboard. Crews will also be able to do laundry far out to sea.
In Alaska, Mastolier and Bradshaw have a busy season ahead in the Aleutians, Norton Sound and Arctic assignments.
“There is a lot of work being done: gold mining off Nome, cable laying, studies by NOAA on sea lions, whales, walruses,” Mastolier said. He has led research teams the previous three years, but not with this large of a vessel and its 27 by 24-foot aft deck. Large deck space gives more options for bringing aboard samples and hauling equipment. He is making accommodations on deck for an enclosed lab.
The summer’s work involves traveling between several uninhabited Aleutian Islands where World War II equipment still needs to be cleaned up. Environmental cleanup crews will work from aboard the M/V Qualifier. The ship will function as a housing vessel for the clean-up crews and transporting soil samples from remote sites.
This summer off Nome, Mastolier will take part in support for a diamond company as scientists analyze underwater formations and underwater rivers off Nome. The company is interested in finding gold, Mastolier said. “The water used to be a lot further out, so now there are river beds covered in sea water. They follow the old river channels looking for low points in those river beds where the gold gathers,” he said.
It’s interesting work and there’s always new information to learn from the work crews. Mastolier and Bradshaw own Support Vessels of Alaska, which in the past contracted out vessels to provide support for government and private charters. They’ve carried crews for oil and mining exploration, environmental cleanup, oceanographic research, remote island research, marine mammal research, site hazard surveys, gear transport and remote lodging.
In the past, getting north along the Arctic coast meant quick and careful timing. A vessel might be slogging through ice bergs in July, which can still happen today. But generally, climate change means the season carries a longer window – June to September, Mastolier said.
“We’re able to go anywhere for a long range. It’s not to the point where there’s winter work along the coasts, but there’s a great deal of demand for work in this time of a warming Arctic,” he said.
Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins said a number of vessels are contracted out for science or seismic work from Homer, about 10 or more.
“Things are picking up in that field with the expanded efforts in the (Cook) Inlet for exploration. There’s more work. Apache had six boats from Homer working last summer,” Hawkins said. “They’re also going into the Arctic and down into Southeast Alaska. There is a lot of oil related charter work going on. Then there’s science, bird habitat and annual contracts with the Coast Guard for the repeater sites to keep the VHF working.”