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Ice Diver

Professor Emeritus Robert Wilce on going the distance for arctic seaweed.


Robert Wilce scuba dives in arctic waters in an archival photograph.

Professor Wilce (right) dives with a graduate student in 1967.

Embarking on his first Arctic field expedition in 1954, budding biologist Robert Wilce was advised only to “dress warm.” Selecting from available midcentury cold-weather gear, he bought a pair of Bean boots. When he arrived in northern Labrador, his feet were freezing. The wife in Wilce’s Inuit host family took one look at his boots and threw them away. A couple of days later, she brought him a pair of sealskin boots she’d made just for him. “You have to learn how to walk in seal boots,” he confides. “They’re slippery when wet.”

During 21 expeditions to the Arctic Circle, Wilce, who taught biology at UMass Amherst from 1959 to 1992, found sealskin-boot stalking to be a useful skill, indeed. Wilce has traveled to the highest circum­polar regions collecting algae that thrive in long darkness and subzero temperatures. (You might think of algae as the green growth on the side of your fish tank, but “algae” encompasses all seaweed, including huge, lustrous forests of kelp.)

I saw more potential with living algae than I did with fossilized plants. And it worked—it’s taken me all over the world.

—Robert Wilce

To acquire his specimens, Wilce dived through seal holes, traveled across miles of ice by dogsled, and once spent eight days in an open boat crossing ice-covered Ungava Bay in far northeastern Canada. He brought his specimens back to Amherst packed in the same Sherwin-Williams paint cans he used to transport out his food. Wilce made his last grant-funded expedition in 1994.
At 92 years old, Wilce maintains a cluttered office in Clark Hall as a professor emeritus and still publishes papers. His latest, “The Arctic Stamp,” delineates the unique traits of the Arctic marine flora that he knows like no other scientist. His next project has him so enthused that he barged into the UMass magazine office to announce it—“I’ve got a paper that’s really hot!”—beaming over debunking a genetic hypothesis about a species he discovered in northern Greenland in 1961.  “I’ve got fabulous data,” he said glowingly. 

A paratrooper in World War II, Wilce began his career in a circuitous way: “I got all shot up in the Battle of the Bulge. The military hospital—that was my wake-up call.” Prior to that, he relates, “My whole concept of life was devoid of education.” When he got out of Army hospitals, Wilce says, “I couldn’t walk, so I went to school.”

Wilce majored in zoology and then got his master’s degree studying the wood structure of maple trees. A stint at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory on Cape Cod introduced him to his lifelong passion. When Wilce had to choose between doing his doctoral work on fossils of Devonian land plants at Cornell or with “vibrant, beautiful, living algae” at the University of Michigan, his choice was clear. “I saw more potential with living algae than I did with fossilized plants. And it worked—it’s taken me all over the world.” 

In 1954, Bean boots at the ready, Wilce took his first trip to Labrador to investigate the flora: “What’s there? How does it survive? Is it different from Cape Cod flora? And how?” 

At the time, the definitive book on the subject, The Algae of the Arctic Sea, published in 1883, was actually written about algae in northern Norway—sub-Arctic. This left a wide-open field for the intrepid Wilce. “The Arctic was unknown,” he says.

Thus began a lifetime of adventurous research that would make any raconteur pale with envy. Wilce recalls, “I lived with the Eskimo in Labrador. I would live for months at a time in Greenland.” He took his family to the world’s northernmost human habitation, on Ellesmere Island. “My boys had a ball. They ate the diet of the Eskimo, and I studied algae.”

“Wherever I went, I had Inuit as guides. I had to have that. They had the boat. I had to dive. And there was always a rifle in the boat. Off northern Baffin, we had a large camp, maybe 20 scientists, and we had to move the whole camp to the mainland because of polar bear. On that expedition, we lost one man to polar bear. The polar bear wiped us out!”  

Breathtaking stories befit a critical topic. Algae are the center of the high Arctic food web, making up 90 percent of the region’s food source. Yet the dozen species endemic to the polar regions receive light sufficient to perform photosynthesis for only two months of the year. “Their photosynthetic protocol is the same” as other algal species, explains Wilce, but, like their deepwater counterparts, “they do more with less light.” Arctic algae’s distinct biomarkers make them a good indicator of climate change—species shift, seawater warming, and sea-ice loss. 

Of climate change, Wilce takes a scientist’s long-distance view. To him, although humans have accelerated the effects, a warming Arctic is nothing new. “We are seeing it now, the displacement of boreal flora to the north. Norwegian algae have moved into the Arctic,” he reports. But, he continues matter-of-factly, “Over the last million years, the ice cap has vanished at least five times. It’s happened many times and will again. Prior to now, and most of the time, the Arctic has been a boreal sea and will be again.”

Wilce is making a gift to the university of his herbarium—his personal collection of specimens. “I’m of a generation that works with whole plants. Specimens are the foundation of everything I write about.” His collection is a record of a geological epoch and of species that in the near future could be shifted out of existence. “There’s nothing like it in the world; there’s not another collection like mine,” he says—each one gathered by hand, each one with a story behind it.