POLAR SEA was commissioned in 1977, and has operated in the Arctic Ocean since 1979. The ship was first involved in a series of pioneering polar marine transportation studies off Alaska, and then conducted interdisciplinary science off the northeast coast of Greenland. During a science expedition, POLAR SEA and the Canadian Coast Guard Ship LOUIS S. ST-LAURENT made the first Pacific to Atlantic crossing of the Arctic Ocean; navigating through 2300 miles of Arctic ice. The expedition greatly contributed to knowledge of previously unexplored areas of the Arctic Ocean and the role the polar ocean plays in global environmental change.
On February 5, 1994 POLAR SEA reached 78-29.9' South latitude, the southernmost point in Antarctica navigable by ship. On August 22 of the same year she was the first American surface ship to reach the North Pole. POLAR SEA has sailed all seven seas, crossed the Arctic Ocean, circumnavigated Antarctica, and visited ports in twenty-four foreign countries. As of spring 2010, POLAR SEA has made eighteen voyages to the Antarctic and twenty-two voyages to the Arctic. POLAR SEA has been awarded five Coast Guard Unit Commendations, five Coast Guard Meritorious Unit Commendations, the Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation, and the Canadian Coast Guard Commissioner's Commendation.