This is the journal I wrote to capture highlights from my trip to the Arctic. It notes wildlife, remarks on the environment, and includes tidbits about life on a Russian icebreaker. I include interesting (to me) facts about sea ice versus glacier ice, the job of an ice tooth, and the reason for “nuisance tides.” Since this was an expedition led by experts in environment, climate and politics, it includes a little bit on those topics too.
North Pole Adventure – Day 7
We head south toward Franz Josef Land to make one more try for zodiac landings. Time to investigate this icebreaker. Russia owns more than half of all icebreakers ever built, so it’s nice to learn from experts. The 50 Years of Victory first launched in ‘93 and went into service in ‘07. It has 12 decks, 4 below water. It’s almost 160 m (525 ft) long with a draft of 11 m (36 ft). Like all icebreakers, the bridge and most of the ship’s weight is toward the bow to increase its ice-breaking force up front. Its steel hull is more than 2 in thick at the bow and about an inch elsewhere, but the reinforced prow is more than 18 in thick. The entire inner hull is reinforced with steel ribs spaced about a foot apart. To lessen friction with ice, it has a “spoon-shaped” bow and uses high-powered pumps that blast a stream of air bubbles into the water. The ship is designed so that ballast water can be quickly moved to shift the weight.
The ship’s power and the cabins’ hot water comes from two nuclear reactors. Each uses 245 enriched uranium fuel rods and together they feed 6 generators. Colin showed us radioactivity readings he took at every part of the ship. The numbers tell us that exposure to radioactivity is no more than that on an airplane flight. As in U.S. reactors, steel, concrete and water keep the radioactivity from escaping.
Spare propeller blades sit all over the bow deck. Each one weighs almost 8 tons. This ship has three propellers. If something goes wrong with a propeller, a diver is lowered through a hatch into the icy waters to look for the problem.
Finland joins Russia as a leader in icebreaker technology. Finland recently developed the Azipod. This propeller unit rotates 360⁰ and allows an icebreaker to break ice going forward, backward or in any direction to the side. The 50 Years can break ice going only forward and backward. In the Arctic, icebreakers serve primarily to escort cargo and tankers. A much smaller percentage is used in research. Cargo travels either through the NW Passage from Europe to the Bering Sea and the Pacific, or the NE Passage. This passage has historically been defined as the 8,452 miles from Yokohama to Rotterdam. As the ice melts, the NE Passage is attracting more cargo, fishing, and oil & gas exploration. Unlike protected Antarctica, most of the Arctic is open to commerce. Today, the Chief Engineer gives us a tour of the ship’s engine rooms and the water desalination plant.
By evening, approaching 82⁰N we start seeing birds and bears again. Fran Ulmer gives a presentation on the politics of preserving the Arctic ecosystem. Convincing people of how fast the planet is changing, and oceans rising, can be the biggest hurdle that climate scientists face. Some Pacific islands are starting to disappear. Coastal communities confront higher sea levels and “nuisance tides,” which are unusually high tides that repeatedly cause floods. They damage homes, businesses, and agricultural fields and contaminate freshwater habitats with salt water. Later, Fran and I silently watch the path of broken ice left behind by the 50 Years. I have had mixed feelings about taking this cruise into sensitive habitats. As we view the ice I sense that Fran also feels the same. We are not doing the ecosystem any favors by plowing through it.
But the people of the North Pole Summit are diligent in teaching how all parts of the world are connected and affect each other. For example, pollutants from China have been recovered in Antarctic ice. After this trip, Fran heads to Hawaii to talk about how its environment relates to the Arctic. It feels like a losing battle, especially with the many climate change doubters who exist, but education is vital for saving places like this. And education is still very powerful.
North Pole Adventure – Day 8
At 6:50 AM a bear approaches starboard. Even from a distance we see ribs, spine, hips and shoulder blades. It crosses in front of the bow. Closer, we notice scars on his muzzle, maybe from a fight over food. Nikita says this one has reached Stage 1; a downward spiral in which it lacks enough strength to hunt. It will not survive the winter. This puts a chilling effect on what might be in store for the rest of the day.
More than once on this trip, Colin played for us the NOAA video that shows the changes in the Arctic’s sea ice since 1990. Thick (several meters) multi-year ice is virtually gone. Only thinner (1 to 2 m) yearly ice, which melts every summer, now makes up the ice cover. This video shows clearly why polar bears are dangerously threatened by habitat loss.
The health of the bears around Franz Josef Land is OK, not great. An expedition member tells me conditions worsen at Svalbard to the west. Arctic cruises now bypass Svalbard to keep the bears out of tourists’ sight. But ignorance doesn’t seem to me the best way to stop environmental disaster. I post a picture of this morning’s bear because I think it’s important to see.
By 10 AM we reach 81⁰52N and see more bears. They look healthy! Some pause near the ship, others glance and continue hunting. I could spend hours watching a polar bear hunt. But it’s a slow process that calls for more patience and time than the ship has. The bears sniff for signs of seals along the ice edge. Sometimes they plop belly down along the edge and stare at a breathing hole. It could take hours for a meal to pop its nose out of the water. I like all animals, but seeing what these bears confront I have never wished so hard for a seal to be caught. At 4 PM the ship stops. A large seal has just been caught off the starboard side and two big bears are feeding. Two smaller ones wait nearby and do their best to show respect. One sits with his head lowered while he watches the feast out of the side of his eye. The other stays farther away and flat on his belly. He stays down so long I start to wonder if he’s OK. But after the dominant bears have had their fill and flop in the snow, the submissive two step forward for leftovers. A few snarls here and there but in the end, all four have eaten well. In the Arctic, it’s always a good sign to see a polar bear with a red head. The blood and gore mean the bear has just benefited from a big kill.
Day 8 also brings good walrus-spotting. We pass several small groups of adults lounging on ice floes. They’re massive, make quite a mess on the pristine ice, but also show a lot of gregarious behavior. Friends lay side-by-side. Some clean their buddy’s tusks. Walrus populations were threatened from decades of hunting for tusks, hide, blubber and meat. But their numbers are much healthier now. About 225,000 walruses exist worldwide. This Atlantic population is fully protected by environmental laws.
Polar bear numbers are much harder to confirm because their populations are closely tied to climate change and this is a political subject as well as a scientific one. Trophy hunters increase the estimates; conservationists reduce them. Our polar bear expert, Nikita, estimates 16,000-20,000 worldwide. This is lower than “official” estimates that are inflated by the polar bear trade. Trophy hunters come from all over the world, mainly to Canada, which allows hunting even on regional populations known to be in decline. China has the largest demand for polar bear hides and organs. About 1,000 bears are killed each year or 5 to 6.5% of the total population; the “official” rate is 4%. The many bears seen on land around Churchill and other spots in northern Canada does not mean bear populations are healthy; it means more and more bears are being “stranded” on land and off the ice.
Today, a lucky few on deck catch a glimpse of 4 narwhals. These strange animals are so elusive Arctic researchers have spent years just to get their first look at one. I usually don’t mind missing a secretive animal. I’m happy to know it’s in its habitat and has managed to stay private from people, including me. It’s good to know there are narwhals living undisturbed in the Arctic while nearer the equator humans busy themselves with email, bills, and commutes.
We arrive at Cape Fligely on Rudolph Island, Eurasia’s northernmost point. Surprisingly, I hear no jokes about Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. We certainly had made plenty of Santa remarks at the Pole. I spot a few ducks called Common Eiders. At 9 PM we helicopter over Collinson Fjord. Beautiful. The evening ends with an auction to raise money for Polar Bear International and Sea Legacy. During the auction, I realize how badly I had misunderstood the motivations of the Chinese passengers. I wasn’t convinced they had been paying attention to the important messages. It turns out their bids are generous and plentiful and they make it clear they are very concerned about our environment and serious about helping it. The auction raises more than $100,000.
North Pole Adventure – Day 9
Last night before the auction I made a quick trip to the quiet bridge. I soon heard a “Psssst.” A junior officer waved me into the chart room. In broken English he did his best to sell me a specially autographed chart showing this trip’s route. He said I could buy it now for $600 before it goes to auction. He and two other sailors lurking nearby would split the proceeds. Just then, the captain arrived on the bridge and my confidante whisked the map out of sight and started explaining to me the finer points of steering a ship. After the captain disappeared, I declined the offer and handed him one of my lucky U.S. Navy challenge coins. He’ll probably get a few rubles for it. Later at auction, the chart appears. Obviously, my friend had found another passenger willing to buy it and then donate it. It brings in $2,100.
At 9:15 AM the rangers give us the OK to take zodiacs to Champ Island. This place is a geographer’s dream. The rocky land is filled with 200-million-year-old circular stone balls called Devil’s Marbles. They range from 8 ft diameter to half-inch. But collectors have grabbed most of the small ones. The smallest I find is about the size of a tangerine. The rule of the Arctic and Antarctic is to leave undisturbed all souvenirs – rocks, pebbles, eggs, feathers, driftwood. I put down the rock.
Fabrice waves me over to a spot where he’s protecting an Arctic Skua nesting colony while keeping an eye out for bears. Earlier in the day, renowned undersea photographer Paul Nicklen had shared his adventure of diving in Antarctica with leopard seals, and he is famous for once staring into the maw of a massive female seal who could have snapped his head off with one bite. Leopard seals are notorious as Antarctica’s fiercest predators. They kill their prey by shaking it so violently that the victim’s body turns inside-out. But Paul stood his ground and before long the two had developed a bond and the seal repeatedly brought freshly-killed penguins to him as a kind of peace offering. It takes a special bravery to go face-to-face with a leopard seal. I step toward the skua colony and one bird swoops past Fabrice and flaps three feet above my head to chase me away from her nest. I run like I’m fleeing a burning building.
We close the day with an evening landing at a Russian WWII weather station at Tikhaya Bukta on Hooker Island. In between exploring the small colony of structures, some inhabited by the park service, I check out the Little Auk colony on the cliffs and look for one of my target birds, the Snow Bunting. This is a beautiful little bird that is one of the northernmost breeding songbirds. It nests in some of the island’s abandoned buildings. The bunting’s white-rusty-black coloring makes it hard to spot in snow, on mud, and among lichen-covered rocks. The winds are whipping today and the birds stay hidden. I suspect they’re laughing at me from behind the rocks. We head back to ship for dinner and by 9:30 are pointed toward the Barents Sea.
Leaving bear country. On this trip, we spotted a total of 32 bears. I include here a stock photo of a Snow Bunting and a snap of the vicious Skua taken by one of the rangers a few minutes after my encounter with it.
North Pole Adventure – Day 10
Day 10; no land in sight yet. Calm sea. A few ships on the horizon remind us we’re entering a region of high ship traffic. After lunch, the mood in the lounge is quiet. Some are playing cards, others reading or writing postcards. I’m the only one with binoculars and I spot up ahead what looks like an overturned boat. But the shape isn’t right. Closer in, I see grooves in the black surface. Then a white tail waves up toward the surface every few seconds. It’s a dead humpback whale, about 30 feet long. The ship stops, then circles it as Paul Nicklen and photographer Christina Mittermeier of Sea Legacy photograph it. A whale, probably fatally injured in a collision with a ship, tells its own story. We bob next to it for a long time. Almost everyone is on deck and silent.
A new bird makes a pleasant appearance off the stern. It’s a Long-tailed Jaeger. This is another bird in a group called skuas. Skuas steal food right from the mouths of other birds. Sometimes they harass so much, the beleaguered bird upchucks its meal and flees. The skua then enjoys the cast-off meal. It’s gross, but I was still happy to add it to my life list.
No one can ignore this trip’s convergence of tourism, environment and politics. Language and cultural habits created minor barriers between us at dinner and other times. But by the trip’s end, it becomes clear that all the passengers completely agree with the rest of the world in their disappointment with the U.S. for pulling out of the Paris Accord. The Arctic is a stunning and peaceful place. But no one should expect an Arctic trip to provide any type of escape. Rather, the Arctic highlights our current environmental threats because we see the results right before our eyes.
Captain’s cocktails in the evening and then a farewell dinner, topped off with Baked Alaska. The ship waits outside Murmansk’s port for tomorrow’s disembarkation.
North Pole Adventure – Day 11
Early breakfast at 5 and cabins start emptying at 6. By 6:30 we’re sitting in an idling bus, waiting to pass through two concertina-topped metal gates to exit the property of the Russian Navy. We stop for a tour of the retired icebreaker Lenin, the world’s first nuclear-powered surface ship. It feels a little haunted but remains stately. It’s fitted with polished wood and brass, a spectacular staircase, carved wooden murals, and an all-walnut grand piano. The Sochi Games’ Olympic flame sits in plexiglass in the pool table lounge. Then we head for the airport. Stamp, stamp, stamp, stamp and stamp. All good. Clear Russian airspace and return to Helsinki.
Nature trips never get all the wildlife a person hopes to see. I missed seeing a gyrfalcon, a raptor of the Arctic. I had also hoped for Snowy Owls until Fabrice broke it to me that they don’t live in this part of the Arctic. And I spent a cold, windy & rainy afternoon looking for Snow Buntings with no luck. I was encouraged by some things on this trip and disappointed by other things. It wasn’t 100%, but almost every passenger seemed to show a genuine commitment to doing something for the environment or specifically for the Arctic on their return home.
Not as encouraging was the condition of the polar bears and the ice. They’re in bigger trouble than politicians or people with economic motives will admit. Polar bears are an indicator species, meaning their health is a direct reflection of their habitat’s health. Luckily for polar bears, they look cuddly and entertain us. I mentioned in my groundbreaking book Biodiversity that these “flagship species” get more attention than other less adorable animals. It’s called the Mother Goose Syndrome. (And by “groundbreaking” I mean it’s the perfect size and shape for loosening garden soil.) People prefer saving cute or charismatic animals more than slithery, ugly or poisonous ones. I hope this trick will help the polar bears, and soon.
Finally, I was disappointed to see that on a boat full of environmentally conscious people, no one mentioned the root cause of environmental disaster: overpopulation. Just in my lifetime, the population has more than doubled. I can feel it. You can feel it too on highways, at theme parks, or in a day at Yosemite. We are crowding out other species and decimating their habitat. Very few people, and fewer politicians, seem brave enough to state this fact long and loud.
Tomorrow I fly home. But now in Helsinki, it’s still light at 10 PM. Perfect! I forgo sleep and head to the nearest park with my binoculars. There’s always another bird around the corner.