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 1
Finnair Flight 7605; Helsinki to Murmansk. Helsinki in summer was all fluffy clouds and blue water surrounding flowering islands. Murmansk today is gray, steely, and made of muscle. One thing they share: with long, long winters they must pack Spring, Summer and early Fall into a couple months.
The plane lands above the Arctic Circle in Murmansk. Everyone piles out and onto a shuttle bus. Drive 40 yards. Everyone piles out of the shuttle bus and into Passport Control. The passport officers at a Russian airport are all you imagine. Several minutes of the green-uniformed officer scrutinizing my photo, a little sweat forms on the brow, and then the best sound ever: stamp, stamp, stamp, stamp and stamp. Papers accepted.
A different bus takes us for a quick tour of the seaport town, home of the globe’s northernmost McDonald’s restaurant. All monuments we see are related to Russian military history, mainly the victory over the Nazis in WWII. The ship we will take to the North Pole is named for this pivotal point in history. I’m surprised to learn that only Stalingrad received more Luftwaffe bombs than Murmansk. The statue at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is – our guide tells us more than once – taller than the Statue of Liberty. After lunch at a local hotel, we arrive at our ship parked right next to Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov. No pictures allowed.
North Pole Adventure – Day 2
The 50 Years of Victory is the world’s largest, most powerful nuclear-powered icebreaker (until the new Russian Arktika begins full operations). Russia’s icebreaker fleet of almost 50 ships dwarfs the totals of any other nation. In second place comes Finland and Sweden with 7 icebreakers each. The U.S. has two, but only one is on active duty.
By evening the 50 Years leaves the Rosta River and enters the Barents Sea. The crew has kindly given up their rooms for the 120 or so passengers. For the trip, they’ll bunk two to a cabin on the lower decks. Onboard, we get our own time zone. Passenger Time is 2 hours behind Crew Time so the kitchen can handle all the cooking and serving without trouble. Two nuclear reactors are amidships and produce 75,000 horsepower with enough fuel for 6 years. There will be no choking on oil fumes on this trip. At sea we begin cruising at 18 knots.
Murmansk is above the Arctic Circle at about 70⁰ North; 1,260 miles from the North Pole. Northern Russia, Greenland, and Canada’s Northern Territories are the Low Arctic where some plant life survives on the tundra. But the plants and trees are stunted in the short growing seasons and by permafrost that stops the roots. Overnight, we will enter the High Arctic where very little plant life occurs; only tiny flowering plants, mosses and lichens.
As a birder, my goal on this trip is to focus on seabirds and the few birds we might see on land. The evening presentation is by the expedition team’s ornithologist, Fabrice Genevois. All bird names sound great with a French accent. Only two birds can survive year-round above the Circle: the Ivory Gull and the Black Guillemot. (I include stock photos from the Internet so you can see what I’m talking about.) The guillemot dives about 150 feet deep to catch fish. Like most seabirds, it’s black and white. Though this bird is almost all black, many other seabirds are black on top and white the on bottom. This camouflages them from above and below when resting on the waves. The Ivory Gull searches over the ice packs for food. It mainly takes advantage of seal carcasses left by polar bears. If lucky, I’ll probably see only about 10 bird species on this trip, but that would be most of the ones that come into the Arctic in the summer.
My daily routine begins. Out of the cabin and to breakfast. Bundle up and head out on deck with binoculars and bird book. Then head toward the bridge for spotting wildlife from up high. On deck near the bridge, Frances Ulmer, Chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, snaps my picture in front of a fogbow. Calm seas.
North Pole Adventure – Day 3
9 am; at sea; 79⁰55 N and 50⁰08 S. Within sight of Franz Josef Land, now part of the Russian Arctic National Park. It was once the place exhausted explorers tried for when they couldn’t reach the N Pole. The islands of this archipelago used to be connected by ice year-round, but now we see open water.
The expedition leaders planned a zodiac landing at Cape Flora this morning but rough seas got in the way. The 50 Years had also planned on bringing supplies to the park rangers stationed there, but they’ll now have to wait for the next Russian ship to help them. Each of the trip’s expedition members is expert in a different field: geology, history, bears, birds, ice. Today’s presentations are on polar bears and sea ice. Neither are healthy. Both may be gone in about 30 years if global warming continues its current pace. Even from the deck, it is easy to see how observant and smart polar bears are. Families are strong; cubs stay with their mothers for 3 years. Because food is scarce, bears have developed a cooperative social structure. They’re willing to share meals if an interloper asks politely and shows deference to the dominant one. They prey on bearded seal and ringed seal, whale carcasses, and an occasional walrus. All these animals rely on a large ice platform for hunting. As the ice disappears polar bears look for food on land – whatever they can find – including walruses that have hauled out. But walruses are very hard to conquer. Only the largest, strongest bears can outwrestle a walrus, do damage to its thick skin, and avoid the two tusks that on males can be 2 feet long. In walrus-bear skirmishes, the bear usually loses. On land, most bears must survive on plants, berries, and lemmings.
About 540 miles from the Pole this afternoon. We spend time offshore at Rubini Rock. It’s loaded with Kittiwakes and Little Auks. Kittiwakes look like gulls; Little Auks look like flying black & white footballs. The Kittiwakes nest on ledges of no more than 5 inches on the vertical charcoal gray cliffs. Tufts of green plant life poke up here and there. Today also brings our first polar bear sightings. The ship slowed to let us watch three bears finish the last of a large seal carcass – only a rib cage contrasts against the white. Glaucous Gulls and Ivory Gulls swoop in to claim scraps. The pure-white Ivory Gulls all but disappear into the snow when they land. You need a sharp eye to spot them by finding their black legs. Arctic foxes sometimes show up on the pack ice too, but none appear today. These bears are well-fed, but a few minutes earlier we had spotted a lone underweight bear. Our trip’s bear researcher, Nikita Ovsyanikov, classified it as Stage 2; hungry but not starving, yet dangerously in need of a meal.
Along with scattered pack ice (sea ice) this morning we start spotting small icebergs (glacier ice). Sea ice differs from glacier ice in a way directly threatened by climate change. Icebergs are from glaciers and glaciers are freshwater, which freezes at 32⁰F (0 ⁰C). Sea ice is frozen salt water. The salt in the water lowers the freezing temperature to 28.75⁰F (-1.8⁰C). The rising average global temperatures now affect sea ice even more than glacier ice.
The arctic animals rely on two types of sea ice: (1) fast ice, which is thick ice attached directly to land, like the ice around Greenland, and (2) pack ice, which floats on the water and drifts with currents. The currents from the Bering Strait feed the Arctic Ocean. The waters then swirl clockwise in an area called the Beaufort Gyre. The ice from glaciers remains in the current for an average of 3 years before floating south into the Norwegian Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, making ships like the Titanic famous. As night approaches, the icebergs we spot become bigger and more frequent. 10:30 pm, 81⁰44 N. We head into the pack ice. But first, we stop to watch a polar bear right off the bow (see arrow).
North Pole Adventure – Day 4
With 24/7 sunlight, a walk around deck at 3 AM seems perfectly normal. All night the ship rumbles through ice at least a meter thick. It feels a little like riding the LIR from Queens to Penn Station. The shape of the bow on Russia’s state-of-the-art icebreakers allows the ship to ride up onto the ice and then lets the ship’s weight break it. If the weight alone can’t cleave thicker slabs, the ship continues going over the ice to push it under the bow. A sharp flange called an ice tooth juts out from the hull and this structure cuts the toughest ice as the ship moves forward. We always know when this happens by hearing a loud bang with a jolt. Even so, the Arctic Ocean at this time of year is calm under the pack ice. At breakfast we’re at 83⁰42 N.
At 380 miles to the Pole, personalities emerge. Most passengers clearly have a strong connection to the environment and are anxious about its fragile condition. The expedition includes invited experts to speak about the science and politics of climate change. Collectively, this special group is called the North Pole Summit. It’s not hard to figure out the politics of almost every passenger. Most are environmentalists, but not all. A few hang out in the bar more often than they glance outside. One guy watches movies all day on his laptop. North Americans are the minority. The largest group is from China and the next largest is from Europe. With climate the trip’s main theme, it’s impossible to avoid politics. Without even saying it out loud, there is understanding that “the rest of the world” will now lead the way in climate and environment programs. The Chinese and the non-Chinese passengers don’t mingle much. They each have different ways of being and the cultural and language barriers make it hard to connect. Tensions build up a little. But overall, all passengers, the expedition team and Summit members have a good comradery. No one here believes climate change is a hoax.
The doctor has had no duties until today. A guy from Los Angeles in the cabin two doors from ours broke his wrist in the volleyball tournament. In addition to the all-purpose sports court, the ship has a couple of saunas, a cardio gym, and the weirdest little swimming pool. When the ship breaks through pack ice, the pool water vibrates and the whole place rumbles. The pool is painted a deep blue and the combination of below deck rumblings, vibrations, and echoes make it all a bit claustrophobic.
My Arctic bird list now includes Black-legged Kittiwake, Northern Fulmar, Arctic Skua, Brunnich’s Guillemot, Black Guillemot, Little Auk, Glaucous Gull and Ivory Gull. I add these to two other birds from my day in Murmansk: Eurasian Black-billed Magpie and Eurasian Bullfinch. I spend every free minute learning about Arctic birds from Fabrice. (The green arrow shows my spot on the bridge.) He spends every spare minute on the bridge with his eyes glued to the windows. He’s almost always first to spot wildlife on the ice or in the air.
Today’s lectures are on climate and sea levels by Maureen Raymo of Columbia University and the history of North Pole exploration by Hadleigh Measham. Top of their fields. Before this trip I read a few books on the first polar expeditions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The stories repeat. First, the ship gets stuck in the ice and the crew endures one, two or even three winters. Second, the ice crushes the ship to smithereens. Crew scrambles off with whatever they can haul and sets off across the ice to find land. Next, starvation and exhaustion set in. The sled dogs invariably end up as someone’s dinner. Men collapse. Men disappear. One or two survivors manage to crawl out of their situation and make it home. Tonight in the dining room we’ll be having caviar and beef stroganoff.
This afternoon we take a helicopter flight over the ice in a Russian MI-2 from the aft deck. After dinner, it’s “Karaoke Night at 80 Degrees North” – in the bar. Is there any other place to hold a Karaoke Night? I use the time wisely and stay outside searching the skies. But by evening, it’s been 24 hours without seeing any more birds this far from land; the last were the gulls at yesterday’s kill site.
This post is part 1 of a 3-part series. To continue reading, please visit Part 2.