Wednesday, August 13, 2014

It’s An Adventure, Stupid - Not A Cruise


Map picture

When I awoke yesterday morning and looked outside, the ship was surrounded on all sides by icebergs; some many times larger than our ship. We were carefully picking our way through the ice covered waters, but that was complicated by the patches of fog, sometimes severely reducing visibility.


It has just been announced that a Humpback Whale is just starboard of the ship, and we are turning to approach ----- I’ll be back soon. “It is an adventure!” as I said.

What an incredible experience. The Captain maneuvered the vessel close to the whale and then shadowed it for some time. At one point, the whale was jumping completely out of the water to feed, and the Captain stopped the ship. We drifted in silence completely enthralled by the spectacle. Eventually the giant whale rolled on its back, and for the longest time beat its giant flippers against the water; each time producing a loud thunderous “smacking” sound. The sound of clicking cameras was likewise somewhat thunderous as everyone, and I mean everyone, was outside snapping away. Having just now come back to the room, I simply could not wait to take a peek at my pictures, and “hallelujah,” after all these years; I finally got my picture of a broaching whale! In fact, I got quite a few and I am so happy--I could – smile!


So back to my narrative: we planned to go into Ilulissat in the morning and have a walking tour. Then in the afternoon, local boats were going to take us on a two hour cruise among the icebergs. Nature, however, had other plans. Eventually, the fog cleared where we were located, but it never cleared in the small town – not even enough that the local boats could come out to our ship. So in a creative “tour de ’force,” our Captain used the Explorer itself to give us a wonderful tour of the ice in the morning, and in the afternoon, they lowered the zodiacs (the small motorized rafts) and we got to ride in them among the giant icebergs. What a thrill!

I need to provide a little more in the way of explanation about the icebergs and why Ilulissat is important. This community, which is the third largest in Greenland, is immediately adjacent to the most active glacier in the northern hemisphere. Greenland is one giant ice cap. In fact 81% of Greenland is covered by this massive body of ice. As new snow is continually added to the top of the glacier, the pressure slowly forces the ice sheet to spread outwards. It is somewhat similar to the way in which the lava flows from a volcano. In some cases, these ice flows reach the ocean and when that happens, the ice being pushed forward eventually breaks off in big chunks and falls into the water; there to find its balance point and float away as what we call an iceberg. The glacier next to the town of Ilulissat is called the Jakoshavn Icefjord. This glacier alone produces nearly 20 million tons of ice each and every day; and as such it is known as the “birthplace of icebergs.” Historians are almost certain in fact that the iceberg which was hit by the Titanic originated here.

So yesterday and today we have been cruising among massive structures of ice which have all been generated by the Jakoshavn Glacier. When we eventually turn to the West and travel to Canadian waters, we will leave the glaciers behind and instead have to deal with sea ice. This is ice that is formed when the very ocean itself freezes during the cold winter months.

This then brings me to an important briefing given to the entire ship yesterday afternoon. At the current time the sea ice in the northern reaches of Canada is too thick for safe passage, even in a vessel that has an ice hardened hull. However, the Captain and the staff are all in agreement that it does appear that in a few days’ time, we should safely be able to make our journey. At the current time, a Canadian Icebreaker is attempting to transit along our future route and information from her passage will provide us with valuable information on which to base a decision.

Therefore – forget the beautiful schedule carefully printed up by Home Office, it is time for an Adventure. It has been decided that we will remain in Greenland waters for the next three days and then hopefully start our journey to the West to Canada. Last night we remained out at sea near Ilulissat with the hope that perhaps first thing this morning, we could finally go ashore. However, that did not materialize. So the ship has traveled north to the small and remote village of Saqqaq where we got to go ashore and walk around this morning. The village is home to perhaps 150 people; there were almost as many people on the ship as lived in Saqqaq.

It was a colorful location, and the bay in which it was located was loaded with icebergs – gigantic icebergs. Apparently as the icebergs move off the Jakobshavn Glacier some of them are blown by the winds northward into the fjord which leads to Saqqaq. Here they become grounded, and so they will stay until they die – meaning eventually they will melt away. But for now, they provide a fantastic backdrop to the picturesque little village.

After landing, we slowly walked to the top of a small hill to the town church, and inside found a surprisingly serene and warm atmosphere.DSC01370 After the church, we walked around the town and I walked a little further than Lisa to reach a wooden scaffold on which were hung about seven skinned harbor seals. These were hung to dry and cure, and will be used as a food source. Even though the little harbor was filled with small ice chunks everywhere, there were a large number of small fishing boats at anchor. From what we could see, fishing is the main income and food source for the natives. We never saw a car, but only dirt bikes. The “roads” if you can call them that, do not go to any other town. There is no airport, although there was a helicopter pad. The native-peoples were friendly, but shy. Essentially they paid us little attention as they went about their day. The only things that paid any attention to us were the young puppies of the working dogs and the mosquitoes. First the dogs: dogs here are considered “working dogs” and once they reach a certain age, they will be chained to the ground and will spend their entire lives outside. If a working dog is taken inside, I have been told that it is ruined as a working animal. As for the mosquitoes: we had been warned that even though it was late in the season, it was still possible in the right conditions for them to swarm around us. So far I had not encountered any, and even when we arrived at Saqqaq there were no signs of the little darlings. Suddenly conditions must have changed, and before I knew it, I was surrounded by a swarm of them. There were so many, I could not swat them away, and I even inhaled one by accident and I could not get it out of my throat – I almost threw up, but managed to get back on the boat without embarrassing myself.

After this visit, our ship turned north, cruising for about 3 hours before reaching an abannoned coal mine and the rather large town that surrounded it. If we wanted, they would take us ashore for what is known as a “wet” landing, and we could walk around. To tell the truth, after grabbing a quick lunch I lay down for a quick nap before this second visit of the day, and when I woke up I found that the visit had come and gone. When I ran outside to get some pictures, the zodiacs were bringing guests back to the ship and we are now moving on.

I can’t tell you exactly where we are going next nor how we are going to get there. The comment was made yesterday that this ship will arrive into Nome, Alaska exactly as scheduled, but how that gets done remains to be seen.

Oh, I did ask yesterday if we were the “first” passenger ship to traverse the North West Passage as I had heard; it seems that we are not the first to make this trip. It has been done by several icebreakers, but I would not exactly call them passenger ships. A few foreign ships carrying passengers have made the trip, but in over 20 years, probably no more than 10 times. So while we may not be the first, we are one of the early adventurers, and I can guarantee you, we are on the most luxurious ship to ever make the trip.


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