Wednesday, July 19, 2017

For the Last Time

July 5, 2017

For the Last Time

Today is Wednesday, July 5th, and we are sailing south across the Barents Sea, which is now completely free of ice. Gone is the constant vibration of driving through hard ice, and gone, too, is the ever present crunching sound, which made even normal conversation somewhat difficult. We will sail all day tomorrow through similar conditions in order to reach our final destination, Murmansk, Russia. From there, it will be a long journey home. So from where I sit today, the end is in sight. However, as I look back, I see that I last wrote on July 3rd, shortly after I had the incredible opportunity of driving this magnificent ship. So much has happened in the interim, that it is almost impossible to believe. Once we left the North Pole I think that most of us felt as if the trip was over, but that turned out to be far from the actual truth. So let us go back to the afternoon of July 3rd, and let me bring you forward on our incredible adventure.

By early afternoon on the 3rd, the low clouds and fog of the morning had disappeared, leaving a landscape of incredible beauty. The skies were a brilliant blue with wisps of white clouds. The sun was low on the horizon, all of which combined to produce stunningly beautiful photographs. The ship’s Expedition Leader clearly recognized the situation because just prior to dinner, he put our meals on hold, and commenced helicopter operations for a tour around the ship, in order that we could get photographs of the ship as it plowed through the ice. You will recall that once we start helicopter operations they go on for at least four to five hours; so we could hear the helicopter from our room as it roared long into the night. I guess using the word “night” is a little bit of a misnomer because it never gets dark. At around 10 PM, the ship entered the northern parts of Franz Josef Land. You will recall that this is a group of 192 uninhabited islands in the far northern reaches of the Russian Arctic, and that it is designated as a Russian National Park. So in addition to the incredibly clear skies and beautiful ice, we now had the magical vista of rising mountains partly shrouded at times in snow and mist.

As luck would have it, the morning of July 4th, “Independence Day”, dawned with the same clear brilliant skies as when we had gone to bed. No sooner had we all sat down and to have breakfast, then there was a “polar bear” call. Running from the table, grabbing our jackets and cameras, and running outside, we found a mama polar bear with one cub slowly walking along the ice. Our vessel, as it has done each time we encountered polar bears, turned in order to get closer. The mother and cub slowly continued to walk along the ice, and they seemed to be very much oblivious to our presence. We were able to get some very good photographs.

By early afternoon, conditions were so perfect that the ship decided to launch an unscheduled zodiac trip out across the clear water and towards the face of several glaciers nearby. We were out in the water for around 90 minutes during which we were surrounded with incredible beauty. I would really suggest that you take a moment to look at the photographs to appreciate what I am saying. As we cruised along, the sky was full of small black and white birds buzzing in all directions. It was then that I noticed that the waters around us were also full of these cute little creatures which were bobbing along like rubber ducks. They were in fact “Little Auks.” They were a really cute little bird, and they seemed to share some of the characteristics of a penguin. When startled or approached, they would use their wings to propel themselves rapidly across the surface of the water, or with a tip of their beaks, they could disappear underneath. At other times, they would take flight as we approached. Our zodiac driver explained that the little bird was trying to decide where the greatest danger was coming from. If they perceived it as being from above, then they would dive, whereas if they perceived it is coming from below, they would take flight. Whatever, they were adorable, and the water and skies were full of them.

Floating away from the glaciers were several large icebergs which we approached and photographed. I asked the zodiac driver if he could retrieve some pieces of glacial ice to take back to the ship and use later for our drinks. He did just that, and let me tell you that is it a tremendous amount of fun to use a 10,000-year-old piece of ice to cool your scotch!

During our ride, at times we would simply turn off the motor and float in the quiet stillness of the Arctic wilderness. You could hear the glaciers as giant chunks of ice would calve and fall into the ocean. Usually when that happened, you would hear what sounded like a rifle shot, followed shortly thereafter by the splash of ice as it entered the water. It was a magical land, but it can just as easily turn threatening, something I will come back to just a little later. To give you some idea of the situation in which I found myself, I took so many photographs that for the first time ever I completely used up the battery in my camera before returning to the ship. In fact, I have so many photographs, I simply do not know how I am going to get through them all – but I do know that it be a joy in doing so.

After a late lunch, the ship spent the afternoon cruising among the islands of Franz Josef Land. At one point, we pulled within 3 meters, or approximately 9 feet of the face of a gigantic glacier. Standing on the bow you almost felt as if you could reach out and touch the ice. Later we cruised further south to a famous site known as Rubini Rock. This rock is of a unique basalt crystalline structure, similar to Devil’s Tower in the US. Once again the ship was able to position itself to where it was almost touching the rock. The rock surface served as a nesting site for huge colonies of sea birds. All around the sky was full of birds flying, and the rock surface was itself alive with activity and nesting. It was really interesting to watch how the different species of birds each found a particular location to claim as their own. So you might see the Little Auks lined up in a row on a very narrow ledge, while just above them gulls would be nesting. I cannot begin to name all of the different bird species that we saw, but it was truly an incredible site!

In view of the fact that yesterday was July 4th, our table of five Americans requested a special cake so that we might celebrate our “Independence Day.” We had hoped to get a sparkler, but the ship felt that that would cause too many other groups to want something similar, so they were accommodating in providing the cake, but not the sparkler. We provided that! This is perhaps a good time to note that of the 113 passengers on this vessel, there are only five of us Americans. We eventually managed to locate each other, and now sit at a table together surrounded by groups of other nationalities. In fact, there are 28 different nationalities represented on this vessel. Whenever an announcement is made, or a lecture given, it is immediately translated into five languages. These are English, German, Japanese, Chinese, and Russian. Indeed the five of us seem to be just about the only people who booked our tours individually and directly with Poseidon Expeditions. Everyone else is here as part of a larger group. So for example there is a group from Australia/New Zealand who are here under the sponsorship of Captain’s Choice, a well-known travel agency in Australia; similarly there are groups of Japanese, Chinese, Germans, and Russians. It has been a little bit of a problem to be truthful because the tour leaders of these groups have taken it upon themselves to make arrangements with the ship to reserve groups of tables for those in their care, which pretty much means that those of us who are independent have had to fend for ourselves. In any event, we loyally celebrated July 4th, even as everyone looked on as if we were crazy.

After dinner, the ship had intended to use the zodiacs to make a landing at Hooker Island. Located there was the Russian Polar Station of Tikhaya Buktha. It was established in 1929, by the Soviet Union, but it was later abandoned. Today it has been partially restored by the Park Service. Located there is a store which sells souvenirs, and a small post office for sending letters and cards. Of course, after the tourist depart, the last zodiac takes the mail back to our ship, where it is deposited in Murmnsk. Remember when I talked about the rapid variability of weather in this region? During the dinner hour, our beautiful sunny day rapidly deteriorated to a windy and overcast condition. The bay in which the former station was located had filled with ice, and the winds were too strong to allow safe operation of the zodiacs. Therefore, our vessel went on a one hour cruise around the region, returning to that location to see if perhaps conditions were more favorable for a landing. The good news was that the ice had blown away, but the bad news was that the winds had even grown stronger and thus, a landing at this point was not feasible.

We awoke this morning to a foggy, windy, and somewhat rainy day. There is however, no more ice on the horizon, and the temperatures outside are beginning to warm. From here it will be a day and a half cruise to Murmansk, and this fantastic adventure will of necessity come to an end.

I do hope that all of you have enjoyed traveling along with Lisa and me, and know that we look forward to speaking with you when we return.

Captain Jim

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