Friday, July 14, 2017

Pushing Through the Pack Ice

June 30, 2017

Until now, our journey northward has been relatively benign. Our trip through the Barents Sea was largely ice free and the ship was making a steady 18 knots. Initially we began to encounter some light or what I would call moderate sea ice, but our vessel still moved forward at a steady 18 knots as if the ice was not even there. However, starting with late afternoon yesterday, and continuing into this morning, things have become a little bit more interesting.

We are now at 85° North latitude, which means that we are only 5° from reaching our destination, the North Pole. The average thickness of the ice in the polar region is 2 to 3 meters, or up to 9 feet in thickness. As we have begun to encounter the thicker ice, the ship is beginning to vibrate and ride very erratically. The best comparison that I know how to give is for you to imagine that you are on a train speeding down the track a little faster than you would like on a rail line that has not been maintained for years. The train would sway back and forth violently enough that drinking a cup of coffee is virtually impossible, and trying to walk requires both hands on the walls to keep from falling down. That is the situation in which we find ourselves this morning. There are, of course, chunks of ice greater than 9 feet thick, and while the ship has tried to navigate around them, from time to time it will hit a very large chunk of ice which feels as if we have indeed hit something quite large. While our passage will have shattered the ice into many pieces, the vibration goes all the way down the ship as if we indeed had a collision.

Last evening the ship pulled up into the ice and stopped so that the Hotel Department could treat everyone to a barbecue party on the aft deck. I must say that the entire staff really went out of their way to make the evening a spectacular success. Most people seemed to be having a wonderful time, but in all honesty by the time that Lisa and I arrived, there was not a seat to be had. They finally placed a bench over by the side rail which gave us a spectacular view, but by the same time, it exposed us fully to the evening breeze coming off the ice. By the time I had finished about half the food on my plate, my fingers were so frozen that I literally could not feel them. This, in spite of the fact that halfway through my meal I had actually put on a pair of gloves. Shortly after we left, the party moved inside to the bar which is directly beneath our room, and I can tell you from the loud sounds and the vibrations, that the party continued well past midnight.

I would really be remiss if I failed to share with you the significant number of wildlife sightings that we have encountered. Whenever the ship’s personnel sees a polar bear, walrus, or whale they will make an announcement, and stop the ship whether it is day or night – which in this part of the world really makes no difference since it is daytime all the time. So far we have had numerous polar bear encounters, and in turn, I have gotten some very good pictures. We had one encounter with a large walrus who had a beautiful pair of tusks, and the ship was able to get quite close before we spooked it into the water. The whale sighting unfortunately occurred so quickly that I was not able to get outside to see it.

Considering that we are only a few days into our trip, the number of polar bears that we have encountered is really quite amazing. To see them in their natural habitat, as they wander these icy frozen landscapes is to truly witness the magnificent animal perfectly suited for its environment. Unfortunately, everyone agrees that with our current climate change towards warmer weather, the environment for these wonderful creatures is rapidly disappearing. They live on floating ice packs, and if they disappear, then what will become of the giant polar bear?

They just announced that shortly they will commence helicopter operations for this morning which will allow us hopefully to take pictures of the ship as it plows through the ice on its way to the North Pole. For right now, I am going to take a pause in writing while I get dressed for our expedition, and hopefully I will have time this afternoon to bring you up to date on this incredible experience that is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Well we did get our helicopter ride around the ship, slowly circling in both directions. Even though the ride itself was six minutes long, it gave us a view of the ship plowing through the ice in both directions. I cannot wait to look at the photographs to see how they turned out. During our entire flight the ship was plowing through the ice. In other words the helicopter had to take off from a moving deck, circle our ship while it plowed forward, and then returned to and slowly settle down on a still moving ship. All of this has to be done in accordance with a very strict schedule so that all 113 passengers can have the same opportunity.

In about an hour there will be a briefing for what we can expect tomorrow when it is anticipated that we will reach the North Pole itself. For now I am going to conclude this days adventures, but will be back tomorrow morning to give you an update on our long-awaited arrival at the North Pole.

It’s getting better, so hang on.


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