Southbound to Murmansk … Northern Barents Sea

[CATCH-UP POST]

Thursday, 10 July 2014
Barents Sea
Position @ Noon: 77°21’ N / 49°26’ E
Outside Temperature: 34F / 1.2C
Thickness of Ice: There is none!
759 NM (873 miles / 1,406 km) from the North Pole

A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.
John A. Shedd 

I think it was around 3:00a when I finally turned out the light last night this morning … and thus brought closure to an active day of landings and interesting sights.

There was no wake-up call to greet today — an opportunity for everyone to take it easy during what is the first of a two-day crossing back to Murmansk, Russia.

And that’s exactly what I did — starting with sleeping in until 8:30a.  Having gone to bed well before I did, Mui was already up and at ‘em.  I shooed him off to breakfast, asking him to bring me a bagel with cream cheese, and a plate of fresh fruit … which I am eating even as I begin to write this post.

Before I get on with the story of today, I want to touch upon a conversation I had with some shipmates last night in the Victory Bar.  On the surface, the question that initiated the conversation was an easy one — how would you compare the Antarctic to the Arctic … or vice versa?  The responses around the table — from those who had been to both polar regions — didn’t come as a surprise as it reflected what I had heard many times before.  My response, on the other hand, took some off guard … I think.

How we ended yesterday — with sunshine filtered by clouds …

… how we ended today — with thick fog!

When we were planning our first Arctic trip — which happened to be to Svalbard, in the Norwegian Arctic — I was told repeatedly that since we’d been to Antarctica, we were doomed to disappointment.  Hmmm!  I suppose if we had gone with that mindset, we might have been crestfallen.  But we didn’t … and we weren’t.  You see, we simply did not compare the two.  Rather, we looked upon the Svalbard voyage as an entirely separate polar experience … as a standalone ‘whole experience’ to be cherished and remembered as such.  The same holds true for our Greenland voyages, and for this one as well — just different … special … memorable … incomparable.

No ice anywhere around us today — this photograph of repeating
patterns was taken in northern Franz Josef Land two days ago.

To take it a step further, not only do we not compare our polar experiences, we don’t compare any destination … any trip — regardless of length or $s spent.  Each is different and special in its own way.  Thus making the "What was your favorite trip?" question impossible to answer — in case anyone has it in mind to query us in that regard ;-)

Alex on the P/A with a wake up call from an earlier day on this voyage.

Now to go out and play a bit … more later.

Later — the story of today …

Taking it easy extended to more than getting up late and dallying in the cabin this morning.  When I stepped out on deck I noticed that the fog was thickening quite rapidly.  There was a damp chill in the air.  And around us was nothing but open seas.  Not much to invite me to stay outside.  No matter — a quiet day indoors was exactly what the doctor had ordered.  I even gave my shutter-clicking finger a rest — while many of the pictures in this post are from today, I ‘stole’ some of them from previous days.

Just some of the instruments that guide our way on 50 Let Pobedy.

I debated going to the lectures — Colin gave a talk on Extra-Terrestrial Ice: Glaciers on Mars; Bob presented Russian Aspects of the Arctic Ocean; Norm’s topic was Global Warming — Climate Change.  I’m sure they were interesting, but I skipped all three.  Collecting my Kindle and laptop, I found a quiet corner in the library to read, and process photos for the voyage DVD — with so many passengers missing out on Cape Fligley (post here), I wanted to get my photos from that landing exported to share with my shipmates.

In addition to being our balloon pilot, Kiff is responsible for compiling the voyage DVD.

By the time I had uploaded the Fligley images to the laptop where all photos for the DVD are being collected, it was lunch time.  During our days in the ice, I frequently ate and ran.  Not today.  I took my time, enjoying the company of the fellow passengers with whom we shared a table.  The conversation was good — as was the food … deep fried calamari rings from the buffet; chicken schnitzel with potato salad (for Mui); orecchiette with smoked salmon in a creamy sauce (for ‘moi’); cranberry-banana smoothie (for dessert).

Chicken Schnitzel

Orecchiette with Smoked Salmon

After lunch, I went for a walk outside, but the damp chill drove me inside after a while.  A cup of hot chocolate to warm up, and then I joined Mui on a self-guided tour of the lower decks.  We stopped by the gym first.  We’ve not taken advantage of these facilities, but there has been a ‘sports hour’ led by a member of the expedition team every day — today it was ping pong with Timur.

The exercise facilities might be small, but they get the job done
for the ship’s crew … and for the passengers.

Our trip around the lower decks was not aimless — Mui wanted to check out the swimming pool and the sauna.  What makes the seawater pool interesting is that it is located below the waterline, allowing the reverberations from the engines to travel through the water.  Mui said the water ‘vibrated’ — sort of like those relaxation massage chairs one sees in airports these days.

Leaving Mui to his swim and sauna, I returned to the library where a special event was in progress — photo ops where passengers were striking a variety of poses while holding the Sochi Olympics Torch that 50 Let Pobedy carried to the North Pole in October 2013.  This was part of the traditional torch relay that precedes every Olympics.  Torchbearers from several countries — Russia, Canada, USA, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and Denmark — participated in an approximately 3-mile (5 km) relay … the first ever at the Geographic North Pole.  (More info here.)

In keeping with tradition, the relayer — 50 Let Pobedy — gets to keep the torch.

Afternoon tea was preceded by an activity that brought home the fact that the expedition aspect of this voyage is all but over — the return of the boots and zodiac life jackets loaned to us by Quark for the duration of the trip.  Sigh!  All good things come to an end … like it or not.  To ‘drown my sorrows’ I skipped the tea and got myself a Baileys — hold the hot chocolate — and headed to the aft saloon for Bob’s presentation entitled Hunters and Trappers, Whalers and Sealers: Exploitation of the Living Resources of the Arctic.

Amongst the information I garnered from Bob’s presentation is the following association between ‘products’ and the animals that were hunted for such …

  • Blubber (oil) — walrus, seal, whale
  • Meat — walrus, seal, whale, reindeer/ caribou, musk ox, bear
  • Other Food — birds and eggs, fish, hare
  • Hides/Skins (leather) — reindeer/caribou, seal, walrus, bear
  • Pelts (fur) — seal, fox, bear, reindeer/caribou, weasel, ermine
  • Ivory — walrus, narwhal
  • Other Products — baleen (whale); antler (reindeer); wool/qiviut (musk ox); eider down (duck)

As abhorrent as the idea is to me, I can understand the need for indigenous people to hunt.  They did it to survive in the far north — they couldn’t have lived in the high latitudes without these products.  It was the food they ate … the resources they needed to make implements, to clothe themselves, and to build huts.  Subsistence hunting is still practiced in the Arctic.  There is a substantial difference between hunting for ‘need’, and hunting for trophy — I’m OK with the former; not with the latter.  OK — off my soapbox now.

In the brief time between Bob’s lecture and the daily R&B, I ventured out for a breath of fresh air.  Thick fog continued to surround us, but the light seemed brighter — perhaps I just wanted it to be so.  At least we had lovely weather up north — for days at sea, it really doesn’t matter as much.

Looking aft, or …

... starboard, or ...

… ahead — we’re fogged in!  No question about that.

Alex started the R&B by telling us that we’ll be arriving at the mouth of Kola Bay tomorrow evening.  We have to wait for customs agents to clear the ship before we can proceed further.  Oh, and the timing of the tide is important, too; has to be high tide before the ship can enter the bay!  We did get some bad news before Alex wrapped up — the gap between ship’s time and passenger time will be closing … we’re putting the clocks ahead one hour tonight; and will do so again tomorrow night.

The recap portion of the meeting consisted mostly of Conrad’s mini-lecture on the seabirds of Franz Josef Land, focusing on some of the adaptations as they relate to predation.  He also had a few brief words about our encounter with bowhead whales yesterday.  It is estimated that there are about 300 of these whales in the entire archipelago; that we saw so many of them (I estimated around 10-12 animals) yesterday makes our sighting all the more special.

From our very special encounter with bowhead whales yesterday.

Dinner was a special theme night — Russian — with the wait-staff dressed up in traditional costume.  Vodka shots were served to kick-start the meal — Mui got to double up as I can’t stand the stuff ;-)

Then came blinis — a type of pancake that dates back a thousand years or so.  They can be served with a variety of fillings … in our case, chopped onions, eggs, rice, sour cream, and caviar.  The menu offered three options for the main course — I ordered the baked fillet of salmon “Franz Josef” with puff pastry, white wine risotto, and beetroot; Mui got the beef stroganoff served with dumplings and broccoli.  We agreed that both was good.  To conclude, we ordered the “Swan” puff pastry filled with a vanilla vodka cream — yummy!

Clockwise from top left: blini, beef stroganoff, salmon “Franz Josef,” and cream filled “Swan.”

We didn’t dally after dinner — call it part of the “taking it easy” theme of the day.  When we entered the cabin, we found two black bags on the bed — one for each of us.  The notecard indicated they were a gift from Quark, intended for us to use to pack our parkas.  I think we’ll keep them as a souvenir and use them when we get home instead.

And that’s a wrap as they say in show business.  This is perhaps the earliest I will be turning off the light … tomorrow should be another quiet day at sea.  I’m looking forward to it.

FJL: Cape Tegetthoff … Hall Island

[CATCH-UP POST]

Wednesday, 9 July 2014 (Part IV)
Franz Josef Land — Russian Arctic National Park

This post not only wraps up our day, but also the final landing of this voyage.  As well … it brings to an end our time in Franz Josef Land.

I imagine that by the time I finish writing this post in the wee hours of tomorrow — which it already is — we will be sailing the open waters of the Barents Sea.

As wonderful as our landing on Champ Island was (post here) … as wonderful as the icescape transit en route to our final landing site was (post here) … the landing at Cape Tegetthoff on Hall Island was particularly special.  Why?  I’m not sure, but it might have had something to do with the wonderful, soft light that imbued the scenery on this late-in-the day landing.  Or maybe it was because I knew this was my last chance to savor these latitudes … these seldom-visited lands.  Whatever the reason, I will cherish memories of Cape Tegetthoff for a long while to come.

So, how late was this landing?  Well, it was about 10:15p — yes, that is p.m. … as in 2215 hours — when we hopped on Vlad’s zodiac to go ashore.  Taking advantage of whatever opportunities present themselves is a key element of expedition-style travel … time is immaterial and I love it.  Sleep — I can catch up when I get home.  Missed opportunities to explore and enjoy — they’ll be gone forever if not taken advantage of in the here and now.

The expedition team prepares to receive the passengers.

Vlad takes us ashore where Tim and Kiff welcome us and send us off to explore.

To the left of the landing site is the eroded ice-line of the beach.

Dr Sam captures two to Travel as we come ashore and head to the finger spire.

Hall Island is one of the larger landmasses in FJL.  Though most of the island is glaciated, our landing site was clear … except for a section where soft snow — at times knee-deep — made it a little more difficult to wander around.  Much of that area was outside our free-roam perimeter, so we took a look, but otherwise spent our time where the ground was free of any white stuff.

What looks like a single monolith …

… turns out to be two formations when we walk a few more steps inland.

As with much of Franz Josef Land, Hall Island was discovered by the Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition of 1873.  In fact, this was the first island they set foot on; and their first sighting of land was the very cape where we landed.  At the time they spied land, they had been frozen in drifting pack ice for over a year.  They named this point Tegetthoff after the ship they were on.  The island they named after Charles Hall, a polar explorer from the US.

Seeing that most of our shipmates were heading over to some ruins on the far side of the beach, we headed in the opposite direction to the spires that are a key feature of the cape.  We spent some time at the spires, checking them out from different angles, and taking advantage of only a few passengers being around to get a photo op for Two to Travel.  The only thing we didn't do is climb on them — the gumboots are great for wet landings, and they are OK for strolling about ... not so great for climbing on rocks.

Good thing we took time for this photo op; a later one didn’t turn out as expected.

The end of a spiky ridge that comes to an abrupt end at the edge
of the tundra … except for occasional outcroppings.

A beautiful reflection shot of the finger spire flanked by
Dr Sam (left) and Solan and a bear guide (right).

The yellow parkas in the background provide perspective not only for the distance
we will be covering, but also for the size of the monolith at the end of the ridge.

Eventually, we arrived at the ruins of an expedition cabin — often referred to as Harmsworth House.  Bob Headland was standing by to tell us all about the octagonal shaped, pre-fab cabin that once stood at Cape Flora, where it was initially used by the Jackson-Harmsworth Expedition.  Dismantled, it was brought here by the Walter Wellman Expedition, which wintered at Cape Tegetthoff in 1898 when their ship — the Fridtjof — was unable to navigate the ice between the islands.

Note the rusted remains of the coal-burning stove that kept the Wellman Expedition warm.

In addition to noting some of the features of the ruins, Bob pointed out remnants of the coal used by the expedition as fuel, the box that held the meteorology instruments, the long pole that he thought was likely the flagpole that stood at the campsite, and the square nails littering the ground.  Pieces of history strewn about for Mother Nature to dispose of as she sees fit … when she sees fit.

Back in the day, Harmsworth House was insulated using sawdust.

That these are square nails dates them to prior to the 1900’s.
Many agree that they have superior holding power and are better than modern nails.

Franz Josef Land has a good-sized polar bear population.  Our landing wasn’t disrupted by one, but we did see evidence of bears in the area — scat and skeletal remains to be precise.

Expedition Day 9 - Cape Tegetthoff, Hall Island, Franz Josef Land - Russia.9 Jul 2014

Polar Bear Scat

Expedition Day 9 - Cape Tegetthoff, Hall Island, Franz Josef Land - Russia.9 Jul 2014

We delayed as long as we could on shore, but eventually we had to make our way back to the landing beach.  Along the way, we obliged a shipmate by taking his picture in front of the finger spire.  We’d already gotten a photo op, but we asked anyway if he would reciprocate … and he did.  We got a nice photo, but it wasn’t quite what we had in mind.

What happened to the finger spire?

Before we head back to the ship to wrap up the story, I want to share a different perspective of Cape Tegetthoff.  The images were submitted to the voyage DVD.  Only one has a name associated with it; the rest were submitted anonymously.  That said, considering the perspectives from which they were taken, I would venture to guess the photos are from the cameras of expedition team members.

Okay … where was I?  Oh yes, at the landing beach.

We took the ‘midnight zodiac’ back to the ship.  That, by the way, is not a reference to the color or name of the zodiac, but rather to the time we left Hall Island.  You wouldn’t know that from the photos in this post, would you?  Alas, this 24-hours-of-daylight phenomenon won’t be lasting much longer.  Two more days at most and then we’ll be back to a regular day and night schedule.

Our last opportunity to see 50 Let Pobedy from this perspective … and it’s a good one.

After dropping off a few things in the cabin, we headed to the Victory Bar for a cup of hot chocolate laced with Baileys.  The bar proved to be an excellent vantage point for watching the zodiacs being brought back aboard, so we stayed a while to share these final moments of the landing with some of our shipmates.

Tim and his zodiac are airlifted onto the deck of the ship.

After a while, though, I had to go out on deck for a stroll … to say farewell to Franz Josef Land as the seamen weighed anchor, and the officer of the watch gave the heading to take us south.

Mui joined me a bit later.  Oddly — or maybe not … after all, it was about 1:30a — only two other passengers were wandering the outer decks … Annie and John.  We passed each other, smiled, waved — but didn’t really talk.  I think we were all in our own worlds.  We found the expedition team on the helipad — toasting what was essentially the last real expedition day.  Nothing but the Barents Sea ahead of us for the next two days.  We left them to their private gathering and moved on.  Time to return to the cabin.

We’re now sailing through calm seas.  No sea ice to break through.  Certainly no polar pack ice.  It’s quiet except for the hum of the engines — I miss the banging and clanging against the hull