An ‘Icelog’ With Narwhals! … And How Does an Icebreaker Work?


Friday, 4 July 2014 (Part II)
Sailing the Arctic Ocean on our way to the North Pole

Now that I’ve told the story of our day, I want to focus on the ice … the beautiful, thick ice that shows its blue underbelly to us when it gets churned up as 50 Let Pobedy cuts through it.  At first this was going to be a photolog, but I decided that what we learned from Bob about how icebreakers work will add good informational narrative — after all, ice and icebreakers go hand in hand, don’t you agree?

If that’s so, why is the first photo in this post of something other than ice?  And what on earth are those creatures in the photo below?

Yes … those are narwhals!
if you click the photo for a larger image and look very closely, you can barely make out
the iconic single tusk that is the reason for them being dubbed the “Unicorns of the ocean.”

Here’s the story!  I was on an upper deck, watching Colin a couple of decks below me.  He was stringing his GoPro camera down the ‘window’ at the bow of the ship.  The first photo in this post is the image he was trying to capture.  Suddenly, he and a passenger near him got all excited.  I couldn’t hear their conversation, but I turned in the direction they were looking and saw movement in the water.  By the time I had raised my binoculars, whatever was in the water was gone.  Turns out they were NARWHALS!

We were around 83.5° North when this very special and rare sighting of a species endemic to the Arctic occurred.  Not only are narwhals very skittish, they also are migratory and move closer to shore in the summer.  Chances of us seeing them on this voyage was miniscule, but Lady Luck was apparently on our side.  I don’t know if I can even cite this as a “personal sighting” since I barely saw their speckled backs before they dived.  All I can say is … I am glad someone got a couple of photos, and was generous enough to share them with us.

OK … now for the ice and icebreaker portion of the post.  I’m not going to make any excuses for the number of “chunky ice” photos that are quite similar in many ways.  For variety, I included photographs of the “flat ice” that was all around us; but my focus today was really on “breaking ice.”

50 Let Pobedy is the newest of six Arktika class nuclear icebreakers.  The name of the ship is regularly translated as 50 Years of Victory — better would be 50th Anniversary of Victory.  It commemorates the defeat of the Nazi forces invading Russia during WWII.  Launched at the end of 1993, the ship wasn’t put into service until 1997 due to delays resulting from financial issues.

Bob Headland began his lecture by telling us that the thickest, most difficult ice on the globe is in the Arctic; specifically at and around the North Pole, where the ice doesn’t melt.  By comparison, the ice in the Antarctic is ‘easy’.  And that makes sense to me.  After all, Antarctica is a continent surrounded by ice; whereas the Arctic is ice (and water) surrounded by land.

Bob then went on to talk briefly about ice determinants — how it is measured and described.

  • Cover — measured in tenths, with 10/10ths being total coverage
  • Thickness — measured in meters
  • Age — new; first- or second- or multi-year; with really old ice being paleocrystic
  • Pressure — amount, size, and frequency of ridges and hummocks, which are created when floes bang into each other and rise up
  • Surface — amount and type of snow; wet or dry … with the former creating more friction against the hull of the ship

In the old days, explorers who ventured into the High Arctic used saws and axes to break through the ice.  They even resorted to sallying the ship using the weight of the crew.  Sometimes ballast in the bow was used to raise the stern and allow the propellers to grind the ice.

Which method are we been employing on the ship?  Well, the passengers aren’t having to sally the ship by running en masse from port to starboard and back ;-)  And the only axes I’ve seen are the emergency fire axes.  Kidding aside, 50 Let Pobedy is taking advantage of the power it has “under the hood” to simply charge through the ice.

Bob went into some detail about the requirements for a ship to be an icebreaker …50 let Pobedy ... first images from the helicopter.4 July 2014

  • Powerful engines
  • Strong hull of the appro-priate shape (spoon-shaped on 50 Let Pobedy; new design that is more efficient when breaking ice because it allows the bow to ride on top of the ice, and also pushes the ice away from the propulsion system)
  • Deep propulsion system (protected in some manner from the ice)
  • Steering that allows the ship to go astern to break ice if necessary
  • Specialized features — air curtains, anti-friction hull coating, ballast tanks, water jets, ice tooth
  • Means for observation and surveillance — high bridge, helicopters, remote sensing receivers
  • Towing notch on the stern for close-coupled tow operations when assisting other vessels through the ice
  • Experienced complement — college education, apprenticeship, practical service; 106 aboard 50 Let Pobedy (40 officers; 66 other ranks)

Considering Bob’s opening comments about the most difficult ice being in the Arctic, the next two data points should come as no surprise.  The Russians/Soviets were the first to build an icebreaker — that was the Yermak, which went into service in 1898.  They also built the world’s first nuclear-powered icebreaker — the Lenin, now decommissioned, was launched in 1957.

I’m not going to get into a discussion about nuclear power and what is right or wrong about using it.  It goes without saying that an accident with this fuel source would be devastating to the world.  However, when handled right … and used for the right purposes, nuclear power can reduce our carbon footprint immensely.

Case in point, when operating in thick ice, 50 Let Pobedy’s two reactors consume about 200 grams (less than ½-pound) of uranium per day.  In the conditions we are currently operating, we aren’t consuming even that much.  Compare that to 200 tons of diesel or other marine fuel a non-nuclear vessel would be using per day.  When push comes to shove, nuclear power is the only way an ice breaking vessel like this ship can generate the thrust it needs to power through the barrier the ice puts up in front of it — especially during the dead of winter when Arctic ice is at its thickest.

I brought penguins to the Arctic ;-)

The two 160-ton reactors aboard the ship are shielded by steel, high-density concrete, and water.  Fully fueled, the reactor rods last about five years before they have to be replaced.  Insertion of control rods halts a nuclear reaction within 0-6 seconds.  When the fuel is spent, the rods are extracted at the RosAtomFlot base in Murmansk.  While there was a time when nuclear waste was dumped into the Arctic, this is no longer the case.  The used fuel is reprocessed and the waste is disposed of at a nuclear waste plant.

This chunk is of a considerable size — see the people standing on deck for perspective.
Yet, compared to the size of our vessel, it’s just a pebble in this ocean of ice.

The ship is designed to break through ice that is almost 5 meters (16½ feet) thick.
No wonder it’s handling the 1 meter (3.3 feet) thick ice we’re in like a hot knife through butter.

I’ve had friends comment that they won’t hug us when we return to the US if we are ‘glowing’ ;-)  Rest assured.  The ambient radiation is being monitored by 86 sensors distributed throughout the vessel.

Seeing the polar bear prints in two of the images is easy.
The question is, Can you see the ones in the image on the left?

50 Let Pobedy is a Class LL-1 vessel, which means it has the highest ice class designation an icebreaker can be given.  This designation allows it to be operated in the Arctic year-round.  It is capable of penetrating through ice that is almost 5 meters (16½ feet) thick.  That’s when it is under navigation.  In the past, the ship has broken through a 9 meter (~30 feet) ice ridge at least on one occasion.

I’m intrigued by the effect of the fog on the lead ahead —
it almost looks like a mirage above the horizon.

More details specific to the ship are available from a handout Bob Headland provided — it was printed on the reverse side of a daily program.  I scanned the document and posted it on my GoogleDrive.  If interested, you can read it here.

All this information leads to how an icebreaker accomplishes its mission.  You might recall I was expecting a ta-thunk, ta-thunk kind of jerky movement as the ship moves on top of the ice and crushes it to pieces with its weight.  That’s true to a degree — except for the ta-thunk piece.  The motion is more like a constant earthquake tremor … not strong enough to shake us, but enough to add a little jiggle to everything.

The bow — in our case a spoon-shaped one — allows the ship to ride up and over the ice smoothly. The gianormous weight of the vessel does the rest — with assistance from the ice tooth, which is situated 65 feet (20 m) aft of the prow.  The ‘tooth’ makes a snip in the ice, so to speak, to weaken it before the hull rises over it to complete the breaking process.  Specialized features, such as the air curtains — which blast the ice rubble away from the ship, and the low-friction hull coating also help the ship with its mission.  This all goes unnoticed by us — the passengers — because all the action is essentially taking place under the hull.

Arktika, the icebreaker that gave its name to the class of vessel to which 50 Let Pobedy belongs, was the first surface vessel to reach the North Pole.  That was in 1977.  Since then, 101 other ships have followed.  If the ice permits, we will have the honor of being the 103rd surface vessel to attain the Pole.

One more little tidbit from Bob’s presentation — in 1994 two diesel icebreakers and a nuclear one rendezvoused at the North Pole as part of a polar study.  They were the USCGC Polar Sea (US Coast Guard; diesel), the Louis S. St Laurent (Canadian Coast Guard; also diesel) and the Yamal (Russian; nuclear).  Goes to show that when mankind puts its collective mind to it, great things can be achieved.

I’m going to end this post with a compilation of some of the video I shot with my SX50 still camera.  Yes, I know you’ve seen us breaking ice before … but I’m fascinated by the process.  And if you’re curious about why I chose John Philip Sousa’s The Stars and Stripes Forever as the soundtrack for this video … well, what better way to celebrate the 4th of July in the Arctic.  One of life’s little ironies is that we did so on a Russian flagged icebreaker!

Happy 4th from the Arctic!

Time to call it a night.  It’s after midnight … again; I need to get my beauty sleep.

Fourth of July … On the Arctic Ocean


Friday, 4 July 2014 (Part I)
Sailing the Arctic Ocean
Position @ Noon: 83°44’ N / 52°52’ E
Outside Temperature: 29F / Minus 1.4C
Thickness of the Pack Ice: 3.3 Feet (1 meter)
376 NM (433 miles / 696 km) from the North Pole

… that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
— Lord Alfred Tennyson; Ulysses —

Alex’s wake up call this morning started with the strains of a popular Fourth of July song.  Alas, I have already forgotten what it was — should have written it down instead of relying on my memory!

Independence Day in the US — a day celebrated with picnics, beach time, fireworks, and all things summery.

Where are we on such an iconic summer day?  On the Arctic Ocean.  The cabin is cozy warm — perhaps a little too much so.  I have the porthole open to get some fresh air — air that has a slight bite to it … just enough to remind me that even though it is summer up here, the temperature tells a different story.

You know, it’s hard to think of the region we are currently transiting aboard 50 Let Pobedy as an ocean — a body of water.  True, there are open leads around us, but the ice has taken over for the most part.  Of course, that’s the nature of the Arctic Ocean — it is made up of water and ice … more of one or the other depending on the time of year one ventures into these high northern latitudes.

We’re in pack ice now — first year ice that is about 3.3 feet (1 m) thick; it will get thicker the further north we go.  I imagine we will find ourselves in multi-year ice by the time we reach the North Pole.  If the ship has slowed down, it is not discernible.  A few more bangs and clangs of the ice against the hull; stronger vibrations from the engines — but still we proceed smoothly … no lurches, no wobbles, no staggers, and no pitching and rolling.

From the bridge at just after 8:00a.

When I ventured up to the bridge before breakfast it was to a monochromatic landscape.  No sunshine … no blue skies.  With the low cloud deck above and the ice all the way to the horizon, we were in a world of white, with the only color provided by the blue of the churned up ice and the dark ribbons of the leads snaking their way across the ice.  Oh, and yes — there was our big red ship with its green decking adding a pop of color as well.

It was magnificent … albeit rather drab.  And it stayed that way all day long — until 11:30p when the sun came out.  I want to underscore that — the sun came out, shining bright at 11:30p tonight!!!  Could it be that our offering to Neptune worked?  More on that later in this post.  Anyway, of course I went out for a walk before returning to the cabin to write this blog post … no photos of the breathtakingly beautiful icescape I’m afraid; but it’s all etched in my brain.

I’m going to skip the ice photos for now — at least the ones where the ice IS the subject.  No worries; I’ll share some of those images in the next post — an ‘icelog’, if you will — combined with some data points from Bob’s presentation on how icebreakers work.

We skipped the first lecture of the morning.  The topic was the geology of the Arctic.  Interesting … but we’ve heard variations of it on previous voyages.  Instead, we went a-wandering around the outer decks.  There’s just something about being in such a vast expanse of ocean ice where the horizon stretches as far as the eye can see.  It never fails to awe and inspire.  And it surely brings home the point that we are just a miniscule dot on this big marble on which we live.

There was another reason we wanted to be on deck this morning — helicopter sightseeing plans were in the offing.  Sure, the weather was ‘meh’, but visibility was good.  At least when operations first commenced.

Some of the lucky few who took to the air get escorted to the helipad by Kiff.

Find Erin and Mui.
[Hint: we are bookending the group.]

Several groups went up.  We watched as they boarded the helicopter and took off.  We were filled with excitement at what lay ahead.  Wasn’t to be — an approaching front got in the way and the heli ops were shut down.  Sigh!  But we will have our chance one of these days.

The last group to take to the air returns before heli ops are canceled.

That’s it!  The helicopter is tied down … no more flightseeing today.

C’est La Vie … Que Sera Sera … What will be will be … shall I trot out a few more clichés!

At 11:30a, we went in for part two of Conrad’s lecture about polar bear biology — Looking Forward.

Another fascinating look at polar bears.

Before proceeding with his lecture, however, Conrad gave us some insight into yesterday’s encounter with the eismeister.  When I was checking out the bear through my binoculars, I thought I spotted penile hairs.  Turns out I was right; it was a male — further indicated by a head as wide as the neck; and massive shoulders.  Conrad also verified that the bear must have been in good health and getting plenty to eat as he only ate the nutrient-rich skin and blubber of the seal and left the protein behind.

There’s yesterday’s master of the ice.

Conrad next focused on the complicated life cycle of polar bears — particularly as it relates to females — and took us through an exercise to help us understand why it is so important that the bears feed as much as possible during the short hunting season.

  • June — feeding is a priority before the ice melts
  • July through September — ice-free; basically bears are trapped on land; not eating
  • October — some ice (maybe); begin to den; enter torpor; males and young bears may head out to the ice
  • November — in torpor
  • December — in torpor; give birth
  • January — in torpor; cubs develop
  • February — still in torpor, but slightly more awake; cubs continue to develop
  • March — cubs continue to develop; possible emergence from the den
  • April — cubs and mom emerge from the den
  • May — feeding is a priority; coincides with seals giving birth, which equates to easy hunting

Essentially, by the time mom emerges from the den she will have been without food for nine months.  Nine months during which breeding takes place.  Mating happens on the ice during May/June.  But that doesn’t mean the female becomes pregnant immediately.  Rather, implantation is delayed until she dens.  If she is not in good health at the time of denning, she absorbs or aborts the fetus.  If she is in good health, the fetus starts to develop.  Cubs are born prematurely; mom won’t realize that she has given birth — 1-2 cubs most common; 3 cubs rare, but not unknown.  Her milk is 30-35% fat; cubs increase their weight 10-15 fold by the time they leave the den.  The milk comes from the blubber mom has put on during the few months of feeding; by the time she leaves the den, her weight is halved.  Now she needs to feed herself fast in order to continue to nurse the cubs.  Fascinating, isn’t it?

Our second bear encounter interrupts Conrad’s lecture on polar bears!
A Polar bear has such good sense of smell that it can track seals through the ice.

Conrad was in the middle of his lecture when the call went out for a polar bear on the ice.  This bear was further out.  It was on the hunt, using its highly-developed sense of smell to track seals.  Unlike yesterday’s bear, however, this one made it quickly known that our presence was not welcome.  We didn’t linger so as not to cause it any undue stress.

Quote from Conrad’s presentation: polar bears that stay on the North Slope of Alaska …

… are spending, on average, 34 days on land in contrast to 9 days in the prior four decades.

Lunch was a quickie affair for Mui and me.  I ordered the baked potato with sour cream sauce and vegetables; Mui ordered the chef’s take on paella — a Spanish rice dish with seafood.  I did say I wouldn’t be taking many food photos on this trip, but I made an exception today … mostly because I liked the presentation of my baked potato.

A baked potato for me; paella for Mui.

After lunch, Mui returned to the cabin to rest; I went up to the bridge to listen in on Bob’s informal talk about The Historical Charts of the Central Arctic Ocean and the North Pole.  I tried to take a few shots of the laminated charts, but there was too much glare.  Nonetheless, it was interesting to see a time lapse (of sorts) as explorers returned from voyage after voyage with knowledge that helped to shape the charts of today.  It was quite amazing to me just how much was accomplished with what were, by our standards, rather crude navigational aids.

Kiff joins us for Bob’s bridge talk on the development of Arctic charts.

At 3:00p, we joined our fellow passengers in the aft saloon for Dr Sam’s Introduction to Polar Photography.  Some might say that as many times as we’ve traveled to polar regions, we already know all the tips and tricks.  Not so; besides a refresher is always a good thing.  As well, having seen some of Sam’s photos, I was excited to see more of her work — that alone was reason enough to attend her presentation.

Samantha Crimmin hails from the UK, where she got her degree in medicine.  Her interest in expedition medicine led to her taking on an 18-month position with the British Antarctic Survey … most of which was on South Georgia Island.  Thus her passion for the polar regions was born.  Currently completing a Masters in Remote Health Care, she is also an avid photographer.

Sam covered topics ranging from …

  • the photographer’s position — remember to change it to change your perspective
  • watch out for distractions in composition; clean edges are good
  • emphasize your subject — make it large in the frame; find things that stand out from the surroundings; use repetition; narrow depth of field to isolate the subject
  • be creative; use reflections
  • be aware of the ‘rule of thirds’ but don’t be afraid to break the rule
  • give your subjects room to move
  • look for ways to frame subjects
  • North Pole photography … look for details; try black and white for mood and drama
  • break the rule and shoot into the sun
  • overexpose by +1/3 or +2/3 on cloudy days and white-on-white landscape; do not overexpose polar bear footprints on the ice/snow
  • when photographing people, don’t cut them off at the waist or at the knees; for a full length portrait, don’t cut off the feet

All valuable tips!  And a new tip I garnered from this presentation — wide angle lens best for helicopter sightseeing … unless in the middle seat.  I will go prepared when our turn comes to get in the air.

Two Rosatomflot crew members taking a break on deck as snow flurries fly.

Skipping over Bob’s presentation on icebreakers for now, and continuing with an ages-old tradition on the high seas.  I speak of none other than playing homage to Neptune, the fickle God of the Sea.  Today’s ceremony — a spin-off from the Crossing the Arctic Circle or Equator events — was designed to ask permission to go to the North Pole.  It was all in fun, but ancient mariners were in earnest when it came to appeasing Neptune.  (More info about line crossing ceremonies is here.)

Near white-out conditions don’t stop the festivities.

I’ll admit to being a fuddy-duddy when it comes to activities of this nature — chalk it up to my being a shy person.  So, I watched from the sidelines, but I did accept a heart-kiss and a shot of vodka from Val’s syringe — beats kissing the fish!  I will say that it was great to see some of the crew and hotel staff participating in the ceremony.

After escaping the wrath of the polar bear, Alex presents King Queen Neptune an offering …

… and she, in turn, grants Captain Davydyants the key to enter the North Pole.

The collages are a combination of my photos, and those taken by Dr Sam.

I should have turned the other cheek to show you my heart-kiss; but at least you can see Mui’s.

The homage ceremony was followed by a buffet dinner dubbed Neptune’s Explorer.  In better weather, this BBQ would have been held on the foredeck, but we made do with the dining room tonight.  In addition to selections such as barley soup, vegetable skewers, corn on the cob, and baked potato with sour cream, there was a variety of grilled meats … lamb chops, pork cutlets, chicken drumsticks, a selection of sausages, and turkey medallions.

After dinner, we joined our tablemates — Patrick and Hideki — and a few of their Japanese friends to form Team Wally Walrus for the Victory Quiz being hosted by Val in the aft saloon.  Surprise, surprise — we won!

And the winner is — Team Wally Walrus!
Val — in the wild get up — presents each Team member with packets of “North Pole Snow to Go.”

What were the questions, you ask?  Let’s see if I can remember at least some of them.

1) What color are the placemats in the dining room?

2) What does the map in the reception area depict?

3) What color is the skin of a polar bear?

4) What is the name of the penile bone of a walrus?  (So what if I got the spelling of the answer wrong on the first try; at least I was listening to Conrad’s lecture.)

6) Something about the ships that assisted in the major Allied effort to supply Russia during WWII.

7) How many kilometers to a nautical mile?

8) What type of ice is 50 Let Pobedy breaking through?

9) Who claimed to reach the North Pole first?

10) How many surface ships have reached the North Pole so far?

As for questions 5, 11, and 12 … I have no recollection of them.  Since we got them wrong, that could be chalked up to selective memory, I suppose ;-)

After accepting congratulatory handshakes and pats on the back, Team Wally Walrus retired to the aptly named Victory Bar for a celebratory drink!

We did it!

The weather wasn’t too cooperative today, and we did miss our first chance to go flightseeing … but no matter — we had a great day.

The ‘icelog’ will follow …