FJL: Ice and Arctic Fauna

[CATCH-UP POST]

Thursday, 3 July (Part iI)
Franz Josef Land
Position @ Midnight: 81°04’ N / 51°50’ E

It’s midnight … on the dot — at least passenger-time-wise.  Yes, I should be fast asleep, but every time I close my eyes, they pop open almost immediately.  Simply too much excitement.

The occasional banging of the ice against the hull isn’t helping matters.  Not because of the noise.  No sirree … rather, because it reminds me of the icescape that is mere steps away … just outside the cabin.

I tell myself the ice will be there tomorrow … and the next day.  And it will be thicker, with fewer leads.  Not that 50 Let Pobedy is seeking out those strips and ponds to ease its way north.  It doesn’t matter what form the water has taken … solid or liquid — the ship’s just cutting through whatever happens to be in its way.

Orcas weren’t amongst the wildlife sightings we enjoyed today.  They can be seen in the waters around FJL … but it’s rare.  No matter; 50 Let Pobedy has an orca of its own; and we get to see it every day!

I wrote about our day in general in the previous post.  You know about the lectures and briefings, and what we did and ate.  You even got a hint of the icescape … which got better and better as our day progressed.  Now, only 48-latitudinal-minutes — or about 48 NM (55 miles/89 km) — from the edge of the northern limit of Franz Josef Land, it’s time to write about our time on the outer decks.

For those interested in latitudes and how nautical miles fit into the scheme of things … I found a great layperson description here that I actually understood ;-)  Also, to limit the words in this post, I’ve included a link in the above paragraph that has all the information readers could ever want about FJL.

The dotted line is our approximate route through FJL after leaving Cape Flora this afternoon.
[Base map from Wikimedia — image attribution at this link.]

So, where to start.  Oh yes; the teaser photo of the zodiacs … the one I said starts the wildlife story of our day.  If you don’t know what I am referring to, just go to the previous post and scroll to the end.

The other leading player in the story is this character …

… A walrus, which I nicknamed broken-tusk Odobenny.
[for Odobenus rosmarus … as this guy is known in the animal kingdom.]

When we stopped at Cape Flora to drop off Dr Maria and her team, the zodiacs were lowered.  The intent was to ferry the scientists ashore with these boats.  Long story short, there was too much ice to deploy them on the mission.  While the boats were in the water, the call went out for a walrus at about the 10 o’clock position.  Yay!  Our first mega-fauna sighting.  The walrus came close enough to the ship for us to make out that one of its two tusks was broken (hence the nickname).  After giving us the once over, it then swam over to the zodiacs … and promptly fell in love with Colin’s little rubber boat!

Odobenny shows a special interest in Colin’s zodiac
and approaches to get to know it better!

Now, bear in mind that an adult walrus can weigh anywhere from 1,800 to 3,700 pounds (800-1700 kg).  And the tusks are long, heavy, and sharp.  Could it have punctured the zodiac?  Colin didn’t want to find out.  After revving the outboard engine a couple of times in an effort to rebuff the unwanted attention of the walrus, he decided the better part of valor in this instance was a graceful retreat.

Colin beats a retreat after the Walrus shows a little too much interest in the zodiac.

Odobenny returns to bid us do svidaniya before diving and heading to parts unknown.

In the meantime, having completed its mission, the helicopter was back and it was time to leave Cape Flora behind and continue north through a land that is comprised of 85% ice.  My kind of place … in the summer; I’m not sure I’d want to live through a winter here.

Farewell Cape Flora!

We stayed on deck as the ship followed the shoreline of Northbrook Island, keeping an eye on the birds flying about.  There wasn’t much variety — just some glaucous gulls, black-legged kittiwakes; Brünnich’s and black guillemots.  I didn’t have my fast lens with me — too heavy to stroll about with.  So, I simply enjoyed the birds with my eyes … but when they were near enough, I did deploy my SX50 for a couple of shots even though it isn’t quite suitable for birds in flight.

A Brünnich’s guillemot scurries out of the way of the big red ship and takes to the air.

A great shot from a fellow-passenger; you can see the signature
white line on the side of the mandible of these Brünnich’s guillemots.

For the next little while, we simply enjoyed the icy landscape that we were traversing.  Moving through broken-up sea ice, 50 Let Pobedy was mostly nudging pieces of the frozen stuff out of its way.  Easy-peasy.

Expedition Day 33 Jul 2014

Enchanted by the color of the water, I focus on some detail shots.

We were just settling in for Dr Sam’s photography lecture when the call went out for walrus on the ice!  A pro in polar voyages, Dr Sam knew better than to try and compete with a wildlife sighting and quickly dismissed class.  As we all rushed to our cabins for our parkas and cameras, Captain Davydyants began the process of gently maneuvering 50 Let Pobedy towards the slab of ice where the walrus were lying about a less-than-pristine haul-out.  Slow and easy we went so as not to scare off the herd … amazing what you can get a giant, hulking ship to do when you know which buttons to push ;-)

You know what’s coming next, don’t you?  A series of photos from this encounter … but not nearly as many as I actually took.  I’ll keep the words to a minimum as I am sure after seeing so many walrus — near and far — Conrad will do a presentation on these amazing creatures in the days ahead, and I will have plenty of words to share then.

Over a period of time, the walrus one by one slipped into the water … leaving only two behind to play amongst themselves.  We watched them for a few more minutes before moving on — no sense in wearing out our welcome and stressing the animals. 

Just because we moved on from the walrus, it doesn’t mean the entertainment ended.  The scenery was just so spectacular that we really didn’t need anything else to add to our pleasure in the early evening hours.

At one point, I kneeled down at the bow chock — at least that’s what I think the ‘window’ in the ship’s bow is called.  The hard deck wasn’t easy on my knees, but the different perspective of the icescape from this vantage point was worth a little pain ;-)

Expedition Day 33 Jul 2014

Can you see the bird footprints on the ice?

I wish I could describe just how smoothly the ship was moving through the ice.  Sure this ice was thin.  Sure it was broken up.  But it was still ice … a solid mass in many places.  But the ship went through it like it was nothing but water.  OHHH … but wait a minute — I actually remembered to take some video … so you don’t have to take my word for it after all; you can see for yourself what I mean.

Remember, ‘thin’ though the ice is, the ship is going right over it … you would think there
would be some bumps along the way … nope just a little vibration from the engines.

Darn!  I really planned to finish writing about today in just two posts.  But it’s just not going to happen.  There’s still a lot to share.  So, I will stop here.  But not before teasing you just a tiny bit with what might be in the next post …

Ohhh!  Lookeee here … more footprints on the ice.  They’re too big for a bird …

… could they be human?  Or are they from something else?

Now … this is an easy tease, so you know what you have to look forward to!

Welcome to Franz Josef Land

[CATCH-UP POST]

Thursday, 3 July (Part I)
Franz Josef Land
Position @ Noon: 79°46’ N / 49°22’ E
Outside Temperature: 31F / Minus .4C
614 NM (707 miles / 1,137 km) from the North Pole

I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what
direction we are moving; to reach the port of heaven, we must sail sometimes with
the wind and sometimes against it — but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes —

Another great quote from the daily program!

I realize Holmes didn’t use “sail, drift, and at anchor” in the literal sense.  But for someone who finds the polar regions to be so heavenly — in terms of its utter tranquility and spectacular beauty — the words are apropos to our current situation.

Continuing to sail north, with only a brief period of being stationary for a worthwhile cause, we have reached the sea ice that is a hallmark of these northerly latitudes.  And I’m in heaven.  It was a wonderful day … with some remarkable wildlife sightings adding to our pleasure.  Another long story … and a ton of pictures to share.

On The third day of the expedition we’re in the thick of things, so to speak.  Even Thicker ice to come.

When Alex’s wake up call gave our position at 7:30a this morning, we were still more than a degree short of reaching our noon position in sight of the sea ice.  We’d been up for an hour before the P/A system came alive.  Dressed and ready for the day ahead, I had already visited the bridge; already done a quick stroll around the outer decks.  Though the skies were overcast, the light was bright … especially where the sun’s rays were breaking through the clouds like so many spotlights over the ocean.

By 9:00a, breakfast eaten, I had gathered up my notebook and camera, and was on my way to the aft saloon for the first lecture of the day.  I’m not sure if all 99 passengers booked on this voyage were present, but Dr Maria’s lecture, entitled The Birds of Franz Josef Land, ‘filled the house’ this morning.

Dr Maria is the Research Director for the Russian Arctic National Park.
Amongst her current projects is a study of the biology of Ivory Gulls.

Some take-away points from her very interesting lecture …

  • Only 50 species of the high Arctic birds ever recorded in Franz Josef Land (FJL), the northernmost archipelago in the Russian Arctic (as well as Eurasia); only 18 of these species breed in FJL.
  • Of the species found in the area, by far the majority are seabirds; only 27% are shore birds/waterfowl (ex. purple sandpiper, common eider; skua; ivory gull) and 6% are terrestrial birds (snow bunting and rock ptarmigan being the only two species).
  • Environmental factors affecting the FJL bird community — 85% of the land is covered by ice; essentially a polar desert; no lemmings or other rodents … hence no birds of prey; isolation from other land masses.

A colony of 100 breeding pairs of ivory gulls lives in harmony                
next to the airfield at a station on Alexandra Land in western FJL.            

  • The ivory gull is a threatened species; endemic to the Arctic; 20% of the worldwide breeding population is in FJL.  They frequently associate with polar bears … for ‘free’ food; unfortunately one of the most contaminated birds in the Arctic even though contaminants like DDT and PCB have been banned since the 1970s.
  • Seabirds spend most of their lives on-the-wing; they prey at sea, returning to land only to breed.  Estimated that at least ½-million pairs are in FJL … that number is not well documented.

Left: FJL, which has the harshest environment in the Arctic region, also has the smallest
seabird population, though the numbers are not well documented and could be larger.

Right: Arctic birds exploit different parts of the marine environment for prey.

Dr Maria concluded her presentation with an explanation of the four-year SeaTrack Project, a large scale international undertaking designed to use geo-locators to track 12 characteristic seabird species from the immense North Atlantic region while they are at sea.  Some of the goals of the project: to determine migration routes and wintering grounds, uncover threats and stressors, and link population development and demographics to at-sea-distribution.

I could go on as the lecture was truly fascinating, but I’ll stop here with one last photo from the presentation.

Dr Maria working with the birds of Franz Josef Land.

I had just enough time take a peek at the polar bear painting Brett is completing on this voyage, and grab a cup of hot chocolate from the self-serve station — tea and coffee also available — before it was time to join Timur Kouliev for a Russian Language Lesson.

The Mahl stick helps Brett Jarrett steady his hand as he works to complete his painting.

Trained in medicine, disaster management, and business admin, Dr Timur is a member of the expedition team, though he is not the expedition doctor on this voyage.  His specialty aboard the ship is in marine biology, environmental health, and safety.  Originally from Russia, he’s the perfect person to teach us a few key phrases.  Mui and I taught ourselves a few basic words of Russian before our Antarctic voyage in 2007.  While our pronunciation might not have been perfect, the Russian crew on the Professor Molchanov were all smiles when we practiced on them.  We’ve been using those words on the crew of 50 Let Pobedy with similar results.  Now to broaden our vocabulary base to add some variety.

Welcome to Timur’s Russian 101 class.

Just some of the many words and phrases we can now practice on the Russian crew!
[click for a larger, more legible version]

With land on the horizon, I was itching to be on deck after the class, but … no rest for the weary!

We’re hoping to do at least one helicopter ride while the ship is breaking ice to see the action from the air.  As Alex put it, no briefing … no heli ride.  So, attending the mandatory Helicopter Operations Briefing had to take priority over some distant mass of land.  (No … you can’t claim to have attended; roll call is taken when a briefing is designated ‘attendance required’.)

Chief Pilot Alexander introduces the Russian flight crew on our voyage — which, in addition
to himself, includes an assistant pilot and two flight coordinators (in black sweaters).

The presentation focused on heli ops as it relates to flightseeing — taking off from the ship, flying around the ship, and landing back on the ship.  That’s a moving ship, by the way … and I don’t mean moving as in the motion of the ocean.  Alex explained that we will be using a Russian MI-2 helicopter, and gave us a brief introduction to the ‘anatomy of the bird’.  He stressed that the most dangerous part of the chopper is the spinning rotors — at speed they are near-invisible — and went into detail about how to safely approach and leave a helicopter.

Alex then outlined how to prepare for helicopter flightseeing … dress in warm clothes and rubber boots (mandatory … you never know when there might be an emergency that requires putting down on land or ice); listen to announcements and show up for staging in the reception area only when our groups are called.  Finally — go easy on the booze … no flying if you appear to be intoxicated.  All very common sense.  Oh, and manually-inflated life vests are stowed in the chopper; leave the auto-inflate life vests stowed in our cabins behind … they are not suitable for heli ops.

In return for completing the helicopter waiver forms, We’ve been pinned!
These buttons are a safety precaution.  The  number corresponds to my name
on the passenger manifest, and is how Quark will keep track of whether I am
on or off the ship — be it for helicopter sightseeing or zodiac landings.

For helicopter operations to proceed, there are three essential elements that Alex, the pilots, and the captain will consult on — time frame (minimum 4 hours); visibility (cloud deck and fog); and wind speed.  While Alex would prefer that we fly as often as possible, the chief pilot will have final say on any flight operations.  Safety first — I have no problems with the experts making decisions on when and where we will be flying.

MI-2 is a robust helicopter that is perfectly suited to Arctic operations.  It carries five
passengers — on back-to-back bench seats.  Each passenger has a window (pax 2 has two
side windows; best for long lenses) through which to view the scenery and take photographs.

Alex had more to share in terms of safety details, how we would be escorted out to the helipad, do’s and don’ts … including photos for those who are more visually inclined.  Between the show-and-tell presentation, and our experience with previous chopper flights, we felt comfortable skipping the helicopter orientation that was held on the helipad this afternoon.

Do not touch buttons or levers … and don’t mess with these fuel shut-off valves!

Alex wrapped up by saying that we would be arriving in Franz Josef Land shortly after lunch.  That meant the sea ice wasn’t far off — brilliant.  We made short work of our meal — too much happening outside that was more important than food.  The nip in the air made a cup of cream of tomato soup from the buffet an excellent choice.  From the table-service menu, I opted for the cheese ravioli with paprika sauce — yes, pasta again.  Mui selected the fillet of cod Parisienne, served with a potato cucumber salad.  Both dishes were excellent.

Grabbing our cameras and binoculars, after lunch we headed to the outer decks to watch our approach to Franz Josef Land — more specifically to Cape Flora on Northbrook Island.

Land Ahoy!  Franz Josef Land ahead.

It wasn’t so much the arrival at the Franz Josef Archipelago that excited me.  Rather, I was thrilled to be seeing Cape Flora, where Fridtjof Nansen and his mate, Hjalmer Johansen, ended their 15-month trek — on foot and through an Arctic winter — and spent another 6-weeks with the Frederick Jackson expedition awaiting the arrival of a ship that would return them to Norway.  This was all part of Nansen’s 1893-1896 Fram expedition — an expedition during which he purposefully froze the ship into the pack ice in order to use the natural drift to reach the North Pole, or get as close to there as possible.  Having recently read Nansen’s account of the entire tale, I was a-tingle at being close to Cape Flora even though stepping on the island wasn’t on today’s planned activities.

Can you imagine trekking through this land of ice — and water during the brief
summer season?  And for 15 months?  I can’t even begin to guess the hardships of
such an experience.  I’m happy with my ‘soft expedition’ … thank you very much.
[Map from Wikimedia — image attribution at this link.]

Cape Flora dead ahead.  Even though the Frederick Jackson Expedition hut
has long since deteriorated and disappeared, Bob Headland, who was
standing with me at the railing, pointed out the approximate location.

In fact, no landings are scheduled on the way north since the foremost goal of this expedition is the attainment of the North Pole.  Once that is achieved, we will play as we retrace our way south.  So, if we weren’t here to land at Cape Flora, why was the ship slowing down?  To drop off Dr Maria and her team so they can continue their research project in FJL.  The question was — would this be a zodiac drop off … which would be faster; or would the team and their gear have to be helicoptered to their base camp.

Expedition Day 33 Jul 2014

The helicopter is readied for a reconnaisance mission to check out ice conditions around Cape Flora.

Turns out, ice conditions were such that the transfers would have to be accomplished by air.  So, like many of our fellow-passengers, we made ourselves comfortable on the deck overlooking the helipad to bid the good doctor and her team do svidaniya [good bye] and watch the logistics unfolding before us.  The distance to be covered was considerable and the process of ferrying the team and their gear took about 2½ hours.  No problem — we were entertained by wildlife sightings, helicopter operations — and of course, the ice.

Brünnich’s Guillemots (aka Thick-Billed Murre) — I can see the signature white
line along the sides of the upper mandible … not clear in the photo …
so you just have to take my word that I know what I speak of ;-)

The team has to be prepared for any eventuality ... including polar bears; hence the firearms!

And there goes the first of many chopper flights required to complete the mission.

See that small speck in the ‘vee’ between the cliffs; that’s the helicopter.
This photo is zoomed in with the equivalent of a 1200mm lens; sure gives
you some perspective for the distance to be flown from the ship.

We used the time it took for the ferry-operation to be completed to wander around the open decks and enjoy the sight, and smell, and snap-crackle-and-pop of the sea ice around us.

Before we knew it, the chopper was returning from its last mission.  By 3:45p, the captain had pointed the bow to its new heading to navigate around Northbrook Island and continue north.

As soon as the chopper is secured, we’ll be on our way.

As the chopper crew worked to secure the ‘bird’ to the helipad, we headed down to the dining room for a hot cuppa.  We weren’t down there long, however, as the siren call of the ice was just too strong.  We would have gone to Dr Sam’s photography lecture at 5:00p, but she had to take a back seat to a couple of wildlife sightings — happens to the best of speakers, and they are happy to oblige.  No worries, the lecture will be rescheduled.  And in the same manner that we have to wait for her presentation, you will have to wait until the next post for all the photos of the ice and the Arctic fauna … just too much to fit into this post.

Just to tease you … more to come.

The daily recap did go on as scheduled, although there was no ‘briefing’ per se since Alex had already teased us with his thoughts for tomorrow’s activities earlier in the day.

Ice-free on the port side; not so much on the starboard side of 50 Let Pobedy.

A couple of highlights from the recap …

  • Bob talked about the seas that make up the Arctic Ocean, the smallest of the world’s five oceans … amongst them: Barents, Kara, Laptev, East Siberian, Chukchi, Beaufort, Lincoln, and Greenland.
  • Colin’s topic was icebergs … how they a born from glaciers and made up of fresh water; unlike sea ice, which is made up of salt water.  He described icebergs as being the last stage of a glacier and how any debris in them tells the story of the land the glacier scoured on its way to the ocean.

Fresh ice anyone?
Clarity is a sign of highly compressed ice from which all air has been squeezed out.

Dinner tonight was with our friend Nicola ... from the expedition staff.  Joining us were two passengers — Costa and Dee — who also knew her from a previous Quark Expedition.  In addition to being a guide, Nicola is in charge of the Polar Boutique.  Her enthusiasm for all things polar, and her ever-present smile and easy-going manner were what first struck us about Nicola.  We were happy to see none of those characteristics had changed in the year since meeting her.  We enjoyed a great evening with her, and Costa and Dee, who have traveled around the world in their sailboat; they had some interesting stories to share with us.

Expedition Day 33 Jul 2014

Good friends, good conversation, and good food … the ingredients for a fun evening.

Shrimp cocktail with sauce Americaine started off our meal.  I then ordered the spinach and feta cheese crepes — the vegetarian option; Mui went with the grilled salmon steak on asparagus, with pommes duchesse and sauce béarnaise.  We agreed that both dishes were delicious.  For dessert, I stuck with my usual — ice cream, while Mui ordered the panacotta with a mixed berry sauce … I tasted it and it was good.

Yes, yes … time to wrap this post up.  But first one last photo … keep this one in mind as it starts the story of our first wildlife sighting this afternoon.

Wildlife story?  Hmmm … these look like zodiacs to me!  Just you wait and see.

That's it for this post ...