Walrus and ship

Two days ago we got final confirmation that the Russian government would permit us to leave the ship and make landings in Franz Josef Land. Unlike our last trip this voyage had already been classified as ‘domestic’, i.e. on paper we would not be leaving Russia at any time between sailing from Murmansk, attaining the North Pole and returning to the Kola inlet via Franz Josef Land. This in theory meant that we could move freely in Franz Josef Land without needing to clear any form of customs or immigration procedures (understandably difficult in the remote high Arctic). But, in practice, we still required final confirmation from the Kremlin that we’d be allowed to land, and they kept us waiting until the last minute. Still, finally word came through, and we got the green light to start building our small fleet of six Zodiacs!

We looked at the ice charts sent to us from one of Russia’s ice-sensing radar satellites, and one or two sites in the Franz Josef Land archipelago stood out as being sufficiently ice-free to drop the boats.

Over the next two days Vladimir, Solen (a colleague and good friend from Alaska), Paterson (a hot air balloon pilot from Australia) and myself worked long hours out in the open air to build and inflate the zodiacs. I’m sure there’s a joke in there somewhere… Something along the lines of: ‘A Russian, an Alaskan, and Australian and a Scotsman were building boats in the Arctic… You can probably make something up for yourself from that point on. Needless to say, it was a very physical, creative couple of days, and I’m still covered in bruises.

Eventually we finished them off. Well… I say finished, but the engines are a bit ‘moody’, the rubber looks ragged and the boats only stay inflated for a few hours at a time. Still, they work! This issue with maintenance is one of the down sides of the arrangement with this ship. Normally the company I work for charters vessels for years at a time and we have control over all our equipment for the duration. On this Russian icebreaker however we only have access to our gear for six weeks of the year. For the rest of the time it stays on the ship and is moved, used and otherwise abused by other parties. So, we never really know what we’ll find ‘down below’ when we start the season. Still, all six worked, and that’s the main thing!

In the end we completed three rounds of zodiac operations yesterday, taking all the passengers to shore at a place called ‘Cape Norway’ .  We then also managed to get everyone off the ship again in the afternoon when we came across a large group of walrus, all scattered around the water on rafts of sea ice. We ‘zodiac cruised’ with these animals for around three hours, achieving some of the best walrus viewing I’ve ever had. We were able to get surprisingly close to the animals, albeit under guidance the watchful eyes of our attendant Russian Arctic National Park officers, all of whom are excellent guys. The only thing they asked of us yesterday was that we keep our zodiac engines on at idle throughout the whole interaction, never turning them off for any reason. This is a bit noisy (and smelly) but as a regulation is based on sound reasoning, for if a walrus decides to attack you it can do so VERY quickly. They’re not small animals. A large male walrus is about the same size as an adult polar bear, and with those tusks one animal could dismantle even the toughest of zodiacs in seconds flat. I was actually attacked by a walrus last year, quite unexpectedly, and was only just able to start my engine and reverse in time before it burst my zodiac, so I appreciate the reasons for this rule, even if the engine noise is a bit uncomfortable when you’re watching wildlife. In places like the Polar Regions you really need to be careful, especially when you’re off the ship.

The process of launching and recovering the zodiacs is quite ‘exhilarating’ too. It involves hitching each boat, with its driver already aboard, to the big cranes that we use to get them out of the hold. Then, those long grease-caked cables go taught and you are hoisted up, over the side of the ship, and down the full, dizzy twenty meters to the water’s surface below. It takes an uncomfortable length of time and I’m always quietly relieved when I hear the slap of rubber on waves that heralds the end of my descent. It’s a little scary, especially as the crew of this huge, 80,000 horsepower ship aren’t accustomed to working with zodiacs at all. The whole operation is riddled with ‘X-factors’. But, everyone keeps smiling and does their best. I was buoyed up yesterday during my second ‘descent’ of the day when I looked up from my boat, which at the time was swinging freely in the void over the side of the ship, and saw one of the Russian deck hands looking back at me. He stuck one thumb up, with his arm raised in the air, and said, in English,”I’ll be back!” I stumbled over the thought for a moment before replying. In Russian:”Ya nadeus!”, meaning ‘I hope so!’ Then I got it! He was quoting Arnold Schwarzenegger from Terminator 2. In the film’s penultimate scene the Terminator, played by Arnie, asks to be lowered, by crane, into molten steel. The last thing he does as he sinks into the molten metal, descending on a crane not dissimilar to the one I was dangling from at that moment, is to give the thumbs up. I suddenly laughed out loud. This crewman was making a brilliant reference and a great analogy to what was happening to me at that point. Although I speak what I’d describe as being reasonable ‘subsistence Russian’ (it’s better after a few vodka toasts) I am FAR from fluent. Sometimes though, you don’t need much language to make a connection. This time, it was Arnie and the Terminator that that got us there and lightened the mood. I hit the water (gently) with a broad smile on my face.

“I’ll be back!”