Well, here we are once again in Franz Josef Land, northbound on the first leg of our third and final jaunt to the North Pole this season. I’m writing this whilst supping a now very cold cup of tea after being suddenly ‘deployed’ on deck straight after my lecture this morning. Saying that I ‘assisted’ sounds a little over important to be fair, for in truth all that was needed were as many pairs of capable arms as possible. It was a case of heft and carry, as we were engaged in transferring several Russian scientists from the ship to the shore here at Cape Flora, a peninsula on Northbrook Island in the southwest corner of the Franz Josef Land archipelago. This group of four Russian Arctic National Park researchers, complete with several months worth of supplies and equipment, disembarked through light cloud and scattered sea ice using both our fleet of inflatable ‘Zodiacs’ (launched by crane) and the MI2 helicopter which we normally use for passenger ‘flightseeing’. It was a busy couple of hours, but we got everyone and everything ‘over the side’, over the water and up to the field camp without any incidents. Not bad for a rushed, mixed language operation in the high Arctic! I’m not entirely sure that anyone knew exactly what was happening at any given time throughout the process, but operational inertia carried us through pretty smoothly and we got the job done unexpectedly rapidly. I was surprised, especially given that, despite our Zodiacs and our drivers being crucial to the operation, none of us, even the Russian helicopter pilots, were permitted to actually step foot on the shore.
Official governmental clearance for landings hasn’t yet come through for this trip you see, so only the field scientists and national park officers could actually go ashore. This made unloading the zodiacs on the beach a comical affair of ‘to you, to me’ as things were passed from the boats to the shore personnel, all of whom found themselves half buried in snow as soon as they jumped off the Zodiacs. Hilarious.
Anyway, amongst the field party’s amassed kit was a large amount of fuel, several ice drills, four large(ish) collapsible cages, a few VERY long-handled fishing nets (for catching flying birds), a couple of rifles, ammunition boxes and a big pile of nice, soft, warm blankets. Oh, and food!
Everything you need for a summer in the Arctic! The lead scientist, Maria, and her team will be spending several months in Franz Josef Land collecting information on the resident bird populations. One of their main aims is to capture birds which were first caught and tagged a number of years ago.
These individual birds were fitted with tiny data loggers which record time and light levels, thus registering sunrise and sunset every day since they were activated. If Maria and her team can catch some of those tagged birds again this season, and download the data from the logging devices, they’ll be able to establish how the birds have moved since they were first tagged using the sunrise and sunset times to calculate approximate longitude and latitude, working out their migration patterns. This is important as from this data the team can establish which areas in the Arctic are important to these birds over the course of their annual travels; information which will become more and more relevant as exploitation of the Arctic (mining and hydrocarbon extraction) moves ever further forward.
This kind of operation – facilitating research – is, in my opinion, an important part of what we do here as a tourist outfit. To be honest, attitudes vary a little as some people feel that taking the time and sharing the resources required to accommodate research parties detracts from our own agenda, especially given the money involved with the charter of a nuclear icebreaker. I appreciate that as a scientist myself I’m going to be a bit biased on this one but, to my mind at least, supporting active research into the ecology and the future stability of these remote and sensitive areas should always be a major part of any tourist venture in these areas. This kind of collaboration not only enhances our experience of the places we visit, but goes some additional way towards validating and justifying our presence here. I’m pleased to say that the company I work for currently shares this view as well, which means a lot to me. If one ice breaker is transiting the area with passengers, and is able to support active research while it does so, this not only contributes to ongoing efforts to better understand and protect fragile ecosystems, but also negates the necessity of a second, and arguably intrusive, icebreaker from coming to the area to deliver the research party separately. Regardless, to my mind, playing a part, however small, in ongoing Arctic research is a great thing not only for science but also for international relations as our passengers can see what is being done here in Russia to protect our collective natural heritage. Maria gave us all a brilliant lecture yesterday in which she described the bird life of Franz Josef Land, outlined their research (which is being done in collaboration with institutes in other nearby countries [Norway, Iceland, Denmark, France and the United Kingdom]) and shared some of their results so far. It was really interesting.
Anyway, we’re now on our way once again, bound for the North Pole and thicker sea ice. Bowhead whales are blowing in the distance and the skies are just beginning to turn grey as the first flakes of snow begin to fall from what looks to be a fairly robust storm cloud. It’s like a thick white veil is being drawn around us. Now all I can see as I look out of my cabin window is glassy black water and an uneven, deceptively white horizon which melts into the opaque white ice clouds that now fill the sky. The open water is just a lead; a large crack in the now rotting fast ice, and the uneven horizon is actually the edge of the ice it’s-self, skirting our path just beyond my ability to see it, dancing in and out of the snow cloud and playing with my sense of direction and balance as it does so. You expect the horizon to be straight, but when the ice protrudes towards you, or retreats away from you into a jagged bay, the hazy white line defining the edge of your visibility in driving snow undulates inward and outwards, creating the impression of a ‘wobbly earth’. It’s very disorienting, but only a factor when the ship is in open leads. When we move out of the clear waters and into an ice floe the whole world turns completely white; complete that is except for the long cracks which open up in front of us as we push inexorably forward. These cracks appear in little more than an instant and can shoot out quite unexpectedly in almost any direction, stark and black in contrast to the soft white which overwhelms the view in almost every other direction. These cracks are fascinating to follow with the eye. Sometimes they can appear almost too rapidly to register, and before you know it a black tendril has split the world of white, out and away into the distance, opening a cleft in the ice hundreds of meters in length in less than a heartbeat. Some others propagate slowly by comparison though, and although they still move very quickly you can just about follow their leading edge with your eyes. It’s a little like watching a lightning bolt strike in extremely slow motion, the business end of each broken black bolt striking outwards and away from the determinedly forward bow of our icebreaker. The whole scene is quite hypnotic, and a little immersive. I spent long hours up on the fly bridge last night (the top, open deck of the ship, located just above the command bridge, known as the ‘mostik’ in Russian), watching our progress through scattered floes and open leads. I plan on doing the same tonight, despite the snow, as we break through the now thinning ice between the islands of Franz Josef Land. Why? Because this is prime narwhal country.
Here, in the shallow waters of the archipelago, where the sea ice is breaking up and the leads are ever extending; here is where the single-tusked ‘unicorn of the sea’ is most likely to be found. Two trips ago one of our team managed to snatch a single, blurred photo of a small group of these almost mythical creatures. I myself had an exhilarating encounter with them last year whilst peering over the ship’s bow: a group of perhaps six or seven narwhal broke the surface briefly before swimming down and away under the ice. I saw them for less than two seconds – just long enough to make out their streamlined, mottled bodies, their characteristically heart-shaped tails and, of course, at least two long, spiralled tusks before they swept themselves away, almost ghost-like into the ice-shrouded Arctic Ocean. It was incredible, and if it hadn’t been for one lucky passenger who happened to capture the moment on camera from up on the bridge, no-one would have believed me! As it was, even WITH the photo (which showed the animal’s blow-holes and tusks, albeit faintly and through the water) I still had a job convincing our marine biologist (who had missed them) that they really were narwhal and not just strangely-shaped seals! But no, blubbery unicorns they were! And now, I want more. So, as with any kind of wildlife watch, it’s all about just spending time outside and on the deck. If you don’t look you never see, and this is one of the most difficult things to convince people of in wildlife tourism and wilderness guiding in general: To see anything you need to look, and I mean REALLY look. It’s not just about opening your eyes and staring… You have to examine everything you see. Up here it’s all about sharp breaks in contrast; ripples in otherwise calm water; a sudden change in the texture or colour of either water or ice… You’re looking for clues, not easy wins, and that applies everywhere in the world. A flock of birds can lead you to whales or dolphins that you might otherwise never have noticed. In the jungles of India, where I worked several months ago, it was the alarm calls of deer or peacocks that would tell us that a leopard or tiger was nearby. In the Kalahari Desert you look at the sand, and search for the tracks (or ‘spoor’) of animals such as lions, cheetah or what have you. You can’t always just expect wildlife to present itself. Sometimes it will, certainly, but more often than not you have to put in the hours and build on your skills as a spotter or tracker. I’m still just a greenback tracker when it comes to leopards and such like, but up here, in the ice and on the open seas, I’ve had the time to tune my eyes. You’d be surprised at what’s out there to be seen, if you just put in the hours.
So yes, it’s time for narwhal watch! I’ll let you know how it goes. Wish me luck!
All the best for now.
Picture: The Narwhal image is a stock image.