Thurs 17th July to Sun 20th July, 2008 – Helsinki
Sun, 20th July to Sun, 3rd August, 2008 – North Pole Expedition
Sunday, 20th July – hot and sunny in Murmansk
We arose at 3am Helskinki time and headed to the airport for our flight to Murmansk, a city of 300,000 with a tiny airport with a concrete blockhouse for checking in travellers. It took nearly two hours for the passports and visas of our 106 group to be examined and approved by the three officers. The weather was unusually hot. After lunch, we were then taken on a tour of the town starting with the museum, which houses amazing unique memorabilia about Murmansk during the First and Second World Wars. Murmansk was closed to the rest of the world until about five years ago. We saw the local memorial to the Soviets fighting the interventionists in 1917-1918 (America sided with the White Russians to stop the Bolsheviks, and they lost). Our final stop was the huge Alyosha Statue, a 30-meter-tall statue of a soldier overlooking the city,that overlooks the sea, commemorating the sea battles Russia has won.
We arrived at the Murmansk ship yard at approx 4pm and the passport check took over 30mins whilst we sat on the coach in scorching heat. We then boarded the ’50 Years of Victory’, which is one of, if not, the most powerful ship on earth, and certainly the most powerful icebreaker ever built. It serves to keep the northern routes open in the winter for Russian shipping and for six weeks during the summer, takes on travellers seeking journeys in the Arctic region.
From Helsinki we had put our watches forward 1 hour for Murmansk. On board ship we put our watches back 2 hours to be on the same time as Moscow, ie 3 hours ahead of GMT. We set off at 19.30 and sailed for 2 hours on the Kola river to get into the Barents Sea.
Monday, 21st July – cloudy with some foggy patches
19:00 (21.00 GMT) Temperature 7C, 75.3993N,41.1331E Barents Sea, Bearing 326 degrees, Speed 17.7 nm/h
This morning we had fog until about 11am and then the weather settled into grey overcast and relatively warm (50C or 52F) except for the cold wind chill as we were moving at 20 knots into a headwind. We are only 5 degrees or 300 miles from Fran Josef Land and ice. The ETA for the North Pole was Saturday, although it may be Friday.
The day was taken up with parka and boot fittings, safety briefing, lifeboat drill, and helicopter safety. The lifeboats hold 60 people and the helicopters hold 10 passengers on the reconnaissance flights (each having a window) and 20 for the landings on the various Franz Joseph Lands. We also met the three Russian Safety officers with rifles to protect us just in case of Polar Bears.
This afternoon we saw our first birds (Kittiwakes) which forage far out to sea. They were being followed by Great Skuas who chase them and grabbed their booty when they can. This evening we saw a Humpback Whale. We enjoyed the Captain’s welcome cocktails and welcome dinner followed by the ‘Planet Earth – Ice World’s’ film in the evening.
In the early hours of the morning we rendezvoused with the Captain KlemleKoff icebreaker which was just completing its trip around the North East passage and we were the first ship they had seen for 25 days. She is a very famous ship with lots of ‘Firsts’. We encircled her twice and then hooted loudly as we left her.
We are told there will be a krill fishing group as we approach St. Josef land during the night. It is highly unusual to see any other ships on any expedition in the Arctic. If we are awake, there will be no problem seeing them as the sun does not set although it does drop fairly close to the horizon at night.
Tuesday, 22nd July – cloudy
19:00 Temperature 4C, 81.4323N,51.5574E, Heading: due north, Speed 14 nm/hr
The day started at 7am with a Tai Chi lesson. It is very slow, meditated moves. Not really for me as I prefer something more active to get the circulation moving.
Lectures during the day:
Polar Bear Biology
Introduction to Geology and Geological Time – 4,600,000,000 years in under 1 hour
The Spirit and Mechanics of Photography
The Agony & Ecstasy – The ups and downs of Bird Watching
A Geographical Introduction to the Arctic
At 17.30 we hit pancake ice (millions of ice pancakes up to 30 meters floating about) at Franz Josef Land and it feels like riding in the back of the bus. From now on, we are told, it will be similar to being in a permanent earthquake. The pack ice is yet to come and that is more challenging.
In the evening we watched the film - ‘A Boy among Polar Bears’.
Wednesday, 23rd July – cloudy and foggy in places
0330 83.2440N,52.0880E Average speed 10-12 knots
In the early hours of the morning we moved into pack ice and the ship’s rumbling became noisier. As we watched the ice being broken up and pushed aside, the 'icecubes' are up to 6 feet thick and the size of a large car. Some are deep blue as they are highly compressed with relatively little oxygen.
At 07.25 there was an announcement that bears were in sight. The ship stopped and we saw mother and 2 cubs and also a male bear some distance behind but tracking the mother and cubs. They are more yellow than white. It’s an amazing sight – the bears on millions of square miles of ice.
At 11am we went on the Engine tour to see the nuclear reactors, the control room, the propeller shaft, generators and de-salination plant see 50 Years of Victory.
Lectures during the day:
The Greatest Explorer in the North – Fridtjof Nansen
Photography – Exposure
Introducing Eclipses: the Greatest Celestial Coverup
Behind the scenes of Planet Earth
Tonight the ship stopped, the barbecue equipment was brought onto the aft deck, we were dressed in our Arctic clothes and we held Neptune’s Ceremony, then we picnic’d looking at the endless sea ice. Some danced into the night. It was crazy and hard to believe we were doing this in the Arctic wildnerness so close to the North Pole.
The evening film was the BBC Natural History – Polar Bear Special
Thursday, 24th July – cloudy
09.40 Temperature 1C, 87.2167N, 55.0029E
This morning the fog cleared early and we actually saw some sun behind the generally grey skies. The temperature was just above freezing but it now seems warm. We are about 150 miles from the North Pole.
Today, the helicopter was put into action. In our small groups of 10 we flew around the ship watching it crunch the ice (now 3-6 feet thick). It was an amazing sight.
Lectures during day:
Russian Lesson for Beginners
The Race to the North Pole
Recap of our voyage so far and briefing for arrival to the North Pole
The evening film was the ‘BBC Natural History – Polar Bear Special, part 2’
Friday, 25th July – Clear blue skies, 24 hour sunshine
At 01.40 everyone had assembled (in full daylight) on the ship's bow as the count down started ... Five miles, one mile, 500 yards ... At 01.56 we get there – 90 degrees North - the ship's horn blasts away. A group picture was taken from the bridge and we toasted the occasion with a glass of champagne. Then to bed for a few hours while the captain wedges the ship against an ice ridge to hold it firm for the next 18 hours so that we can enjoy the North Pole.
To our surprise we are greeted this morning with a deep blue sky and just enough light fog to create a fog bow to be seen from one side of the bow to the opposite side. It is rare and beautiful.
The day started cold at -3C with the sun at 40 degrees above the horizon. In fact, all day the sun was at about 45 degrees above the horizon. It goes in full circle. Behind the ship at 6am, in front of the ship at 6PM.
At 10.00am we gathered on the ice in a circle around the North Pole flag and the Russian captain made a speech. We then walked around the world in a few minutes. A few brave people took a very quick dip at the stern of the ship. The ship’s doctor was nearby with his defibrillator, just in case!
For the rest of the day we wandered around the ice pulling the rope at the bow, standing on the front anchor and taking any other interesting photos. The riflemen were on the perimeters to protect us from bears. We had a barbeque lunch and enjoyed the ice-cream dessert. Although it was sub zero temperature, the sun made it feel reasonably warm. In the afternoon, we had a helicopter ride to view the ship encased in ice and then enjoyed the warming hot chocolate with rum.
We have to remember the thousands who died in their attempts to reach this spot with the first successful assault less than 100 years ago. Who first reached the Pole is controversial. Peary claimed it in 1909 but his timings have been disproved. Amundson overflew it in an airship in 1926. An international group walked on the pole in 1948, having been dropped close-by from an aircraft. However, the first person to go over the ice surface to the North Pole was British Wally Herbert with companions Allan Gill, Roy Koerner and Kenneth Hedges, in 1969. They went with the aid of dog teams and air drops but no on-land or airborne mechanical systems. So who was the first? My vote goes to Wally Herbert.
Saturday, 26th July – sun with blue skies in the morning, cloud and fog in the afternoon
19.00 85.5900N, 51.3258E
Today, the day after the Pole and six before the eclipse, we head south toward Franz Joseph Land. It was hard to leave the Pole. Many of us were outside on the ice for nearly 8 hours exploring the ice ridges, the 'ponds' of pure blue water that stood on the surface of underlying sea ice, staring at the endless horizon, and not quite believing we were there. At 5.30pm ship time the expedition leaders tried to herd us into the ship. Most of us kept looking back at the ice as we moved onto the ship, not wanting to leave. Ohh, wouldn’t it have been wonderful to stay another day.
Lectures during the day:
Wandering Continents, Spreading Apart - Plate Techtonics and the Forming of the Arctic
Photography – Shutter Speed and Depth of Field
Polar Bear status and conservation
The Sun – Our Star in Reality, Myth, History and Art
We enjoyed a Gala Dinner with vodka and a Celebration Dance Night until 2am. With plenty of vodka and draft beer on hand even the Russian crew joined in the celebration. There was also a group of people who preferred to sunbathe on the helicopter deck in the midnight sun - the temperature was -2C (27F) but the sun was still high in the sky.
I couldn’t leave the deck – at 3am I was still revelling in the sunshine and the scenery. It was the most magical experience of my life.
Sunday, 27th July – ranges between thin fog with sun breaks
16:31 85.5900N, 50.5600E
In the early morning we passed the Russian ice-breaker Yamil, on its way to the North Pole.
Today we had brunch from 9.30 to 11.30
As we head south the ice is changing. The leads (water channels) seem longer and the seal holes are now apparent. These are the holes they use to breath and they are perfectly round. Where there are seals, there may be Polar Bears so we are now on 24 hour lookout. An adult male stands up to 12 feet high, definitely worth waiting for.
We passed a small iceberg today. Icebergs are generally calved from glaciers and this iceberg could have come from as far away as Greenland or Novaya Zemlya.
Our eclipse destination is now off the coast of Novaya Zemlya at N76.17'70, E55.00'00. Depending on weather, we will explore the uninhabited islands of Franz Josef Land for a few days
Early Navigation and Longitude
Franz Josef Land – the Final Frontier
Plants of the Arctic
Behind the Scenes on The Blue Planet
Recap and Briefing on Franz Josef Land
Our evening film was – The Discovery of Franz Josef Land – Part 1 (Odyssey on the Arctic Ocean)
Monday, 28th July – overcast, fog, lifted fog, fog, minimal sun
21:15 81.5390N, 49.4420E
The plan was to visit Payer Island and walk the ice cap, then on to Cape Norway where Nansen wintered in 1995-96 on the third year of his famous three year drift expedition. But weather changed the plans….
This morning we found ourselves icebound in a bay within the St. Josef Land archipelago. The weather is not good today. There were many polar bears on the ice in the distance. Then we were helicopter’d over to Zeigler Island where we wandered the tundra. There was an abundance of lichen and flowers. We were warned about the boggy area but we noticed a rubber boot stuck in the bog – someone has a very wet sock!
Zeigler Island is named after a wealthy American who sponsored two unsuccessful attempts at the North Pole in 1901 and 1903. His sponsored expedition discovered the island and named it after him. Both expeditions are considered two in a long line of attempts.
After rushing back to the ship as the fog rolled in we found a young adult male bear hanging around a seal hole. We watched as he pounced on a seal hole to break the ice and get the seal, unfortunately, he was not lucky.
On to Cape Norway which was the third wintering spot for Nansen who creatively ice bound his ship near Siberia and drifted almost to the North Pole. He left it near the Pole (after which it drifted on towards Norway) and he attempted to ski to the top of the world. He turned back knowing he would not make it, skied 350 miles to Cape Norway, wintered,and was rescued. For many, he is the number 1 hero of Arctic exploration since he designed what became the Nansen sledge, the modern Arctic tent, and discovered and used the fact that a man skiing moves at the same speed as dogs pulling. This was a break through in speed and efficiency. The Nowegian Fridtjof Nansen was extraordinary in other ways. He was a respected neuroscientist, participated in the negotiation that won Norway's freedom from Sweden, attended the peace conference at Versaille, headed a commission to repatriate WWI refuges including inventing the "Nansen" passport, led a famine relief program in Greece, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922.
Because of the fog, snow and sleet the helicopter could not take us to the winter camp site where remnants of the tiny hut still exist and a monument stands. It was a disappointment.
However, our primary afternoon entertainment was the captain showing us how powerful his ship is as he pushed an iceberg for a reasonable distance. It was fun.
Lecture – The early Eclipse Explorers
Tonight we had an Austrian Dinner before watching the evening film – The Discovery of Franz Josef Land – Part 2
Tuesday, 29th July, - overcast, fog
19:39 79.5668N, 49.4925E
We woke this morning to rain and a temperature of +2C. It was cold and wet as we approached Rubini Rock.
Rubini Rock, Hooker Island
The most spectacular bird cliff in the archipelago. The towering rock is a columnar basalt, volcanic rock similar to that found in the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland and also on the Island of Staffa in Scotland. The natural joints in the rock form narrow ledges where birds nest and lay a single egg - there’s not enough space for any more. Why the birds are attracted to this massive rock us no mystery.
Tikhaya Bukhta, Hooker Island
From Rubini Rock we headed over to an abandoned Soviet outpost called Tikhaya Bukhta on Hooker Island. Georgiy Sedov wintered here in 1913-1914, and two adjacent memorials commemorate this. In the 1920's the Soviets claimed all land north of Russia including Franz Josef Land. The Norwegians contested the claim and both sailed to establish year round stations on the islands, however the Norwegians were late due to ice. The first Polar Station was established on the same site on 29th August 1929 and named Sedova. It closed in 1963, but summer parties occasionally use two of the intact buildings. There are graves from the Sedov expedition and of an aviator from the station. Decaying building and old machine parts, shoes, exposed film, fuel barrels -- typical trash, litter the place among the wildflowers. Never were so many pictures of trash ever taken! Dense fog moved in on us so the ship came within a few hundred yards of shore to improve flight visibility as we departed. Even so, on the last flight, the helicopter was invisible in the air.
Cape Flora, Northbrook Island - weather zero visibility so we could not visit it.
This is the site of Leigh-Smith’s wintering quarters 1881-82. There are also remains of the Jackson-Hamsworth expedition 1894-97. Nearby is the place where Nanson and Jackson met on 17th June 1896, and the grave of June Mouatt of Jackson’s expedition. Wellman moved some of Jackson’s buildings to Cape Tegetthoff in 1898, others were used by the Ziegler-Fiala expedition, and used as fuel by Georgiy Sedov’s expedition. Memorials exist for the three members of the Duke of Arbuzzi’s expedition (a granite stele, erected in 1901), to the visit of Yermak in July 1901, (a wooden post), and a 2005 memorial cross to the Sveta Anna expedition from which only Valerian Albanov and Aleksandr konrad survived.
We stayed off the coast of Cape Flora waiting for the fog to lift but at 21.00 it was time to move on to another island for tomorrow.
Wednesday, 30th July – overcast and windy
We woke to cold temperatures and high wind. This is our last day of island exploration within Franz Josef Land's 75 islands. Ice covers 85% of the land mass. We first landed and wandered about Wilczek Island.
On November, 1st 1873 at noon, in the dim light of the polar winter the Austro-Hungarian explorers Payer and Weyprecht on the ship, the Tegetthoff set foot on new land. The sun had set a few days earlier, and the second period of polar night had already begun. They named it Wilczek Island, after the illustrious supporter of their expedition. The island, at the time, was covered by a thick glacier ice but despite this, the explorers felt as though they were entering paradise and were thankful for their fortunate fate when at long last they could step on solid ground. On the following day Payer took possession of the land. They were forced to winter here as their ship was caught in sea ice.
Cape Tegetthoff, Hall Island
In 1873 an Austro-Hungarian ship taking part in polar regioj research (First International Polar Year) was beset in the ice off Novaya Zemlya and started drifting with the Arctic sea ice. After one winter in the ice, one day in 1874, as the fog lifted the men, under Julius von Payer and Carl Weyprecht, were astounded to sight land. This was the first discovery of what was to become the Franz Josef Archipelago, named after the Austro-Hungarian Emperor. The land they sighted in Cape Tegetthoff, named after their ship, but they actually landed first on Wilczek Island as described above.
This island is stunning. The rock formations, although quite beautiful, seemed miniture in size to similar formations in the great western parks of the USA. But the scale of the mountains, the rock formations, the green, orange and red moss, and the sea with icebergs parading by was superb. It continued to be quite windy (20+ knots) with the temperature about +1C or 34F.
Thursday, 31st July - overcast
13:55 76.1830N, 55.0914E Temp 3C
We sailed all night to get into position off Novaya Zemlya ready for the eclipse. No longer in the ice, and with 20-30 knot winds, the seas are high with the ship rocking 2-3 degrees port to starboard and back every 3 seconds or so.
In this position we have two things in our favour. First, the eclipse is tomorrow, Friday. Maybe it will clear. Second, we have a fast ship which can move at 24 knots so we can chase holes in the clouds, provided they are within the path of totality see our route
Enjoy the Eclipse
Photography and Video Workshop
Atmosphere, Weather & Climate
Polar Bears on Thin Ice
Polar Bears in Alaska
Our evening film, Casino Royale, was shown in the aft deck whilst we munched our popcorn - Casino Royale
Friday, 1st August – cloudy, then sun
Eclipse Day – Why do we get such extraordinary eclipses? Because the sun is 400 times the size of the moon and 400 times its distance from earth -- so both appear the same size (about 1/2 degree). When the moon covers the sun totally,about once every 18 months, we get a total eclipse somewhere on earth.
We are in position for the eclipse but were still in fog although the sun was shining through a hole in the distance. We have to come to terms with the fact that we only have a 35% chance of sun for the eclipse. Since the sun does not rise or set we cannot depend on it to burn off the fog.
Under clouds the Arctic will go totally dark. Maybe the birds will head south asap. There is not supposed to be night in the Arctic. We have no idea what to expect under cloud cover. With no clouds, we will see the corona, prominences, the shadow of the moon flying at us at 1000 miles an hour.
09.00am We had ground fog and blue sky with mostly full sun with the hole in the sky being miles in diameter. The boys on the bridge had done a fine job positioning us. Let's hope it holds.
The Captain and crew had never seen an eclipse before but they were getting caught up in the excitement. The captain has raised the blue eclipse flag, given to him by Sky & Telescope magazine. He has been asked not to blow the horn during the eclipse as it is extremely loud if you are on deck and it interferes with the sensory rush going on. Same for flash on cameras, which are not effective anyway because of the distance. Black tape is required for everyone with an exposed flash, especially point and shoots. It becomes very dark at totality, about the brightness under a full moon. However, the few seconds before totality are bright so eyes take a moment to adjust. Flash blinds anyone near it, destroying night sight and the experience.
1055 AM First contact! (when the moon takes its first bite out of the sun). But the sun is barely showing behind high cloudiness and the deep grey clouds are racing over to us. 10 minutes go by and the eclipse-chasers start to grumble “Why aren't we moving to the clear hole in the sky that has moved miles south of us”. Suddenly the ship races off. We are in open water and doing 28 mph, the ship's maximum. The temperature has risen to 50 degrees F.
11.53AM One minute to second contact. The sliver of the sun is visible behind the clouds. In fact, no eye protection is really needed. Shadows are sharp. Colours have gone grey except for the sky which, if not behind clouds, is deep purple. This is our fourth eclipse and we have never heard such silence or such anticipation. Will we make it or not to that blue patch in the sky. But the ship races forward literally chasing the sun and open skies.
15 seconds to go. Silence.
11.57 Total sun eclipse begins. Suddenly, the sky opens and there is full view of this tiny sliver of a sun. And then it disappears, but not behind clouds. It is behind the moon! The Bailey beads appear, then the diamond, and then the corona reaches out hundreds of thousands if not million of miles into black sky. Venus and Mercury appear to entertain us. The horizon, its full circle, is coloured red yellow, purple and orange. The sky is beautiful beyond imagination. Black to deep purple to the rainbow coloured horizon. It has dropped 9 degrees to 41F.
11.59 – Total sun eclipse ends. The ship is full of excited passengers and crew. The people viewing an eclipse for the first time now understand.
13.00 – Partial eclipse ends
The North West Passage
In the evening there was an auction of various items to raise funds for the Polar Bear conservation. The star item was the unique Eclipse & North Pole Sea Chart, with illustrations by an artist member of the crew and signed by all the expedition team and primary crew. The chart was sold for $25,000 and the whole auction raised over $48,000.
Saturday, 2nd August - cloudy
11:59 69.4677N, 34.4226E Temperature 17C, 60 miles to Murmansk
Poles apart – Why are polar bears at the North Pole and penguins at the South Pole?
Arctic Tales – Mutiny, Murder and Mayhem – Henry Hudson, Elisha Kent Kane and Charles Francis Hall
At 15.00pm we have a disembarkation briefing and then enjoy John’s Slide Show and a Slide show of the Eclipse photos.
At 17.00 we watched the film from the Iranian film produces – Chasing the Shadow
In the evening we enjoy Captain’s Farewell Cocktails followed by a Farewell Dinner.
As we travel back to Murmansk we enjoy the pleasant trip up the Kola River. The sun sets at 22.15pm ship time and rises at 12.00am! Our first sunrise tin two weeks! We reset our clocks forward two hours tonight and rise for a 06.00am departure for the tiny Murmansk airport.
Sunday, 3rd August - cloudy
We arose at 03.00am ship time (05.00am Murmansk time) and after a quick breakfast and goodbye to the wonderful Russian crew, we were bused to the Murmansk airport. To our surprise, the departure terminal was comfortable compared to the pillbox arrival building we encountered two weeks ago. And rather than waiting two hours in the passport control line, it was just over an hour until we boarded for our 09.45am flight to Helsinki.
About half the group transited to flights home, and the rest went on a city tour en route to the Radisson, although some went directly there. We had lunch in Helsinki before returning to the airport for our trip home.