I've been through a lot of fire, man overboard and abandon ship drills, but I've never seen a crew muster on deck as fast as we did this morning, when the polar bear alert came over the ship's address system.
It was a big bear, or at least it looked big to me - but then this is the first polar bear I've seen outside of a zoo. Apparently, that the males can weigh up to 900 pounds. Majestic, even from a distance in fairly thick fog, that much I can say for sure.
I do wonder what the bear made of us. It was walking parallel to our course on thick pack ice, going the other way in no apparent hurry. Maybe busy hunting the two seals we saw a few minutes later. Of course, if I'd been out there on foot or in a kayak he might have decided I was breakfast instead.
At the time, we were about 65 miles (105km) from shore, and if you don't know polar bears, you might think it strange to see one this far from land. In reality, this is where they live for much of the year. Out on the pack ice. It's even common for them to go much further out than this.
Polar bears depend on the ice. It's where they hunt seals. They are no match for seals at swimming, but polar bears use a number of clever strategies to catch them anyway. They sneak up on seals basking near the edge of ice floes, break into the their ice dens, and wait patiently at breathing holes to snatch them from the water.
Like many arctic species, the polar bear depends on sea ice for its survival- ice that global warming is melting. Unless we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and soon, the wild polar bear could well be extinct in my lifetime. So, I'm glad I've seen one at least, but if someday I have grandkids I hope they get a chance to do the same.
Fortunately, we do have options - as individuals and as nations. We can push our politicians to sign and properly implement the Kyoto Protocol, choose energy efficient products, and demand a switch to proven renewable energy technologies, like wind and solar. If you live in the US, your help is especially needed - act today.
Greetings once again from the ice.
It's 9 p.m. on July 8th and everyone keeps asking when we are going to arrive at our next stop, the Zackenberg Environmental Research Station.
We left Ittoqqortoomiit three days ago and at that time, our ETA Zackenberg was tomorrow morning. But upon departing Ittoqqorttoomiit the ship encountered an unusually heavy amount of pack ice, and that delayed our progress quite a lot. At one point the ship traveled six miles in six hours. In open water we cruise along at nine or ten knots per hour, so the ice definitely thwarted our expected arrival time.
Not only has there been more heavy ice than expected, but we've also had a lot of what we call "our favorite three-letter f-word." FOG. At one point today the visibility from the ship was a mere 250 meters, and with fog like that, finding an open lead in the ice is virtually impossible.
Likewise, there's no need to climb 11 meters up into the crow's nest for a better view of what's out there because there is no view, no matter where your viewpoint is. That makes the going even slower.
Even though the ice hampers our progress, I still prefer to be in it than in open water. I prefer the more noisy slamming, scraping and jarring motion of the ship in the ice to the rolling and pitching of the ship when it's in open water. I don't get seasick when the ship is in the ice, and since my personal goal is to be on board for two months without puking, you can understand my fondness for it.
But it's more than just avoiding seasickness. There's a lot to see and observe since the ice is incredibly diverse in terms of each floe's size, shape, thickness, hardness, age, color, and how much of the ocean's surface is covered by it. You never know what you're going to see when you look out a porthole. The ship can move from thin to heavy ice cover in what seems like a moment.
But the best part of being in the ice is spending time in the bridge watching the captain, Arne, maneuver through it.
Moving a ship through the ice looks like playing chess, Pacman, and bumper cars, all at the same time. The ice is dynamic and seems alive, as if every floe is a member of an opposing team that's trying to outsmart you. Or the ice is a trickster that lays out a set of clues and then sits back, waiting to see how you will react.
Of course I write this as a layperson, aspiring cryophile (if that's even a word) and casual observer. I mean, Arne has been the master of ice-going ships since the 1980s, and when asked the number of times he's piloted ships to the Antarctic and Arctic, he gets a puzzled look on his face, scratches his head and then thinks about it for a while before estimating he's been to Antarctica 16 or 17 times and to the Arctic around ten times. Arne is a zen ice master and incredibly good at what he does, but above all else, he is very humble and modest about his experience, accomplishments and skills.
At any rate, it's been a few days since my last update so I figured I'd spend some time in the bridge tonight watching Arne "do his thing." My goal was to ask him questions so I could get an understanding of the various levers, screens, dials and other tools he uses to make his way through the pack ice. But in the end, I just don't have the mental glue for putting it all together. It'll take a lot more observation and understanding before I can wrap it all up into something that's coherent.
So I'll tell you what I do know: I have no idea when we will get to Zackenberg Station. And neither does anyone else. We will get there when we get there, and it's a matter of how well Arne can play the chess/Pacman/bumper car game against the opposing teams of ice and fog.
I have no doubt we'll be there soon.