Thursday, July 10, 2014

7/10/14 Greenland’s Scoresby Sound to Iceland’s Northwest Coast

We spend the early morning of Tuesday, 7/8/14, attempting to find a location for a shore or zodiac excursion in Hurry Inlet of Scoresby Sound; however, a consistent north wind with strong gusts makes leaving the large ship in a light zodiac a very dangerous proposition. During breakfast, a muskox is spotted in the distance, but it is too far away to meaningfully photograph. The crowd gathers in the ship’s lounge to listen to Pat & Rosemarie Keough tell their story of self-publishing their limited run photo book, Antarctica, which sells for $5000.00 in the ships gallery. The custom stand to display the 35-pound piece of art is an additional $2500.00. It took them years to travel and shoot the photos as well as custom print and bind their book with craftsmen practicing ancient book production techniques.


It has often been said that Greenland is a misnomer. This is definitely true of the frigid and rocky east coast. While beautiful, the landscape is certainly not green. The single human development we see today is small and remote. It must be a tenacious people living along this inhospitable east coast of Greenland.

After lunch, we travel to Cape Hooker and make a zodiac landing for a short walk on Greenland’s east coast. The Grosvenor Teacher Fellows (Kelly, Tammy, and I) collect temperature and salinity profiles of glacial melt water, ocean shore water, and 15-meter deep water profiles from both the “brown” waters and “blue” waters we’ve been seeing all day. The data confirms that the “brown” water is colder, lower salinity glacial melt water layering above the blue seawater. Also, the waters off the coast of Greenland are much colder and somewhat higher salinity that those off the coast of Svalbard. This makes perfect sense. Svalbard is bathed in the relatively warm surface current fed by the Gulf Stream, while the East Greenland Current brings icebergs, multi-year sea ice, and return flow cold waters from the Arctic Ocean to our current location.


On Wednesday, 7/9/14, we are still in the vast Scoresby Sound, the largest fjord system on Earth. We awake to an announcement that we will do some zodiac cruising among the ice bergs this morning, but during breakfast the fog closes in and we spend another morning watching icebergs from the bow or in the ship’s lounge reviewing Arctic vocabulary, sharing photos of what we’ve seen so far, and learning about Greenland’s east coast. The morning’s conveyance of interesting information is punctuated by bear sightings that cause 150 people to scurry to cabins, collect cameras and warm gear, and rush onto the bow for photo opportunities.


After lunch, we visit Ittoqqortoormitt, Greenland. (That’s not misspelled; it’s pronounced something along the lines of eat-taco-tor-meat.) It is a purposeful settlement started by the Danish in 1929 with 70 people. The current population is 460 people, including 150 children. I work on the Inuit pronunciation of halo (hello), takuss (goodbye), qujanaq (thank you), and itita (you’re welcome) before boarding a zodiac for a ride to the village. We are greeted by children from the local community when we arrive. We have been asked by the community to NOT give them any candy or other things. I can completely understand why the community does not want their children learning to beg visiting strangers for treats, but we certainly wish we could offer them gum or other small gestures of friendship. They are adorable, friendly children eager to practice their English with us. I wander the town appreciating the challenges of infrastructure maintenance in such a harsh environment, watching children play football, and listening to the barking of working dogs.





There is a small museum full of photos depicting the history of the settlement, and up a steep and narrow flight of stairs there is a room with mittens made of polar bear fur, reindeer skin pants, traditional fancy dress, and a traditional skin umiak. In my wanderings, I learn from a resident that a ship delivers supplies once each August and once in September because these are the only times in which the ocean is reliably ice-free. A plane brings mail and supplies to the nearest air strip (which is a helicopter ride away) once each week. An apple that arrives on the ship costs 4 kroner (80₵), but an apple brought on a weekly flight costs 20 kroner ($4). Much of the diet here is based on the sea. People fish herring and salmon as well as hunting for seals, walruses, whales of all types including orcas, porpoises, muskox, and polar bears. Many of the visitors watch and photograph a local man skinning an older male polar bear that was shot and bled out yesterday because it was repeatedly coming into the town. I do not. I have no issue with the subsistence life happening here, and I think it is really interesting that people find a way to survive in such an unforgiving environment, but I am glad to not participate in it.  Perhaps I’m not really much of an adventurer after all, and I am looking forward to returning to the comforts of family and home in a four days. However, first we will travel along the west coast of Iceland, and I’m looking forward to another stop on the Mid Atlantic Ridge. Maybe we’ll get really lucky and witness some volcanic activity!

After supper, the fog lifts and winds die down a bit. We go on zodiac cruises around a few ice bergs and a rocky island. Both the sea and sky are a beautiful deep blue, and we see a fogbow in the low clouds constantly forming around the ice bergs. It is exciting racing around on the open water, and we are surrounded by majestic mountains in the distance. I took lots of photos, but they can’t capture the exhilaration of the experience.

Thursday, 7/10/14, is another day at sea as we travel to Iceland’s west coast. This means the main activities of the day will be naturalist talks and searching for the sparse wildlife in the open ocean. Once we leave Greenland’s continental shelf, we are unlikely to see many marine mammals or sea birds since nothing deflects the deep, nutrient-laden currents to the lighted surface where they could allow diatoms to photosynthesize and lay the base for a food web.
The first talk of the morning is given by David Barnes entitled, “The Irish in Iceland: Celtic Christianity and the Brendan Voyage.” He points out that the ½ million Icelandic people speak a language most closely related to the ancient Vikings and consistently carry the most pure Viking genetics. However, there is also a strong streak of Irish DNA, most likely resulting from early Irish monks who threw themselves out into danger on the sea, trusting that their faith would keep them safe, or Irish slaves of the Vikings. Other talks of the day include one on cetaceans and another on Arctic winter adaptations.




After supper, we approach the northwest shore of Iceland and a half-dozen shallow-feeding humpback whales, including a mother and calf, feed around the ship for an hour. They blow bubble nets, fluke regularly, and swim right up to and underneath our boat. Several puffins and other birds feed in the fluke prints of the humpbacks. The volcanic peaks of Iceland, carved by textbook hanging u-shaped glacial valleys and spouting waterfalls into the sea, set the backdrop for the show. It was an amazing opportunity to observe humpback behaviors, and everyone on the ship seems awed by the experience.

Monday, July 7, 2014

7/7/14: Jan Mayen, Ice Bergs, Bears, and Whales

The weather and seas cooperate enough for us to visit Jan Mayen on the morning of Sunday, 7/6/14. After breakfast and a briefing, we all head down to the mud room. Everyone is used to the zodiac routine now: Life jackets on, scan out on the computer so no one gets left behind, and walk through a disinfection tub when boarding the zodiac for a shore excursion. Disembarkation from the returning zodiac requires the reverse procedure, plus a boot-scrubbing stop prior to the disinfection tub. Great care is taken to ensure that invasive species are not transported from place to place as we travel through the Arctic. No seeds or spores will get a free ride to an inappropriate new home on the National Geographic Explorer.


Jan Mayen is the northern-most volcanic island in the Mid Atlantic Ridge. It is approximately 35 miles long, a bit over a mile wide at its narrowest, and it has 18 human residents total. On the map, it looks like a spoon with a handle to the southwest, the large bowl of the active volcano in the northeast, and a narrow saddle of land in the middle. Since 1929, the Norwegian Armed Forces has maintained a small meteorological station, LORAN, and some radio communications in this remote outpost 340 miles north of Iceland. I love volcanic landscapes, and this divergent plate boundary does not disappoint. Last active in 1970 and 1985, the land is raw and barely vegetated. It appears as a rocky moonscape of alternating layers of basaltic lava flows and ash or tephra, save for a few areas with sparse dandelions, arctic flowers, and mosses. We make a wet stearn zodiac landing on a black sand beach as the waves break on the more protected northwest shore and overtop the rubber knee boots of many guests. Although it is raining and the waves steadily march ashore, I stay dry since I am mastering the snug alternating of layers – liner socks, thermal underwear, wool socks, water-resistant pants inside rubber knee-boots, rain pants with tight Velcro at the cuff outside the boot. I suspect I can wade through thigh-deep water and stay dry and toasty.


Like so many places in the Arctic, Jan Mayen has an interesting history of exploration and exploitation. First discovered by Irish monks, they described the island’s imposing rock towers of ancient volcanic plugs and sulfurous gasses as the gates of hell. In 1614, the Dutch named the island after a whaling captain. In their typical whaling fashion, they used the relatively flat sandy beach as a processing site, dragging bowhead whales ashore and rendering their blubber into valuable oil in large copper pots over driftwood fires. Within a few decades, no whales were left, and they moved on to a new slaughter. Seals were decimated in this region in a similar pattern. Norwegians moved in next to trap valuable blue fox, prized for their thick and dark blue-grey pelts. The blue fox is a phase of the Arctic fox that was well camouflaged against the dark volcanic rocks in summer, but not immune to the traps that bored soldiers set for them. The Norwegian commander tells us that no mammals, other than humans, have been seen on the island in decades, but there are many birds.  

The long hike in the intermittent rain from the zodiac landing is pretty easy going as we follow a military road that climbs and curls around a series of volcanic cones. We cross the saddle connecting several imposing ancient cliffs covered with sea birds to the northeast with the 2277-m, active, glacier-topped volcano, Beerenburg, to the northeast. The road turns southwest, and we follow it high along the southwestern shore. A broad, low lava plain stretches far out into the cold sea on our left and it has a primitive air strip on it. We see the massive base of a volcano ahead, but the peak remains shrouded in the clouds that have been plaguing us for several days. The warmer ocean currents from the south combine with the chilly pack ice just to our north creating a persistent and dense fog that slows the ships progress and thwarts attempts to site wildlife from the ship. Now the fog is hiding this amazing volcanic peak from view. Nevertheless, the scenery below the cloud level is lovely. After a few miles, we veer off the road following our Norwegian guide Kenneth up a drainage channel  to the north and come to a lush pocket of bright green moss beds. It is impossible to step on these soft carpets without leaving deep footprints, so we retrace our steps back to the zodiac landing site. It is nearly time for lunch onboard the ship anyway. 


We spend the leisurely afternoon circumnavigating the Jan Mayer to appreciate the glaciers, cliffs, and waterfalls at all angles from the comfort of the ship. In the late afternoon, Cotton Coulson and Sisse Brimberg, give an interesting talk on their lives as professional photographers for National Geographic and show some of their best photos. I only got 2 hours of sleep last night, thanks to the midnight sun and navigating into two sets of swell at right angles to one another tossing the ship at awkward angles all night, so I skip supper and go to bed early hoping for a more restful evening.




Monday, 7/7/14, brings a leisurely morning since we are at sea en route to Greenland. It turns out I missed a great Pilipino Buffet with a full roast pig last night, complete with live singing and guitar music. I am disappointed, but I did get a good night’s sleep and feel more human this morning. Since we are at sea, the day is filled with several talks on quests to reach the north pole, the development of ice-breaking submarines, and Viking history. (They never, ever wore horns on their helmets!) The talks are only interrupted by meals – wild boar for lunch and duck breast for supper – and the siting of wildlife. We see two more blue whales before lunch and a polar bear after supper. Late in the day, we also start seeing many colossal ice bergs brought into our path by the East Greenland Current, and we site the mountainous coast of Greenland. Tomorrow we may be able to go ashore in Scoresby Sound, Earth’s largest fjord, if the weather and seas are not an insurmountable obstacle.