Tag Archives: Zodiac cruise

Polar Ice

Ice in all its forms – whether briny frozen sea or sapphire blue compacted snow flakes from a glacier – is one of the highlights of the Arctic landscape.

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This incredibly dynamic crust is ever changing and ever satisfying to the eye thanks to its transient and shifting nature. Whether I’m watching the bow of the ship split salty pans of ice, or staring back at the path we have just cleared through the solid horizontal plane, I’m aware of the novelty of being in the less than one percent of humanity existing this far north, at this very point in time.

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The ice is timeless, and temporal at once. It is home to polar bears wandering each year for thousands of miles as if on a massive tread mill. Their very habitat and environment is in constant flux as the ice thins, piles up on top of itself, splits, drifts away, or anchors itself to the shore.

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If we are lucky, we stumble upon a bear in the ice and spend as much time as we can watching, learning, gob-smacked and in awe. There is nothing on earth like these bears; these lumbering lipovores single-mindedly in search of chubby seals upon which to feast.

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The glaciers exhibit a different side of the ice. Vertical faces of blue and white that are actively calving and exposing their cerulean hearts as they melt and recede back into alpine valleys worn smooth by their decent.

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Zodiac cruising amongst the newly birthed icebergs is a snapshot in time. These chunks of ice will melt and roll and will never look the same again.

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Timeless and temporal, like life itself.

 

Bear Island

Bear Island is the first stop on the way north from Tromso to Svalbard, an archipelago well above the Arctic Circle governed by Norway. The southern end of Bear Island is a paradise for breeding birds like the Common Guillemot and the Kittiwake, a small and elegant looking gull that screeches its own name in an incessant cacophony.

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On approach to Bear Island in the summer months you would hear thousands of birds screaming, “Kittiwake! Kittiwake!” in unison. When they fly off the steep cliffs of the island in great white waves, their opaque wings catch the bright sunlight and give you the impression of being trapped, in miniature, in the center of a snow globe that’s been shaken vigorously by a small child.

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In addition to supporting about one million nesting seabirds, the island fools me into thinking that some higher power designed the landscape specifically for Zodiacs. It is one of the most incredible places to cruise in a small inflatable boat that I have encountered anywhere on the planet.

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With a sea cave 150 meters long and massive rock arches; the thrill of driving around this island leaves a permanent grin on my face. And not only is the stone architecture impressive, but the narrow rocky ledges are the ideal nooks and crannies for all the seabirds and the strata of the island are literally covered in birds fussing over their eggs.

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In the case of the Common Guillemot, the birds lay a single egg on a narrow shelf of bare rock. The egg is pear-shaped and will spin on a small axis in the event that it is disturbed. Evolution has ensured that it won’t crash down into the sea below. The kittiwakes however construct solid nests woven with bits of vegetation and seaweed and year after year the beehive-shaped nests grow a little higher.

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In early June, the island was sprinkled with a powdered sugar layer of snow, but visiting again now in July, I see the green of the tundra taking hold and thriving in the rich guano-fed soil. I look forward to visiting again in a few weeks time when the chicks of all these hundreds of thousands of seabirds will be joining the throng.

IMG_9527 IMG_9537(Thanks to Prof. James Floyd for snapping these shots for me during our Zodiac cruise!)

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Siberia

The far eastern coast of Siberia is not a place I ever dreamed to find myself, but here I discovered a wild, bountiful and theatrical coast. The backdrops should be scouted for a new season of Game of Thrones.

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Small Zodiacs are stunted by the spiked and rocky Yamskie Islands.

Outrageous spikey rock islands are literally crawling with nesting Black-legged Kittiwakes, Murres, Puffins and Auklets of several species.

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Horned Puffins on the rocks above their burrows.

Elegant in the sea and wallowing on the shores, are Northern Fur Seals and behemoth Steller Sea Lions like blond kings and queens of their realm.

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Steller’s Sea Lions plow through the water and congregate on shore.

Despite thick fog at almost every destination, we launched the Zodiacs and with the aid of GPS technology, switched to the olfactory and auditory senses to creep and crawl landward through the gray haze. Chattering seabirds, grunting pinnepeds and lapping waves were our guides into most island stops.

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Common Murres by the thousands on the water around Malminskie Island

At Piltun Lagoon I witnessed a mother and calf Western Pacific Gray Whale – two of the remaining ~130 left in the world. They stayed with our boats and let us marvel at their size, giving us glimpses of their barnacle-encrusted bodies.

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A critically endangered Western Pacific Gray Whale calf outside Piltun Lagoon.

Perhaps an hour after leaving the encounter, I was trying to find the entrance to the lagoon in the fog with a couple of colleagues in a Zodiac and the whales reappeared. They were travelling with us, parallel to the coast, swimming beneath the boat and shadowing our passage close enough to be touched. Astounding.

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Anglers and visitors at Piltun Lagoon with the lighthouse in the distance icey haze.

Fedora Bay was new for everyone on the ship since it’s almost always iced in at the far north reaches of the Sea of Okhotsk. Our Russian guide had tried a handful of other times to access the bay, but had always previously been blocked by fast ice.

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One of four Russian rangers who live year-round in Fedora Bay with their dogs and a cat as guardians of the fishery and wildlife resources here.

Somehow I was swept up in a spontaneous hike with one of the local Russian-speaking rangers to the summit of a nearby peak. Beating our way through nearly impenetrable brush, we became the first foreigners to ever reach the mountaintop and take in the views. It was an exhausting, but exhilarating accomplishment and is probably the wildest spot on the planet that I’ll ever set foot on.

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Looking down over stunted pine trees at Fedora Bay and a rivermouth ship wreck from our unchartered Siberian peak.

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Russian wildlife ranger/guide and his dog at the top of a mountain he claims no one has climbed since the 1960s and that no foreigner has ever climbed.

In a dramatic about-face we visited the city of Okhotsk with about 5000 people living on the coast between Siberia and the Sea of Okhotsk. Language was an issue, but despite the communication barrier I spent time with some of the local kids letting them try out my binoculars and swapping simple vocabulary words.

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Local kids in the city of Okhotsk. I showed them my binoculars and they taught me some Russian vocabulary.

Seeing the indigenous people with their clothes, lifestyle and beadwork so similar to people in North America was thought provoking. Reindeer, cranberries, dog sleds, fur lined skin clothing and meals cooked fireside were all icons of the culture. The people are relatable and realistic in this remote setting.

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A little girl in her traditional beaded clothes happily chewing away on an apple brought from the ship.

 

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Works of art in progress.

Back out into the uninhabited realms we encountered Ursus arctos, the brown bear. One particularly curious bear purposefully walked the shoreline within a few meters of our small fleet of Zodiacs, at times resting pensively on the shoreline and staring out at us through the rain drops. The rest of the time it appeared preoccupied with searching for food and filling its belly with mouthfuls of fresh green grass. I never knew a bear could or would eat so much grass, chewing on it like a grazing cow.

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Ursos arctos, the brown bear checking us out in our Zodiacs around Zaviyalova Island.

Far Eastern Siberia is not a target for the “1001 Places to Visit Before You Die” crowd – yet. There have been days I’ve had to pinch myself that I truly had the chance to visit this faraway borderline between Russia and the North Pacific Ocean. The mind-blowing magnitude of birds and marine life has truly amazed me.

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I’m glad to know a place this rich in wildlife, wild flowers and wild places, and at the same time I am afraid for its future in light of the fact that it’s all perched on some of the richest oil and natural gas fields in the world.

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Thick-billed Murres

Siberia and the Sea of Okhotsk may be one of the world’s last major proving grounds of our ability as a species to cohabit with wilderness.

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Common Murres sitting on eggs while Northern Fur Seals start to haul up onto the beaches of Tuleniy Island for their breeding season.

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Tiny Whiskered Auklets rest in a rocky crevise.

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A Northern Fur Seal full of mating season aggression.

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Northbound

The end of a voyage is always bittersweet.  As I write, we are anchored off Macquarie Island and hordes of kings penguins are diving around the ship flashing their golden yellow neck feathers and bright white bellies at us in a froth of wind-whipped, clear aqua blue water.

A King Penguin sizes me up.

A King Penguin sizes me up.

While I love this moment, I struggle to stay in it as my thoughts are drawn from the three months I’ve spent in New Zealand, the Sub-Antarctic Islands, and Antarctica, to my friends and family back at home.  It’s hard not to look forward to laughter, hugs, home cooking, cuddles with my chubby new nephew and beautiful nieces, and slobbering kisses from the hound.

A snow petrel perches on the railing of the bridge one snowy morning.

A snow petrel perches on the railing of the bridge one snowy morning.

In the meantime, memories of countless days spent on remote islands in the southernmost latitudes of our planet are nestling down into the coils of my grey matter.

Cape Evans, home of Scott's hut from the early 1900s and his Antarctic Expeditions.

Cape Evans, home of Scott’s hut from the early 1900s and his Antarctic Expeditions. Mt. Erebus is in the distance.

I will always remember watching the wildlife here through the broad spectrum of moments that guarantee their survival.  And while all the scenery I have encountered throughout this southern season is stunning, it is the wildlife that animates it in a cacophony of sounds, sights, and smells.  The animals embody the spirit of the place, illustrate the grit and determination of survival, and enlighten us all in our voyage of discovery.

A New Zealand Falcon studies our group as we pass through the rata forest on Enderby Island.

A New Zealand Falcon studies our group as we pass through the rata forest on Enderby Island.

A Buller's Albatross buzzes my Zodiac at the Snares.

A Buller’s Albatross buzzes my Zodiac at the Snares.

Thinking back, I recollect scenes as varied as the tender feedings of mother penguins, cormorants and pipits – to their young beak-to-beak – and a newly born sea lion on the beach; to the violence of skuas picking apart another sea lion just meters away while it’s still breathing, or the frenzy of giant fiordland bottlenose dolphins beating a white-water track across glassy inlets to feed on a school of fish.

A young New Zealand Fur Seal checks us out.

A young New Zealand Fur Seal checks us out.

I will always recall following a huge pod of jet-black orca harboring their young between the stout bodies of the adults flying along between waves and using their centerboard-like dorsal fins for stability.

A group of Orca young and old travel with the ship.

A group of Orca young and old travel with the ship.

In the Ross Sea I watched those same slivers of dorsal fins ply the water along the ice edge searching for seals and penguins perched up on the floes, ready for the taking.

An iceberg catches the glow of one incredible midnight Ross Sea sunset.

An iceberg catches the glow of one incredible midnight Ross Sea sunset.

Friends, family, smiling baby, and smelly dog – I’ll see you very soon.  To the wild places and wild things down here, I bid you farewell and hope that I have a chance to return some day.  Until that time I will treasure these new memories and promise to serve them up again, through photos, stories, and words, at opportune moments throughout my life.

Hiking around the Enderby Island coastline.

Hiking around the Enderby Island coastline.

Ross Sea sunset.

Ross Sea sunset.

Mahalo.

A Weddell Seal enjoys the early morning quiet behind Scott's hut at Cape Evans.

A Weddell Seal enjoys the early morning quiet behind Scott’s hut at Cape Evans.

Antarctic Reflections

Ok, first impressions of the southern-most continent and the Ross Sea: besides the biting, bitter cold even now in the “warm” summer months, the biggest impression I come away with is the absolute, stark contrast of the bleak, black volcanic landscape and the bright, white of the snow and panorama of cascading glaciers.

Cape Royd's the home of Shackleton's Hut.
Cape Royd’s the home of Shackleton’s Hut.

This is a place of white upon black in an infinity of patterns – a gigantic empty and convoluted chessboard devoid of vegetation – I’ve yet to see a single lichen.  The lack of greenery, grasses or moss is startling to the eye and verges on disturbing.  I can only suppose this is what the surface of the moon would look like with snow.

Thousands of years of Antarctic snow and ice.

Thousands of years of Antarctic snow and ice.

We passed Mt Erebus on our way to McMurdo Station and the furthest south this ship has ever sailed.  The top of the colossal volcano was sheathed in clouds at first, and I underestimated its size judging purely by a few glaciers and bare black rock patches revealed through the cloud cover.  When the atmosphere finally lifted and the top of the mountain came into view it undeniably trumped the already impressive landscape around it and nestled at its foot the imposing infrastructure of McMurdo Station housing over 1000 people each year.

McMurdo Station, the US Antarctic research base with an imposing Mt. Erebus volcano in the distance.

McMurdo Station, the US Antarctic research base with an imposing Mt. Erebus volcano in the distance.

Dressing up to go ashore to visit historic huts, or out in Zodiacs to look for wildlife, is an adventure in and of itself.  I give myself about 30 minutes to get ready to go outside for a few hours at a time.

From the feet up I put on:

–         tall merino wool liner socks

–         brushed wool ski socks

–         two pairs of polypropylene long underwear bottoms

–         warm fleece pants

–         polypropylene top

–         merino wool top

–         thick pile turtleneck shirt

–         fleece vest

–         down jacket

–         foul weather bib overalls

–         foul weather jacket with an extra high fleece-lined collar

–         merino wool glove liners

–         insulated rubber waterproof outer gloves

–         balaclava

–         fleece neck warmer

–         wool and fleece-lined ski hat

–         insulated muck boots

And to top it off I use adhesive toe and hand warmers inside my boots and gloves for a little bit of externally generated warmth – insurance against my poor circulatory system.

All geared up and standing above Scott's Hut at Cape Evans.

All geared up and standing above Scott’s Hut at Cape Evans.

The effort is well worth it because our excursions have been fantastic insights into the history and wildlife of this isolated land.  The huts we have visited were built roughly 100 years ago during the heroic age of exploration by characters including Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton.  To stand in a small wooden building full of artifacts used by these early explorers and imagine what it must have been like to live shoulder-to-shoulder with 15 men in the heart of a brutal Antarctic winter is tremendous.

The inside of Shackleton's Hut at Cape Royd's.  The contents have been preserved and restored with great care.

The inside of Shackleton’s Hut at Cape Royd’s. The contents have been preserved and restored with great care.

I paint a portrait in my mind of the ruthless and never-ending strains on human physiology, biology and mental balance.  I imagine the colors of the hut’s provisions must have been a comfort.  Blue and orange biscuit tins, green glass spice jars, a yellow Coleman’s mustard tin, mulligatawny soup in a red can – all a balm for the eye in contrast to the wicked and wild, white world outside, the rough brown woolen clothes and spare wooden floorboards and tabletops, the black cast-iron stove and opaque blubber smoke.

An assortment of provisions inside Shackleton's hut.  The shelves are made from packing crates for his 1907 expedition.

An assortment of provisions inside Shackleton’s hut. The shelves are made from packing crates for his 1907 expedition.

In terms of wildlife, we have walked amongst thousands of Adelie penguins in their raucous colonies, come across about a dozen tall Emperor penguins molting miserably on floating chunks of ice often sharing the floe with crabeater, Weddell, and elephant seals, and have crossed paths with whales including humpbacks, Minkes, fins and orca.  While the diversity of species is low – our only seabird companions for days have been Antarctic and Snow Petrels – the biomass is great, and the sheer numbers of animals are hugely impressive.

A massive colony of Adelie penguins with chicks on Franklin Island.

A massive colony of Adelie penguins with chicks on Franklin Island.

It’s been a joy to wake each day and greet the Southern Ocean in all of its different moods.  Days have been blue-gray and speckled with white foam from wind and low clouds.  Mornings have hailed us with fat snowflakes and chunks of sea ice forming in the rounded corners of porthole windows.  Evenings have inspired me with mirror-flat glassy seas, the wake of the ship cutting ribbons of shadow into the velvet waters reflecting imposing mountainous shorelines.

An Adelie penguin chick eyes me and my camera on Franklin Island.

An Adelie penguin chick eyes me and my camera on Franklin Island.

Life is simple down here.  The mantra is stay warm, eat your fill, do your job, sleep when you can – generally cat naps through the night between peaking waves – and above all stay alert and absorb like a sponge this chance of a lifetime to sail through the Ross Sea.

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