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Northeast Passage: On the watch

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This summer, WWF is helping support two expeditions that will take on some of the world’s most difficult waters, to see first-hand the effects of Arctic climate change. One expedition is sailing across the top of Russia, a journey of 6000 nautical miles through the Northeast Passage, while another is attempting a west to east transit of the Northwest Passage, also by sailing boat, a journey of about 7,000 nautical miles.

Tom Arnbom of Sweden was on the ‘Explorer of Sweden’ though the Northeast Passage, as was WWF Arctic Programme Director Neil Hamilton for much of the trip, replaced near the end by WWF polar bear coordinator Geoff York. On the ‘Silent Sound’ Cameron Dueck of the Open Passage Expedition is filing regular stories from the Northwest passage. Come back for photos and stories throughout the summer, and follow the progress of the boats as they follow in the wake of some of history’s most intrepid explorers.

By Neil Hamilton

It’s 2.18am local time and I’m on my first watch after leaving Murmansk. Latitude 69 degrees 28.6 north, longitude 34 degrees 16 east.   Air temperature is about 10 degrees, water temperature is 9 degrees.  Sea is slight, wind about 5 metres per second.   A few Russian trawlers show up on the radar and occasionally emerge from the fog which casts a gray haze over our progress.  We have just turned to head east, with a straight run now for about 500 nautical miles to the entry to the Kara sea at the southern tip of Novaya Zemlya.  That’s about 3 days sailing. 6 more watches for me before we see land again.

I share my watch with Anders, the captain, which is fantastic because there is so much to learn and he has so much experience.  We do the midnight to 4am and noon to 4pm watches, using Moscow time as the ‘ship time’. The night watch is great because everybody is sleeping and it is quiet, one of the few such occasions on ‘small’ boat like Explorer. The disadvantage is that you miss the dawns and most of the morning as you are sleeping.  As we go east, the difference between ship time and the sun’s time will change dramatically:  the far east of Russia is 10 hours ahead of GMT, so my midnight shift will be an after lunch one according to the sun!

It never really gets dark up here.  The midnight sun ended a few weeks ago but the best night we will see on this trip is a few hours of semi-darkness after midnight towards the end of the journey.  At the moment I have turned down my laptop screen brightness, but I can still see the seabirds flying past, the waves, and the other boats.  It’s sort of like a gray and rainy day in ‘normal’ parts of the world.  The long long days play a hugely important role in arctic ecology, providing a massive burst of growth to all the creatures that live here, and a shot of energy to the physical and ecological processes like ocean circulation, plant photosynthesis and so on.

It’s my turn at the wheel now, so I’ll stop here.  More soon from the eastern Barents Sea!

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