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Northwest Passage update: Sailing through ice

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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 Cameron Dueck

Silent Sound has spent the last few days dodging ice along the coast of Victoria Island. The Arctic may be warming up rapidly but there’s still enough ice to make the captain of a fibreglass boat very nervous. We have spent a lot of time sailing through 20 to 30 percent ice cover since leaving Holman.

It’s a stunningly beautiful sight. The water is a deep blue, and the ice a brilliant white. As we approach the small ice bergs and floes we can see the underwater ice shining a bright aqua blue … pretty but deadly. We’re also seeing a lot of seals on the ice. This morning we rudely awoke a fat bearded seal that was sunning himself on a floe, and he took off into the water with a resounding plop as we approached. Hunters have repeatedly told us that where there is ice and seals, there are polar bears, but we have yet to see one.

File photo of a bearded seal. Photo: WWF-Canon / Sindre KinnerodFile photo of a bearded seal. Photo: WWF-Canon / Sindre Kinnerod

For the past two weeks we have been eyeing this large patch of ice blocking Dolphin and Union Strait. Much of it was solid ice until a few days ago, and even now we are having a tough time of it as we motor along the northern edge of this body of ice. However, it’s very easy to see how the ice is decaying and floes are slowly breaking apart. I get an odd autumnal sense watching the annual demise of the ice, although it’s part of the spring thaw. The floes tilt and readjust their equilibrium in the water as they melt, and that constant shifting allows them to melt in some pretty creative shapes.

The danger this ice represents to us cannot be underestimated. We just had our engine cover off to investigate the increased vibrations we were feeling in the boat. There’s a good chance we have hit some ice with our propeller, causing it to vibrate. We have a spare propeller along, thanks to a generous donor, but changing it would be an ordeal. We don’t think we’ve had a serious hit yet, but we have had a few hard bumps that have shook the boat, and perhaps some ice got to the prop without us hearing it. We’ll investigate it further in the next few days.

But the ice is on the losing end of its war with the sun. Certainly this summer, and on the longer term as well. We are spending a lot of time up on deck enjoying the sunshine in sweaters, no oilskin jackets. That may not sound so balmy, but if you’ve been on the deck of a yacht in the Arctic seas, you’ll understand what a treat that is.

« Northeast Passage: Welcome to the Kara Sea! | Northeast Passage: Explorer of Sweden – a very special boat »

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