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Northeast Passage: Boarded by the Russian coast guard

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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 Geoff York

The surrounding landscape is mountainous and beautiful. New snow covers the higher elevation in what is called “termination dust” back home in Anchorage. I mix up some excellent Swedish hot chocolate to keep warm while I pass the time in the cool, quiet wheelhouse.

The sun slowly rises over an abandoned border guard post on the south side of the Cape. An old tower sits empty and a broken radar mast swings with the morning breeze. Rusting 55 gallon drums lie in piles around the broken down facility. A few short years ago and you could have seen similar abandoned radar stations along the Alaskan coast, though the US military has finally taken action to begin dismantling and cleaning up the sites. 55 gallon drums are so common in the Arctic they are referred to as “tundra daisies” – a sad legacy of past exploits. I can only hope we have learned some hard lessons as we again look at developing areas in the Arctic both on and offshore.

I rouse Anders at 2 AM and we pull the anchor and begin heading to our next planned stop at the village of Lorena. I fall asleep thinking of the shower I plan to take in the morning before my next shift. It has been a few days!

I wake up at 9 AM to conversations and activity below deck – something is up and I assume it is an interesting wildlife sighting. As I grab my clothes, I learn otherwise. We have been ordered to drop anchor and prepare for boarding by a Russian coast guard vessel – definitely not on our agenda. Victor is clearly unhappy and a little bit concerned as he readies all of our paperwork. We are boarded and searched by two polite, but quite serious young men. All of our paperwork is checked out and each of is compared to our passport photos. We wait below for hours before we are cleared to continue, however, we are no longer allowed to make any landings other than Anadyr.

Victor is the most disappointed as he really wanted to visit several of the local towns and make connections with the people in this region. So did I, but I also have come to expect the unexpected and can roll with the slight change of plans. It is simply a paperwork issue and is a reminder that despite the sense of globalisation and free trade, countries are still very controlled, and sometimes, closed to outside visitors. We are glad to have had such wonderful visits earlier in the trip.

Our distraction with the coast guard is soon forgotten as we sight first one then numerous spouts on the horizon. We are just south of Loreno, an active whaling community, and we can see why they chose this resource. There must be over 100 grey whales in the area as we sit and watch them blow and fluke for at least an hour. The sheer abundance of animals and productivity of this region is incredible!

File image of a grey whale. Photo: Flickr user SparkyLeighFile image of a grey whale. Photo: Flickr user SparkyLeigh

Seas are calm and we take advantage to prepare a nice dinner. Tonight we will share chilli, with fresh baked focaccia (it turns out the engine room is the perfect temperature for proofing yeast breads), and a mixed berry crisp for dessert. The winds start to pick up again as the evening progresses.

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