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Northeast Passage: No signs of life

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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

After being in the ice twice now, yesterday for several hours, I am struck by what we are not seeing. Other than the odd seagull and a few small seabirds, we see no signs of life whatsoever.  In other parts of the Arctic we would see numerous seabirds and sea ducks, seals, walrus, whales, and possibly polar bears. In the coastal waters of the New Siberian Sea, we make few observations of marine mammals at all, save for two ringed seal on the 30th.

We spent the night sailing into increasingly windy conditions and I awake to a rolling boat in gale winds. Walking to the galley takes extra coordination in my half-awake state, as the boat’s movements are not predictable and can be fairly extreme. I pass on coffee.

One of Geoff York's colleagues, Hannibal, wearing the immersion suit. Photo: Neil HamiltonOne of Geoff York's colleagues, Hannibal, wearing the immersion suit. Photo: Neil Hamilton

As I come onto my watch I am instructed to don a full immersion suit. The first part of my morning will be spent on the bow, outside, looking for ice. Knowing that we have a large area of drift ice to our north, we take extreme care as we continue sailing into the night. In full survival regalia, I clip onto the lifeline and make my way forward to replace Fredrik. What a rush. Standing on the deck in the dim light with gale winds pushing the sea to foam in places is quite the way to wake up. The boat rolls and pitches in the waves and it is exhilarating to be outside in the cool wind. The suit keeps me comfortable and dry, and it is actually easier to stand the wave motion when you can see what is coming.

As the day grows lighter around 2 AM I return to the relative warmth of the wheelhouse. By 0230 we have ice in sight again – a long stream stretching out in front of our path. We head south and spend the next two hours intently looking for the myriad iceberg bits strewn across the ocean. With the whitecaps and sea foam, it is hard to tell ice from water at times. This is the last thing Anders wanted to see, and once again ice threatens the success of the expedition.

We are pushed much further south than he would like to go and there is concern the ice could trap us against the shore. Perhaps it is a gift for Anders’ birthday, or perhaps we are just lucky, but we find clear water and resume our progress to Pevek.

The boat is still rolling when I awake for my afternoon watch, but we now have land in sight. We also have company as we fall in behind a Russian ice breaking cargo ship – perhaps a glimpse at the future of these arctic waters. As we turn into the bay adjacent to Pevek, there are three ships at Anchor, and we know three left here yesterday. Winds prevent us from docking and we anchor across the water from town for a much needed night of calm water for all.

The crew immediately falls to maintenance work while the rest begin dinner and tackle their cleaning duties for the day. In the morning we will go into the port and meet with the border guards to complete the required paperwork. We also hope to talk with the manager of the Wrangel Island Nature Preserve and assess whether we should make a stop on the island.

« Northeast Passage: A day on the Explorer of Sweden | Northeast Passage: Restocking in Pevek »

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