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Northeast Passage: Whale ho!

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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

Minke whale. Photo: WWF-CanonMinke whale. Photo: WWF-Canon

Lat 69 42′, Long 38 7′

I woke this morning to a completely calm languid sea, really glassy in parts, and the sight of minke whales around the boat. Fantastic! There seemed to be many young, very small whales together with the older ones. Occasionally a larger animal would come quite close to us apparently out of curiousity. Lots of white beaked dolphin (Lagenorhynchus albirotris) had followed the boat during the dawn hours and also surface around us. It makes you realise that this is home to many, many animals despite seeming empty to us.

Together with the whales are birds, mainly northern fulmars (Fulmaris glacialis), but also gulls and occasionally a pair of guillemots (both black and Bruennich’s), and ducks. The fulmar population has grown enormously, and they are one of the most common birds here because of their ability to utilise the refuse of the huge fishing industry, which in turn is dependent on the phenomenal productivity of this marine ecosystem.

As the day passes the weather remains totally calm, the sea almost oily, and we are forced to motor onwards. We are passing the entrance to the White Sea lying to our south. I am reminded that the south eastern part of the Barents Sea is a massively prospective gas field, with oil as well, and that in coming years the development pressure will be extremely high. The enormous Stockman field has already entered the first stages of development several hundred kilometres to our north. The beauty of this remote and unspoiled sea however gives me hope that we will be able to manage these developments effectively.

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