I have finally managed to update my blog. The internet is very patchy and slow on board the ship when we're further north than 78 degrees, and we're further north most of the time. Therefore I have uploaded everything that happened on the Ice Station in one blog entry.
Reaching Svalbard and heading up into the ice.
Latitude: 80° 24.88N; Longitude: 006° 46.01E
Weather: Grey cloud, calm seas with chunks of ice; Sea Surface Temperature: 0.1°C, Air Temperature: -2°C.
The first part of this blog entry was meant to get posted before heading up into the ice, but we’ve lost the internet connection earlier than anticipated and therefore you will not have heard anything from me for at least two weeks.
We concluded Leg 1 of this cruise on the 19th of June. On Saturday morning, between the ocean and the clouds, a band of snow covered mountains appeared on the horizon. A few scientists stood on the aft deck with cups of coffee and looked towards the prospect of stepping on land again. I overheard one of our female scientists asking one of the able bodied seamen (he’s from Marie Hill, Glasgow!) if the view wasn’t beautiful, and he replied with a cigarette clenched between his lips and some considerable dryness: “No!” She looked at him with surprise and incredulity and asked how one could ever get bored of the view, and he just glanced towards the snow capped peaks on the horizon, then at her and said:”Just something else to run into!” I am not entirely sure how funny it is to read this exchange of words, but I can assure you hearing it was very funny!
That morning we also had our first encounter with whales. A fin whale appeared briefly and a couple of pilot whales crossed our stern later in the morning. In my opinion whales are overrated. All you ever see is a black back coming out of the water and disappearing again.
We reached Longyearbyen, Svalbard on Saturday evening and my first impression of it can be surmised in one word: desolate! I could never live there! It has a population of 2000 people. There is a small airport, any number of pubs and it benefits from 50km of road which go through and around the little village and tend to have dead ends. After being assured that there were no polar bears in sight, but to take mobile phones while walking on land, most scientists and most of the crew not on duty, left the ship in a hurry. Because the 19th of June was the closest Saturday to the longest day in the year, Midsummer Day, most of the population of Longyearbyen was assembled around huge Bonfires at the beach and celebrating. Of course we joined them! It is quite surreal standing on a beach by a bonfire at 2 in the morning, alternating between drinking Rum and Kahlua, seeing the James Clark Ross sitting at a pier across the bay and having the sun shine brightly over your head. The party was great and suffice it to say that Sunday was a write-off! We will dock at Longyearbyen three more times in the course of the cruise, so I will describe the village in more detail then.
We left on Sunday just after Lunch. I woke up to the lines being cast away and the ship turning towards to open sea. The weather was amazing, sunny and calm. The ship steamed north for the rest of the day always in search for ice. At dinner we were told to start expecting ice from 4am on Monday morning onwards. Because I wanted to sample the Marginal Ice Zone (MIZ), I set my alarm at 4. When it rang, I looked out of my window seeing blue frothy ocean, but no ice, so I reset my alarm to 5am. At 5am and at 6am there was still no ice, but at seven in the morning, the sun had disappeared and the first patches of ice floated on the sea. I started sampling before breakfast and by the time I took my second sample just before lunch, we were well within the ice. As I write these lines, there is a steady rasp of ice along the ship’s hull and every now and then the ship bucks up as it pushes a particularly big piece of ice underneath its hull and then breaks it. It has become quite a bumpy ride! It is the evening of the longest day of the year right now and we’re still ploughing through the ice. The aim is to get stuck as far up north as possible, on a good sized piece of ice, and to stay there for just under two weeks. Hopefully we’ll reach that perfect spot tonight so that we can start working again tomorrow.
Ice Station, Days 1 and 2
Latitude: 80° 44.73N; Longitude: 004° 32.58E
Weather: Sunny with some stray clouds; Air Temperature: -1.5°C.
We reached the ice station sometime on Monday (21st of June) night. It consists of a big ice floe and the ship is just sitting next to it. On Tuesday morning some of the scientists left the ship and took some sample cores of the ice to check whether it was thick enough. As soon as they gave the “ok” to use this piece of ice, the crew of the James Clark Ross moored the ship to the ice. Whenever people are working on the ice, at least two members of the scientific party need to be on Monkey Island, the lookout spot above the bridge, to look for polar bears. We were given very powerful binoculars and for 30 minute shifts started looking out for little white moving spots in a sea of white with some interspersed blue. This activity is not exactly like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack, it’s more like looking for a hay-shaped and coloured needle in a haystack. The crew kept their own lookout, and as I was standing in the biting wind which, along with peering through binoculars at a bright landscape, brought tears to my eyes, I asked myself whether so many lookouts were strictly necessary. While people were still working on the ice, getting the ice station set up, no bears appeared. I spent a total of one and a half hours on lookout duty and the rest of the time in my cabin working on data. Sometime after dinner I found myself sitting in the bar chatting and downing G/T’s and beers when we received a call from the bridge that a polar bear had been spotted. The only thing that could have emptied the bar quicker would have been a fire! After frantic scrambling for cameras and running to the stern of the ship, only to find that the polar bear was at the bow, we ran forward we got our first glimpse of it. In a white desert strewn with ice debris and snow drifts, a lone, not so white, huge and furry bear ambled towards the ship sniffing the air from time to time. As it got closer some of the scientists who had already deployed gear on the ice started furrowing their eyebrows and glancing towards their equipment. Standing on the ship in the bright sun at 11pm at night watching the bear walking towards us, I was reminded of being in a zoo, only this time we were caged up on the ship and the bear was the spectator. I learned that polar bears hate noise. When it got within about 200 meters of our ship, the captain blew the fog horn. The bear swiftly turned and ran a couple of hundred meters away from the ship, but then sat and later lay down. I have to mention that as long as there is a bear in sight, we can’t do any work on the ice. Even though we have rifles and trained people carrying them at all times when people work on the ice, we’re only allowed to use them in self defence because polar bears are protected in Svalbard. A polar bear is only interesting for so long and it was getting rather crisp, so everybody was soon back in the bar to finish drinking.
I woke up this morning to another very bright day out on the ice. After a short science meeting everyone started working to get the ice station set up as swiftly as possible. The polar bear had apparently lost interest in us and left at 4am in the night. In the morning I did a polar bear watch and then continued to work on data in my cabin. You don’t really appreciate what albedo really is until you have squinted through binoculars at a bright white ice sheet on an exceptionally sunny day!
On my second polar bear watch just before lunch, another polar bear was spotted coming towards the ship. The captain had all the scientists working on the ice come back on board. There was some grumbling but since it was nearly lunch time anyway...
In the afternoon we dropped the first CTD and that was the start of filtering for me. As the CTD came back up towards the surface, I looking down and noticed how clear the water is. I really can’t wait to go diving in this environment. Hopefully I’ll be able to go out on the ice tomorrow and take some cores and maybe I’ll even get my first dive. If not, there are lots of things to do here and great people to pass the time and have fun with!
Ice Station, Days 3
Weather: Sunny with patches of high cloud and occasional fog banks; Sea Surface Temperature: 0.1°C, Air Temperature: -1°C.
This morning I woke up at 3.30 pm to the sound of the ships fog horn – Polar Bear! After they had blown the horn three times I decided to get up. Clearly the bear had to be really close! When I reached the deck, it was ambling away, a good 500 meters from the ship...great! Just out of reach for a good camera shot! It had however snuck up on the ship and chewed on one of the mooring cables. They are about 7 cm thick, so nothing happened.
After breakfast, I put myself down for a couple of bear watches and the dive supervisor asked me whether I would be available to do some surface work while the dive operation got underway. What a great start to the day! With the prospect of spending the afternoon on the ice, I went to the bridge, got a walkie-talkie and binoculars and started looking for polar bears on the horizon. The first watch went past without any sightings. The sun was out and the weather was just great. On my second 30 minute shift on Monkey Island, banks of fog started to draw in and from time to time the visibility dropped below 1000 m ( It is really hard to judge distances on the ice!). Two people are on bear watch whenever there are people on the ice. One person takes the starboard (right), the other the port (left) side. I start my sweep at the bow of the ship. Slowly turning 90° to the left (when I am on the port side), the circular view through the binoculars offers me a look from the horizon (which is very close when it is foggy) to about 100 m away from the ship. Every now and then you need to stop the sweep and wait a second because you think there may be movement. You focus on the object of your interest, find a prominent piece of ice nearby and wait a couple of seconds to see whether the distance between the two changes. If not, you continue sweeping. After the first 90° sweep, you stop, squeeze your eyes shut for a couple of seconds and walk to the stern of the ship. Then you start your sweep to the right, another 90° until you find the spot where your last sweep ended. That whole procedure takes about 5 minutes. As I was looking into the fogbank, I suddenly froze in my sweep. There was a small yellow-white dot just on the fringe of it, could have been dirt on the lens. But it moved. I got down on my knees to steady my elbows on the banister and keep the binoculars from moving...yes, there it was and it was definitely moving. I called the bridge to tell them there was a polar bear on the horizon. They found it and we kept monitoring it. With the prospect of doing some work on the ice I was torn. On the one side it’s great to see a polar bear, on the other side it means, that you can’t go out on the ice. In the end the polar bear did come closer and just before lunch time the scientific parties were called back to the ship.
At about three in the afternoon the polar bear had disappeared over the horizon and the scientists got back on the ice. This time I was with them as a group of four divers. The diving was very successful, but since I didn’t go, there isn’t much to tell. I had too many clothes on, so I was warm. That’s the extent of it. I’ll say more when I am actually in the water.
We got back to the ship just in time for dinner. For dessert we got hot chocolate cake covered with chocolate pudding. I must admit, I have already gained a couple of kilos. The amount of time I spend in the gym can’t make up for the amount of food we’re being served here!
After dinner I went back onto the ice with another scientist. We took coring equipment with us and cored the ice for samples.
The hand held corer consists of a metal tube which is 1.2 meters long. There is a metal blade on the bottom of it which scrapes the ice away and circular grooves run up on its outside. On the top there is a handle. You need to put a little bit of weight on it and start turning and then the core starts eating through the ice. It takes about 2 minutes to take a 1 meter core. I noted down the temperature profile of the core which my colleague measured and then we cut it into pieces and stored them in different containers to be analysed later.
As we worked another fog bank blew up and then suddenly we got the call to come to the ship. This time the polar bear had come out of the fog on the far side of the ship on the opposite side of where we were taking samples, but it was as far away from the ship as we were. We left most of our equipment on the ice and walked back to the ship. When I was back on board I was keen to get a closer look at the bear, but it had already disappeared back into the fog.
It was a really successful day today and I am looking forward to the next couple of days. There will be diving! Even though seeing polar bears is cool, all the scientists are now hoping that they’ll stay away! We’ve seen enough and need to get on with the science and the sampling. We’ve got another seven days at this site and up until now have managed to get a lot of things done, but there is still much to do!
Ice Station, Day 5 – 30th Birthday!
Latitude: 80° 31.10N; Longitude: 004° 09.93E
Weather: Solid cloud cover with fog and the occasional near “white out”; Sea Surface Temperature: 0.1°C, Air Temperature: -0.5°C.
We’re still on the ice station. The coordinates of it have slightly changed because we’re slowly drifting with the ice.
Yesterday, on the 25th of June, I celebrated my 30th Birthday. Here is an account of what I can remember!
Just after breakfast the dive supervisor came by to tell me that I was going to dive! I was very excited. On that high, I went up to the bridge, collected a walkie-talkie and a pair of binoculars and started the first bear-watch of the day. As I was scanning the port side, the fog drew nearer and nearer and before long the captain had everybody who was working on the ice recalled. Since the dive was scheduled for the afternoon, I was really hoping for a weather change. Over Lunch the wind picked up slightly and blew some of the mist away. Some of the scientists went back onto the ice and we were due to go diving at 3pm. I did a second bear watch at 2pm and then got ready. I must admit that I was very excited, a little anxious and certainly on edge. Therefore I was not very focused while I was getting ready and it took me longer than it should have. Nevertheless, I managed to be ready by 3pm. The dive team had to wait for some of the scientists to get off of the ice before we could go on. The maximum number of people on the ice at any one time is 8 because that’s the number of people that can be brought back in one go in case of a bear getting close.
When the scientists came back to the ship, the fog followed them on their heels, and just as we had loaded all our equipment onto the crane and were standing by to be lowered onto the ice, the captain called down to let us know that we could go on the ice, but due to the weather we couldn’t dive just yet. We opted for waiting on the ship. So the dive team, two divers and two tenders in full gear, suited up, gloved and ready to go sat on the aft deck and waited. After a while we decided to get out of our suits and wait in the lounge with a cup of coffee! I was slowly calming down and while I was drinking my coffee I kept on looking out at the white nothingness and hoping for it to blow away.
Someone heard me and the wind picked up again and blew the fog away and so, suited up a second time, the dive team was on the ice and by the ice hole at 16.30.
The ice is between 60 and 90 centimetres thick at the moment. The dive hole is 120 x 120 cm big and is lidded by sweet water from the melting ice. As a diver descends, the vision becomes blurry for a moment as the diver goes through this halocline.
The reason for my dive is to sample ice algae which grow in and under the ice. Their growth is patchy and therefore it isn’t possible to just take ice cores from the top because you never know whether you have ice algae at that particular spot of ice.
By the time we arrived at the dive hole, I was completely focused on the task ahead and I couldn’t tell you anything about my surroundings anymore. Every diver wears a harness which is attached to a life line which in turn is held by the tender. Over that harness goes the weight belt and the dive gear. When I was in my complete gear, I attached a hand held ice corer to my BCD (Buoyancy Control Device) and a kit bag which contained zip-lock freezing bags for food from a well known supermarket chain in the UK. My plan was to collect algae in these bags and to bring back as much as possible.
I sat down at the edge of the ice hole, put on my fins and mask and got in. I was asked to clear the entrance and so I started my descent. The first sensation was pain. I was diving with a half-face mask and as soon as the water touched my exposed cheeks, it felt like needles being stuck into them.
When I had cleared the hole, and gotten used to the cold, I was mesmerized by the sheer beauty of the world under the ice. Below me were 600 meters of the clearest azure water. Above me was a moon landscape of ice. As I breathed out, the air bubbles travelled along the bottom of the ice looking like mercury, merging together in the hollows of the ice to form little inverse lakes of air.
As soon as I got used to the cold and had had a good look around, I started sampling. Fist sized brown clots of ice algae sat just under the ice. They were positively buoyant, so they sat in the hollows of the ice. Careful not to disturb the algae, I slid the zip-lock bags around them. The problem was that as soon as the algae were touched, they disintegrated. The air bubbles which I expelled also disturbed the algae as they travelled along beneath the ice. So in the end I got 9 bags full of brown pieces of algae. I don’t care which state they are in as I will be filtering them anyways, but other people need them to be in a better state, so there will be more dives. After 22 Minutes, I was done with the sampling. So I quickly ascended and gave my sample bag to my line-tender (the guy who held my life-line) and picked up my camera to take a couple of photos and a video.
The whole dive was only 30 minutes long, but it was clearly the most exciting dive I’ve ever had. I was astounded! No words can describe how humbling it is to float below a meter of ice in the clearest, bluest and cleanest water in the arctic.
So there it is: I’ve dived under one meter thick ice, within the Arctic Circle, in Polar Bear Country!
The Birthday party started after dinner and continued until 2.30 am in the morning. It was a so called “two barrel” party, because two barrels were filled with the cans and bottles of booze which had been drunk. It is customary on a ship to pay for all the booze that is consumed on the day of one’s birthday. So it is quite lucky that the alcohol on board is very cheap. The people on board made a card for me and I got a black forest chocolate cake. Thanks to all the people on the ship, I had a great birthday. Thank you all!
Ice Station, Day 7,8 and 9
Latitude: 80° 31.10N; Longitude: 004° 09.93E
On the 28th of June, another polar bear was spotted and this one afforded the crew and the scientists with some amazing photo opportunities. It sauntered towards the ship in the late morning, spending time to look at its reflection in the clear water, lying down and having a rest and sniffing the air to find out what we were. It came at us from the bow and obviously didn’t walk towards the port side where there isn’t any scientific equipment on the ice but towards starboard. First it arrived at the ship’s mooring line and chewed on it a little. Because it was so close and everybody was on the bow, the captain didn’t blow the ships horn initially. Only when it had a look at the dive hole and then at the metal box in which the first aid kit is stored did the horn sound. It ran away towards the other scientific equipment and the horn had to be sounded some more before it finally ran off.
In the afternoon I got to do my second dive under the ice. This time I collected sample for another scientist who was hoping to get these algae without them breaking apart at all. As I’ve written in a previous entry, it is tricky to acquire these samples without the algae breaking. I got some rigid plastic containers with screw tops and managed to get a couple of good specimen though. I can really only repeat what I have already written. The Arctic Ocean is an astonishing environment to dive in. This time I appreciated it even more because now I was used to the diving gear and the cold, so I managed to take more photos and try to stand upside down under the ice. It is difficult and I didn’t manage to do that. Next time!
Because we’re in the ice, we don’t have any internet and the only connection to the outside world is an iridium phone which we may only use in emergencies. Nevertheless, some important news is communicated to us. So, on the notice board in the bar, the world cup scores are posted! The phrase, that was used as soon as the results of the England vs. Germany game came in was: England “Won”: Germany 4! Some of the able bodied seamen are Scottish and celebrated the victory with me. I am hoping that the English part of the crew doesn’t throw me over board. Even though I wouldn’t drown, being thrown onto the ice is sure to leave a bruise! Anyways, even though I have received no news of the game except the score, it seems to me that it is quite embarrassing... How could the German team let the English score one goal!? Clearly there is some room for improvement!
I spent the whole day yesterday sampling two CTD’s and filtering ice cores I had taken a couple of days ago. I’ve divided them up into three relatively equal parts, bottom, middle and top and filled three buckets labelled thus with as many pieces as would fit. I am hoping to see a trend in the compounds I am looking for and the top part of the cores which I filtered will be given to the geologists of the department who want to check for evidence of the ash cloud of the recent volcanic eruption in Iceland.
So I managed to get all the samples I wanted and filter them and as of yesterday evening I have completed my scientific program. Therefore I was free to do a lot of bear watches today. They were very uneventful. This morning I also tended another diver on the last sampling dive and I’ve spent the rest of the day updating this blog and taking a lot of photographs.
We are due to leave the “Ice Station” tomorrow in the afternoon and to reach Longyearbyen on Friday. Hopefully we’ll be able to go ashore but the captain is not making any promises. We’ll wait and see.