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Awakened at 6:03 by a telephone call in Russian. E answers the phone, groggy, listens, and hangs up. Wrong number: just like home. The phone is hard to answer because the handset is locked to the cradle. The water noise in the radiator is louder today; the heat's on. The call was particularly inconveniently timed, E tells me, because she was just about to learn the punch line to a really funny new risqué joke in her dream.

Yesterday's thermos jugs of not-quite-hot water in the lounge down the hall have been replaced by a gleaming new press-button machine which can dispense all kinds of fancy coffee drinks, hot chocolate, or steamed milk at the touch of the right button. Fortunately, it also produces plain hot water, and morning tea today is much better.

Adult kittiwake

First-year (nonbreeding) adult kittiwake

Kittiwakes are crying outside the ship just before 8:00 as I drink tea and catch up on writing. The expedition leader tells us in his morning wake-up call that we have traveled about 500 nautical miles from Murmansk and that it's just under 4C (40 degrees F). He also tells us our official position: 77 degrees and a fraction I missed North and 45 degrees and a fraction I missed East and the wind is 10 kph; noon readings for the ship haven't been posted. (I ask at the information desk during breakfast, and the expedition leader tells me I can get that information on the bridge. The staff plan to put up a map with the ship's course and noon positions marked on it, but haven't done it yet. I kind of think captain and the bridge crew don't want everyone pawing through the logs, though...) The weather is dully overcast and dim, but less foggy than yesterday. The expedition staff say that when we cross into the ice pack later today, we'll probably have clearer skies.

The morning lecture is from expedition staffer Sue Currie, covering very basic geology (starting with a definition of terms like core and mantle), so I skip it and spend an hour or so on the flying bridge watching the Brünnich's guillemots zoom past the ship.

Brünnich's guillemot, or Thick-billed Murre

The ship passes several pieces of ice, not big but noticeable, with lots of blue colors in them. They could be calved from glaciers in Franz Josef Land or even from Novaya Zemlya. As we approach the first large one we also pass a line in the water demarcated by a wavy line of very small ice pieces; the top of the water changes, also, from heavy-looking and smooth, with low undulations, to riffled and choppier.

I don't see any more puffins, although a few seals pop their heads above water and dive again far off the starboard side. There must be fish. Small groups — ten to thirty — of black-and-white guillemots and sometimes a kittiwake or two overtake the ship, pelting past it, swerving away or right in front of the bow. A Brünnich's guillemot can fly 65 to 70 kph[1], so when I describe them as zooming, I do mean that. The guillemots arrange themselves in Vs and crescents in the air, reshaping themselves freely depending on the gusts, long scrawls that never resolve to a meaning.

Staff guide Jane Salem's preliminary talk on birds of the Arctic is well presented and interesting. It's always worth hearing what different lecturers have to say about their subjects, and the tour staff generally attend if they have free time. (Lectures are given in the aft lounge.)

Outside the aft lounge, a black-and-white world.

It's socked-in fog again, so I try to catch up on journal writing, skip the communal-work-of-art class (good call: later I see them daubing and smearing poster paint on a big sheet on the floor), and find the radio room to send an email. Andrei the radio officer on duty has not so much English as Viktor on Kapitan Khlebnikov, and the few functional phrases of Russian I had have deteriorated (although "Mozhne?" still works); when he sees my flash card, though, he lets me use a workstation to copy and format my message.

The "Geographical Introduction to the Arctic" is not successful. I hear several other members of the audience remarking on falling asleep as we leave the room — I doze off repeatedly myself. A monotone delivery, a too-rapid bombardment of facts and dates without anecdote(I couldn't write fast enough to keep up), and a dimmed room with fast-passing slides will send the most interested parties to sleep, and I'm really interested. E is in the bar working on a project she brought with her and is pleased to have made the right decision about skipping a talk.

At about 17:30, during Sue Flood's lecture about making BBC's Planet Earth documentary, the ship shudders and a dull boom sounds. We've met some real ice! There's no announcement, but after a few minutes of sounds I get up (from my front row seat — sorry, Sue) and go outside. The ship is still moving fast, scarcely below 18 knots, as the ice is smallish loosely-packed floes, but already it's so far in that the wake trails off into the fog behind us, the floes and slush jostling back together. I can't see the ice edge. The fog is very low around the ship.

The ship crosses areas of open water, but they're obviously only leads.

I stay on the flying bridge watching the few birds — guillemots and kittiwakes — flitting past or fleeing the ship, which bears down on them unswerving, a thing beyond their experience.

We see polar bear tracks on the floes we pass, and on the larger patches of ice the tracks travel in a straight line from one point to another, lost in the edges of the fog.

Sometimes we see seal breathing-holes in the ice which the bears have been visiting and watching; at one spot a bear has been going back and forth between two holes. Once there are two sets of tracks together, large and small, a mother and a cub, where a seal's breathing-hole has been excavated beneath the snow.

From below, a seal scrapes a breathing-hole through the ice, without breaking the snow cover, concealing it from the bears, but the bears have learned to sniff out the holes and dig for them. A seal will use the hollow chamber under the snow, around the breathing-hole, as a place to rest out of sight. Once we pass a breathing-hole with red-spattered snow around it, where an ivory gull stands picking at the carcass of a seal. We don't see any bears or seals, but the traces are exciting.

I leave the bridge long enough to eat dinner and add a layer of clothing. When the ship passes through an open area of water — a lead or maybe a polynia — there are many more birds, including now little auks. We're too far north for puffins, and there have been none since the scattered handful this morning. But there are Brünnich's guillemots, kittiwakes, very occasional skuas, and now the little auks flying or floating in small flocks, veering around the ship.

Broken ice...

Around 22:30, suddenly the fog is behind us, a lead-grey wall under aluminum-grey skies. To the east we see land! It's one of the northernmost islands of Franz Josef Land. (Strangely, the expedition staff makes no announcement of this either.) The captain has chosen this route because the satellite ice charts show an opening or less-strong ice here in the lee of the ice drift, and that's why we've made such good speed. The land is steep, sheer purple-black cliffs, columnar looking and possibly therefore basalt, capped with a smooth dome of ice and snow. The cap breaks at the edge to expose the cliff, toward the ends of the island, but extends nearly to the sea otherwise. This is permanent ice, now snow-covered.

There may be guillemots and little auks breeding on those small areas of exposed rock; certainly in the open water here there are many of them. As the ship approaches they seem at first incredulous, then panicked; they paddle frantically with their feet, running on the water, beating with their wings, and if very alarmed dive or take to the air. Their cries are thin, pure, high notes.

As we proceed, another smaller island, possibly more of the first connected by a low isthmus, appears, farther east. The south end of the larger black-and-white island is blurred by the charcoal-grey fog, which ends fairly abruptly with a few trailing wisps reaching out: its dark line is impenetrable to the eye. We peer in vain through the binoculars to make out details; probably there are none. There is basalt, ice, and water.

The sun is not visible, but the ceiling has lifted; behind the ship the wake is visible making a long curve as we pass through the open water and back into the ice, changing bearings to adjust back to straight north from the northeast track that took advantage of the passage in the lee of the islands. The islands recede slowly; a bright gold line, very thin, appears on the horizon very far ahead, where the sun is shining. Nearly midnight now, and the show will go on for hours, but I've got to get some sleep.

Behind the ship, fog:

Beside the ship, ripples:

[1] Because much publicly-funded research is printed in locked-away purchase-only (at a very dear price) journals at evil academic presses (I am looking at you, Cambridge University Press), I extracted this figure with great difficulty from Google searches. It may be wrong.


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July 2008

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