Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Ship's Log: Day 4

October 9th

We sailed again through the night arriving at Sallyhamna in the morning. After breakfast, I was sorting through my equipment when someone shouted "bear!" We all rushed out on deck. On a nearby shore, eight polar bears were feeding on a dead whale carcass!

Bears feasting on whale carcass
Polar bears are usually solitary animals. Normally, when a male bear runs into another male they attack each other. But the bears we watched eating the whale carcass all had big, full stomachs and no interest in acting aggressively towards us or each other. They slid around on their bellies, with legs stretched out behind, and playfully boxing each other. A couple of bears wrestled and rolled down the snow covered hill. It was an amazing sight. Our guide said he has never seen so many bears in one place in the twenty years he has been working in the Arctic. Nearby, an Arctic fox and grey fox waited a good distance away from the whale carcass, hoping the bears would leave some of the whale for them.

Needless to say, any plans to go ashore were cancelled due to the polar bears. It only took one quick glance from Audun to send me off to the Captain and Aaron (the program director) asking for permission to take out the kayak. Unbelievably, they said OK as long as Jan (and the gun) stayed nearby in the zodiac!! Katya, my co-conspirator, bravely came along in the zodiac, ready to document any encounters.

Audun and I threw on our drysuits (not an easy or pretty feat) and jumped into the double kayak. In Arctic waters it is mandatory to wear a drysuit while kayaking -- in a drysuit, one can be submerged in the icy water with much less risk of hypothermia. Drysuits are loose enough to get lots of clothes underneath, important, since they are made of thin non-insulating material. They have rubber feet, and gaskets at wrists and neck to completely seal out freezing water incase you go overboard. Just getting my arms in, contorting enough to get my head through the rubber neck gasket, and the zipper up usually takes me 20 minutes. To get into the kayak to see the bears, I think I did it in 120 seconds.

Polar bears coming to visit
Two bears had entered the water and were swimming close to shore. We paddled to within 40 meters of the bears before Jan called us back. I still can't believe that I went kayaking with polar bears swimming nearby! I was up front in the kayak and had popped my skirt (the neoprene skirt seals me into the kayak) so that I could twist backword to film Audun as he paddled. He paddled even closer to the bears that were eating and wrestling onshore and spun around to get shots of him paddling with a bear in the background.

Raphael Shirley on board the Noorderlicht
The weather was cold and gray with snow falling. My camera was wearing its raincoat so we decided to keep paddling through the ice and snow. We traveled away from the bears and towards the end of the bay where a huge glacier met the sea. It was an incredible sight! Yet again, we were called back by Jan. Even Audun, who has had years of experience with ice, quietly mentioned that if the glacier calved we would be in big trouble. (When the ice on a glacier's face crashes into the sea, it's call "calving".) Calving glaciers cause HUGE waves which are never good for kayaks! Knowing the risk, Audun and I decided to ignore Jan's warning and continued on towards the glacier ... it was fantastic and terrifying all at the same time. I got some great footage of Audun paddling hard as snow and ice formed on his beard and eyebrows, glacier in the background.

Calving glacier
The bay had filled with pack ice and "bitty bergs" (little icebergs). The captain decided we should move to another part of the bay to anchor for the night. The ship was carefully moving through the ice obstacle course when it suddenly came to an abrupt halt, sending people flying. We had hit a rock that was covered with ice. No one was hurt (other than some big bruises), but the incident caused another sleepless night. I heard sloshing noise from below and spent the night worrying that the rock had caused a hole ... needless to say the steel hull held fast. The sloshing I had heard was only the fresh water reserve kept below the passenger deck.

I later learned from the crew that there were two times when they actually worried about hull breaches (this was after the crew had had quite a few drinks). The crew always acted as if banging into rocks and huge icebergs was something they did for fun so we wouldn't worry.

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