Wednesday, August 08, 2007

West Ice survey 2002:II

[read the first part of this post here]
Beerenberg (pronounced beer'n'burger, without the final er) loomed. Rising seven-and-a-half thousand feet straight out of the Arctic Ocean, it's the world's northernmost active volcano, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge peeking above the sea. It's Norwegian territory, just like Bouvetøya (boo-vet-oi-ya), the Ridge's southernmost island, over 8,500 miles away. Glaciated lava, iced cone swathed in cloud, it's stark, massive, impressive. Jan Mayen, the island, comprises Beerenberg and its cooled lava flows. The Norwegian government runs a meteorological station and a LORAN station there.

The morning of March 15th saw us anchored off Olonkin Town, base for the 18 people who live on Jan Mayen. It's not the easiest place to approach, but the helicopter meant we could all visit. First, unloading the fuel barrels. The Squirrel was unlashed and most of us helped with getting the rotors attached. There's something odd about standing on the deck of a ship in the Arctic, holding a helicopter's rotors in place while a mechanic fiddles with some nuts and bolts, turning the helicopter back into a flying machine.

The fuel cans were ferried ashore in fours, hanging on about a hundred feet of line. Finally, our first ride on this chopper. Three abreast in the back seat, and in our flotation suits, things were a little snug. From the air, Olonkin forms a long L with two arms running off it, the foot of the L paralleling a ridgeline extending down from Beerenberg. A couple of huge tanks for diesel – generator fuel – and scattered sheds complete the installation.

We were deposited by a shed, close to the main entrance. A short trudge through snow and we were escaping our flotation suits and Sorrel boots. We entered another little cocoon of Norway, down to the overstuffed leather armchairs and the wood panelling, blond and knotty. A guided tour took in radios, computers, diesel generators, living quarters, displays of station history, coffee and cake. There was even a little shop, complete with Jan Mayen t-shirts, cloth patches and postcards, for the (very) occasional cruise ship that stops off at the island. Garry bought t-shirts for his kids, a few postcards were mailed from the station's post office, and it was time for the helicopter ride back to the ship.

And then we steamed out to the pack ice. A couple of days away from Jan Mayen and we were around the first floes. Once at the edge of the pack, the seas gentled, ice damping the capacity of wind to build waves. Sofie and Ilse returned to normal, resurrected from their cabins. We gathered on the bridge, binoculars ready, eager to find seals. I had no worries on this trip equating sightings with death. The Squirrel was unpacked again, rotors reattached, and some reconnaissance surveys started. Tore designated himself, Nils Eric and Bjørn as the “A” team, responsible for finding seals. The rest of us waited on the ship.

We had only the helicopter for scouting trips. Kjell and his Piper Navajo were grounded at Nerlerit Inaat, waiting repairs. They'd had engine trouble on the crossing from Iceland to east Greenland. Not the easiest place in the world for something to go wrong. So Lance cruised just inside the ice edge, the captain regularly climbing to the observation tower up the mast to pick our path through the maze of floes. And the ice never stops moving.

Lance's captain was one of those Norwegians who showed why sometimes it made perfect sense to be serious and unsmiling. He was a thin, fit man, with an almost-cadaverous face. His bald head, invariably serious expression and penchant for wearing black meant he looked like the bad guy from a cheesy action movie. It was a deception. He was exceptionally experienced, and this was his last voyage before retirement. The serious look was real, as Lance, although strong, isn't rated as an icebreaker. He was careful with manoeuvring her in the pack. He cared for his ship and crew, thought safety was paramount, and didn't cop any bullshit. I liked him.

Although harp seals give birth in more-or-less the same place each year, “more-or-less” still meant searching hundreds of square miles of pack ice. Tore's initial search strategy seemed pretty haphazard - fly out to the north or south, then doodle along the ice edge. Over coffee in the bridge, Garry suggested some zig-zags from the ice edge inwards.

We were early. Tore had – rightly – decided to get to the pack a week or so before the first pups might appear, allowing plenty of time to find seals, and deal with any problems that might arise (Kjell's plane lacking an engine, for instance). After a few fruitless days, Kjell was back in the air. Finally, they found the first small patch of females, coming together, preparing for birth. Once we'd found them from Lance, it was time for the gizmos.

We had satellite transmitters to deploy. Bulky cylinders, a little over a metre long, they're normally used by Canadian oceanographers to track the movements of ice floes. Pack ice travels with currents and weather, so if a storm hit once we were with whelping females, we could lose days of work. More important, we'd be blown away from our seals. Then, once the weather cleared, we'd have to start from scratch to find the females all over again. Hence the satellite transmitter, sending a signal up to a set of French satellites used in environmental monitoring. The signal would allow us to relocate females fairly easily if we were separated from them by a storm. But the transmitter gave its position to a few miles, so we also put out radio transmitters. They produced a much shorter-range signal that we could detect with the antennae we'd bolted onto the helicopter's skids.

So Garry, Callan and I jumped into the helicopter with our equipment, and were flown out to the seals. Bemused seals stared up, we stared down, looking for a thick, largish floe - preferably with an ice mound - somewhere near the middle of the patch. Once we'd found a suitable candidate, we jumped out, built a small ice-castle for the radio transmitter, and added the satellite transmitter. Garry turned the transmitters on. For a final touch, we adorned our little ice castle with bright pink dye, then strewed several bagsfull of of dye all over the floe. We called the helicopter back down, made sure that the radio signal was working, and returned to Lance to check that the satellite transmitter was beeping as well.

Everything worked. We never needed the satellite transmitter in our three weeks on the ice, only occasionally needed the radio signals, and the pink dye alone was usually enough for us to locate our seals. We were incredibly lucky with weather.

Read the next part of this post here.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

West Ice survey 2002: I

[read the start of this post here.]
Lance (pronounced Lancer), the Norwegian Polar Institute's expedition vessel, was our home for this voyage. We were to do a survey, estimating the number of pups born into the harp seal population off eastern Greenland in 2002. An ice-strengthened ship with a helicopter pad was essential, and Lance was one of only two Norwegian possibilities. The other was going seal hunting, and unavailable anyway. Originally launched as a fishing and sealing ship in the late 1970s, Lance quickly became the property of the Norwegian government. She spends most of her time in the Barents Sea and off Svalbard, with occasional forays to the Norwegian territory in the Antarctic.

Garry, Callan and Ilse all stayed with Sofie and me for a couple of days prior to departure. Garry, greying, coming into a paunch, is one of the senior Canadian government scientists responsible for assessing the size of harp seal populations off Canada. He was our aerial survey expert. Callan, from the University of St Andrews' Sea Mammal Research Unit, brought his years of field experience from the coast of the British Isles, subAntarctic islands, even the Caspian Sea - along with a bottle of peaty malt from Western Isles. Deceptively thin, Callan's capacity for hard work showed when he and I climbed onto our roof to shovel snow, a couple of days before we headed to sea. Ilse, a graduate student working with Sofie - tall, slender, with long, ever so slightly crinkly corn blond hair - looked like one of Tolkien's elves made flesh (but lacking pointy ears) - a walking advertisement for Dutch vegetarianism.

We stowed gear, met with the rest of the science crew, mostly folks from my new workplace. Tore (pronounced Tour-er)was boss, with a professor's position at the local university emphasizing his importance. He's the archetypal Saxon, from his reddish-brown hair, pale skin, beard and broad shoulders to his stomach, growing as befitted his importance. Tore came from a small town on an island south of Tromsø, a northern Norwegian boy who'd made it big. Lotta was Pippy Longstocking in her thirties – freckles, light blue eyes, red-gold hair, fit. Just like Pippy, she was Swedish, and like Nils Eric, a research assistant. Nils Eric was the real local – born round Tromsø, raised on a tiny farm just out of town. He was smallish for a Norwegian – about 5-9 and 175 pounds, beard turning to white, face reddened from life in Arctic winds and drinking. Completing the crew were Ivan, a computer technician from our institute, along because he was a keen hunter and so was thought to have a good eye for animals, and Bjørn (a different Bjørn from Bjørn on Svalbard), it's a common name in Norway), a grizzled old research assistant from the Institute of Marine Research in Bergen.

Kjell (pronounced sort of shell, but with a small tch at the start - tch-shell), Tore's second-in-command, was off to eastern Greenland in a photo-reconnaissance plane to run the other half of the project.

Sofie and I shared a room on the same level as Tore, who as cruise leader had a palatial cabin. Everyone else had all had separate cabins, as Lance was nowhere near full. Our room was unexpected luxury: wood panelling, room to move, a decent desk - even our own personal bathroom, complete with shower. Our cabin was on the deck that was more-or-less at water level.

The helicopter – a Squirrel - landed on its platform, had its rotors removed, and was lashed down. A few hours of stowing gear, the obligatory safety demonstrations, wending our way through the channels around Tromsø and we were off to sea.

First, we were off to Jan Mayen, the tiny volcanic island about 600 miles west of Norway, 400 miles north of Iceland, to unload fuel for Kjell's plane. Kjell's initial responsibility was to locate whelping patches, places where pregnant seals meet in their thousands to give birth. Harp seals have their pups on sea ice, and off east Greenland they're usually near the ice edge, so the exact location of whelping patches differs from year to year. Months earlier, Kjell had organized for fuel to be delivered to Nerlerit Inaat (I have no idea how to pronounce this properly, its name in English is Constable Point), home of the airstrip for Ittoqqortoomiit (nor this, Scoresbysund), the northernmost permanent settlement in east Greenland. His only other possible options for landing were Akureyri (Ak-you-airy) in northern Iceland, and Jan Mayen. The dirt strip at Jan Mayen took the Norwegian air force's C-130s, used to resupply the base there, so was long enough for Kjell's little Piper Navajo. But the island had no aviation fuel stores, so we had a line of 50-gallon drums lashed to the rails of Lance as we headed off.

As usual, most of the science crew lay in their bunks in varying degrees of discomfort for the first day or so. Only Tore always seemed immune to that initial bout of seasickness. Viking genetics, perhaps. The rest of us emerged one by one as the hours of our second day at sea stretched on. We hit a storm about half way across, so our three day steam became four. With the helicopter perched on its pad, high and exposed, the captain slowed the ship to a gentle one-knot trudge into the wind. The pilot and engineer climbed out for regular checks of the lashings. Losing the Squirrel at this point would have been embarrassing.

[read the next part of this post here]

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