Monday, September 17, 2007

West Ice survey 2002:VII

Read the first part of this post here.

Life on Lance took on its own pattern. Our routines were fun, days spent icehopping, tagging seals, helicopter flights for extra entertainment. Evenings of meals, meetings in the large room across from our cabin to debrief and plan the next day, occasional videos. Most days, after dinner but before our meetings, I'd be inputting data, while Sofie and Ilse spent an hour or so on the roof of the ship's bridgedeck, recording the behaviour of pups. Bjørn and Nils Eric found Sofie and Ilse incomprehensible - they chose to spend extra time – drinking time - out in the cold. And, for all possible reasons, to watch pups' behaviour.

Life for the crew was different. We were hardly moving, the ice presented no real threats, so the ship was secure. The crew's workload was drastically reduced, so the captain seized the opportunity to catch up with some maintenance. Empty cabins were repainted. Some of Lance's crew were itching to get out on the ice.

The weather was warming, we had a little more sunlight each day. Some larger stretches of water appeared between floes. Pups were losing their white coats.

Tore contacted Kjell regularly. They were flying - mostly from Jan Mayen - checking for any other whelping patches. There weren't any more. Over beers in the evening, Tore and Garry's discussions on when to run the final helicopter survey got serious.

We'd been out tagging, one of those afternoons with Lance below the horizon, hours of seals and ice. Callan and I always made for the bow, entered the covered fo'csle to a lab where we'd wash our woollen gloves then drop them in some detergent to soak overnight. We'd slip down the companionway to the storage area below, ditch our floater suits and Sorrel boots, pull on some sandshoes, head back towards Lance's centre. Callan made for his room, I climbed up the steps to our cabin. Sofie was waiting there, mouth drawn, eyes hard.

“What is it?”, I asked.

She snorted, tipped her head, eyes pointing to the stern. “Look at this.”.

It was only a few yards, past Tore's cabin, to the door opening to the stern. As we stepped out, Sofie pointed to something hanging from the metal pipes that crisscrossed the deck's roofed areas. A few scrawny little black-red corpses, the meat cut from them, hung downwards. In a corner, a pile of dirty white pelts lay in a heap.

“They've been shooting”, she said.

She turned, walked back to our cabin, sat on the lower bunk. “So, are you going to say something to Tore?”, she asked.

“And say what? He gets permits to shoot hundreds of fucking seals each year. He'll have an excuse for it. Saying anything will just make life difficult for the rest of the time we're out here.”.

Sofie frowned.

Norwegian sealers aren't allowed to hunt whitecoat pups, so white pelts are rarities now. It's one remaining success from earlier anti-sealing campaigns. The crew were getting bored, so Tore had indulged them by allowing them to shoot a few whitecoats.

Genetic samples, apparently.

Had anyone asked for genetic samples, we'd have brought back chunks of afterbirth that would have served just as well. We'd even have brought back the carcasses of pups that had died naturally. No-one ever asked, of course.

The following night, seal pup stew appeared for dinner. Dark, pungent, purple-brown meat in thick gravy. Thankfully, the cook had the decency to offer another choice (veggie lasagne, as Ilse was vegetarian) for those of us who couldn't stomach pup stew.

A few days later, we were heading down from the helicopter deck again. Sofie and Ilse left, Callan and I sorted out some gear. Finished, we made for our cabins. Sofie and Ilse were standing on the walkway of the boat deck, looking forward. Ilse seemed pale, like she was about to throw up. Sofie looked ready to explode.

“What's up?”, I asked.

“Have a look. Lotta just told Ilse that the guys were playing with a female hooded seal on the front deck”.

Playing indeed. Someone had shot a big female hood, and the crew were butchering and skinning her on the deck. Dark blood spread everywhere, pooled into the ice slush. Callan and I walked down, stepped around the carcass. We left a trail of bloody bootprints into the fo'csle.

I worked through my cleaning ritual – gloves washed, grubby gear off, (and blood washed off boots for a special addition), wandered back. Sofie was standing outside Tore's cabin. I caught “we didn't expect to see this shooting......”, saw the half-smile on Tore's face, looking down on Sofie, as I walked into our cabin.

Luckily, it was time to run the final helicopter survey over our whelping patch, and everyone was too busy for a couple of days for anything else. Shoot more seals, for instance. The conditions stayed fine, clear skies and almost no wind. We'd been impossibly lucky with weather. The helicopter survey went as near to perfect as these things ever go.

All that was left was for Kjell to fly the photographic survey. The weather stayed awesome - clear, sunny and calm, but we'd seen no sign of the plane for a few days. Kjell was working out of Jan Mayen, but the dirt strip there was muddy and unusable. Local rain.

Late one morning, Callan, Garry and I were out tagging seals. We still couldn't believe our luck with the weather, blue skies with no wind. It was to dream of in the Arctic, and there was no way it was going to last forever. The hours passed, we tagged dozens of pups, but something was clearly bugging Garry. He kept looking up and around. Finally, he pulled out the radio, called Tore.

“Tore, can you get on the phone to Jan Mayen, ask Kjell what's happening to the plane”.

A few minutes later, Tore called back. Garry listened, nodded, coloured. “Okay”.

“What's the score?” I asked.

“They had a party last night at Jan Mayen. Kjell isn't even up yet.”. It was getting on to midday.

Alcohol is tax-free on Jan Mayen.

Kjell ran the photographic survey a couple of days later.
Read the final part of this post here.

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