The open polar sea seems like such a crazy theory at this point in history. Before satellites and airplanes people had no idea what the northern Polar Regions were really like. Many people thought that “deep water can’t freeze” or “24 hour sunlight in the summer would not just melt the ice, it would also be a tropical climate”. Some people went so far as to believe that there was land at the North Pole inhabited by a technology advanced people (basically Arctic Atlantis). Better yet, there is a hole at the pole that leads to an underground paradise. That theory was the inspiration for Jules Vern’s “journey to the center of the earth”. However silly all of this sounds in the 19th and early 20th century people took this theory not just seriously, but as scientific fact. Many died because of it. They thought that there was a ring of ice surrounding the Arctic, but if you could only break through that ring of ice you would enter an open polar sea.
In all the Polar Regions north and south the area we have been sailing through over the last couple of weeks has seen the most U.S. lead polar expeditions. The reason for many of these expeditions was to find the open polar sea. Starting with Elisha Kent Kane and ending with Peary Northwest Greenland was America’s contribution to polar exploration.
Unlike Shackleton, I can’t say “I wish I’d been there with them”. Kane was incredibly arrogant and was universally despised by his crew. Charles Francis Hall traveled the Arctic for years on his own living with the Inuit truly respecting their culture. Unfortunately he was a terrible leader of men and was found to be so insufferable by his crew that he was poisoned to death by his own ships doctor. Cook was a fraud. Peary only cared for fame and named practically everything he saw after himself, even places that didn’t exist. More than likely the last 100 miles of Peary’s journey to the North Pole was fabricated. He still deserves to be called the first man to reach the North Pole, like horseshoes and hand grenades he got close enough to count. George DeLong was by far the most likable and honorable of all the American expedition leaders. He too was looking for the open polar sea (although in a different part of the Arctic). He was a man worthy of his crew’s respect, but his boat was crushed in the ice and he died along with 2/3rds of his men.
The great Arctic and Antarctic explorers all deserve respect regardless of their personal quirks. These men endured great mental and physical hardship often without concern or complaint. They lived in a time when polar geography was truly unknown, a time of legends and myths. Men with hearts full of courage, braver than any explorer in the modern era. Compared to them we are nothing but a shadow. They are the ones who taught me what it is to be a man.
Today few places on earth are still uncharted, some of these last bastions of exploration are here in Greenland. The area where we conducted the majority of our research in the High Arctic was one of those regions. NASA scientists gave us a map that showed all of the data collected by all counties throughout history, within this map there was a large triangular shaped blank north of Qaanaaq. To be able to collect truly virgin data these days is about as rare as a leprechaun riding a unicorn, it was a chance we weren’t going to let slip by.
It’s very interesting to compare what is supposed to be there verses what really is. North of Cape Alexander we would see an island here on the chart and there on the chart that simply didn’t exist in reality. When going into a fjord to do a CTD cast we didn’t have a chart with soundings to say its 100 feet deep over here and 20 feet over there, or don’t go over there rocks are hiding just below the surface. We had to use a combination of observations and sailor intuition. As you can imagine my Inner-Shackleton is pumped up like Barry Bonds on steroids. It’s so nice to be back in the Arctic.
We left Qaanaaq and sailed down to Melville Bay to conduct a 150 mile preliminary survey from Cape York to the Devils Thumb. Peary (the guy who went to the North Pole) was in this area when he noticed the local Inuit had tools and weapons made of a very strange rock. The Inuit told Peary the rock was sacred. Peary convinced one of the Inuit to show him the source of this sacred rock. Peary’s suspicions were right, the tools and weapons weren’t made of normal Greenlandic rock, they were made from a meteor (two meteors to be precise). Apparently, the Inuit of the Qaanaaq region have been using these meteors to make tools and weapons for hundreds of years. In one of his more fiendish acts, Peary then stole both of these sacred meteors and brought them back to the United States, denying the Inuit the materials they desperately needed to survive. In a sad twist of irony there is a monument to Peary on top of Cape York overlooking Savissivik, the old site of the sacred meteors. If I was from Savissivik id knock that monument down and drag it back to the old scared site so it could be turned into a latrine, but then again I don’t like Peary.
Melville Bay is the land of a million icebergs, I mean literally a million. In the last week we have seen more icebergs than we have over the entire time we have been sailing in Greenland, multiplied. After passing Cape York we entered Meteor Bay to do a CTD cast. Meteor Bay probably had 500 large monstrous icebergs in it (possibly twice that number). From each berg came an assortment of growlers and bergy bits. I’d never seen anything like it. The icebergs were so thick we had to look for leads between these monsters as if they were pack ice, and that was just one fjord!
From Meteor Bay we skirted the edge of the Melville Nature reserve. You can’t do research in the nature reserve without a permit hence the “preliminary” part of our 150 mile survey. There’s always next year. Once south of the reserve we headed back towards land in an attempt to get to Hayes glacier to do more CTD casts. Hayes glacier is simply massive and constantly calving like crazy. About 15 miles from land you notice what looks like an impenetrable wall of icebergs as far as the eye can see. It’s like a bumper to bumper traffic jam of large icebergs. As you get closer you start to see leads but they don’t look like they go anywhere. Closer still you encounter fields of densely packed small ice between the size of a baseball to the size of a washing machine. There is no way to go around these fields of densely packed smaller ice, you can only go right through. Nikki calls these areas “the crunch” as that’s the sound the ice makes off your haul as you slowly pass through. Unfazed you press on and upon approaching this seemingly impenetrable wall of icebergs you realize there are some spaces between the bergs, so you enter this labyrinth of icebergs. It’s very slow going, Nikki covers the port side and I cover the starboard pointing out the smaller car sized bergs that litter the passageways between the monsters. (We had a three days forecast with no wind when entering the ice, had there been any wind in the forecast we would have stayed the hell away.)
We had been underway for several days since Qaanaaq, dodging ice and hardly sleeping. Now that we were navigating heavy ice sleeping was impossible. Sleep deprivation was catching up to me and I was starting to hear things that weren’t there. We needed to drop anchor and sleep, but where, we are completely surrounded by ice? An old grey bearded sailor once told me “any man can sail, but only a sailor can anchor”. For a guy who has spent so much time at sea non-stop I’ve gotten quite good at finding safe anchorages. There were several small uncharted lumps of rock that I guess you could call islands a few miles away. On one of these rocky outcroppings I found a current shadow, a place the current passes in such a way that the ice doesn’t get pressed up against that side of the island. So we dropped anchor there and slept. In the morning we got an email from Dr Fenty at NASA saying that Hayas was too iced up and we can try again earlier in the season next year when conditions will be more favorable. So we pulled anchor and started working our way through the ice to the Devils Thumb. (I’ve added some pictures of the impenetrable wall of ice but they don’t even come close to showing what it’s like)
We are currently on anchor near the Devils Thumb a place with so many bergs that we have to keep an ice watch when we sleep so we can quickly pull anchor and move before a 100,000 pound iceberg runs us down. Luckily they move very slowly.
What we have been doing here in Greenland is about as close to old school exploration as you can get these days. Venturing into uncharted waters colleting important scientific data in places where no one in human history has collected such data before. And this is only the beginning for Ocean Research Project.
(We have added some pictures of the research we have been doing. The blue line represents where we collected pCO2 (ocean acidification) data, thermosalinograph data and bathymetric data. The white circles represent CTD casts.)