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The Call of the Arctic

A Voyage by Icebreaker Ship Along the Edge of the World

Article and photos by Lies Ouwerkerk
Independent Travel Columnist

Arctic ship with boat coming ashore
During a voyage on an arctic ship, passengers make their way towards shore on a small "Zodiac" boat.

Traveling on an icebreaker had been on my wish list for quite a long time. Polar expeditions do not come cheap, however, as icebreakers are extremely expensive to run, due to high fuel costs and crew/staff – passenger ratio. But when an extra work contract fell unexpectedly into my lap this year, I jumped on the sudden opportunity to make my dream come true. The Akademik Ioffe, a working Russian research vessel and passenger ship was just about to make its once-a-year journey from Iceland to Greenland and Arctic Canada, and a bunk bed was still available in one of its shared cabins. Soon I was off to Reykjavik, from where the ship would set sail.

The Expedition Leader's Warnings

“If we want our next generation to make the same trip, we have to show our utmost consideration for this fragile environment,” says expedition leader Graham Charles to the approximately 70 passengers from all corners of the world, who have congregated in the dining room for a welcome drink and a mandatory life boat briefing.  “Besides the basic principles of not leaving anything behind nor taking anything with you while on shore, we have to adhere strictly to the rules of safety and keep the minimally required distance from the wildlife we will encounter. In the active polar bear zones, that also means: staying in the immediate vicinity of your armed guide, and wearing your yellow parka at all times. Yellow is polar bear’s least favorite color, so if you stick together as a group, you will likely scare them off.”

View of boat through sea ice
View of a "Zodiac" boat gliding through the sea ice, seen through an opening in an iceberg.

If that warning is not enough to send a wave of apprehension through the newcomers on board about potential encounters with the “Kings of the Arctic”—often trapped in coastal areas in their leanest time of the year, and hungrily awaiting fall’s return of sea ice, their crucial hunting ground for catching ringed seals—Graham’s explanation of the sailor’s grip, to be applied while stepping from a wobbly gangway into rocking Zodiac boats on the choppy and freezing mid-sea waters, finishes the job of sending a shock wave through the group. Many still feel a bit fragile, trying to combat jetlag and ward off motion sickness with magic wristbands or patches behind their ears, in anticipation of crossing rough seas in the Danish Strait.

Hungry arctic polar bear in summer
Polar bears are known to get hungry in summer, when the sea ice is melting and they are forced to come to shore to roam for food.

The Expedition Begins

“And now, up to the whales!” our leader quips, while raising a glass to the success of our expedition. “Anybody here who wants to see a humpback whale or a school of orcas from the bridge”? This time, all hands go up.

In the days to follow, when all of us have acquired sea legs, a yellow parka, and enough courage to brave the kayaks and Zodiacs, our expedition staff takes us out on daily excursions into hidden fjords and along enormous sapphire- and emerald-colored icebergs, endlessly different in shape, and slowly making their way south through the ocean, after calving off one of the many Greenland glaciers. We go on hikes in the wilderness around small bays and inlets and visit remote and abandoned fishing settlements. We set foot in world’s smallest capital Nuuk, where we view 15th century mummies in Greenland’s National Museum.

In Ilulissat, situated on Greenland’s west coast, about 250 km north of the Arctic Circle, in the dramatic surroundings of one of world’s most spectacular ice fjords—Unesco World Heritage Site since 2004—we visit the house of Greenland’s greatest explorer, Knut Rasmussen. In other Inuit towns such as Tasiilaq, Nanortalik and Sisimiut, with their colorful wooden houses built in rocky harbors, quiet and friendly locals put on shows with traditional songs, music or dance.

Town in Greenland.
View of a town in Greenland.

Friendly locals in Greenland.
Friendly locals in Greenland relaxing in town.

In addition, we have our own entertainment on board, when some of the most courageous passengers dare to take a plunge into the ice-cold ocean.

Paddling boats near spectacular iceberg.
In paddling boats near spectacular iceberg.

Besides skillfully maneuvering Zodiacs on choppy waters, our expedition guides are also accomplished lecturers, passionately presenting talks on their individual areas of specialization:

  • An Australian geologist explains the changes in Greenland’s melting ice sheet which now covers about 90 % of the country’s surface, its effects on glaciers, rivers, and icebergs, and its subsequent impact on the whole world.
  • A British ornithologist warms us up for the many Arctic birds still to spot during the rest of our journey such as the Long-tailed Skua, the Black Guillemot, and the Sooty Shearwater.
  • A Canadian historian relates the harrowing stories of explorers like Sir John Franklin and Roald Amundsen, who for years braved the icy waters and the darkness of winter in order to discover an oceanic shortcut from the Atlantic to the Pacific across the top of North America.
  • A Polish zoologist introduces us to the world of polar bears, whales, and narwhals.
  • Our own expedition leader from New Zealand recounts the nail-biting story of his 35-day traverse of Greenland’s icecap.

Life on the Ship

Although the majority of cabins and bathrooms are small, life on the ship is much more luxurious than I ever had imagined. The kitchen staff treats us as if we are on a true cruise ship: buffet style breakfasts and 3-course lunches and dinners, with extensive wine lists to match. Their menus are imaginative and pleasing to the palate, from Teriiyaki Yellow Fin Tuna, to New Zealand Lamb Shanks and Smothered Chicken Saltimbocca.

Yet, I sometimes wish for less focus on food and socializing, and just a simple sandwich on the deck instead, where I can surrender to the silence, the huge open expanses of nothingness, the warm sunrays on a cloudless day, and the endless skies that turn into a magical spectacle as the sun sinks into the horizon for a couple of hours around midnight.

After our expeditions, there is a gym, a sauna, a well-stocked library, and a lounge with DVD’s to return to, or a bar with enticing cocktails named after our activities or sightings of that day such as the “Spiked Viking”, the “Pink Puffin”, the “Throat Stinger”, and the “Fin Fizz.”

Polar Bear Spotting

 “Who wants to see a polar bear?” inquires Graham over the intercom, when the ship is heading toward Canada’s Baffin Island through the vast pack ice. That sends everybody, cameras with huge lenses in tow, immediately to the decks, where giant binoculars are set up to scan the many floes for polar bears, known to hunt here for seals. As soon as a bear is spotted, the ship digs deeper in the pack ice. Cameras are already clicking left and right although the bear is still hardly visible to the eye. But soon, at a distance of not more than 40 meters from the ship, we can view our first polar bear of the trip. The animal seems hardly disturbed by our arrival, still in stupor after consuming a seal, judging by the carcass stripped of its blubber at the side.

Suddenly seized by bear fever, we venture through the pack ice in Zodiacs later that day. With the help of our "Eye in the Sky" on board of the Akademik Ioffe, the Zodiac drivers are guided through their transceivers into the right direction. Our boats drift in pairs and on one engine through the breathtaking icescape, and when closer to the bear, the guides use only paddles. Silent and in awe, we are face to face with the largest predator of the high Arctic, pacing over ice floes while sizing us up, then slowly sliding into the ocean and swimming away.

Staring at an arctic bear
Staring down a polar bear who remains at a safe distance.

“We can never plan and promise to view these Arctic icons for sure,” says a relieved Graham at the end of this memorable day, “but thanks to your flawless team effort, we were able to watch some true model bears today!” A thunderous applause follows.

After 3,055 nautical miles on the water using 180 tons of fuel, and a final wet Zodiac landing near the shores of Iqaluit, return to normal life comes as a total shock.

A surreal arctic sunset
An other-worldly arctic sunset.

Life After the Expedition

For at least a week, my gait remains unsteady, while I imagine the floor bobbing under my feet. The humming of my fridge sounds like the steady engine of the Akademik Ioffe, and in the zooming sound of traffic passing by my window I hear the waves sloshing rhythmically against the sides of the ship. I dream of magnificent icescapes against perfectly blue skies, and in it huge Atlantic puffins playing with cuddly little bear cubs, white as snow. And when my alarm clock goes off, the reporter seems to murmur the well-known lines of our "Eye in the Sky": “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, this is a gentle wake-up call from the bridge, where we have spotted a giant albatross and some killer whales this morning. For the early birds among you, this is an invitation to come up and watch them for yourselves, and for those who might still like to dream on a bit, see you in half an hour at the breakfast table...”

For More Info

Quark Expeditions, tel. 1 888 892 0334, or 1 802 735 1536, www.quarkexpeditions.com. Quark organizes a large variety of expeditions in the Arctic (and Antarctica), with prices varying between $4,590 for an 11-day voyage to Spitsbergen to $24.995 for a 14-day North Pole expedition.

Prices include all meals on board, 2 nights hotel in ports of departure and arrival, a parka to keep, a DVD of the trip in the end of the voyage, use of binoculars and rubber boots, evacuation insurance, and services of a doctor on board.

For individual trips and hikes in Greenland and Canada only, check out www.greenland.com, www.expeditiongreenland.com, and www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/nu/auyuittuq/index.aspx.

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