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August 29 - Bears at last!

Update (29th August 2004)

Noon Position : lat 69° 23.3' N, long 018° 48.6' W
Air temperature @ noon today : 5.3°C
Sea temperature @ noon today : 6.0°C

They came, we saw them, they ate Duncan's box......

Well our wishes finally came true, the polar bears came out to play.... in glorious sunshine, only their timing could have been better- they turned up just in time for breakfast! The night before we had met up with the RV Polarstern, a German research ship belonging to the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven. They had reported 12 or more bear sightings, the nearest 100 yards away. Well their success somehow managed to rub off on us and we had the most fantastic morning of polar bear watching we could ever have wished for!

Work wise, it was all about the ice- under it, on it, through it.... We were also lucky enough to complete an afternoon of work with the Polarstern scientists followed by a very social evening with visits to both ships.

We are now returning to Iceland and will put into Isjafjordur, a town of approximately 4000 people, where we will collect our new science party, take on fresh stores and have an inspection of our bow thruster where the engineers have detected a rattle. As we dipped below the Arctic circle we finally got something back which we had been missing- the night. We have left the midnight sun behind and are now back to a more familiar routine.

Map courtesy of Simon Wright. Click to enlarge.

Our current position. Click to enlarge.

Bear necessities.

It was the nicest way to wake up imaginable. The night after a party, everyone a little groggy and bleary eyed, and knowing they should really be already up and breakfasting, when, at 7.34 am, Robert, the mate's dulcet tones came over the PA system announcing that there were 3 polar bears swimming astern of the ship.

Cabins emptied as the entire ship's complement headed aft. The bears did not disappoint. They were spotted swimming not far away, three enormous heads just breaking the water surface. One by one they clambered onto an ice floe, shook themselves dry and padded across to get a closer look at us.

It became obvious this was a mother and her cubs. One of the little ones was copying her every move, the other seemed intent on laying down and snoozing. Having decided we were harmless, the bears lay down and closed their eyes, mother bear looking up occasionally and sniffing the air.

Three bears by Ruth Mugf=ord. Click to enlarge. Bears by rUTH mUGFORD. cLICK TO ENLARGE. Bear by Guy Williams. Click to enlarge.

Who ate all MY porridge by Ruth Mugfird. Click to enlarge.

A message came down from the bridge asking how far away we were. About 15m was the answer, "Well let me know if we get too close" said the voice. Within minutes Robert had the ship manouvered to within a few metres of the ice floe. The bears seemed completely unperturbed and we watched from our grandstand view, a few metres from the huge, powerful and beautiful creatures.

Things changed dramatically however when a solitary bear appeared a few hundred metres away, swimming slowly in our direction and occasionally using the ice to gain height and have a look around. We spotted him a while before the mother bear and enjoyed his powerful displays of climbing and swimming. As soon as she did spot him however, she wasted no time at all. She and the cubs stood up, moved as one to the edge of the floe and dived into the water, heading for the fast ice. Once there, they ran and were white specks against the ice by the time the big male bear reached the floe they had been occupying.

We watched for another 10 minutes as the big bear stalked across the ice, sniffing and marking the areas where the other bears had been, thankful that we were off the ice, safe from these giants. A fantastic morning, and the perfect end to our cruise to northeast Greenland.

See Pat Cooper's 30 second video clip of the bears (Real Media, 133 KB)

Snow, ice, water and big-footed vandals.

One of the principle scientific objectives of the cruise was to study the Greenland fast ice in the vicinity of the AWI and Belgica banks in the Fram Strait between Greenland and Spitsbergen (see map below). The reasons for choosing this area were the lack of detailed bathymetry of the ocean floor, the proximity to land of an area of open water (a polynya) which would enable us to get close to the fast ice without encountering too much pack and the fact that the German research ship Polarstern was working close by, thus providing an opportunity for a collaborative effort.

Work area courtesy of Simon Wright. Click to enlarge.

The work area, between the brown (land) and the green is the polynya which enabled us to work on the fast ice close to the coast of Greenland. Fast ice is the permanent ice which remains attached to the land. It is frozen sea water. Click to enlarge.

The idea was to create a grid of drill holes across the ice. From these, measurements of the ice thickness, snow coverage and freeboard (the height of the ice above the water line) were taken as well as samples from both the ice itself and the melt ponds. These samples will be tested for salinity which will in turn help to age the ice.

A group of scientists from the Alfred Wegener Institute then dragged an electromagnetic ice-thickness recorder over the survey site, thus enabling a comparison of the data to be made. Their recorder is ingeniously mounted in a sea-kayak, making it easy to tow and unsinkable should the ice give way.

For further verification of the data, one of Polarstern's two helicopters was launched, towing beneath it the "bird". This is also an electromagnetic recorder, capable of measuring the thickness and density of the ice from approximately 20m above it. While all of this was going on, auto sub was "mowing the lawn" underneath us, with its upward-looking swath bathymetry trained on the undersurface of the ice, recording the thickness, the undulations and the ridges.

Zoe marking out a survey line by Nick Hughes. Click to enlarge. The AWI team and kayak by Nick Hughes. Click to enlarge. Polarstern prepares to launch the helicopter by Nick Hughes. Click to enlarge.

Zoe Roberts measures out a survey line across the ice.

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The team from Germany's Alfred Wegener Institute with Torge the guard.

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Polarstern's helicopter pilots prepare to launch helicopter and bird (on the right).

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The quality, density and thickness of the ice are recorded hourly from the bridge by Professor Steve Ackley's band of ice watchers. They are particularly interested in the melt ponds, which are a feature of the Arctic sea ice. Professor Ackley is interested in finding what causes their formation and why they are not found in Antarctica.

Guy Williams coring. Click to enlarge. Ice core by Jeremy Wilkinson. Click to enlarge. Meltponds by Nick Hughes. Click to enlarge.

Guy Williams drills out an ice core.

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An ice core awaits analysis in the cool specimen room.

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The science party working at the far end of a large melt pond.

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The final part of the ice science was for Duncan Mercer to deploy a tilt meter onto the ice. This highly sensitive gadget can detect the tiniest changes in the angle of the ice floe on which it sits. It measures the amount of flexion in the ice which occurs after storms out in the open ocean and sends data back to the lab by satellite telephone. This is the fifth such device Duncan has deployed around the Arctic Ocean.

Duncans tiltmeter. Click to enlagre.

Here's one he prepared earlier- a tilt meter placed onto the ice last year.

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While anyone is working on the ice, it is necessary for a lookout to be kept. On the JCR this is done from the bridge, by the watch keepers and at least two others, taking turns on "polar bear watch". Early in the morning we left the shelter of our icy "parking spot" to recover the auto sub at the end of it's mission under the ice. However, when we returned to our work area, the lookouts on the bridge noticed something had changed- large footprints were evident all around our work area- the bears had been and gone in our absence!

Duncan's tilt meter was therefore to suffer a sad fate- at the first data schedule, the meter reported that it the tilt was 90 degrees- it had been knocked over, most likely by the owner of those large hairy feet!

Paws by Jeff Evans. CLick to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

International Relations.

The Polarstern arrived, in thick fog, during morning smoko (tea break). Shortly afterwards,we watched our PSO and American Professor Steve Ackley disappear into the fog, escorted by two Germans with large rifles! However, they did reappear, and we finally got to see the ship as the fog cleared and the scientists got to work.

Meanwhile, the rest of us settled down to the real business of organising the evening's socialising.

After entertaining an international scientific team to dinner, we all donned our best party frocks and were transported down onto the ice. Over on the Polarstern where we warmed our chilly hands on their delicious gluhwein. They in turn were very happy to see us and our contribution to the party, having run out of beer some time previously- anathema to a German!!

Party frocks by Colm OCofaigh. Click to enlarge.

Dressed to impress: what passes for party clothes in the Arctic.

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Not the usual walk home.

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A very pleasant evening was had by all with tours of both ships taking place. Of course the next morning the emails were flying, requesting a swimming pool, a bigger gym, an operating theatre, a cinema, a helicopter, a lecture theatre.... How can they refuse, after all the Germans have one!

International relations by Steve McPhail. Click to enlarge.

Some people can't resist an opportunity to talk business- the auto sub team comparing notes on the size of their submarines.

Click to enlarge.

The Polarstern is an old lady, commissioned in 1982, she still works in both the Arctic and the Antarctic. Being only 20m longer and 7m wider than the JCR, she in nonetheless a lot bigger. Every room on board seems bigger than on the JCR, the stairwells are twice as wide as ours and the holds are vast. The whole impression is one of space and practicality. That said, it was good to come back at the end of the evening, to our cosy, comfortable ship. We had a lovely evening but it was nice to be home!

Thanks to Pat Cooper for his video clip of the polar bears.

Next week, the fjords and more submarine work.