Day 11 |
Aug 11, 2012

Wilczek and Hall Islands, Franz Josef Land, Russia 

By Juan Carlos Restrepo, Geologist

Co-ordinates: N 80º05'32", E 058º02'54"
Weather: Overcast
Air Temperature: -1ºC
Pressure: 1006 hPa
Wind: 5 knots

After a stormy day at sea yesterday on our way from Novaya Zemlya, the Silver Explorer arrived today to Franz Josef Land under perfectly calm conditions. It is hard to believe that we are on the same sea that for the first 24 hours after leaving Novaya Zemlya looked so furious. This morning Franz Josef Land welcomed us with a sea that looked like a lake, not a ripple in the water. Magical.

We started the day off right with the sighting of a very rare marine mammal, a Bowhead whale. We were approaching Wilczek Island and suddenly this whale -which is possibly the most long-lived animal on earth, over 200 years- was seen cruising along the coastline.

It was a brief sighting as they are quite elusive, and rightly so since they were hunted almost to extinction in the North Atlantic only two whale generations ago. Twenty-four thousand of them were slaughtered between 1611 and 1670 only in Spitsbergen. The estimated number of Bowheads for the Franz Josef Land area is of only 13 individuals. We were very lucky to have seen one!

South of Wilczek Island -our destination for this morning- the expedition ship Tegetthoff, trapped in an ice field since August 1872, came to a final halt when the ice masses finally froze together in late 1873, connecting the ship to the island. From here, the land parties of the Tegetthoff explored first Wilczek Island and its neighbouring islands, and then on three longer sledge excursions more remote parts of the unknown archipelago.

Our Expedition Team came ashore at that exact location and after scouting the area we took our guests on two hikes. For the most adventurous ones, a difficult hike to the grave of Otto Krisch, who was the engineer of the Tegetthoff and the only member of the expedition to have died during their time in Franz Josef Land. To reach the grave our guests had to negotiate a moderate climb over a snow patch and then about a mile walking over a block field.

For the rest of our guests, we offered a moderate hike that took them onto a plateau and over to a nearby bird cliff, which was as a matter of fact very nice. We could get very close to the nesting Glaucous gulls and Black guillemots.

During lunch the Silver Explorer repositioned to Cape Tegetthoff, on the south end of Hall Island. The dramatic rock scenery of Cape Tegetthoff was the first land to be seen from a long distance by the Austrian-Hungarian expedition on board the Tegetthoff on August 30th 1873.

Today, only the relics of the octagonal wintering hut with annexes of the Wellman expedition of 1898/99 can still be seen. I was very impressed with the beauty and richness of this site. It had something to offer for everyone, from an important historical site to stupendous geology and frost patterned ground, botany, birdlife and beach combing. Once ashore, our guests went on guided walks with the Expedition Team, and once briefed on the highlights of the location, they were allowed to do explore the area on their own.

Cape Tegetthoff boasts a rich tundra with lots of greenery, a lake and the impressive rock wall cutting across that looks like the backbone of a gigantic stegosaurus and ends in two impressive needles just off the beach, all these things and much more make this (in my opinion) a truly spectacular site.

Once back on board we got our guests together for a Recap & Briefing, followed by dinner and an early night. After a most successful first day in Franz Josef Land, we have a big day in store for tomorrow.