Day 14 |
Aug 14, 2012

Franz Josef Land, Russia 

By Kara Weller, Biologist

Co-ordinates: 79° 56 ’ N – 50° 12’ E
Weather: partly cloudy
Air temperature: 2° C
Wind: 33 knots
Pressure: 1004 hPa
Humidity: 80%

A fiercely blowing wind during the night continued through to morning and we awoke to white caps and waves on the sea. The sky was clear however and the magnificent table-top landscape surrounding us was beautiful to look at. At 6:30 in the morning a few of us staff members were on the Bridge and on the upper deck searching for bears and walrus. A few walrus were seen swimming in the water in small groups that popped to the surface only briefly, but no big hoped-for haul-out on land was seen.

Cape Flora was our morning’s destination in the southwestern side of the Franz Josef Land archipelago, and the cliffs of this landing site slowly came into view. The lush green landscape that stretched out at the base of the cliffs gave this destination its name. The profusion of plant life was astonishing, and green mosses and flowers covered the ground in a thick carpet.

But first we had to get to shore, which wasn’t the easiest thing. The wind was blowing at 30 knots and the ride to shore was long and quite wet with spray from the tight steep waves hitting us in the face as we fought to get to the landing beach. A bit of swell on the beach and a section of round boulders to step over added to the challenge. But then it was a lovely walk along the base of the cliffs out to a point of land where we could see a few memorials to some of the many expeditions that based themselves here. One of the most significant expeditions was the Jackson-Harmsworth expedition, which, during its three years based at Cape Flora, mapped and explored much of the western part of the archipelago.

The lush green mosses were beautiful to see. Many dead birds from the cliffs above were strewn about on the ground, some partially eaten and picked clean by other scavenging birds. It was still very windy on shore although the steep cliffs behind provided some shelter. Walking into the wind was interesting, though turning to go downwind was pleasant.

The wind at the ship however, was steadily increasing during the course of our landing and a call came out from the Bridge that we should return before conditions deteriorated any further. Gusts of up to 50 knots were recorded and the wind was now blowing a steady 40 knots. Everyone returned to the landing beach and a rather wet and exciting Zodiac ride took everyone safely back to the ship.

The plan for the afternoon had been to search again for walrus and to try and also land at Bell Island to visit the historic hut of explorer Benjamin Leigh Smith from 1881. But as we skirted around Bell Island we realized that weather conditions had not improved at all and the shore side was much too exposed, therefore making a landing impossible. Our Captain very kindly turned towards the shore to give everyone on board at least a view of this tiny isolated hut and at the same time a polar bear on neighboring Maybell Island was spotted high up on a green slope, foraging for birds nesting in the rock crevices. We cruised over and had a look at this beautiful bear as well, though those people who ventured outside on to the upper decks were nearly blown away in the wind.

Still searching for walrus as well as a more protected anchorage for the ship and landing site, we returned around the west and south side of Bell Island. Sure enough, the wind here seemed to have dropped a bit so a scout boat was launched to drive around the corner of Bell Island looking for walrus, but unfortunately they found nothing. They also tried the other side of Bell Island where a small bay seemed to provide nice shelter for a landing. Unfortunately here the boulders on shore were very large and slippery and difficult to navigate with the additional disadvantage that there wasn’t much to see on shore either! So a landing was not a reasonable option here either, and we pulled up the anchor and slowly headed off past more magnificent table-top mountains and south towards Murmansk.

The birthday celebration of Jenny Giles resulted in the loudest and most raucous dining table in The Restaurant. She stated that seeing a polar bear and nearly drowning in freezing salt water during the morning’s Zodiac landing was a wonderful way to spend a very memorable birthday.