Day 9 |
Aug 09, 2012

Russian Harbour, Novaya Zemlya

By Rich Pagen, Conservation Biologist

Co-ordinates: N 76º 17' 36", E 62º 47' 09"
Weather: Cloudy, rain
Air Temperature: 3ºC
Pressure: 993 hPa
Wind: 25 knots

A brisk wind greeted me when I walked out on deck for my morning ritual of coffee along the outside railing. I had to take shelter around the corner to get some lee, lest my coffee blow right out of the cup and onto the front of me. The Silver Explorer was heading northeast just off the Russian archipelago of Novaya Zemlya, which, at this point, was still far enough off the starboard side to remain out of sight.

After a quiet breakfast, I headed up to The Theatre for Expedition Leader Robin West’s briefing on our planned activities for the following day. This was followed by a presentation by Sergei Shirokiy, a representative of the Russian Arctic National Park, who told us a bit about some of the guidelines he’d like us to follow while visiting these protected areas. Most of his recommendations had to do with not disturbing wildlife by approaching too closely, and leaving the place as we found it. His sense of humor was much appreciated, and it was a real bonus to have him and his team of Russian bear guards on board the Silver Explorer with us.

Before lunch, I spent an hour on the Bridge scanning for wildlife. With the strong winds, the fulmars were putting on an impressive show, banking with stiff wings over the tortured sea surface. At times, it seemed that they were playing in the air currents around the ship. Flocks of Brünnich’s guillemots resembled torpedoes with wings as they flapped rapidly, trying to make some progress in the strong wind gusts. Small numbers of little auks occasionally lifted off the water, their wings absolutely whirring. It is so impressive that such tiny birds can thrive in such a hostile (to us) place, to the point where they are actually the most abundant bird species in the Barents Sea.

I also saw a number of skuas fly past the ship, the majority being pomarine skuas, but a long-tailed skua also made a close pass. These birds may very well be the reason that I first decided to go to sea on ships. I had spent a summer in Arctic Alaska with them, and immediately became impressed with their aggressive nest defense behavior. But their lifestyle during the rest of the year is what really drew me in. They actually leave the tundra and go out to sea for the winter, spending their time out of sight from any land. There they practice kleptoparasitism, which is stealing food from other seabirds. They often accomplish this by chasing another bird to such a degree that it drops the food it is carrying in its beak, or even regurgitates something so that the skua will leave it alone.

After a hearty British-themed lunch, I returned to the Bridge to watch our approach into Russian Harbor, on Novaya Zemlya’s northwest coast. This rather protected spot was still feeling the brunt of the northwest wind, which was coming right into the bay. Captain Adam Boczek and Expedition Leader Robin West spent considerable time looking at the conditions both at the gangway and ashore to determine whether the wind and swell would allow us to go ahead with our planned landing at Russian Harbor.

Soon they gave the green light, and began lowering the Zodiacs. I drove several groups ashore before anchoring the Zodiac and stepping ashore myself. I walked up past the ruins of the former Russian research station, which had been abandoned in 1994. Evidently, the station was closed very quickly and without much notice, and so an incredible amount of gear and supplies had been left behind. The buildings were pretty much as they had been left, and it was amazing to imagine what life must have been like at this remote outpost.

I stood up on top of a lateral moraine left by the impressive glacier that was pouring out into the sea behind the station. This pile of rock and sediment had been bulldozed up and, from the top, I could look out across the inlet to the spires of ice at the glacial front, which was quite actively calving into the water below.

The rain fell sideways as we all made our way back to the landing, and finally back to the ship. Once the anchor was raised, the Silver Explorer set course for the northern tip of Novaya Zemlya, the location of our planned landing for tomorrow. Meanwhile, the swell grew from the gale that had now been blowing most of the day. We secured our suites and staterooms for the motion, and most of us made an early night of it, as the Silver Explorer bounced along in the Barents Sea.