Expedition Diaries 2017

July 16. Day 9

July 16. Day 9

If you look at the mountains’ silhouettes for a long time, you can notice many various unusual shapes: butterflies, Christmas trees, daffodils, pointed hats and so on... Often small pieces of ice float past the vessel as well as icebergs which reminds of small islands. Cape Tegethoff, for example, is often reflected in the water.
If you look at the slopes of Franz Joseph Land mountains, you could see all different kinds of images among interchanging snow and ice.

Polar bear day

Our morning started with very unexpected but nice visit. We noticed a polar bear with its cub swimming towards our vessel. The latter was very small and simply was sitting on his mum. Everyone who was not asleep was very happy to see them and to be able to take some close-up pictures.

Today’s sea has no waves at all, looks like a painting with reflections of the clouds, motionless icebergs and mountains. Heavy skies overhung the sea surface. There is almost no wind and 5,6oC feels very comfortable.

Today one of our harmonious team, Victor Merkulov, turned 25. Jesus presented him a t-shirt and his photo which he had taken onboard. Victor looked like a real sea dog. Besides, in the evening his friends organized a special concert where two teams, Russian and swiss ones, were competing against each other by singing various songs.

In morning scientific groups had landing on the Fersman island. It is a small island opposite to the Cape Observatorsky where the observatory is situated named after Krenkel. It is a flat area lifted on stone basement. Stones of the FJL are cunning.

It is a bit dangerous to walk near the drops to the sea as stones can fall down and there is a risk to fall down with them. You have to control yourself and think not only about such beautiful places but also about safety.

Fersman island was discovered in 1933 and got its name after Russian chemist and mineralogist Aleksander Fersman only in 1955. While we were on island life on board was full of activities. There were walruses together with a polar bear. Looking at the walruses the bear went directly to the station on Heiss Island. At the station everyone was surprised because normally it came on Wednesdays. That day was Saturday.

We heard from another island how the dogs barked at predator. The polar bear decided that he had to go together with us.

There were boats between islands and group of soil researchers tried to be as fast quickly in taking samples. They had to stay on island at least for two and half hours and that`s why they worried a lot and were ready to leave the island at any time. Everyone finished its samples taking. According to soil scientists results soils had much better condition than in Aldjer.

The territory looked like tundra with more diverse flora. There were violet saxifrages. Denis Mennikov patiently told me each name of flower but at the same moment I forget everything and asked one more time. I remember a five-finger or a polar poppy.

On Fersman island eiders and terns tried to nest.

We found only broken eggs. Irina Pokrovskaya said that conditions of nesting are not suitable because of burgomaster and arctic fox. We have seen footprints of arctic foxes and I am interested if they can swim.

Krenel Station

Heiss Island is situated in the center of the FJL archipelago. Heiss Island was opened in spring 1902 during sledding expedition of Bolduim and named after American polar explorer Aizek Heiss. He had organized several expeditions to the North Pole. In 1874 the Julius Paier, pioneer in FJL discovering, found several small islands which were mapped as Heiss islands. However, Boldunin hadn`t seen them and transferred the name to the nearest big island.

The station on Heiss Island was founded in autumn 1957within International geophysical year held from 1 July 1957 to 31 December 1958. During this year 67 countries on the whole world conducted geophysical observations и researches according to one fixed program and methodology. The buildings of observatory situated at height 22 meters above the sea level on the isthmus with breadth from 150 to 300 meters between unfrozen freshwater lake and Ermak strait.

Originally the station was built for А-159 Arctic and Antarctic Scientific and Research institute. However in September 1958 it was reorganized into observatory "Harmonious".

In 1959 the researches proceeded even after the International Geographic Year  within the plan of International Geographic Union. In 1972 the observatory got the name  of famous polar radio-operator Ernst Krenkel despite the fact that he hadn`t been there.

During bloom of observatory there worked up 200 people.  The general worker personnel came up to 150 people. It was a science-based city far from the Arctic Circle. Not only men worked there but women as well. There worked the most northern kindergarten. At that time observations on meteorology, hydrology, aerology, ionosphere were conducted  as well as worked the laboratory for space rays researches.

Special place in researching program had rocket probing of the аatmosphere. From the launching platform on Heiss Island there were 1950 successful shootings of meteorological rocket M-11 with the lift up to 200 km from October 1957 to December 1957.  The international Soviet-French program on ionosphere observation was held on the station from 1967 to 1987.

The first launching of meteorological rocket was conducted in 1967 within Soviet-French cooperation. Afterwards the cooperation and capacity of researches increased as well as the number of French scientists who worked at the Heiss Island. The

The detached residential house with a terrace was built for them that got name “French”. Rockets and all necessary equipment for launchings was soviet.

French scientists together with Russians carried on processing of received data. In 1996 the base was turned into supporting station of North Management Hydrometerological Department. In 2001 workers was transported to the motherland and the station was conserved. In 2004 there was built a new module and the observatory started its work again.

An interrupted landing

 We came to Heiss Island together with expedition researchers. Our aim was to estimate the safety (presence or absence of polar bears) and to greet meteorologists who are living on this island now. There are 4 polar researchers in the station now.

We were looking for a place to land for a long time – there was fast ice along the coast and it made impossible to get out of boat in such places. That’s why we had to land far from the meteorological station and walk on foot in its direction (it was snow and mud everywhere). I was happy that I had put my gumboots on. With them, I could go everywhere without getting my feet wet. The only problem is trying not to get bogged down. Once it happened to me on Nansen’s Island.

Meteorologists were very hospitable, though we woke up Andrey Gubanov, the head of the station. We only had time to say hello and then had to run back to the boat: the season was polar bear found on the station’s territory. Andrey Gubanov followed us to the boat and said goodbye. On our way, he showed us the footprints of the bear who intruded the meteorological area and broke the fence.

— It seems the bear is on the territory of the station for several days already.

One of the dogs, Jack, has already suffered from one of the bears. He is lame. Another dog’s name is Sharick (Ball).

— Sometimes dogs can disappear for several days, later they return looking happy and being smeared with fat. We don’t know what they are doing during this time, but we know that they are not strong enough to kill walruses or seals. Maybe they steal bear’s prey…

These people have been working on this station for a year already. They are waiting for another group to change them. Also, one new group will arrive to proceed cleaning Heiss Island up which started in 2014. Before cleaning started there had been tons of rubbish including rusty iron things, old barrels and so on.

There also are remnants of an old airplane, which crashed on this island in 1981. It was going to land in darkness (it was polar night) and took the wrong direction. It got into deep snow layer, two passengers died. Remains of the plain are still on this island.

Besides barrels and iron there also were different building materials, for example tiles (which looked like a new one) and wires with mosses on them.
— They’ve cleaned it quite well, - said the station chief. – But there’s still a lot to do. We have to decide on which buildings to pull down.
It’s possible to lease them to the shore without meandering between the barrels.
— Are you going to come back here? – I asked Andrey Ivanovich.
— This Heiss – never again! – said the station chief. – That’s what I’ll be saying until the New Year…

Get away to the walruses

Because of the polar bear, who hid just 300 meters from the station, behind the containers, our landing came to an end, and other members of the expedition who stayed on “Molchanov” lost their chance to see the land.

After having had two glasses of compote and a fast bit of ice-cream – why not? – we rushed towards new adventures. This time – to walruses. The sun has hidden behind the clouds, it has become a bit darker and colder. My ears are freezing as we’re making our way towards the walruses. We were aiming at some dirty spot on the ice. I even started to think that we wouldn’t see any walruses this time again, and the only thing I would take pictures of would be IL-14. Again… But the spot has suddenly moved a bit, and the tusks were revealed. Three huge walruses were having a rest, and they didn’t seem to move any further any time soon. We took pictures and then we were expecting these Graces to move any body part just a bit. The Graces did not respond to that. Well, thanks for waiting. Apparently, they were having a good time, no need for rush, but not for us.

The Atlantic walrus, that inhabits Franz Joseph Land, is, unlike the Pacific one, listed in the Red Book. Its Latin name is Odobenus Rosmarus. The first word stands for “the one that walks on teeth”. The walrus is the biggest representative of pinnipeds in the Northern hemisphere. The length of its body may exceed 3 meters, and its weight is up to 1700 kg. Atlantic walruses are smaller than the Pacific ones though – those may weigh more than 2 tons! Its outstanding feature is its long, up to 1 m, tusks, that are common for both males and females. These sea giants feed on low depths (<50m), mainly on bottom spineless species, like mussels. I can hardly imagine how a sea giant can grow on mollusks. Though…whales feed on plankton, right? After eating the walruses are resting on ice, and if there’s not any – they stay in large groups on shores, which is pretty common here on Franz Joseph Land, where you can see walruses all year round. They can be found pretty much anywhere here, depending on the ice conditions, the depth, the nature of the sea bottom and thus affected distribution of bottom species.
In summer, when the ice surface reaches its lowest, the walruses are more often seen in the waters by the coastline in the middle part of archipelago by Heiss and Komsomolskiye islands, and also in the straits between the islands, which we can see this year. The animals stay on drifting ice, as well as in water, they may come out to the shores one by one or in small groups, mostly without staying for long.
The walruses of Franz Joseph Land and Spitzbergen form a united pack, however males in summer prefer Spitzbergen, and females and young species prefer areas to the east - Franz Joseph Land and Victoria island. Around 2000 species are calculated to live there, but scientists estimate that number to be bigger.

As I said, walruses feed on depths up to 50 m. The record-breaking depth of submerge is 490 m, and its duration – 47 minutes.

Dmitry Kovalev says it’s going to be cloudy tomorrow, which is not too bad actually. We won’t have to worry about the perfect light for taking pictures, and we could perfectly keep our eyes open in the photos. The wind will constantly change direction during the day – from south-eastern to north-western, but its speed will remain low, which is nice too.

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July 16. Day 9
July 16. Day 9

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Updated 12.07.2017