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Off the eastern coast of Greenland

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30 Jul 2011

The students have just finished a series of workshops where they are learning everything from how to use a GPS to how paint or write a song. (The latter course is taught by Ian Tamblyn, one of Canada’s foremost songwriter/musicians. In his non-musical life, Tamblyn has also led Arctic expeditions and can drive a mean zodiac).

For the next hour everyone has gone to seek a quiet spot on the ship. I’m on the upper stern deck at a heavy wooden table writing this blog. Others are nose first in novels or looking over the side for more fin whales. We just saw a pod of six or seven of these magnificent creatures surface to breath right next to the ship. We slowed down to watch and take photos and the whales obliged by hanging around a bit, spouting high into the calm waters of the Denmark Strait. After about a dozen deep breaths they sounded, not to be seen again. We are back under full steam, heading south along the fog-shrouded coast of eastern Greenland.

This morning we arrived off the coast of the largest island in the world. Fog hid the land in a thick grey blanket. The temperature had dropped. That and the fog told us there was ice nearby and soon it began to appear on the bridge radar.

The sun cast eerie shadows on the water. A “fog bow” encircled the Clipper Adventurer like a magic portal through which we were continually entering but never leaving. Slowly the ice began to reveal itself, ice bergs at first emerged wraithlike from the mist but quickly gained solidity. Small, hard pieces of ice called “bergy bits” (the actual glaciological term) started streaming by. The fog lifted a bit and more ice appeared. Now we had enough light to see the bright turquoise bottom of the ice bergs dropping into the inky water, rollers sliding up their flanks and splashing back. Sea ice has streamed out of the Arctic and now clings thickly to the coast, mixing with ice bergs being ejected by hundreds of glaciers along the coast.

The ship slowed and we edged our way into the ice looking for an opening that would take us to Napassorssuaq Fjord. Slowly, slowly we bumped into small pans that spun off the side of the ship. Some had dark spots showing where marine mammals, possibly seals, had lazed in the sun. One was spotted with blood, leading to speculation that it was the last resting place of a polar bear’s meal.

On the bridge, the radar shows a solid yellow fluorescent field of ice ahead and all around. We abandon the attempt to get into the fjord still over 10 kilometres away. Even if we could have made it in we might not have been able to leave. The wind, currents and ice movement are unpredictable at best. We turn south and put on speed, heading for Prins Christians Sund at the bottom of the island. It’s a sound that cuts off some of the journey around Cape Farewell, the southernmost point of Greenland. We hope to reach there tonight and maybe get out in the zodiacs. After three days on the ship, two of them in rough weather, many people are looking forward to a temporary escape.

But for the moment, the sun is shining on the on the stern deck, the sky is blue, the winds light. It’s a perfect day. “Flexibility is the key” is one of the mottos of Students on Ice. It’s a lesson all are learning first hand. If we hadn’t turned back from the ice, we wouldn’t have met that pod of fin whales on its way south.

 

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