Navigating by touch through the sea ice

by Jim Mayer Blogs

“Speed?” questions the Officer of the Watch, not taking his eyes off the random pattern of floes and leads ahead. “3.6 knots” replies the helmsman. Ice navigation is not to be rushed. “Ok, Rudder Port 10 degrees” he orders.

Schip: m/v Ortelius

Regio's: Arctis

Bestemmingen: Groenland, Spitsbergen

Navigating by touch through the sea ice

Ships should glide smoothly through calm waters, but our Greenland expedition ship Ortelius is shuddering and wiggling as she navigates through the calm but frozen waters between Svalbard and the islands. We’re on the North Atlantic Odyssey, a voyage which begins in continental Europe and ends close to the North Pole in Svalbard. On board are 115 keen passengers. To be precise, most of the guests are currently on the outer decks, cameras in hand, as sea ice is special.

Spell-bound by the frozen ocean

“I looked out at the ice this morning and I felt so at home” Mick Brown, a veteran guide and naturalist remains spell-bound by the frozen ocean. “It’s wonderful to be back – such a great feeling”. There was no need for an alarm clock this morning, the change in movement of the ship was all that was required to get us out of bed. The bow lifts as it comes into contact with a floe of ice, one can feel the deck rise underfoot. As Ortelius pushes the floe aside she lists almost imperceptibly before settling down again to an even keel.  Heavier flows result a little shuddering following by a gentle vibration that ripples along the decks. There is the occasion sharp jolt if the ship hits a solid floe square on.

On the bridge © Victoria Salem - Oceanwide Expeditions

Careful, skilful navigation

“Speed?” questions the Officer of the Watch, not taking his eyes off the random pattern of floes and leads ahead. “3.6 knots” replies the helmsman. Ice navigation is not to be rushed. “Ok, Rudder Port 10 degrees” he orders. Taking advantage of the open patches of water – known as leads – the vessel zig-zags towards the north. The log book entry for this hour says it all: ‘various courses’.

Sound, as well as movement, indicates to anyone still below decks that we’re in the ice. The floes scrape along the side of the hull, grinding, juddering, and crackling as they go. Harder, glacial lumps of ice make the most noise. Sailors of old gave them the name growlers, which is still used today.

The Ice Lung

The Arctic Ocean freezes in the winter and currents move that ice southwards along the east coast of Greenland. Our Arctic trip has taken us right up to the fringe of that ice. It’s relatively soft, one year old ice, around one meter thick. Oceanic swells meeting the ice cause a rise and fall among the floes. Pytheas the Greek, the first man to record his impressions of sea ice around 350 BCE referred to this as the ‘’ice lung”. The floes hiss and breathe as they rub against one another.  The frozen sea has a mysterious quality. Pytheas wrote of those places where land properly speaking no longer exists, nor sea nor air, but a mixture of these things, a link between all these elements, on which one can neither walk nor sail. It is a shame that Pytheas’s original texts have been lost, we only have descriptions of his words and findings.

Captain Barria on the bridge © Victoria Salem - Oceanwide Expeditions

Home to phytoplankton, essential for all arctic animals

Although it might seem dead, the ice lung provides life. It is an active habitat, home to pagophilic – ice loving – wildlife.  So far today we’ve ticked off a hooded seal and a pomarine skua. We are keeping our eyes open for harp seals, which can gather in their thousands on this margin.  Where floes are upturned they expose a dirty brown underside: this is the growth of phytoplankton, the nucleus of the arctic food web, food-fuel for the rest of the fauna, beginning with zoo-plankton. In turn, this feeds the fish that sustain the seals which are hunted by the king of the sea ice – the polar bear.  Now, where are my binoculars?

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