Arctic Cruise Journal - Betty Wittels

Betty Wittels

The Russian officer whispered through the loudspeaker, "A slight curtain of northern lights has appeared." At nearly 11 p.m. on the first night at sea I pulled the duvet up to cover my ears. "No way," I said to myself, as a jet lagged zombie who had just collapsed into bed, having flown 18 hours, was I going to skip out to greet perhaps a phantom 3 stars and 2 green clouds on this chilled dog night. 15 minutes later the message repeated itself with an exclamation,
"This is a BIG aurora...come quickly!" I leaped out of bed, whipped on a fleece jacket over my jammies and raced to the bridge. The wispy green curtains of brightness spread across the entire starlit black sky like the milky way, except it was a mars green, milky way. Like a magician's sleight of hand one side of the green sash faded as another section of 'curtain' brightened into a glowing red. The seamless curtain, rather than splitting open, melted into another curtain as the sheer lines shifted, dissolved, swirled, and then transformed into more swirling lines and finally vanished. The dance lasted about 30 minutes as sections of the curtain gradually faded into the clear black sky. This was a magnificent, auspicious beginning for a sea journey to the Arctic.

Greenland is the largest island in the world: it exists where the Atlantic meets the Arctic Ocean, and is enveloped by cold ocean currents. Northeast Greenland is the world’s largest National park, a land where herds of Musk Ox are still hunted by Wolves, and Walruses relax on ice-floes. The trip included many zodiac landings to see the most of the extraordinary landscapes. Later we visited Scoresby Sund, the world’s largest fjord, at the head of which glaciers calve icebergs, some of which are over 300 feet tall and more than a kilometer in length. To the south of Scoresby Sund, Greenland’s east coast is one of the most rugged landscapes in the world, a land of jumbled ice and cliffs backed by huge mountains, including Gunnbjørns Fjeld, which at 9,100 feet is the highest peak in Greenland and also the highest mountain north of the Arctic Circle. I was on my way to East Greenland where the ship would stride to the 70th Latitude or to just 1100 miles away the North Pole. I was on my way to the Arctic where at one point we would actually push though ice as pancake circles began to form where some ships of old had never been released from the frozen sea.

The first discoverers setting foot in new Arctic lands must have been astonished by the dramatic scenery and the rich wildlife, but their main concern was to combat the cold, eagerly awaiting the return of summer to continue their voyages to find a northern trading passage to the Indies. In 1596 the Dutch captain Willem Barentsz discovered a land he called "the new land of the pointed mountains" (in Dutch and today still known as Spitsbergen). The Dutch did not succeed in their attempts to find a northern route to Asia and the expedition ended with a wintering on what is today the Russian Arctic territory of Novaya Zemlya. The Dutch managed to return to Amsterdam in 1597, still wearing their fur clothes and white fox hats, but without their captain, who had died. Contrary to these first discoverers, visitors now going to the Arctic and the North Atlantic Islands desire to just see one of the last great wildernesses on earth.

The first 1 1/2 days we sailed through Denmark Strait and, like Drake Strait down in Antarctica, the ship rocked and rolled to such a height and tempo that while unlike most passengers, I was not ill and never missed a meal, I could not stand up and walk more than two feet before I was tossed back into my warm bunk bed once again. Fine with me...an excuse to have warm soup served to me by staff with steadier feet than I and I could read the books I had slung into my overweight suitcases. So I slept, read, slept, read, and slept until I could sleep no more. 24 hours latter the waves subsided into smaller ice caps and on the calmer sea my ship legs spurred into an even movement out the cabin door and directly to the dining room downstairs.

I sojourned to the Arctic onboard the Professor Molchanov. Diving is available on a number of the ships departures. Diving the Arctic waters does not only offer ice, but also an interesting marine life: kelp walls, sea-snails, spider crabs, Sea Butterflies, various Arctic fish, Shrubby Horse-tails, soft corals and anemones. The ship may dive with seals and near Moffen Island walruses may approach the Zodiacs. One expedition leader on our ship showed a full video presentation of dive trips, which were spectacular even if it did take mucho minutes to dress to dive!

My cabin had bunk beds, private bath, and even a mini fridge along with two portholes. One window viewed the bow and the other the starboard side of the ship. And, unlike most ships, I did not need to climb onto a couch to see out of the window. The room location was ideal: five steps from the stairs that led to food and 5 steps up to more steps that led to the bridge, along with 7 steps to either outside door. This all became very important when loudspeaker calls were made to peer at seals, icebergs, and of course, the aurora. The quicker one could arrive the more one's eyes could see.

Commands, rules and warnings were stated the first days. We also had a fire drill event: we ended up sitting inside the lifeboats during the drill! We almost suspected the boats would be lowered and we would have a practice run at sea since provisions were already stowed aboard the little white covered capsules. Most of the lectures surrounded the "Don't you dare touch anything." theme along with the usual safety precautions. The bar and souvenir shop were on an honor system for payment which was highly unusual. The ship specifically honored diet requirements. While anyone was ill the hotel manager would visit the cabins, bringing the sick one tea, biscuits, etc. An M.D. was available 24/7 and even meds, if needed, were free. Professor Molchanov holds 52 passengers. The 20 person crew were Russian and the 3 Expedition Leaders assigned to care for the passengers were from the U.K., Algeria, and Italy. The OW ships are modern, ice-strengthened research vessels, built in Finland for the Russian Academy of Science. All cabins were outside cabins and the most spacious cabins I had entered into for years. Trimmed with dark wood and with comfortable central heating even the bathroom was of regular size! The cabins were twice as large as the Antarctica or Galapagos' ships I had sailed upon. I was impressed. I could open both of my trunk-like suitcases and I could even turn around without bumping into the bed or desk. Fortunately, my roommate was a light packer and merely amused rather than horrified by my over-packed maneuvers.

Tea, coffee, cookies, soup, were available at any hour of day or night. We were even encouraged to look through the cupboards where I found hot chocolate packets! This was better than home: if I could not find what I wanted then someone else would find it for me and serve it to me. However one negative: never go on a final sailing of a season as the hot chocolate ran out (I should have hidden the packets from other passengers) as well as Bacardi Rum (I was not the liquor guzzler!), two essentials in many tourist 'sustain me' books. I, for once on a ship, felt this ship was not attempting to coerce every copper penny out of my hand once I boarded. All excursions were included in the original price and there was no pressure to buy anything. Of course I admit souvenir ice floes were difficult to transport back home. We did fish one huge slice of glacial ice out of the sea to dress up the cocktails one evening.

Iceland is the most unique country in geology that I have ever traversed. Years ago a Danish friend and I circled the island on buses and saw geysers volcanoes, waterfalls, an astounding geological beauty. So this time I decided to stay two extra days: one in which to go shopping, of course, and another to visit the Blue Lagoon to experience the blue thermal waters as I imagined my own frozen terrain would be eager to melt and relax there at the end of the trip.

The name, Arctic, is derived from 'arctos', the Greek word for bear. The Great Bear star constellation points the way to the Pole star, Arcturas. Arctos is seen as deliverer of the north wind, boreas, bringing winter ice and snow to the south.

The Arctic area is huge. The permanent ice is 9-12 feet thick covering 8 million square miles. The rivers of ice flowing down from the Greenland ice cap end as glaciers. The largest carve great icebergs into Disko Bay on the west coast, and the lesser ones go to sea in Scoresby Sund in East Greenland. (Sund is where our ship maneuvered), or Svalbard/Spitsbergen. (an island between Norway and Greenland), or the ice ends up at Franz Josef land. East Greenland has only recently been mapped as of the 1930's. Some of the icebergs being created are over a kilometer long.

Baby it was cold outside. I was, also, cold inside. I bought some great hand warmers...these squares that heat up as you shake the packets and then hold them in the palms. My hands would not be so cold if I had not taken off my gloves to use the digital camera so frequently. Of course, by the end of the trip, in Iceland, I found little wool gloves that have a flap which folds over the fingers. Why do I always find ingenious items after I could have used them?

The climate is classified as high Arctic. The winter is long with severe cold and frequent storms. The sun does not rise above the horizon from about November 23 to January 17th. The snow falls in the beginning of September and disappears the following year in July. In October/November Scoresby Sund, the largest fjord in the world, in East Greenland, begins to freeze over. The Arctic is below freezing point for more than half of the year and is a region of high winds and little rainfall. The cold, dark days of winter last 9 months, then a brief summer reigns from May through July when low-lying willow and birch and the earth hugging tiny lichen and moss plants bloom. Fish, harp, hooded, and ring seals, narwhales, and seabirds like auk, guillemots, and geese enliven the Arctic until late August when the birds fly south. The northern lights were on my visual hunger list as the aurora fly to the skies from August to Mid-November and from Mid-February to early April.

Polar animals have suffered drastically in 200 years of murder and plunder. First whales, then seals, walruses, and birds were hunted. Now the polar bears only are hunted at a quota of 20 a year. That is 20 too many to me. But who really knows who poaches what anyway? We saw 3 ringed seals and no whales in 10 days. To see both North and South poles of the earth is to know in dramatic, truly dismal terms how depleted the earth is of life due to humans. The contrast of seeing a few of the huge and rare animals only dramatizes the severity of the loss. The people who never see the animals can only imagine how great the loss. Not a pessimist nor ecologist these voyages have shown me that no environmentalist or animal conservation person is exaggerating anything.

Yes, times are a changing but the rate is just not keeping up with the cavernous, gaping losses. Polar bear numbers now protected by law from safari hunters are now increasing. Walruses are slowly recovering. Eider ducks, taken for down and eggs, are now thriving. In Svalbard reindeer reduced from thousands to a few hundred in the 1920's are flourishing under Norwegian protection. But is there a gap between the actuality and the written 'research?'

Tourist activities in the brief summer on Greenland to offset hunting as an alternative economy to the Eskimos include trekking, skiing, kayaking, fishing for arctic char, and dog sledding trips. We visited the city of Ittoqqortoormiit where see saw Eskimo children, huskies, and numerous snowmobiles. Animals in the area include lemmings, ermine, musk oxen, and polar wolves.

Aboard the ship we had daily lectures from the expedition leaders on various topics such as Greenland history, language, Northern Lights, Musk Ox biology, and Arctic Diving. The leaders were multi-lingual and knowledgeable in numerous fields of study.

Landings were sometimes new to the expedition guides, as well as the passengers, due to unpredictable weather routes, which became detours. One morning the ship slowly moved 1 km./hr. to land on the other side of 'pancake ice:" The round ice slab about 6 feet in diameter ice transforms into pack ice which equals locked up frozen ice water. As the ship's movement became slower and slower the captain decided to turn around. Many of us were talking about what it would be like to become stuck in the ice. One officer said once a passenger zodiac did become frozen in the ice. The passengers had to slowly walk on the frozen sea back to the ship and a work crane lifted the zodiac onto the ship. Several passengers, including I, furtively desired a similar fate complete with romantic rescue. However since the bar had run out of hot chocolate and rum we decided that limited food supplies would cut short a longer languor at sea.

The food aboard the ship was good and sometimes great. Special activities punctuated the normal grazing and sipping throughout the day: We toasted with champagne at the bow at 70 degree latitude. We had an on deck barbeque without bonfire but complete with dance music. We had to dance or freeze! And hot chocolate with Tía Maria liquor was served on deck one sunset hour.

We had open access to the cozy, carpeted, and enclosed bridge 24/7. Some Russian crew could speak English but many of the officers spoke Dutch, German, French, Italian, and English. Passengers were mostly from Britain, Holland and Scotland with only a few from the United States.

The best month to go the Arctic and see the most wildlife is August. My trip in late September was too late in the season. The tundra flowers had vanished, the birds had migrated, and most wildlife remaining was more intent upon preparing for winter than posing for tourists. Despite my unwise choice of timing the northern lights made up for all the deficits. Almost nightly, from 10 p.m. - 2 a.m., the lights streamed, danced, glowed, and flowed though the star studded, cold, clear, sky. Light was too dim for most cameras to record the process as the ship was plowing forward, as well, but we all stood in silent awe mesmerized and at times, screaming 'oohs' as green, pink, and white light streamed down the canvas sky like dripping paintbrush strokes. Or green light would whiz past horizontally to vanish into the black night air. The experience was utterly astounding. It felt as though the lights were a true manifestation of a mystical message or a blessing from above. Nobody cared about sleep and we passengers all agreed that the Professor Molchanov should hire an aurora watcher. All of us were eager to apply for the position.

Trip Notes:


  1. No penguins live in the Arctic. No predators of penguins exist in the Antarctic.
  2. White polar bears are in the Arctic. The bears originally traversed over from Canada and Russia. The best month to go to see polar bears is August and to circumnavigate around Spitsbergen, an island off of Norway
  3. In the Arctic one sees many birds...unless they have already flown the coop. (which they had in late September while I was there.)
  4. Dive trips are a significant activity in the Arctic. One wears dry suits and sees huge soft coral, fish, whales, and walrus.
  5. Land excursions from the ship take place at least twice a day. Most landings are wet but are in shallow ice water so bring those 'wellies' or waterproof high boots. Essential gear are waterproof everything, including jacket, gloves with liners and nylon over-pants along with sunglasses and extra camera batteries as cold depletes batteries quickly. We went by zodiac to roam near icebergs, musk oxen trails, and to spy seals lounging on little icebergs. The life preservers are compact and look like swollen suspenders rather than those archaic orange boxes.
  6. Most walking treks take place over tundra. The ground feels spongy and one's steps seem to bounce along. The vivid black, purple, gold, and red leaf lichens and mosses, along with the heather plants, are tiny but sturdy.
  7. We saw the Aurora Borelais or Northern Lights 4 nights. Supposedly, the solar activity runs in 12- year cycles and 2006 is at a midpoint low. So one might want to wait to travel to see the lights for 2-4 years for frequency and intensity to increase. However, the Aurora Borelais, which I experienced, totally stunned my senses. I will remember it forever.
  8. Bring a bottle or three of your own liquor. Alcohol is expensive on board and in Iceland.
  9. If possible bring a laptop, memory card reader, and CD blanks as invariably you will run out of memory card space taking photos. In the past it was a digital nightmare for me to have to delete photos just to obtain more card space on prior voyages. The unusual terrain and rare animals on voyages like Galapagos, Antarctica, and the Arctic are just too unique to not record or to have to choose to delete. This time I did not have to worry as I recorded images upon CDs.
  10. Do not check your camera on the plane in luggage. I never have before but was forced to by a surly British Airlines agent who thought my carry-on was too large but he refused to measure the bag. I should have let my ipod or 4th pair of boots be diverted to Scotland, instead. However, at London Gatwick I had one minute to decide what had to be checked as the London baggage cop threatened to hurl all of my suitcases to the North wind. Yes, my camera ended up in Glasgow, Scotland for 3 days and missed the departure of my ship. In a long story made brief the British Airways luggage rep, Helga, showed up at the ship and lent me her camera! Talk about door to port service! I wrote British Airways commending her and sent her a CD of my Arctic photos courtesy of her camera. People who go beyond, way beyond, duty still exist!

An animal high point arose on the trip when I least suspected it. Others had gone trekking some distance so I went on the zodiac with one crewman to wander and roam the icebergs in the area. He saw a black speck on an ice floe in the distance so we slowly moved towards it. A seal lifted his head, looked at us and then swiftly slid off of the ice floe and into the sea. A little sad at his quick departure, we kept moving peering into other iceberg cracks and crevices, and then it happened. He saw one seal pop up behind me, then, I saw another peer out of the sea behind the boat diver. The seals just kept on rising to the surface until we were entirely surrounded by a circle of bobbing, shining, black seal faces. He stopped the boat and we sat in utter silence only moving our lips to whisper where to turn our eyes to peer at what was transpiring around the zodiac. Within a few minutes at least 8 seals were popping in and out of the water encircling our boat. Curious and attentive the seals stared and we peered back, all of us in awe with each other.

I could not complete this story without mentioning icebergs. After Antarctica I imagined I would be jaded, burned out, weary of seeing icebergs. Nope. The trillion shades or blue, the millions of shapes, and this time photographing dripping tiny icicles frozen inside a moment was as startling and stunning as ever. Give me an ice blue iceberg, whirling northern lights, a seal, hot dark chocolate, and a warm bunk bed and I could with surety stay a season in the Arctic.