Boarded our science ship the R/V Chapman early and left Curacao. Arrived at Klein Curacao at 12 noon. Sunny/windy.
September 25, 26 & 27, 2017
The end of the trip is getting closer. While sailing back to Tiksi, we made two last stops. Before arriving at Lyakhovskiye Island, we anchored at the deepest point in the surrounding area to make our last dive. As the swell was not too strong, our trusty rubber boats could be hoisted down. The freedivers were very excited to make their last dive in East Siberian Sea. Unfortunately, the visibility was quite poor, probably the worst of the trip, as they couldn't even see the end of their fins. Thankfully they had a line yard to stay linked to the rope and avoid being disoriented in the murky green water.
Once back on the ship, they did their usual sauna to warm themselves. Then, the Somov continued its route to Lyakhovskiye, which would be our last stop before getting to Tiksi.
We arrived on Sunday in the morning and the captain anchored the ship to supply the nearby polar station. The helicopter made at least 10 trips back and forth from the boat to carry all the barrels of fuel that the station will need, lasting them until the next summer. That afternoon we all kept busy by packing our equipment while we made our way back to Tiksi.
It being our last evening, Elena, Galina and Nadia, 3 women of the Somov crew that have been so helpful and nice to us during the trip prepared a “tea party” for us. They cooked us a tasty cake with red berries and brought us some dark chocolate... a true treasure on a Russian ice-breaker in the middle of the Arctic. While we were having a wonderful evening, it was hard not to already become a little nostalgic at the thought of leaving the boat and the people we had come to know quite well.
We arrived in Tiksi around eleven the following morning and we organized our departure into two groups in order to accommodate not only our group but also our luggage.
And we ended right back where we started: the Tiksi polar station! However, now the Yakutian village was covered in a beautiful plush blanket of snow, turning the barren wilderness around us into a wonderful landscape.
Aurora, Marie, Bertrand, Eric and Adrien decided to walk back from the polar station to the town. This 3km walk in the fresh thin layer of new snow was so pleasant, particularly since it was sunny day with an incredibly pure autumn light. We could clearly see all the white hills surrounding Tiksi that the fog had hidden from us before.
And it seemed like Tiksi wanted to keep us there... We learned that our flight to Yakutsk for that day had been cancelled due to an icy runway. We therefore had to spend another night in the majestic Hotel Arktika. Nonetheless this unexpected stop in Tiksi gave us the time to spend one last day all together before our adventure ended.
We were very pleased to see Tiksi in this new light, covered in white. All the local children were playing in the snow with their dogs and their smiles, their laughs and joy cutting through this desserted Northern landscape.
When looking out towards the horizon along the ocean, we could actually make out the figure of the Somov, our “home sweet home” of the Russian Arctic, slowly drifting off to sea en route to Pevec in Tchoutkokta. Watching this little dot on the sea, each of us was already thinking of the next expedition in the Arctic. Because when Arctic gets you, it gets you.
PAX ARCTICA EXPEDITION BACK FROM THE ARCTIC – FIRST IMPRESSIONS: In the extreme North of the Russian Arctic… where polar bears have never seen man… where mammoths once roamed the land… a group of adventurers, scientists, free divers – and yes, artists! – rediscover pristine, historical islands in the East Siberian Sea. Inspired by George De Long’s 1879-81 Jeannette Expedition, polar-region veterans and newcomers from Russia, France and the US explore and create in this grandiose environment. United by a passion for the Arctic, they experience ‘World First’ discoveries… absorb the fragility of this highly endangered ecosystem while advancing our understanding and appreciation of these virtually inaccessible expanses.
ARKTIKA INCOGNITA, a film by Bertrand Delapierre, produced by Sagax Entertainment, based on an original idea by Luc Hardy… to be released in early 2018.
With the support of the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation (fpa2.org)
You can also follow the Pax Arctica – Russian Arctic Expedition 2017 via my YouTube channel and the playlist dedicated here. Below the first videos we have been able to upload despite the low speed internet access!
How to de-ice a helicopter on the SOMOV?
Propulsing the SOMOV through the East Siberian Sea
Katabatic winds in Russian Arctic
September 23 & 24, 2017
Saturday morning the divers wanted to make another symbolic deep dive in open water around Henrietta. But the swell and wind got progressively stronger so the captain decided it wasn’t safe to put the zodiacs in the water as it could have been damaged by hitting the hull of the Somov. Thus, the divers decided to dive from the Somov using one of its cranes. Everything seemed fine on paper but once it was put into practice, we realized immediately that it wouldn't work as the current was too strong. The rope along which we wanted to dive was at a 40 degree angle so we unfortunately had to cancel the dive. Luc decided to continue our route despite the bad weather. The divers were very disappointed but stayed calm waiting for the right moment to dive. They were reminded of the words of captain De Long in his journal, « this is a glorious country to learn patience in.»
The right moment finally occurred at 5pm, where the wind was weaker but we were losing daylight. The divers decided to go in regardless. After two cancelled dives they felt the need to be in the water. The Somov`s seamen hoisted the rubber boat down and they left for their dive.
The visibility was close to zero and dusk arrived just when they began their dive, nonetheless they felt free in the water, in their element. It was somewhat scary because they could barely see the rope on their way down nor the surface on their way up, as the water was murky and dark without sun or moonlight to orient them. Thankfully they had a lanyard to keep them linked to the rope. No onewants to be lost in the middle of the East Siberian Sea!
No doubt that this experience tested their courage and mental resources. As they finished to gather their gear on the dinghy, they felt relief at seeing the Somov appear in the night. After such a cold and dark dive, returning back to the lightened and warm Somov was incredibly reassuring. Somov, Somov, our Home Sweet Home in the Russian Arctic.
That night, the clear sky held a beautiful surprise in store for us: the Northern Lights!
Many of us ran onto the deck to take in the Aurora Borealis. The lights appeared between 10 and 11pm which was the same time period De Long reported in his journal in September of 1879 about 140 years before us.
The following day we all reached a little island in the South early in the morning where we had the best wildlife experience of our journey. From the sky we could clearly see a colony of walruses on a beach. We landed on another wonderful wide beach and stayed on the island waiting for them. A part of the group went to a plateau and saw four polar bears very close... maybe a bit too close....
They were as surprised to see us as we them. Our two polar bodyguards, did their job perfectly and managed to divert them without using their rifles. A red flare was enough to make them run away.
The divers, on the other hand, entered the water slowly when they saw three walruses swimming towards them. Aurora, Alexey, and Nikolai decided to stay together, ready to go back to the shore if the walruses became aggressive. Wildlife is wildlife. Marine mammals have to be approached in a very slow and respectful way. You don't go to them, you let them approach you.
The free divers awaited for the reaction of the two walruses that were passing by. A large male came quickly towards us and we became uncomfortable when they saw the length of his two ivory teeth. They started to swim back to let the walrus know that his intimidation tactics were working and that they were not predators. This big male was probably the master of the colony... After a couple of minutes, the animal understood that we were not a threat and other walruses came to us showing what we took as pure curiosity. At that moment the divers felt emotional to possibly be the first human beings daring to swim with walruses in Arctic.
Meanwhile, on the beach, Alexey Tikhonov and Eric Crubezy and our two photographers were exploring, trying to find any artifacts, relics, or bones.
No doubt the treasure of the day came to Adrien who had the luck to find a wonderful ivory tusk of walrus lying on the beach. Since then he is keeping it on him wherever he goes on the ship. Who knows, maybe one of us couldn't resist the temptation to steal it from him...
On the islands of Bennett and Vilkitsky, our two scientists Prof. Eric Crubezy and Alexei Tikhonov find for the FIRST TIME traces of pre-modern times HUMAN PRESENCE. They will bring back data and samples collected there for further analysis in the next few weeks and we will meet them again at their labs in Saint Petersburg and Toulouse for more detailed conclusions…
Thankfully, like yesterday, we took advantage of a break in the storm to land on Zhokov. We went to explore the weather station there which had clearly been abandoned, and it seemed as if in a hurry. The houses still had mattresses (although torn apart by young polar cubs) with cups and coffee grinds strewn about the floor, and jackets still hanging on the hooks. Zarina and Andreas were looking for new sounds in the different rooms and they found little treasures, even an old broken guitar. Meanwhile Evgenia was taking pictures of all details that could let us imagine the life the scientists had made themselves there. In many ways, the house let us know that they seemed to have been happy on Zhokov. After 2 hours we took the chopper back to the boat and sailed back to the island of Jeannette.
After dinner Marie and Evgenia presented us their art.
On Friday our planned morning dive was cancelled due to large swells. However the conditions were quite good for going to Jeannette. Luc, Bertrand, Alexey and Eric were able to access the island and stay at the top of a plateau for a while, also exploring the alentours.
They saw six polar bears that probably never saw ahuman being before. They are very well protected there by the geography of the island, yet they can go down to the sea and the ice to hunt. on the island there is an old geodesic benchmark probably dating from Soviet times based on its the amount of rust around it. Kesha, from the Ministry of Natural Resources of Yakutia helps Luc to climb to the top, that makes him the first foreigner to be at the highest point of this particular island. more generally, we are the first foreigners (non-Russian, non-Soviet) to ever stay foot on this island.
Jeannette is named after De Long’s sponsor’s sister. it was discovered by De Long in 1881 and although the Jeannette’s crew at the time could not access it, they sure dreamt of being on it after so many months of drifting on the ice. It was a special moment for our team today.
On each island we step on, Alexei Tikhonov and Eric Crubezy wander around in search of flora samples, rock formations, signs of animal or human presence, recent or ancient.
In the afternoon, we reach Henrietta again, only 2-3 hours of navigation away. We observed yet another polar bear walking, and rolling around in the snow. At times it would extend its head to smell us. Igor and Vadim, the two rangers from the Russian Arctic who are our polar bear bodyguards, always carrying rifles, unfortunately prevented us from approaching it. But we understood…
Towards the end of our stay on the island, we were blessed with a spectacular sunset where Andreas and Zarina sang with a beautiful red sky as their backdrop. Tomorrow we will be sailing to Vilkitsky, with the hope of seeing walruses and hopefully swim with them!
The Pax Arctica – Russian Arctic Expedition 2017 is continuing its work in the Russian Arctic.
September 19 & 20, 2017
Tuesday was the day we set foot on Henrietta Island, the mythical island that George De Long’s team discovered in 1881 just before the sinking of the Jeannette. We first decided to explore the shore of the island with our two rubber boats. We were up at 5 am with a clear bright sky. Luc went on deck and had the intuition to observe the coast of the island. « An arctic day should never begin without a polar bear » he said extending his binoculars to Evgenia. A polar bear was ‘playing’ in the snow next to one of the houses of the weather stations! Thanks to Luc, we all had the chance to see the first polar bear of our expedition and it wouldn't be the last...
The weather became quite rough when we left the Somov and we had to sail through a snow storm with a strong wind. Thankfully, the divers had put their suits on very early in the morning in the sauna of the Somov and now they were wearing their Arctic jackets and boots to keep their bodies warm until the last moment before touching the water. When we finally approached the coast, the wind was so strong that the divers were wondering if they would be able to maintain their dives. But Luc had another idea. He spotted a little bay that seemed to be sheltered from the wind. As we got closer, we suddenly noticed a huge polar bear watching us from a snowy ledge atop of a hill, staring at us for ten minutes before leaving.
Aurora and Alexey finally went in the sea and discovered a pristinely clear water that reminded them of fresh mountain lakes. They didn't see any fish but rather some strange white worms and a beautiful Arctic starfish with ten branches. Once back on the ship the waves became stronger. The two divers once again ran straight to the sauna to warm their freezing bodies. We then sailed that afternoon from Henrietta to Bennett Island.
While we were sailing, our musical artists were working on the ship and with the ship... Andreas and Zarina recorded noises on the Somov to be able to create some experimental music. Meanwhile, Marie transformed her cabin into an art studio, hanging the inspirational images she had gathered before the trip. She started to work on her project, a cartography of drifting polar dreams; she also discovered during a visit to the bridge that the captain has very few map coverage of this zone of the Arctic. She offered to draw the missing pieces of these maps from her imagination and was generously given a space to do so in the captain's office.
We arrived at Bennett Island at 6pm and spent the night sheltered from a storm on the southern end of the island. Inside the warmth and safety of the Somov, we discussed the cold and brutal nights the crew of the USS Jeannette had to spend on their ship while trapped in the ice for those two long years.
On Wednesday the weather had really deteriorated. Fog, snow, wind, and waves reminded us that we were truly in the north of the Russian Arctic. We had to wait patiently all morning in order to find the right window to make the flight over to the island.
Around noon, the weather finally allowed us to take off. Bennett is a huge island, bigger than Henrietta. We landed by a beautiful beach covered in snow. Close by, we saw the remains of another old polar weather station where two old wood skis had been left behind. Alexey Molchanov found a beautiful Amethyst, another treasure from the De Long Islands. We were all very happy to walk on firm ground, shaking off our sea legs after five days at sea. Back on the boat, we are chasing the good weather to our next stop: Zhokov Island.
Luc (right) with Prof. Alexei Tikhonov after a nature samples/arctifacts collecting session on Bennett Island. The Explorers Club flag!
Bertrand Delapierre is one of those rare people who can take a camera along with him to the trickiest locations, and get the images for himself. He lives and works in Passy, on the route to Mont Blanc. In 1994, he left the valley to do an engineering degree in composite materials at Chambery, bringing together his passion for technology and his passion for the mountains. But his attraction to images eventually prevailed.
Now a director and cameraman, he began with images of surfing and skiing. A distinguished mountaineer, his knowledge has enabled him to share many steep descents in the Alps and the Himalayas with his friend and climbing partner Marco Siffredi (who was the first snowboarder to descend Mount Everest by the Norton corridor in spring 2001). His engineering knowledge enabled him to be at the origin of the first website dedicated to mountain videos. His high level of performance is omnipresent in his films, but it's simply a way of enhancing the beauty of the mountains and the intensity of a climbing story.
In 2014, he realized the movie The Pursuit of Endurance, On the Shoulders of Shackleton, the documentary of the expedition we did in South Georgia and Antarctic
September 17 & 18, 2017
Sunday and Monday we sailed From Sannikova to Henrietta Island. The weather has been as the Arctic is notorious for: unpredictable. In the morning, a thin layer of fresh snow covered the red deck of the Somov and then, suddenly, the sun would pierce through the cloudy skies. The team`s spirit on board over the past 3 days of sailing has stayed jovial, although we are all looking forward to planting our feet on land, or in the case of our professional divers, taking a plunge into the frigid waters. As the temperatures continue to drop, we are constantly reminded of the stories of past Arctic explorers, particularly that of Captain De Long whose course we are emulating. For those of us who haven`t finished« Kingdom of Ice » the reading of the book here is more than appropriate. Aurora, for instance, was moved while reading the letters sent by Emma De Long to her husband. The letters are short but intensely full of love, refraining from complaining about her solitude. Captain De Long never received them as he was imprisoned on the ice with the USS Jeanette for two years (1879-81), not far from where we are now, never making it home to Emma.
Sunday evening the team prepared the first dive for Alexey and Aurora. The two red rubber dinghys of the Somov will finally touch the water.
Monday, we scheduled the first dive in the East Siberian Sea. The purpose was to do a test dive in a zone where one could find remains of the Jeannette, De Long’s ship.
At 8 am, the dinghys were hoisted down and Aurora and Alexey boarded them thanks to the metallic stairs attached to the side of the Somov. The weather was surprisingly welcoming with an even sea and a lack of wind. After a short trip, Aurora and Alexey decided to put the buoy in the water in order to dive safely.
The divers remarked that it was strange to dive in this remote Russian Arctic where nobody has dived before. The unknown in this Arctic Abyss attracted them despite the cold that dug into their bones.
The water was surprisingly clear, yet dark and green in color. The water was filled with beautiful creatures that resembled spaceships floating in the ether. The diving computer showed awater temperature of – 2ºC (= ~28ºF) as sea water in these climes can typically below fresh water freezing temperature.
The divers knew that they had to make the dive session short, as the cold was becoming more and more unbearable. They commented on the beauty of diving with the horizon on one side and the gigantic stature of the Somov on the other. Back on board, Kesha (one of the deputies of the Yakutian Ministry of Natural Resources) remarked that a curious walrus had come to say hello to one of the boats while the divers were in the water. It popped up three times before disappearing back into the water. Our divers were happy to hear this because, as freedivers, they are quite fond of marine mammals, particularly pinipedes. On the return, we are all hopeful to make a stop at Vilkitsky island: another of De Long`s little islands that is known as a breeding ground for walruses.
After lunch, many decided to take a nap (it was an early wake-up). While asleep, little floats of ice appeared. First, they looked like the small figures of far-away boats. Then as we got closer to Henrietta Island, pieces of old pack-ice began to surround the Somov as if we were breaking through a large puzzle. The parts of the sea that were open, mirrored the evening sky as the sun began to set behind our large ship and reflected the colors majestically. If William Turner had been here, he surely would have seized the opportunity. Needless to say, our professional photographers Evgenia Arbugaeva and Adrien de Bontin bounded about the ship documenting the beauty that enveloped us.
The island sat menacingly in front of us as we laid anchor, covered in snow, surely laden with polar bears, a thick white cloud stuck on it like a hat and hard, black cragged cliffs that dared us to approach. Nevertheless, at day`s end Luc and some of the team went on a short flight with our trusted MI-8 helicopter over to Henrietta to visit the remains of an abandoned polar weather station. This particularly delighted our NatGeo photographer, Evgenia, who was fascinated by the ability to document this lonely, isolated outpost that hasn’t had any habitants since the 1930`s. Back on the boat, we finished the night with a special screening of a documentary of the region by our own Maxime Arbugaev. Safe to say everyone slept soundly after one of our more eventful days of the adventure.
Bertrand Delapierre, our fearless cameraman and director, works quasi non-stop to document our adventures. Of course we cannot reveal everything which is happening to us, but count on him to come up with a great film in early 2018 to testify about this eco-scientific adventure!