July 26, 2011

Mount Bell.

On our second morning the sun begins to shine, intensely at times, though there are also beautiful cloud formations over the ocean. At about 8:30 we sight Bell and Maybell islands, two of the 191 ice-covered islands of Franz Josef Land. With nothing but flat sea around them, they suddenly rise like a mirage. Their rock is 120- to 150 million years old. Announcements over the loudspeaker advise us to begin donning our waterproof boots and clothes for the trips to the islands.

Aboard the helicopter.

The helicopter takes us in six groups from the ship to the islands. We land atop the Mount Bell mesa, looking down about 1,000 feet to the dirt and ice and snow, the ship off in the distance. The helicopter comes to pick us up and take us to Maybell, where an early exploration’s hut still stands. Small yellow arctic poppies dot the island.

Looking down.

A Swiss camera crew is accompanying the voyage, and they have missed their flight and taken a later one, so I am bumped from my seat, which I don’t mind since it gives me extra time on the island.

When the copter comes in for a landing we are supposed to assemble at a point far in front of it, only it comes in even closer than expected, which sends everyone scrambling out of the way, as backpacks, rocks and even a seal bone come flying at us.

In the afternoon we cruise north, with many small icebergs floating by, the ship occasionally maneuvering to avoid the bigger ones.

Icebergs near Bell Island.

This polar bear on Hooker Island alternately stood watching the ship and galloping across the mountain. Undoubtedly thinking, "I hate tourists."

On and around Hooker Island, we make separate sightings of two of the approximately 25,000 polar bears in the Arctic. One stands atop a mountain, slowly moving back and forth, perhaps wondering who we are and whether we are coming for him. Another stands on the ice perhaps a half-mile away, fishing for dinner and watching us.

Click on the pictures to see the polar bear close-up.

Along the way, we have seen many birds flying alongside the ship and resting on the water. Now, on Hooker Island’s huge Rubini Rock, the largest bird colony in the Arctic, there are thousands upon thousands of them, flying, swarming, nesting. The sound is a continuous swirl of chirping and flapping wings, the smell that of fresh guano. The birds eat smaller cod, hake, pollock, icefish and krill, diving under the water and holding their breath for up to 30 seconds while they fish. At one time a survey counted 20,000 pairs of kittiwakes, and it seems all of them are there on this day. A fascinating sight.

Hooker Island's Rubini Rock, the largest bird colony in the Arctic.

Tens of thousands of birds nest on Rubini Rock.

Around 11 p.m. we hit the ice at 80 degrees north. Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night as we ride roughshod over large ice floes. The midnight sun hangs over the starboard side, so bright you need sunglasses. “You hear about these things all your life but it’s really something when you actually see them,” says my cabin mate, Fred.