August 2, 2011

We are scheduled to visit Cape Tegethoff, which has spectacular views. The weather is mild, the sea dead calm, but we are socked in with fog. The captain decides to wait it out for a few hours, about two miles off the coast, to see if it lifts. Visiting another island is an option, but we may get there, eight hours away, and find fog there too. And if we go there, we will not be able to come back, because it will take the next two days to return to Murmansk. So we wait. It’s part of what makes the Arctic so unpredictable. We need to be patient, and to accept that some things just can’t be done, if it comes to that. But everyone agrees that for the most part, nine days in with three to go, the trip has been successful. Still, it is a long, long wait, sitting in the same spot. The stillness of the water is eerie. The passengers have to make do with Russian lessons, impromptu lectures, DVDs, a movie in the aft saloon, the swimming pool (heated with sea water so salty you can’t sink in it) and sauna, the gym, a massage and, of course, the bar.

Russian night dinner.

Tonight a Russian dinner is held, with traditional dishes like salmon, pelmeni, borsch and kapusta, as well as some folk songs sung by the wait staff, dressed in traditional Russian garb. And vodka. At the end of the dinner, an announcement is made: After sitting in the same spot all day, we will, unfortunately, have to forgo the landing at Cape Tegethoff. The fog has shown signs of deepening, and with regret, the captain has made the decision to head back toward Murmansk. The helicopter pilot has even contemplated getting as close as possible in lighter fog, but it never lifts enough. (A joke: We’re not able to get off at Tegethoff. It takes a lot to explain that to Russian speakers. Another one of those things that gets lost in translation. But it’s OK, I don’t get all of their jokes either.) There is some disappointment in the air, but most people are philosophical about it, and feel they have seen and done things on this trip that most people live a whole lifetime and never see or do, and they accept this as the uncertainty and thrill of the Arctic.

Size isn't everything, unless you're talking about the anchor of a nuclear icebreaker.

Over the course of the last few days, I’ve asked a few tough questions of crew and lecturers. One involved the nuclear power plant that powers the ship, converting water into steam and electricity. What would happen in the worst-case scenario, if an accident caused the plant to malfunction? Would there be a meltdown, with radiation released? Would the passengers be in jeopardy? The head engineer, who speaks through an interpreter, is reluctant to answer, but pressed, finally says the damage would be minimal, not at all like what happened to the reactor at Fukushima, Japan, in the earthquake last March. Part of the problem there was that the reactor could not be cooled fast enough, but on the ship, the scale is much smaller, and being surrounded by icy water, there would not be a problem in cooling it down.

Another question: What if we struck an iceberg the size of the glacier we pulled so close to the previous night? Would this be a disaster like the Titanic? The ship’s hull is made of a special steel alloy 45 millimeters thick, with spars reinforcing it every few feet. This is basically the most powerful ship in the world. According to Susan Currie, one of two geologists aboard, we would make short work of an iceberg the size of the one the Titanic struck. We would just plow right through it, she assures me. We have seen over the past week how easily we crash through and push aside ice floes the size of basketball courts, carving them up like birthday cakes, the sound a series of loud cracks and crunches as the pieces collide and rumble under the ship. That sound and the vibration kept me awake for a good part of the first couple of nights, like a demolition team working on the house next door, but it has mostly been over for a while, and I’ve gotten used to it.

So now we will settle in for two long days at sea, on the journey back to Murmansk. In the evening there is much of the usual celebration in the bar. We have learned much over the last few days, about the region’s geology, about global warming, about each other. This place has brought us together like few places I have been to ever could. We have met the Arctic, and it is us.