Getting in to Murmansk was a lot easier than we had anticipated. Despite the cold and misty weather the ride was long but easy and more so as the road had been resurfaced.
While everyone was busy repacking their bags and getting ready for the boat, Claus and I were driving around town in search of a tire shop. We managed to find a tiny little place run by two Russian guys that did not speak a word of English but were more than happy to help us out. $10 later and we had the steel spike tires fitted on to the rims for the 700GS that we were taking with us on the ship to ride at the North Pole.
Installing the tires was an easy task, riding the seven miles to the ship on a damp road with new, really soft tires covered in steel spikes was a little more interesting. The bike was wallowing all over the road, eventually I rode on the soft shoulder where possible.
Getting the bike through customs, security and on to the ship was a quick and easy task. We loaded it in to a steel framed box, jammed in a piece of wood to keep the bike upright – no straps – and up it was hoisted on to the ship. I moved it to the back of the ship where it was tied down and covered, where it will stay until we are ready to take it off the ship at the North Pole.
Shortly after getting the bike hoisted on to the ship everyone else arrived and we were all shown our modest cabins and homes for the next 12 days. A short briefing about the ship, where we were going, what to do along the way had us informed about our expedition before heading to the dining room for our first dinner together.
It is a great feeling to be out on the open water with no land in sight. The first two days were pretty much flat out sailing to get up North. The waters are a lot more calm than the Drake Passage on the way to Antarctica. In fact, the ship hardly moves at all despite it having a large, deep and round hull. Shortly after leaving Murmansk we saw two large Russian submarines surfacing in the open water.
Being one of the few ships to take this route on a regular basis during summer, it is carrying researchers and supplies for those living on Tikhya Bay which was to be our first stop so that we could look around this historical site of the Russian Polar station which is still occupied by researchers during the summer months. Getting on and off the boat is very weather dependent and unfortunately the weather was not complying for this excursion.
We were however lucky to have some nice weather as we approached Rubini Rock, a huge buttress of basalt rock that rises out of the water and is home to thousands of birds. The captain was able to get the ship within a hundred feet of the rock and the birds. It is amazing how they are able to nest on such small jut-outs on the cliff face.
Despite the size of this ship, the captain does an amazing job of maneuvering it around in the tightest of areas, get it to to creep forward forward for wildlife sightings as well as get the bow right up to within almost touching distance of the rock faces and ice bergs.
Getting to see our first ice packs off in the horizon was really exciting and (for me) signified the start of the adventure that we had come here to enjoy. The ice pack ranged from slush to some pretty solid ice pack. The noise, rumbling and the ship moving around was a lot more than I had excepted but it was really exciting to be here and experience the ship making its way through the ice. Heading further down into the ship, it sounded like the side of the ship was getting torn apart as it moved through the ice.
During the ‘sailing days’ the expedition team filled us in on how to get in and out of the helicopter, hot air balloon and the zodiacs in preparation for our upcoming landings and flights. Everyone is getting really excited about all that lays ahead – of course, it is all weather dependent.
The photography and researcher presentations are very informative and well put together by various members of the expedition team. Cheli, the expedition leader, has done countless polar trips over the years and does an incredible job of getting things organized. The crew and staff on the ship are all absolutely wonderful people and are doing a flawless job of keeping us fed, entertained and well prepared for the adventures that lay ahead.
A big attraction to this trip for me was to see polar bears. In the morning I joked with one of the expedition crew and asked if he could arrange three polar bears playing on the ice…… Well he must have waved a magic wand. A couple of hours later an announcement came over the PA system that there was a polar bear off in the distance. The ship slowed right down and the bear slowly walked by the ship. The ship stopped and the bear came right up to the side of the ship giving everyone a perfect opportunity to photograph this magnificent beast.
Later on in the day we had a mom and her cub stroll past the ship then we had a couple of sightings with bears eating a seal.
Over the last couple of days we have seen 22 bears, more than the ship has seen for the entire season. We were also treated to great seal, bird and walrus sightings.
One very lucky photographer (right place, right time) saw a Narwhal way off in the distance. We had a couple of bears come right up and lean against the ship while others were not so sure and kept their distance. The captain would always slow down and stop the ship without chasing or bothering the bears. If the bears ran from the ship then he would not follow them but just let them be.
Being so far North the sun never sets, in fact it is just as bring at 2 in the morning as it is at 2 in the afternoon. I have spent many hours out on the deck between 1 – 3 am because the light just seems so much softer and the views are absolutely breathtaking.
The ice has been getting a lot thicker and more dense over the last couple of days as we have been making our way towards the North Pole. So far we have had a real mix of weather from fog (Lots of fog), rain, snow, wind and a lot of absolutely spectacular sunny nights. It is incredible as to just how quickly the weather changes. You can actually watch it change from fog or wing and rain to crystal clear and sunny.
The crew have been setting up a PA system and hauling bottles of champagne down to the bow of the ship in preparation of our arrival at the North Pole. We all went outside and started setting up GPS’s to see how close we will get to the actual geographic North Pole. The ice is really thick and just as were literally a few seconds away from the North Pole, the captain had to back the ship up and have a second run through the thick ice. Watching the GPS was a lot of fun as we were all walking around the ship trying to cover that last ‘second’ but the captains experience (and GPS location) meant that he was able to get the ship to bang on 90° North which he celebrated with a long blow of the ships horn to let us know that we had made it to the top of the world! It is an interesting feeling that no matter in which direction you look, it is always south. We all enjoyed a glass of champagne and a party on the bow of the ship in celebration of success in getting to the North Pole.
Despite the ice being really thick and dense, the captain decided to relocate the ship slightly so that we had a larger ice pack on to which we could enjoy a walk and some off-ship activities. Everyone was looking forward to getting off of the ship to be able to stretch their legs and walk around with some fresh air.
The motorcycle, which was strapped down in a back corner of the ship, has caused a lot of interest and intrigue amongst the expedition staff and the ships crew. In fact, they are just excited as we are to get the bike off the ship and on to the ice.
The next morning we woke up to a beautiful view of the ice pack and small fresh water lakes. The ship was stationery and the crew were busy craning things off of the ship, including the bike, for the days activities.
During the course of the day we all had the chance to walk around the ice (Within a boundary due to the risk of bears – the boundary was marked by armed rangers off in the distance) and take in the overwhelming feeling of where we were. A place where only a few people have ever been.
Some of the guests braved the Polar Plunge and jumped in to the ocean at the back of the ship where the crew had cleared some of the ice. After a great BBQ we were able to get the bike out and we all went for a ride the snow covered ice pack. The ice screws in the tires worked really well and gave the bike more than enough traction in the snow and ice. Despite most of the riders having never ridden on snow or ice, the short loop ride went well and everyone was excited and thrilled about the experience. I think the crew and staff were just as excited as we were that we were able to pull it off.
The hot air balloon, despite being tethered to the ship, was a lot of fun and made for a great vantage point to literally see the entire world below us. A great way to end an absolutely spectacular and very special day that will always be a favourite in my history books.
Heading south we were treated to multiple bear sightings with several coming right up to the ship.
The ships crew have been keeping us pretty busy with several talks, presentations and activities on the boat but there is still time to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery as we make our way through the ice whilst heading south. Despite the odds, more so when it was just the two of us competing against teams of 5 or 6 people, David and I, Team Muppets, managed to come second in the ships quiz night!
The helicopter flights have been a lot of fun and offer great views of the ice, ship and Franz Joseph Land. It is certainly not the newest of helicopters but it is spacious, seats five passengers very comfortably and allows for some great photo opportunities. The pilots are obviously highly experienced as the landings are picture perfect despite the shipping keeping its pace and not stopping for the helicopter excursions.
Cocktails with the captain was a great way to learn more about the ship, the captain himself, and some of the challenges of operating the worlds most powerful ice breaker (which I have now dubbed as our ‘Atomic Tub’). His 45 years of ice breaking experience is reflected in the way he is able to very gently and slowly move the ship around as if it is a toy. When asked what the most unusual item was that he had ever taken to the North Pole other than the bike, he said it was the phone box that is taken on every trip where guests can call home from the North Pole.
The engine room tour was quite interesting with the chief engineer. The nuclear powered system is capable of producing 74,000 Horse Power but the ship only runs at about 60% of its capabilities. The engineer was saying that in March and April they occasionally have to use full power to get through the really thick ice. The ship is capable of getting through ice of about 10 feet thick.
Exploring Franz Joseph land by helicopter and zodiac has been very interesting as we have seen a lot of wildlife, historical sites and stunning landscapes with various rock formations, glaciers and tundra. Seeing the ‘Devil’s Marbles’ was very interesting. These round rocks found on Champ Island were formed about 200 million years ago and vary in size from that of a pea to several meters in diameter. We got to see Cape Fligley and Rudolph Island. Cape Fligley is the most northern point of Europe and the Eurasian Continent.
Our last landing was at Tikhaya Bay where we were supposed to stop on the way north. This time the weather, although not great, was much better than our first attempt so we were able to get the supplies to the researchers and enjoy a walking around the buildings and ruins from pervious researchers including a wind generator that was built in the 1930’s. About 14 people stay in this very remote part of the world during the summer months for research purposes.
After our stop in Tikhaya Bay we sailed south for two days to get back to Murmansk to start our next leg of the tour with the bikes from Murmansk to the North Cape and on to the Lofoten Islands.
Our trip to the North Pole was a great success and a beautiful trip that we will never forget and cherish the many amazing memories.