Leaving our parking spot in the ice, this morning we cruise into Augustbukta for hikes and cruises on the zodiacs. Our teacher fellow group had been trying all week to get out on the water with Justin, our undersea specialist, and this morning we would be able to meet up with him on a raft to drive an undersea remote operated vehicle (ROV). We went out on a raft with one of the young explorers on the ship, Katie, and our naturalist Doug took us on a cruise along the side of a glacier on our way to meet with Justin.
Arctic tern flew overhead, hovering above our raft. These small birds make one of the most impressive migrations of any animal on the planet, each year traveling from the Arctic to Antarctica and back, living in an endless summer. We could see Barnacle Geese flying in a V over the water, and meltwater from the glacier slowly emptying into the sea.
Soon, we came upon Justin’s raft, and Doug pulled up close so the three of us and Katie could hop on board. In the raft, Justin had a temporary dark room set up, with computer screens inside showing us video feedback from the undersea ROV that was driving beneath us, on the ocean floor. Justin brought the ROV up to the surface so we could each take a turn in the dark room, driving it around at surface level, to practice before we took it back down to the bottom. Soon, we lowered the ROV to the ocean floor, and adjusted the video camera and lights so we could film the creatures of the deep. There is a surprising amount of life in these Arctic waters – life on land is limited by the lack of trees, miniscule plants, and poor soil quality. The arctic waters hold onto oxygen better than the warm waters near the equator, and during the 24-hour polar days, which we were currently experiencing, photosynthetic marine organisms receive a tremendous amount of sun, making them highly productive this time of year.
When we got the video camera in focus, one of the first surprises was that many of the benthic marine organisms here were pink and purple. At this depth, these colors are filtered out and are not visible without an artificial light, and so this probably allowed them to camouflage, and blend in to their surroundings, although with our lights it was quite the opposite. There were anemones, tube worms, and barnacles feeding with their whispy limbs stretched out to grab at plankton floating in the dense, cold water. While we did not see many fish, there were large numbers of mussels, corals, and other sessile organisms that filter feed plankton from these productive summer waters.
The time passed quickly as we peered at the screen in the dark room, and soon we were the last raft out on the water. We returned to the ship just in time to pull up the anchor, and head off to the Austfonna, the largest ice cap in Scandinavia, and the third largest ice cap in the world, behind only Antarctica and Greenland. To celebrate cruising past the glacier, we all gather on the back deck to grill bratwurst, and have hot wine and gingersnaps in the afternoon sun. The glacial face we pass is over 100 miles long, and the glacier itself is so big it covers over ½ of the island it occupies, called Nordaustlandet. Ice caps actually behave more like liquids than solids, growing in the middle before surging out towards the perimeter. Austfonna recently has been gaining ice at its middle, and may surge soon, pushing the edges of the island outward.
That evening, we went to the bridge of the ship with some of the young explorers to learn more about how the captain navigates the ship. He let us each take a turn at setting a course, and steering the ship to set latitude and longitude coordinates. As we were navigating, off the bow of the ship we thought we saw a swimming polar bear. Closer examination revealed that we actually were passing by a beluga whale – the first live sighting of the trip!