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August 25, 2006

Just when we thought it could not get any better Thursday night, it did. Earlier in the day we were told that sometime on Friday the ship would be out of this latest band of sea ice and that we might not see much for several days. So after dinner, some of us went up on the bridge to enjoy the scenery and watch for polar bears. After several minutes of looking out over the expanse of ice, I was beginning to think it would be almost impossible to find a white animal in a sea of white ice.

polar bearSuddenly Ivan became excited and said something in Russian as he went to one side of the bridge. It could only be one thing — polar bear! And there it was — a lone bear out on the ice. A polar bear’s fur has a slight yellowish tint that shows up against the stark white of the ice. The bear turned, perhaps curious as to what this strange visitor to his home might be, but then it began to angle away from the ship. An announcement over the loudspeaker let everyone on board know that a polar bear was close to the ship. Soon the bridge and decks were filled with people with cameras. The captain turned the ship slightly toward the bear to give everyone a better view. It was incredible to see this magnificent animal, obviously the supreme creature in this seemingly barren landscape. We hope this will be the first of several close (but not too close) encounters.

We all wondered how polar bears manage to survive and marveled that this habitat is their preferred hunting ground. Polar bears feed on seals, walruses and anything else they encounter as they wander the pack ice. A beached whale can feed one or more bears for days. The polar bear’s main prey is Ringed Seals. The bears attack the seals when they come to breathing holes in the ice. Female seals give birth in snow lairs which are constructed in the ice and are vulnerable to raids by hungry polar bears.

Over the past several mornings members of the research team have presented excellent overviews of their work. Studying the complicated Arctic Ocean ecosystem is difficult and expensive. That is one reason this multinational collaboration of scientists is so important. This is the fifth research cruise for the Kapitan Dranitsyn which is operating under the auspices of the Nansen and Amundsen Basins Observational System (NABOS) with funding from several sources including the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

One of the primary missions of NABOS is the deployment of moorings that provide long-term data on ocean currents, salinity and temperature. Data collected from the moorings are entered into climate and ocean circulation models which are used to predict what changes may occur to Earth’s climate if the Arctic undergoes a rapid warming.

In a few minutes the scientists will have a briefing about tomorrow's scheduled research activities. We will arrive at our first mooring site at about 06:00. The plan is to recover one mooring and associated instruments that have been gathering data for the past year. The mooring operations can be dangerous and each one requires a great deal of planning. Everyone is looking forward to the increase in activity that tomorrow promises.

—Mike Dunn


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Kapitan Dranitsyn