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September 6, 2006

No wonder our biological clocks are scrambled. As we move southwest and as autumn approaches, it is beginning to actually get dark — well, darkish — for a few hours each day. The darkness begins around 16:00 (tea time) and ends with a sunrise around midnight. The reason we are up when it is dark and trying to sleep when it is light is that the ship’s clocks are kept on Moscow time regardless of what the sun is doing. To further confuse our bodies, we have crossed several time zones during the cruise, so ship time has been as many as six hours off local time. (By the way, this makes my earlier post about the midnight sun somewhat suspect as we were undoubtedly in a different time zone at that point.) All this makes for a strange daily "schedule."

Today’s schedule was no different. I was up at midnight working on the journal and managing digital images from the day (something that Art and I spend a lot of time doing each day). As I finished and was about to crawl into my bunk, I glanced out the window. The clouds were thinning and there was a pink glow around their edges. I stepped outside for a better look. And there it was, the perfect sunrise. The sun was peaking above the horizon and the sky was ablaze in color. I rushed in and woke up Art.

sunriseAfter throwing on the appropriate number of layers, we headed outside with our cameras. Although the sun had cleared the horizon by the time we made it outside (it took several minutes to suit up), the sunrise was still a spectacular show. We were joined by the usual suspects (John from NOAA, Timo, several teachers and some folks who never go to bed before 01:00). After shooting video and stills of the sky and admiring the addition of numerous large icebergs to the scenery, we all headed back in around 02:30.

While I slept through breakfast to make up for the sunrise viewing, the ship continued heading toward the north side of the Severnaya Zemlya Islands, where a mooring operation was scheduled for later in the day. At 10:30 Art woke me with the magic words, “Polar bear!” By the time I got out, the bear was out of sight but the probability of seeing more is high. (It was close to these islands at the start of the cruise where we saw walruses and polar bears.)

Despite starting with a polar bear, today turned out to be the day of the seal. Until today, we had seen a few seals every once in awhile, but today we saw so many Bearded Seals and Ringed Seals, I soon lost count.

There are four species of seals that spend significant time in Arctic waters, but only two, Bearded Seals and Ringed Seals, stay in the Arctic year-round.

Ringed Seals are the smallest and most numerous of the Arctic seals. They are also the best adapted for life on the sea ice. Ringed Seals are distinctively marked with light-colored undersides and grayish-white rings on their dark gray backs. Like all true seals, Ringed Seals propel their torpedo-shaped bodies with alternate swings of their hind flippers combined with undulating movements of their lower bodies. Ringed Seal pups are born in a lair under the snow. The female usually makes her lair on rough ice and maintains a breathing hole in the floor of the lair by scraping the ice with the sharp nails on her fore flippers. Ringed Seals feed on under-ice fauna such as crustaceans and small fish (mainly polar cod). They, in turn, are a primary food for Arctic Foxes and Polar Bears.

Bearded SealBearded Seals are the largest of the Arctic species and are named for their bushy whiskers which form a sensory moustache. Their whiskers give them a walrus-like appearance. Bearded Seals are bottom feeders and their diet consists mainly of clams, shrimp and other benthos (bottom-dwelling organisms). They are preyed upon by Polar Bears and man. The Inuit use all parts of the seal — meat for food, blubber for lamp oil, bones for tools and skin for clothing and the outer covering of kayaks.

Usually the only part of a Ringed Seal’s body we see before it dives out of sight is its head. However, one Ringed Seal swam close enough to the bow that Art and Timo could see its entire body before it dove underwater and disappeared from sight. The Bearded Seals we saw were out on the ice, with escape holes nearby. Where there are seals, there are usually seal hunters, so our bear watch has intensified.

—Mike Dunn


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