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Daily Journals

September 9, 2006

Last night, Sasha, Kapitan Dranitsyn’s communications specialist, gave a slide show about some of the trips he has taken with the icebreaker. He has worked in various capacities with the ship’s company since 1994 and has spent the equivalent of a year in Antarctica on several tourist voyages. As he shared some of the incredible images from his trips, I felt a moment of unreality. Here I was on a Russian icebreaker on the Arctic Ocean, watching a slide show about Antarctica narrated by a Russian with Diana Krall music playing in the background.

I went to bed after the slide show and set the alarm for 02:00 to check the sunrise. Although not as promising as previous mornings, I got up anyway and went outside. It was -15 °C and snowing off and on. As I stood at the bow, I thought about all the things that happen aboard ship that you don't know about unless you are up at odd hours. At 02:30, a Russian scientist joined me on the bow to clean off the snow and ice that had built up on the weather instruments mounted on the bow sprit — a daily routine unknown to all but the night owls.

When I woke up this morning, I realized that today would be my last weekend aboard the icebreaker and it promised to be a big day. For starters, it was laundry day — another day of sitting at my desk with socks and underwear above my head. (Okay, maybe I have been on this ship too long.) Later, the ship’s crew was set to treat the expedition team to the traditional end-of-cruise BBQ party. I couldn’t wait to see what the party was going to be like.

About 10:00, I was sitting at the computer (under various articles of clothing) when an announcement came over the loudspeaker in Russian. I recognized the Russian words for "white bear" and "starboard" so I jumped into my winter gear, grabbed my camera and ran out to the starboard side of the ship. And there they were: a mother Polar Bear and  her two yearling cubs.

Mother polar bear and her two cubsUnlike the first bear we saw, this one wanted nothing to do with our ship. She gathered her cubs and started to move away. As the ship continued on its straight course, she angled a bit toward us before turning and moving out of sight. Tracks were all around, indicating that the bears had been in the area for awhile.

Polar bear cubs are born in January in a den excavated in the snow. Blind, helpless and weighing less than 1 kilogram (kg) at birth, polar bear cubs grow quickly on their mother's rich milk. By the time they exit the den several weeks after their birth, the cubs weigh about 11 kg. (To convert kilograms to pounds, multiply by 2.21.). Female polar bears usually give birth to two cubs. Cubs stay with their mother for two or three years, learning how and where to hunt and being protected by her from male bears, which occasionally kill cubs. When the female is ready to have a new litter, she makes the cubs leave, having given them the skills to survive on their own.

The day ended with a BBQ party. At 16:55, Victoria announced in Russian and English that the expedition party was invited to the BBQ on the helicopter pad at the stern of the ship. Stepping outside into snow flurries, I was greeted by the smell of grilled meat that filled the air. Arriving at the main deck, I saw that the feast — king crab, barbecued chicken, grilled kebabs, grilled salmon, beef, sausages and an assortment of Russian side dishes — was already in progress. The snow steadily increased as we jockeyed for position in line, filling our plates and finding a place to stand and eat.

Then the music — 70’s disco style — started. Next thing I knew, people were dancing on the helo pad, the slickest deck on the ship. Someone threw a snowball and, for the next 30 minutes, the children in all of us came to life and snowballs filled the air. Then the sliding contests began. My camera gear was getting covered by snow, so I finally went in, amazed at the continued dancing and the blaring music. If snow dancing on a ship ever becomes an Olympic sport, the Russians will certainly win the gold.

—Mike Dunn

 

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Kapitan Dranitsyn