On the eve of a sailing voyage to the North Pole, the explorer reflects on threats to marine wildlife
ARCTIC MISSION, an expedition by yacht into the northernmost waters of the central Arctic Ocean to conduct vital scientific research, is a go.
Our 10-strong international team of specialists, including yachtsmen, scientists and media experts, has been assembling in the tiny harbour town of Nome, Alaska, since early August. Within an hour of landing, each specialist has been flat-out prepping for the voyage ahead aboard Arctic Mission’s two 50ft yachts,
Bagheera and Snow Dragon II – rolling out of our compact cabin bunks at 7am, and climbing back up into them any time from midnight to 3am. Mast rigging checked. Almost 3 tons of food supplies stored across the two boats, and 2,000 litres of fresh water piped into the tanks. Seventy-five man-hours setting up satellite communications. Five days honing the procedures at sea for our scientific-research programme – our film-making, photographic and writing team sharing the process with our growing number of supporters worldwide. One of our skippers, Frances Brann, refusing to let her standards drop despite the pressures, has even managed to spoil us with daily homebaked bread from Snow Dragon’s oven. It ’s been a relentless and exhausting push to be ready. But finally, we are ready to head North! LAST NIGHT, SATURDAY, WAS OUR FIRST and last supper on land with new friends in Nome, ahead of our voyage into the newly ice-free international waters around the North Pole. And as we ate, the harbour water level dropped. And dropped. Nome is shallow at the best of times. But if a north wind blows long enough and hard enough, strange things can happen. While Snow Dragon swished the harbour floor with the tip of her keel, Bagheera, moored between
Snow Dragon and the quayside, found her keel bedding ever deeper in.
Since then, a rising tide almost freed her, but the north wind has continued. Now we’ll have to wait for the water level to be high enough before we can escape into the Bering Sea. And so, with the same wind set to continue today and tomorrow, Tuesday is likely to be our earliest departure date. Nature, eh! AS I WROTE THE ABOVE, sitting at my study (a corner of Bagheera’s saloon table), I heard an ‘Ahoy below decks!’ Climbing the companionway up on to the aft deck, a local fisherman thanked us for resetting his mooring lines in the middle of last night to save his boat from the embarrassment of being suspended in mid-air, halfway up the quayside wall. He gently lobbed two bags of fruit down to me 10ft below him, by way of thanks. Such acts of kindness are typical of the local community.
Yachts attract attention here. Most are making their way to or from a transit through the Northwest Passage. ‘So, where are you going?’ they ask. ‘Into the international waters around the North Pole,’ we say. ‘ We’ll be studying the marine wildlife that may now need our protection from imminent damage by commercial ship-borne activities.’
Locals have reported that coastline sea ice is disappearing a month earlier over re cent years. One hunter has noticed that killer whales have been given early access to prey previously protected by unbroken sea ice. And breastfeeding mothers in the high Arctic traditional hunter communities are apparently receiving strong recommendations from government health officers to avoid eating local marine mammals. The effects on infants consuming dangerous quantities of toxic marine pollutants, now accumulating in the animals’ body tissues, is alarming officials. The pressures on the North Pole’s marine wildlife are great.
One hunter has noticed that killer whales have been given early access to prey