Article "Vagabond is starting a new mission", by Marion Perrier and Hélène Caroff, in Dimanche Ouest-France newspaper.
Vagabond is in Canada since last night! We changed time, there is now six hours difference with France.
The scientists arrived in Qaanaaq two days late, due to a plane break-down in Resolute Bay (Canada). In the end, on August 8th, first day of school in Greenland, Vagabond took on board Christian Haas (University of Alberta, Canada), his daughter Léa, and his colleague Mary O'Brien (Institute of Ocean Sciences, Canada), with all their equipments.
Heading North, Vagabond stopped in Siorapaluk, once more. This time, a little party was organised after the good hunt of a minke whale, villagers invited us spontaneously. A few hours later, we dropped anchor at Etah, historical site of arrival of first men in Greenland, coming from the West. Remains of stone houses are next to more recent huts, used in summer for hunting (muskox, reindeer, fox, walrus, seal...).
The next day, avoiding drifting ices, Vagabond reached Littleton Island. Despite wind and fog, the first task of our mission was accomplished, for the Scottish Association for Marine Science and for the Technical University of Denmark: on top of the island, the weather station is repaired. "Congratulations, data is received now, I just had a phone call from Scotland!", France told us when we were coming back on board Vagabond. A polar bear had only snatched away the main unit, this is why the station was not transmitting anymore since last April!
Wednesday, weather conditions became gradually ideal. The section across Smith Sound was a success: eight hydrographic stations to better understand the strait between Greenland and Canada. Through this strait are some major exchanges between Arctic Ocean and Baffin bay. At each station, Mary is plunging the CTD down to the seabed (300 to 500m), while Christian is measuring, with an icedrill and an electromagnetic icemeter, thickness of the ice floe to which Vagabond is moored.
Then, on Canadian side, on the small Brevoort Island, not far from Cape Sabine and Ellesmere Island, we must inspect the second weather station. This one, set up in 2009 with Henry Larsen ice-breaker, is intact. Data are downloaded, important complement to those from the station on the other side of the strait.
Tonight, blue sky, wind is increasing, gust up to 45 knots, ice floes are drifting fast. An Arctic hare and his young looking at us, we found a little shelter in Alexandra Fjord, not far from the scientific station.
It is on Siorapaluk's beach that Vagabond has been thought up, almost thirty five years ago. A boat able to sail in icy waters, and if no good shelter, able to beach for overwinter...
Siorapaluk is the northernmost village in Greenland. Hunting and fishing are regulating the fifty three inhabitants' life, and giving them most of their food needs. In addition, a supply ship is coming only once a year.
We are happy to meet again with Jocelyne Ollivier-Henry, a friend from Brittany, she has been living here part time for the last thirteen years. She showed us her village, and we invited her on board with her friends, and a flock of children! After two days stop, Greenlandic that came with us from Qaanaaq to visit their cousins at Siorapaluk, are coming back home with us.
Coincidence: Siorapaluk is at the same latitude than Inglefield Bay, in Svalbard, where Vagabond spent five winters (2004-2009). About Inglefield Land, here in Greenland, we will approach it next week.
Back to Qaanaaq, Vagabond beaching capacity is used to enter the lagoon, at high tide, and to beach to get diesel.
Built sixty years ago, Qaanaaq (Thule in Danish) has today about six hundred inhabitants. Only small boats can enter the lagoon, in front of the village, however not so well protected from westerly and south-easterly winds. Vagabond dropped anchor in three meters of water, outside the lagoon, and is ready to set sail in case the wind is picking up. The next scientific team will board on August 6th, for two weeks, and part of the equipment was already waiting for us here in Qaanaaq. Hans is giving me the parcels. He is holding the local hotel ans is showing me proudly pictures from explorers and adventurers that stayed here before. Hans was two years old when his village was moved here, when the American Thule Air Base was built, in 1951.
As well as watching for missiles and communicating with satellites in orbit, the huge military base is supporting Arctic scientific research projects. So Vagabond is allowed to stop, and we could get some supplies and unexpected ways of entertainment! About a hundred and fifty Americans from US Air Force are working at Thule Air Base, which is mainly running with three hundred and fifty Danish and sixty Greenlandic. This stop was also a chance for a very good first contact with Canadian Coast Guards, escorting a supply ship with their ice-breaker Henry Larsen.
Before reaching Qaanaaq, a hundred kilometers further north, Vagabond stopped in front of two more abandonned villages, Moriussaq and Qeqertarssuaq. Strange feeling to enter a school-church, while everything is inside, except teacher, pupil or faithful.
No walrus seen on our way, but still many seals and birds.
Little village of about 60 inhabitants, including 48 adults, north of Melville Bay. Sumptuous scenery. On the other side of the fjord, the inlandsis is slowly flowing by a few glaciers, generous suppliers of icebergs which are protecting the village from swell. Good anchorage. Behind the houses, the mountain is home for hundreds of thousands of little auks, flying relentlessly to and fro across the sky. Naja and Mario are speaking good English, they welcome us at home. They are in charge of the school, which will open in three weeks for five children. Léonie and Aurore find new games there, among mattresses of an international team of geologists, who is renting the place for five days. They are working for an oil company, to map the region. Life could change very much if exploitation starts...
Mario tells us about walrus hunting, in spring. Naja offers earrings to Léonie, delighted. After muskox and coffee, our little family is taking her turn at the public bath, the only place with running water.
Since Upernavik, stops followed on, depending on weather, needs and wishes. On the very little Island of Kipako, we met again with the three birdwatchers. They explained how they can estimate variation of quantities of fishes and plankton, by studying chicks every year. After the guided tour, two of the scientists came to get fresh water on board. Vagabond then dropped anchor at Nuussuaq, then at Kullorsuaq, the two last villages of the West Coast which we could not reach last month because of late ice breaking up. At Savissivik, we enter Greenland's Great North district.
Overhaul for Vagabond, who is having some scars of the long fight against Melville Bay ices. Scientists and cameramen left yesterday for France, with less data and pictures than expected; young walruses and their mothers will keep part of the mystery on their communication mode. Bearded seals rutting melody was easier to record, as well as narwhal song. New pictures.
When arriving in Upernavik, July 12th, we saw the ship of Danemark's Queen, who we already met a year ago in Faroes. Very much expected in the village, she was suppose to come by plane, which had to turn back due to fog. Her boat, with VIP and journalists, started again without her!
Yesterday we met three colleagues of the little auk team, for who we worked in 2005 and 2010 on the East Coast of Greenland. They are about to spend two weeks on a little island to study guillemots and kittiwakes.
News of Piem: he left Iceland this morning, heading for North-West Passage on board Eshamy, Jeffrey's sail boat. We met him in Murmansk two years ago. He was attempting the North-East Passage without permission, but he turned back because of ice and fog.
No more ice ahead of us now, up to Qaanaaq (Thule). Ices didn't hold last gale (July 9th and 10th), as shown by, among others, radar images sent by Brest team of CLS (collaboration on SIDARUS project). Our stop in Upernavik will be as short as possible, we are looking forward to see the other side of Melville Bay, and maybe, watch some walruses!
Ice was not opening any way out of Melville Bay, scientists were getting worried not to be on time in Qaanaaq, so Vagabond turned back, despite southerly wind forecast. We are now trying to reach Upernavik reluctantly, two hundred nautical miles south. This is the closest airport. Facing wind, stronger than forecast (gust up to 50 knots), with fog and rain, forced us to shelter for a day and a half. After weeks of sun and calm weather, after having dreamed about gale to move all ice around, this low couldn't have come at a worse time! But we could discover a little island often visited by Greenlandics, as remains of kayaks and camps show. And what a pleasure walking a bit on land!
Melville Bay is keeping us. Past years, there was ice in the area up until the middle of July. But this year, there is a lot! We are studying carefully daily ice charts, hoping to find easily walruses beyond this frozen area; and hoping that the team will be able to get their flight from Qaanaaq on July 13th...
While Vagabond, slowly, is opening up her way through melting pack ice, a polar bear showed up yesterday, and we could come near another one today. Then, we passed very close to a young rind seal not shy at all, obviously he never saw a hunter. But the big ship seen by few of us has disappeared! After several days stuck in pack ice, we are on the brink of this type of hallucination.
Our progress across Melville Bay is slow and winding, as shown by our track. Ice situation (sea also Danish or Canadian charts), can explain our difficulties, despite the beautiful weather prevailing since mid-June. We have perfect ice conditions for walruses; scientists are looking for them on ice because walruses are more shy on land due to hunting in Greenland and Nunavut. This is why we came in this area before ice breaking-up! Thanks to the hydrophones we could listen to seals, narwhals, whales... but still no walruses.
We have been in pack ice for the last ten days, making slow progress towards the North, always looking for seals and walruses for the scientific project. Melville Bay seems determined to keep pack ice longer than usual, and walruses are probably set up in that inaccessible area for now! So listening and playbacks are focused on bearded seals. It's about watching reactions of males, each one having his own territory, when the song of another male is played with the underwater speaker of Isabelle and Thierry. It is the female seduction period, rivalries can be hard between males, and reactions very different to this synthetic intruder!