Saturday, August 1, 2020
La longue route de Bernard Moitessier
Friday, July 31, 2020
My midlife crisis as a Russian sailor
From OutsideOnline by Andrea Pitzer, the author of Icebound: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World, which will be published by Scribner in early 2021.
For a book project about 16th-century polar explorer William Barents, Andrea Pitzer needed to reach the remote Arctic island where he and his men came to grief.
She booked passage on an expeditionary boat out of Murmansk, then headed north on a trip marked by unforgettable scenery, unexpected loss, and wild magic that changed her life.
I’m heading to the Arctic thinking about death.
Lying facedown in the top bunk of an overnight train inching from Saint Petersburg toward the Russian port city of Murmansk, I have a berth waiting for me on an August expedition sailing north.
I’m working on a book about Arctic explorers, and that means swimming in a sea of sorrow.
In my train compartment, dead adventurers haunt me: Faithful sled dogs eaten by humans or swallowed by chasms in the ice.
Sailors devoured by polar bears or their own shipmates.
Even when no animals or people are stalking them, polar explorers have a tendency to starve or freeze or succumb to disease.
I’ve come to Russia at age 51 to re-create parts of William Barents’s third voyage to the Arctic from 400 years ago.
Crossing and recrossing the sea northeast of Scandinavia, Barents, a Dutch navigator, went looking for a passage to China, but he and 16 men were trapped by sea ice during the summer of 1596.
For nearly a year, they were stranded hundreds of miles above the mainland on Novaya Zemlya, a pair of large islands extending all the way to 77 degrees north.
Five sailors died, including Barents himself, who perished at sea after they abandoned their ship and he and the remaining crew tried to get home on small boats.
His quest to find the lucrative route to China was a brave but dismal failure.
Once we leave Murmansk, our boat will sail the same formidable waters.
Setting out with a Russian crew aboard a yacht called Alter Ego, I’ll follow in Barents’s wake over the sea that now bears his name.
But Barents isn’t the only thing on my mind.
Other grim news is preoccupying me as much or more.
Arctic sea ice is collapsing, with few signs of reversal.
I’ve been to the far north twice to report on climate change, and in the meantime it’s only gotten worse.
My family seems equally vulnerable.
The night before I left home, my cousin Joe messaged me about the trip.
As kind a man as I’ve met, and a traumatized veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, he had checked himself in for alcohol rehab earlier that summer at the age of 47.
By the time I was packing my bags, he’d been sober for more than a month.
On the last day of July, I sent my love and told him to hold down the fort while I was gone.
But I’m wondering if the fort will be standing when I return.
Weeks before, my father and stepfather were diagnosed with cancer; my mother is now deep in the throes of paranoid dementia.
My two teenage children are fine, but I feel bad about leaving my husband parenting solo for so long while he’s working full-time.
Meanwhile, the contract I signed before all this happened says my book is due by Christmas.
I feel both grateful and ashamed to have a chance to go off the grid to focus on research.
I’m running from looming family mortality into the arms of historic—and historical—tragedy.
Part of me thinks I shouldn’t go.
But I know it might be the journey of a lifetime.
My traveling companion on the train, Tatiana Ponomareva, spent nearly two decades as director of the Nabokov Museum in Saint Petersburg, until political machinations pushed her out.
She helped me in 2011 with my first book, a biography of Vladimir Nabokov, and I invited her along this time as my interpreter.
The year before, Tatiana connected me with Vicaar, the Russian polar-expedition agency that matched me with this boat and crew.
I’m using my book advance to cover passage for Tatiana and me.
We’ll set sail with ten people aboard.
Rolling into Murmansk, we’re met by a tall Russian whose dark mustache and beard are kissed with gray.
He’s our expedition leader, Evgeny Fershter.
Smoking cigarettes with the furious commitment of a French Resistance leader, he walks us out of the train station.
We cross a footbridge over the tracks and make our way to the harbor.
A single long dock stretches before us.
On its left squats a black behemoth of an icebreaker, with blocky white Russian letters on the side spelling “Lenin.”
Directly opposite the nuclear-powered ship, which is now a stationary museum, a lone vessel is moored to the dock: the Alter Ego.
Painted white and autumn red, it seems small from a distance, but I looked up its specs before the trip.
At just under 60 feet, it’s almost exactly the same length as the ship that carried Barents and his men to Novaya Zemlya.
To the right, past a flock of cranes hoisting cargo, the city stretches up into hills.
On the summit of the closest slope stands an enormous statue of a soldier.
This is Alyosha, a symbol of Russia’s Arctic forces, which suffered brutal losses holding this corner of the world against German onslaughts during World War II.
We cross a wooden plank and board.
Mikhail Tekuchev, the ship’s captain, is clean-shaven and almost as tall as Evgeny.
Greeting us with a smile, he warns us to fill up on food tonight, because we probably won’t feel like eating for a while once we head out.
We unpack our bags, finding the odd cabinets and crevices that are essential to life at sea.
Our cabin mate, Olga Chumachenko, is the designated ship’s cook, but her real trade is photojournalism.
She has already traveled to the North Pole and Antarctica.
Next we meet Andrey Ianushkevich, who makes a vivid impression with a full beard and a right-arm tattoo of Saint George killing the dragon.
Formerly a boxer and a businessman, he’s also a licensed captain and will serve as first mate.
The last crew member, Alexander Bogdanov, nicknamed Sasha, has a salt-and-pepper crew cut and knows some English.
In his striped shirt, he looks like the archetype of a Russian sailor.
In fact, he’s the newest member of the crew, and spent decades as a professional paraglider before setting foot on the Alter Ego.
Feeling tense and overfed from lack of exercise, I go on deck to do push-ups and sit-ups.
This might mark me as strange to my new companions, but it’s probably too late to kick me off the boat.
Before long, I learn that others already have their own shipboard workout routines.
That evening, we leave the harbor without fanfare, abandoning Kola Bay and heading east along the coast.
I meet two other passengers, marine biologists Marthe Larsen Haarr and Michael Pantalos, who work for the marine consulting group SALT and are joining the expedition with support from a Norwegian-Russian partnership.
They’ll be mapping the amount of trash in the Barents and Kara Seas north of mainland Russia.
The last passenger, Alexey Neumoin, is a tourist.
A Russian mystic as intense as any character in Dostoevsky, Alexey comes with some 21st-century updates: he’s also a web designer and martial artist.
He intends to meditate along the entire route of our expedition and sees himself, quite seriously, as having a personal mission in the far north.
Before we can land anywhere up there, though, we have to cross the Barents Sea, traveling hundreds of miles to reach Cape Desire, a spot on the northeastern corner of Novaya Zemlya in the protected Russian Arctic National Park.
There we’ll pick up the last member of our party—a ranger, whose presence is required on any expedition visiting the preserve.
I volunteer to help with the sailing whenever possible, and since I can’t speak Russian, I ask Tatiana to tell the crew that I hauled lines on sails during a prior Arctic expedition.
I don’t have much experience, I say, but I’m strong.
“If you’re so strong, why don’t you pull up the anchor?” Sasha replies.
He’s a smartass, but he’s already impossible to dislike.
That night, as we sail along the shoreline, I step out from our skylit cabin into the dark coffin of the hallway just as the ship rolls in the trough of a wave.
I brace myself against the wall.
Nausea drives my lurching stomach up into my skull.
I will my internal organs into obedience and go up to the deck.
First mate Andrey is at the wheel, and he tosses me a piece of an orange.
He speaks little English, but there’s no need to talk.
I notice that the compartments on deck are filled with bananas, apples, oranges, leafy greens, and carrots.
Whatever else might go wrong, we won’t die of scurvy.
Mist and clouds linger above the long plateau of an offshore island that we pass, its rocky surface glowing mossy green in the predawn light.
As waves break along the sides of the boat, I feel a rush of delight.
That afternoon, Captain Misha hands me coveralls to wear.
We go on deck, where he leans in close to the long boom that nestles perpendicular to the mast.
Inside one end is a set of levers.
“Look,” he says, pointing to his eyes and then to the levers.
After he adjusts something, he holds up three fingers and has me find the third metal ring in the sail, which sits accordioned atop the boom.
After leveraging the ring, called a cringle, onto a nearby hook, I haul the sail into position.
I’m not prepared to captain the boat just yet, obviously, but if the entire crew becomes incapacitated, I think I have a fighting chance to reef and hoist the mainsail, on which I could scrawl an SOS.
As we prepare for the open sea, all passengers get basic safety training.
If we smell smoke at any time, we should alert the crew immediately.
We must always wear a life jacket on deck.
We practice putting on our flotation suits and learn what to do if we encounter a polar bear.
At the end, Evgeny tells a joke about a new expedition member who’s advised that, if he comes face-to-face with a hungry bear, he should smear shit on the animal’s nose.
“Where does the shit come from?” the trainee asks.
“Don’t worry,” the instructor replies, “there will be plenty.”
Sailing in the season of the midnight sun, we see daylight around the clock for most of the trip.
The temperature usually hovers just above or below freezing.
Our last hour close to shore, the waves are a vivid teal, the color of some alien gemstone.
Sasha appears on deck, cradling a Russian button accordion, and starts playing Eugen Doga’s haunting waltz “My Sweet and Tender Beast.”
We sail between two long spits of rock toward the horizon, a thin, blurry line that becomes more indistinct in the days that follow.
Below us, the water darkens to slate blue.
Above, the clouds sit like some pale country, as if the sea is a shadow of the sky.
We leave land behind on the morning of August 8, two days into the trip.
When we hit the open sea the going gets rough, and nobody shows up for breakfast the first morning, not even Olga the cook.
I spend the next three days thoroughly nauseous, with my body rejecting food and sleep.
I’m able to keep tiny meals down only by constantly reminding myself not to throw up.
Taking the edge off my misery, Captain Misha invites me on deck to learn how to steer.
The wheel is almost as tall as me; it looks like an oversize steering wheel on a toy dashboard.
Pointing and demonstrating, Misha tries to show me how to use a gauge to maintain our current bearing.
It quickly becomes apparent that steering a boat is just like driving a car—that is, if wind regularly blows you off the road, and the road moves up and down like a roller coaster.
I have a tendency to oversteer, waiting too long to correct the course, which leads to sweeping turns that necessitate corrections of their own, slowing our progress.
With more gestures and a handful of English words, Misha explains that the gauge and digital map of our course are lagging indicators.
He shows me how to watch the “little magicians”—short plastic strips fastened to the sail and a cable securing the mast.
Like tiny windsocks, they provide instant feedback on whether the boat is really catching the breeze.
While we’re at it, I learn that we have other vessels on board.
One is a bright red boat called Mikhalych, attached to the back of the Alter Ego and lowered into the water by a motorized winch.
(It will ferry us to shore on Novaya Zemlya, if we live long enough to get there.) The second is an inflatable raft, Pchyolka—“bee” in Russian—which is folded neatly and strapped to the deck before the mast.
The captain’s drone, nicknamed Zhuzha—“buzzbuzz”—makes regular circuits to survey the sea and sky when Misha isn’t at the wheel.
During this sloshy ride I keep trying to take notes, but my aggrieved stomach makes writing an ordeal.
Others have it worse.
Apart from Michael, no one even sees Marthe for several days—and it’s not easy to vanish completely on a boat this size.
I watch with wonder as Andrey, when he’s not on duty, manages to sit quietly with his e-reader, devouring a historical novel set in the time of Peter the Great.
Among the passengers, Tatiana alone floats unperturbed through the unsettling waves.
I take to using bungee cords on the bedframe to strap my legs in at night, so I won’t roll onto her if I ever manage to fall asleep again.
But sleep doesn’t come, and in my darkest hour on the longest night, I hear the rustle of cellophane.
I look over the side of my bunk to see Tatiana calmly eating crackers and scrolling through pictures on her phone.
Hours later I sit at the dining table, feeling despondent.
Expedition leader Evgeny sprawls in the seat across from me.
It’s day four, and I realize I can’t remember ever seeing him eat.
Like some 1970s supermodel, he appears to subsist entirely on cigarettes.
I ask him if he feels sick.
He doesn’t answer but says that if I’m feeling bad, the best medicine is to take the wheel.
I go on deck, where we’re still surrounded by endless water.
The sun has come through the clouds, turning stretches of the sea’s surface a milky white.
We sail all day and night for almost a week.
Crew members take the helm in four-hour split shifts: two hours steering and two as backup.
Tuesday morning we spot land.
As we approach shore, the collective nausea begins to subside.
Sasha makes blini for breakfast and lets me practice doing a stovetop flip.
Working our way around the same coastline that Barents mapped, we come to Cape Desire.
Lowering Mikhalych off the back, the crew gets ready to take us ashore.
Once we hit the beach, Tatiana and I, along with a ranger from the station, walk up the bluff and climb exposed lighthouse stairs to look at the sea.
Birds wheel and scream, creating a wild melody of their own invention.
Due north, nothing is visible but the Arctic Ocean.
The next morning, leaving Cape Desire behind, we cross into the frigid Kara Sea, east of Novaya Zemlya.
As if recognizing that we’ve abandoned normal space-time, the GPS glitches and for a while shows the boat sitting off the coast of West Africa.
The ranger who’s joined us for this leg of the voyage turns out to be another Sasha, blond and quieter than the one we already have.
The day after Sasha II’s arrival, we aim the boat toward a legendary place called Ice Harbor—home to the ruins of William Barents’s cabin, which he and his men named the Behouden Huys, or Safe House.
It was built using driftwood and lumber from their icebound ship.
Barents wasn’t the first European to reach the high Arctic, but he sailed his ships farther north of Europe and Asia than any prior explorer on record.
A journal narrating his discoveries—and his months spent stranded—was printed in five languages almost immediately after his death, becoming an international bestseller.
Commercial European whaling soon exploded along the Barents Sea and points west, over time nearly driving the North Atlantic right whale to extinction.
Europeans never left the region.
A similar push for trade routes and imports expanded worldwide and brought industrialization, which in modern times eventually delivered climate change.
As we sail toward Ice Harbor, I brace myself to witness the bleak late stages of a process abetted by the characters in my book.
For nearly a year, William Barents and his men were stranded on Novaya Zemlya, a pair of large islands extending all the way to 77 degrees north.In the last hours before we arrive at Barents’s cabin, Andrey helps me modify a weak clasp on the GoPro I’ll use when we land.
Five sailors died, including Barents himself.
He will later fix the broken hinge on my glasses, the controller on a winch, and whatever is making a mysterious thumping sound near the engine.
In his spare time, he sits grinding the rust off an old drawing compass with a dremel, cauterizing frayed ends of ropes, or regluing leather on a shipboard game, like some benevolent god whose gift it is to make the world whole again.
At Ice Harbor, we land in mist and fog.
Evgeny, Misha, and I disembark with the ranger, then head up the slope and start hiking toward the ruins of the cabin.
They don’t appear immediately, so I pull out a book that has a map of the site.
One more march over a low rise and a cross marker comes into view.
The relics sit not far from the edge of a low plateau bordered on three sides by a rock-strewn beach.
It’s terrible to imagine how lethal the conditions would have been in this part of the world during winter, exposed to the wind in every direction and the sea on three sides.
Now, 423 years later, we see the long timbers that formed the base of the shelter where Barents and his men spent months praying not to die.
Blizzard after blizzard came, until more than an inch of ice built up in the cabin’s interior.
Pacing out its dimensions—roughly 36 feet long by 22 feet wide—I walk through the space where the crew huddled in fear as a polar bear rampaged on their roof, trying to claw its way in.
I stand on the site of the fireplace that couldn’t keep them warm, at one point nearly killing them with toxic fumes from ship’s coal they burned.
I wander along the beach where the men dragged makeshift sleds over ice and snow for miles, scavenging firewood.
Evgeny comes over and pulls a flask out of his pocket.
I swallow a mouthful—whisky—and hand it back.
I can hardly believe we’ve arrived at the end of the world.
Wonders keep coming, day by day.
A bird lands on Sasha’s head while he’s at the wheel.
We spot a polar bear running on the beach.
The Arctic makes itself known to us, though not always on our terms.
The trash-studying biologists have the most worthwhile mission of anyone on the boat: by scanning the ocean and exploring shorelines on foot, they’re using equipment to map where washed-up litter is and isn’t found in the Arctic.
But ultimately, the sea and sky decide what they will allow.
Plans for exploratory landings can blow up at the last minute.
A bear sighting or fog can kill any chance to gather data from a particular spot.
It becomes apparent that my ghost-chasing forays, Alexey’s meditation, and the natural challenges thrown up by the sea will make it harder for the scientists to get their work done.
On August 16, we head toward the Orange Islands—the Oranskys, in Russian—with a plan to visit the two main land masses, Big Oransky and Little Oransky, which together total about one square mile.
Evgeny has heard of a memorial placed on Little Oransky more than a century ago, commemorating its discovery by Barents.
Watching for bears, we go ashore amid thrashing waves and fan out to find it.
Soon a memorial slab comes into view on the rocky ground, cracked but legible.
As we quickly discover, Little Oransky is also a wonderland of birds.
Gulls and their aggressive cousins, skuas, shriek and cry their own improvisations—birdsong that Andrey will later call “merry and badass jazz.” They wing back and forth along populated cliffs like morning commuters in some vertical city.
Elegant murres with dark eyes and black feet nest in the rock face near the top of the island.
They turn their sleek heads to look at us but don’t fly away.
Puffins sit in vague wonder, their black and orange beaks just inches out of reach.
They don’t seem to know that it’s wise to be wary of humans.
When the time comes to go back to the boat, Alexey is nowhere to be found.
I run along the rocks above the water calling his name.
After a while, he appears on one corner of the cliff, as if stepping in from another universe.
He had been off meditating again.
The next day, the biologists land with their gear and get some surveying done before we head toward Big Oransky, a split stone slab rising out of the sea.
Suddenly, we see walruses on shore and walruses approaching.
They’re all around us.
We had dropped the anchor, attaching a bobbing, bright yellow buoy to mark its position.
The walruses take up the buoy and start playing with it.
The crew has seen an anchor buoy stolen by playful walruses before, so it has made them harder to pilfer.
But Andrey is worried that a walrus might get caught in the line.
The buoy is exiled from the water and brought back to the ship.
The walruses stare with what is surely disappointment.
But we aren’t done here yet.
Sasha appears on deck with his accordion and begins the same Doga waltz he played before.
Dozens of walruses swim to where he perches near the gunwale, on the port side of the boat.
They listen, watching him.
Occasionally, a small mosh pit forms, then dissolves.
Mostly his audience floats before him, snorting and hawing with rapt intensity while we look back.
Eventually, we move on to run Sasha II back to Cape Desire.
As we leave the Oranskys behind, the original Sasha calls belowdecks.
He’s spotted a bizarre sight: buildings or smoke or something on the bigger island.
Baffled, we watch through camera lenses and binoculars, trying to understand the terrain shifting before our eyes.
Someone asks if it could be an optical illusion, which reminds me that a polar mirage had amazed Barents and his men, too.
When we get to Cape Desire, I jump out of Mikhalych, as I’ve done before, to drag it to shore.
But today I leap too early and end up waist-deep in freezing water.
I haul the boat in all the same, but there’s no way to ignore my gaffe.
I slip off my boots to pour out water, standing barefoot outside the station in the Arctic air, stripped to short pants and wringing out my clothes in shame.
We leave the next day and keep following the beleaguered Barents route back along the coast of northern Novaya Zemlya.
Meanwhile, it’s become a pleasure to eat again, and I do so continuously—fried cottage cheese patties, lard, dark bread, borscht, sour cream, and dried fish.
Kasha—hot porridge—is a breakfast staple most mornings.
Olga cooks a fish and tomato dish.
Sasha flips more blini and leads the crew in singing Russian songs after dinner.
He offers to teach me a sea shanty, but we’re hard-pressed to find one that isn’t about the problems caused by bringing women on a boat.
With visits to the Barents sites wrapped up, we leave the national park and go ashore near the Chaev glacier on the western coast of Novaya Zemlya.
Nearly everyone heads out on a morning hike to see a series of tiny, exquisite waterfalls that reveal themselves from above, one after another, as we scramble along the rocks.
Afterward some of us stay on shore to climb a low mountain, unnamed on our maps, that sits between the waterfalls and the glacier.
Surveying the coastline as we sail, Sasha has noted that the glaciers we see have retreated far from the leading edges shown on his map.
I recall that in 2017, researchers found a new island near Chaev, made visible by the disappearing ice.
We raise toasts that evening and play a word game, going to bed around 2 A.M.
Sasha and I wake up in the middle of the night.
We ride Mikhalych back to shore, this time with Andrey along, and then climb the same mountain we’d climbed earlier.
I step out from our cabin into the dark coffin of the hallway just as the ship rolls in the trough of a wave.In the quiet morning hours, the birds still silent, Sasha moves up the steep, smooth dome of the slope like a mountain goat, while Andrey chooses more ragged rocks that let him climb vertically for a stretch.
I brace myself against the wall.
Nausea drives my lurching stomach up into my skull.
I also head for the rocks, falling behind in my thick muck boots but catching up in the second half when the footing becomes simple again.
Prior to this book project, I spent seven years researching and writing a history of concentration camps.
The work was a litany of grief.
During that time, the suffering of the living and the dead never left my mind, and I think about it now.
My cousin Joe and I grew close in those same years, with our shared love of music and grim jokes, and a lack of faith that things will turn out well in the end.
I worried about him the whole time.
For a moment, all that falls away.
We stay awhile at the top of the cliff, looking out at the boat, the speckless sky, and the sea.
I am filled with a happiness vast enough to break me.
On August 20, we wind up at the old polar station of Russian Harbor, our last stop before we set out to cross the Barents Sea again.
Evgeny warns us that polar bears are common; we have to keep a wide berth when we go around the corners of abandoned buildings.
He hands me a small firecracker pistol to startle any animals I meet.
Fresh tracks appear everywhere, but we see no more bears.
Andrey, who dislikes compliments about himself but is quick to praise others, has already told me that Evgeny has gone on expeditions that in recent years made crucial Arctic discoveries.
The next afternoon, while we’re still sitting at anchor, I prod Evgeny into telling me stories about Novaya Zemlya and Franz Josef Land—tales of 19th- and 20th-century explorers saved or damned by their own choices or fate.
We take leave of Novaya Zemlya late in the day, most of us standing on deck to watch the shabby ruins of the polar station grow tiny with distance before the island itself vanishes.
I wake up that night to the smell of smoke.
After lifting my head to scan the cabin in the dim light, I see that Olga is awake, too.
Tatiana rolls over and, joking or still half-asleep, says, “Someone has burned the kasha.”
Olga hits the hallway and is intercepted by a crew member and sent back.
I’m dying to know what’s going on, and after waiting a few agonizing minutes, I sneak out to the dining table in my long underwear.
All four of the crew are sitting in grim silence; when they start talking it’s in Russian, and I can’t understand.
After 15 minutes, Sasha turns to me.
“You probably have questions,” he says.
Basically, the workhorse engine that powers our boat—designed in the last years of the Soviet Union—is running too hot.
Over the next two days, I watch Andrey and Sasha try to fix it.
Seals have deteriorated.
Coolant has gotten into the crankcase, spoiling the oil’s viscosity and making the engine useless.
We’ll have to travel from Russian Harbor on Novaya Zemlya back to Kola Bay—a journey that took us five days on our way out—using sails alone, just as Barents and his men did more than 400 years ago.
We have enough food and cookies for an army, so we won’t starve, but there will be a lot of time to kill.
Misha gives me a book on sailing, and I practice tying basic knots.
Those of us who are able to take shifts at the wheel do so, to spell the crew.
We get one fast day of sailing, but soon the wind subsides and we sit, becalmed.
That afternoon, Michael, the marine biologist, looks out and notices a bird beside us in the water.
It’s a gray and white northern fulmar, paddling with its feet.
The bird, he points out, is moving faster than the boat.
With the trip unexpectedly extended, I’m in heaven.
There’s no engine working at cross-purposes with the waves to make me queasy.
No storms threaten.
Because of the quiet, dolphins begin to appear in numbers, a dozen or more at a time.
I whistle to them.
Though they aren’t as responsive to our faces as the walruses were, they swim in sync with the boat and play for long stretches, the choreography of their splashing becoming the snare drum to the crashing cymbals of the sea.
The delay is bad for almost everyone else.
The crew will likely arrive late for the start of their next trip, which means they’ll have to cancel it and lose income.
Marthe will miss her daughter’s birthday.
Olga will be gone past the window of vacation she has arranged at work.
The crew, which has already tried to manage our conflicting agendas for more than two weeks, must stay on duty much longer than planned.
Somehow, everyone is becoming dearer to me.
But I have the vague sense that, thanks to all my push-ups and sit-ups, off-key singing, restless enthusiasm, and the long hair I shed like a dog, I’ve gone from amusing to oppressive.
I worry about imposing, but I’m still freakishly happy about the whole experience.
I spend more time alone on deck, perched out on the prow of the boat, where I watch for whales that never come and I sing to the sea.
Destiny arrives in the form of a tugboat.
The vessel was assigned days before, and it looks as if we’ll get close enough to port for the tug to start hauling us on Friday.
It’s August 30, late enough in the season, and far enough south, that night has begun to move in again.
But in the last hours of daylight on our last evening at sea, I hear Misha call my name and say “del-feen” in a musical voice from on deck.
I climb up to look.
I know this will be it—the final gift the sea will offer.
Dolphins soon surround us, arcing in groups of four or five to jump along either side of the boat, then splitting to chase one another ahead or dive under our keel.
Several people are on deck now.
I whistle and step from port to starboard and back as the creatures retreat.
They disappear only to leap up before us once again.
They have come to escort us home.
A half-hour later they leave.
Soon after that, tugboat lights appear in the distance.
Once the tug is hauling cleanly, most of us go below.
Alexey brings out a plastic liter bottle of moonshine donated by a local just before we set out to cross the Barents Sea.
I figure that if the liquor hasn’t eaten through the plastic in three weeks, it’s probably safe to drink.
They pull out a variety of shot glasses—ryumki—and we make toasts.
I set my alarm for 5 A.M., by which time we should be approaching Murmansk.
As we draw near the Lenin again, I join in the work of moving our fenders from port to starboard.
Andrey and Misha moor the Alter Ego, and I go back to bed.
We’ll have one last day together on the boat.
A few hours later, I wake up to the first cell service I’ve had since we left.
Scrolling through a month of messages with a mix of regret and nervousness, I feel pleased.
There seems to be little I missed that matters.
Then I see a note with “Joe” in the subject line.
Dread hits me like a wave, but I open it.
My cousin has died—exactly how isn’t clear, but my mind goes to the darkest place.
I’ve already missed the memorial service.
Standing up from the table, I go to the ladder and climb blindly up on deck.
I can’t sit in my perch at the prow, which faces the harbor and anyone who might approach the boat.
I go to the stern and hunker down near the trash and cry.
The whole trip, which had filled me with such happiness just a few hours before, turns to ashes.
Joe is gone, with his PTSD, his alcoholism, his terrible jokes, and his love for so many people.
He’s already been gone for more than a week, while I was out in the Arctic, heedless of his disintegration.
I’m suddenly sure the crew is sick of me, and that they regret our whole voyage.
Why did I need to see where Barents and his men had suffered? I’ve wasted everyone’s time.
All my delight in these people and this place dissolves.
I know I’m oversteering emotionally, just as I did with the boat, but I have no defense against this news.
After a visit from Tatiana, who wants to know what happened, I pull myself together and go downstairs.
Sasha offers to make me fried eggs, but I can’t think about eating.
If I lie in my bunk, I’ll inflict myself on Olga and Tatiana while they pack.
I stay put while we work out new airline reservations.
It takes hours and gives me something to focus on.
As we finish, Sasha again offers to make fried eggs.
Throughout the voyage, he has continually tried to find the one thing that might make each person happy in the moment.
I still don’t feel like eating, but I say yes to his kind offer.
He comes back shortly with an exquisite open-faced omelet that the phrase “fried eggs” can’t begin to represent.
Soon, however, I feel myself running back to despair.
Tatiana needs to mail a package to Saint Petersburg.
I realize I have to do an interview the next day in Moscow.
I have no shoes with me but my muck boots.
I’ve bragged about how much I loathe shopping, and in truth I would rather clean the deck with a toothbrush.
But shopping will get me off the boat and give others some peace.
If I don’t go buy boots, I might end up in a bar.
I head for the mall.
Later, Tatiana and I return with a pair of ankle boots so femme that the idea of me wearing them makes the crew laugh.
Olga has already left for the train station.
The scientists are in a cab headed across the border to Norway.
Out of the blue, Alexey asks if I want to go on a hike before dinner to see the Alyosha statue, with its eternal flame that marks the sacrifice of countless dead.
Physical activity off the boat sounds perfect.
While packing, I discover that my passport is missing, but surely I’ll have time to find it when I return.
On deck, as we’re about to leave, Andrey laces up his shoes and comes along.
During the voyage he has become friends with Alexey, and he’s good company.
I feel the stirring of the same deep pleasure I felt on the mountain, one for which I don’t have a good name.
An electric, unsettling joy.
My new boots are too dressy and high for the climb up to Alyosha.
It’s a hot summer afternoon—a day for tank tops and T-shirts, even here in the lower reaches of the Arctic.
I’m stuck wearing my knee-high muck boots through town.
Not far into our two-mile ramble, we’re away from the crowds.
We’ve begun what novelist Walker Percy called the painful process of reentry, the bumpy ride from transcendent experiences back to daily life.
We climb the hill that leads to the statue and reach the top.
Then, flashing his palms in the universal gesture for wait, Alexey runs off.
He’s left us to go meditate again.
Our story has not quite ended.
Andrey and I wait for Alexey one last time.
When he returns, we walk down the long hill, stopping at grocery stores to gather vegetables for dinner.
Back at the boat, Sasha weaves his culinary spells.
I finish packing and strip the linens from my bed.
I find my passport.
I’ll have to leave after all.
I missed the first round, but the second is for those who are not present, wherever they may be.
I bring my hand up to chime our ryumki together, but they stop me.
For this toast glasses don’t touch, they explain, and there are no jokes.
I think of Joe, but I don’t know if they’re thinking of him.
We begin to eat.
Andrey talks about going partridge hunting with a friend.
When he found out that it was mating season, and realized the birdsong he’d heard was a mating call, he quit the hunt.
He couldn’t bring himself to kill anything singing a love song.
Eventually, we start toasts again.
Alexey has gone off to sleep.
I present the crew with a wild scheme: a second, future expedition next August for a different project.
In some mix of fantasy and seriousness, we begin to shape an idea of what it could look like.
I’m already thinking of how things will have to be different.
It’s not possible to re-create whatever wild magic just took place.
The crew brings out another bottle, and I am helpless before all of it.
I have no more way to gird myself against the wonder of these people and this boat than I do Joe’s death.
A little after one, we gather our bags to leave.
Tatiana and I will go with Evgeny to get on a 4 A.M.
flight to meet a Russian explorer in Moscow.
Though Evgeny was a stranger before the trip, he has set up this interview for my book and invited us to stay at his house.
" Little Oransky is a wonderland of birds.Sasha and Andrey carry our luggage.
Gulls and their aggressive cousins, skuas, shriek and cry their own improvisations—birdsong that Andrey will later call “merry and badass jazz.”
Back we go over the gangplank, down the long dock, out the locked gate, and through the park to a waiting taxi.
A dead soldier watches over us from a distance, now finally cloaked in darkness.
I hug Sasha and Andrey goodbye.
Evgeny, Tatiana, and I climb into the taxi.
A few hours later we’ll be airborne, vaulted away on the wind in a mechanical bird with functioning engines, leaving the Arctic behind.
If there’s something I could have done that might have saved Joe, I didn’t do it.
And I won’t find a way to save my parents, either.
The future we’re digging for ourselves is at the bottom of a cliff that grows higher every day.
But that’s not the same as saying nothing can be done.
There are eggs to fry.
There is history to remember and glaciers to measure.
There is trash to count.
So much is already going or gone.
But what’s still there is vast, stupendous.
I’ve come back to say that this place is singing a love song.
It may be shot through with grief and danger, but if you’re listening and you can hear this, it means we’re not dead yet.
Thursday, July 30, 2020
New depth map of the Arctic Ocean
This is the fourth digital grid of the Arctic to be published since IBCAO was established in St Petersburg in 1997.
Since 2012, when the third IBCAO was compiled, numerous icebreaker expeditions mapping the seafloor have been completed.
The IBCAO grids have had hundreds of thousands of downloads over the years and are used in all bathymetric applications for the Arctic.Map showing the underlying sources, 4 based on the Source Identification Grid (SID).
[Source: The International Bathymetric Chart of the Arctic Ocean Version 4.0]
From Phys by University of Barcelona
An international team of researchers has published the most detailed submarine map of the Arctic Ocean. The study, by Miquel Canals, José Luis Casamor and David Amblàs from the Consolidated Research Group on Marine Geosciences of the University of Barcelona, has been published in Scientific Data.
The map is the 4.0 version of the International Bathymetric Chart of the Arctic Ocean (IBCAO), an initiative that was created in 1997 in Saint Petersburg (Russia) in order to map the depths of the Arctic floor.
Published in digital format, the new chart expands up to 19.6% the submarine surface mapped in previous versions.
The map is the 4.0 version of the International Bathymetric Chart of the Arctic Ocean (IBCAO).
Details of a new depth map of the Arctic Ocean have been published in the Nature Journal Scientific Data.
The new portrayal of the Arctic Ocean floor is in the form of a digital gridded database and comprises Version 4.0 of the International Bathymetric Chart of the Arctic Ocean (IBCAO).
The new bathymetric chart of the Arctic Ocean
The northernmost ocean of the planet, and also the smallest and shallowest one, plays a decisive role in the regulation of the planet's climate, and it is the most sensitive polar region to the effects of global warming.
According to some predictions, the progressive loss of the marine ice layers could open navigation to some areas that were previously inaccessible, such as the Northwest Passage, the legendary marine route pursued by many 19th century expeditions, joining the boreal Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
"The potential difficulty for the current science campaigns in the Arctic is the access to places which are permanently covered by marine ice, and the short-lived duration of the navigation period. However, global warming made these inaccessible areas easier to reach now," says Professor Miquel Canals, head of the Consolidated Research Group on Marine Sciences of the UB.
Since 2018, the team has contributed to the 4.0 IBCAO map with data mainly obtained through the multibeam bathymetry in oceanographic campaigns in the Arctic, specially in the western area in the Barents Sea, "a volunteering collaboration to benefit science and knowledge," Miquel Canals says.
In its different editions, the IBCAO maps received thousands of downloads over the years and are widely used by governments, companies and researchers with scientific interest and activities in the Arctic.
The new cartography has a volume with a higher and better resolution data than the previous versions, and it includes marine regions which were unknown to date.
"This results from the efforts made by an international collaborative of many institutions and researchers who provided their scientific data to reach a common objective: discovering the depths of the Arctic Ocean," says Canals.
Multibeam probes and nuclear submarine under the Arctic ice
In order to carry out the IBCAO 4.0 map, the team used the same technology used in the submarine study in other regions of the ocean.
"The compounds of the new map, mainly the most recent ones, were obtained through the most advanced multibeam bathymetry systems that exist. These data come from oceanographic vessels, ice breakers and nuclear submarines, the only ones to map those areas under the iced sea, impossible to reach with other ships," says Canals.
"Regarding the data processing and fusion –with a new Mallat algorithm–, new techniques were added, and provided an excellent result."
Ocean currents, climate regulation and stability of ocean floors
In general, a better and larger cartography helps to broaden the knowledge of the geological and glacial evolution of such a sensitive region like the Arctic.
Therefore, the new bathymetric map identifies a great variety of the shapes of the relief with glacial origins, "some at large scales—from hundreds to thousands of meters in length—that show the direction of the movement of the ice on the ocean floors, which helps to reconstruct the geological processes of the recent past in arctic latitudes."
Bathymetrical data are relevant in other fields of polar science, such as the study of the path of ocean currents, and therefore, the distribution of the heat, the sea-ice decline, the effect of inflowing warm waters on tidewater glaciers, and the stability of marine based ice streams and outlet glaciers grounded on the seabed.
One of the most spectacular formations in the Arctic ocean floors is the Lomonosov Ridge, a geological element with more than 1,600 kilometers of length "which connects Northern Greenland and Siberia and crosses the ocean leaving deep basins in both sides," says Canals.
"The most recent cartography studies carried out with ice breakers, revealed the presence of thresholds that influence the exchange of water between both basins, and anchoring marks in ice platforms on the ridge."
The IBCAO 4.0 bathymetric chart also reveals the detailed map of the Greenland fjords, and provides data of interest for the development of predictive models on the behavior of the ice sheet, currently undergoing a rapid recession, which covers the island and on the sea level rise worldwide.
The challenge of mapping marine floors worldwide
To date, researchers have mapped about one-fifth of the ocean floors worldwide.
Knowing the submarine relief of the global ocean is essential to manage and protect the marine and coastal ecosystems, as stated in one of the objectives of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), approved by the General Assembly in 2015.
Within the frame of the international effort to study the Arctic marine floors, the Consolidated Research Group on Marine Geosciences of the UB is one of the teams that take part in the Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030, the most ambitious global project to complete a great task in marine geosciences: high-resolution submarine bathymetry in all oceans worldwide.
The gridded compilation has been completed under the auspices of the Regional Center for the Arctic and North Pacific Ocean of The Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030 Project.
This Regional Center is one of four Seabed 2030 centers covering the world ocean and is run jointly by Stockholm University and the University of New Hampshire.
Scientists and map-makers from 15 countries participated in the work, including all circum-Arctic nations.
Wednesday, July 29, 2020
B.C. Canadian completes 266-day Solo Sail Around the World by chart and sextant
The Line The Equator at dawn. And with daybreak, the last of the milestones turned. By my reckoning 0 00 154 59W. We ghosted across in less than 5 knots of breeze doing just over 3. It has been that way all night. Even under cumulus showers the wind would not waver. Something less than a freight train, but we were on rails. Stomping grounds and familiar stars. Polaris at night and the sun, although still North and heading further still, back where I know it best. And it is summer. Just like that in fact: One moment winter, the next summer although here there is little to choose between the two. Now it feels like the home stretch. Now it feels as if it's possible despite the odds. Now the obstacles seem molehills instead of mountains. Now is the Northern Hemispheree. #equator #homestretch #instantsummer #svseaburban #aroundalone #sextant #penandpaper #circumnavigation #sailor #sailing #nonstop #5capes #onehandfortheship #occadventuresailing #sailinglovers #adventureisoutthere #occchallengegrant #instasailing #sailboatsofinstagram #captainbert #onemanshow #brave #sailinglife #sea #ocean #sailboats #zhik #sailingaroundtheworld #predictwind Follow my tracks in real-time: https://bit.ly/svseaburbanA post shared by SV Seaburban (@svseaburban) on
A sailor recently made landfall after 266 days, alone at sea — having circled the globe via the five capes using only traditional forms of navigation.
Check out his story via Instagram or on his website!
Call it the ultimate act of social distancing.
A B.C. man made landfall in Victoria on Saturday after 266 days, alone at sea — having circled the globe via the five capes using only traditional forms of navigation
Bert Terhart of Gabriola Island left Victoria in November, making just one brief landfall in San Francisco before it was just him, a 46-foot sailboat packed with food, and the ocean.
Only about 300 people have successfully sailed solo around the world.
Just six people — with terHart being the only North American — have done it navigating by pen, paper, charts and a sextant.
A crowd of well-wishers — including family, friends from college and even a Grade 3 classmate — was there to greet him.
“I expected no one to be here, so to be back in the city I love with these people here … It’s mind-numbing,” he told Global News.
“There just aren’t words for it, and (knowing) everybody in the whole world was cheering you on, pushing you to succeed, it’s powerful.”
There was no COVID-19 when terHart set sail, and he said being isolated as the pandemic broke was surreal.
“It was really hard because there’s nothing you can do,” he said.
“You’re not at risk in any way, of course — I’m at risk of the elements and the weather, but I’m prepared for all that … you’re literally a thousand miles away from anyone, even if I wanted to help, it would take a month to get there.”
Terhart, who described himself as already a “square peg in a round hole” in the pre-COVID world, said he was still very anxious about making landfall in a world that had completely changed.
Terhart’s brother Jan was among the well-wishers and said his brother was alone, but never lonely at sea — thanks to radio and email.
“The one advantage he’s had over people who have tried to do this in the past is that despite ancient navigation techniques, he had modern communication techniques, so he was always in touch with people onshore,” he said.
“He kept pretty much to himself when things were getting terrible because he didn’t want us to worry. But I know that he was facing, for weeks on end, gale force winds (of) 30-40 knots … 30-foot waves, he was just a small speck in a very big ocean, really at the mercy of the elements.”
Terhart, who grew up in Estevan, Sask., packed scientific instruments on his trip to collect data, and said inspiring citizen scientists, young and old, was among his motivations for the epic voyage.
In fact, about 2,000 children from Kenya to New Zealand to New York were following along with him from their classrooms.
“I wanted to engage kids in something that really would stretch their imagination,” he said.
“They would get my post, the teacher would go over it, they would pin my little location on the map, they’d ask questions about how big is the ocean, how deep is it. They’d email me questions — I still have kids writing me letters.”
Along the way, Terhart says it was that kind of support that kept him going in rough seas and tough mental days.
“In my lowest, weakest moments I’m human, so I was afraid, I was uncertain, I was doubtful,” he said.
“In those moments, the people that are cheering for you are actually making a massive difference in your ability to succeed.”
You can check out terHart’s Instagram here and read his blog here.
- GlobalNews : B.C. woman aiming to set record as oldest person to sail solo around the globe / Solo Saskatchewan sailor could be person safest on Earth from coronavirus
- CBC : Canadian man nears end of epic round-the-world sailing journey without electronic tools
- Times Colonist : ‘Safest man on the planet’ back on dry land after 267-day sailing odyssey
- Lookout : Army veteran ‘wired’ for world circumnavigation
- Sailblog : SeaBurban
- Facebook : the5capes
Tuesday, July 28, 2020
This is how live transmissions from the deep are done
From Hydro by Mark Warner
Exploring the World’s Most Unknown and Least Protected Ocean
Live transmissions from unexplored regions deep below the Indian Ocean have underlined the role that reliable, high-speed broadband is playing at sea in expanding knowledge and promoting a more sustainable future.
Increasing our knowledge of the marine fauna that populates the depths and the physical systems governing ocean behaviour is essential for a scientific community seeking to better understand climate change and assist political strategies to protect the underwater environment.
The remote setting creates challenges for scientists in what are increasingly collaborative endeavours, involving multi-disciplinary teams that are disparately located.
Furthermore, researchers often use advanced instruments that have never before been deployed in the field; if something goes wrong, troubleshooting can be a drawn-out and frustrating process.
Until recently, a major aggravating factor has been the lack of decent communication when a research vessel is situated at a remote oceanic outpost.
However, advances in satellite infrastructure and the associated onboard equipment such as antennas and terminals mean ships can now communicate in real time, allowing shore-based partners to follow the excitement of a mission as it happens.
The extent to which connectivity can transform science missions at sea is abundantly clear in the Nekton Mission, which among other things is marrying communications with innovations in AI and Big Data to accelerate exploration and conservation of the Indian Ocean – the world’s least explored and least protected marine zone.
Baseline of Marine Life
The initial expedition in the First Descent series took place off the Seychelles in 2018.
Despite having an ocean territory of 1.37 million square kilometres, little research has been undertaken beneath scuba depth (30m).
A primary goal of the expedition – and those to follow – is to help establish a baseline of marine life and measure the state of the ocean, with particular focus on the bathyal zone (200m to 3,000m) – depths richly populated with fish and other marine fauna.
The submersibles and remotely operated vehicles involved in the Nekton Mission bristle with an array of research, sampling, survey and video technologies, including 15 different camera systems that will enable scientists to create the first 3D maps of newly discovered deep-sea ecosystems.
Live Audio and Video
Inmarsat’s Fleet Xpress maritime broadband service delivers enough performance and reliability to allow live audio and video streaming between vessels and the shore, important for both research and outreach activities.
High throughput makes it easier to transmit and share large data sets, while the ability to deliver real-time updates matches expectations for the hyper-connected audiences of today, raised on accessing media on demand.
In fact, sharing footage taken from the subsea cameras in real time is an integral part of the project – and not just among fellow specialists.
Images have been distributed live by media outlets, including Associated Press, along with a series of live subsea programmes produced by Sky News and Sky Atlantic.
At one point, pictures were even beamed to the giant screens positioned above the concourses of London’s major railway stations, offering commuters a live ‘feed’ to events unfolding deep beneath the waves on the other side of the world.
How it Works
Inmarsat’s VP for Offshore Energy, Eric Griffin, explains how the technology works.
“The mother ship for the mission, Ocean Zephyr, was fitted with two high power SAILOR100 GX antennas supplied by Cobham SATCOM that were configured to run simultaneously.
One was dedicated to getting broadcast quality images back to broadcasters, while the other was reserved for data transfer and operational communications.”
Today such outreach is vital.
Effective engagement with the public often ranks highly in the mission statements of universities and research bodies, because public funding demands the demonstration of value-for-money to taxpayers.
Again, for research tours that are privately funded, commercial sponsors can be keen to advertise by association.
“Cobham’s partnership with Inmarsat that provides FleetBroadband connectivity for the Volvo Ocean Race is perhaps the most recognized example of how our combined capabilities deliver outstanding results for any organization aiming to widen their reach and expand audience engagement,” says Matt Galston, senior director global market strategy and development at Cobham.
“The Nekton teams use of Fleet Xpress and SAILOR 100GX high power terminals raises the bar, succeeding not only in audience growth but also in bringing the global scientific community right on board the ship, enabling real-time collaboration to improve mission outcome and better understand our constantly changing planet.”
But livestreams are also invaluable to scientists who cannot participate in person, whether due to restrictions on numbers, insufficient funds or time to go to sea.
With a satellite-enabled link, everyone can watch.
The enhanced connectivity can help the onboard team respond to the unexpected or unknown.
The fact is that empirical data remains the backbone of research, wherever the recipient is located.
By allowing large volumes of raw data to be speedily shared among the scientific community, the high throughput of Inmarsat Fleet Xpress can help accelerate research.
Shore-based research teams can then set about analysing the data while the mission is still underway, and report back to the ship if they spot something that merits follow-up.
“This is a real game changer,” comments Griffin.
“Before the arrival of Fleet Xpress, scientists would seldom have the chance for real-time interaction.
They wouldn’t get their hands on the data until after the ship returned home.
If it turned out to contain something special, they would have to cross their fingers and hope it wouldn’t be too long before a return visit.
That could be a wait of several years, and even then, the vessel might not head to exactly the same spot.”
Artificial Intelligence Tools
Meanwhile, the potential of the Nekton Mission continues to unfold.
Nekton has teamed up with the University of Oxford to develop artificial intelligence tools, for example, to accelerate analysis and publication.
Data will be made available through OCTOPUS – Ocean Tool for Public Understanding and Science – to provide a holistic and dynamic view of the changing state of the Indian Ocean, its biodiversity and human impacts.
Better connectivity can also increase participation.
Improved real-time communication opens the door for experts from developing nations to join the scientific exploration of the oceans.
In fact, promoting local engagement is one of the Nekton Mission’s broader objectives.
Opportunities for Marine Scientists
The project organizers made sure to create opportunities for marine scientists based in the Seychelles to participate in all aspects of the expedition.
This eye to capacity-building is intended to foster the leadership, tools, skills, knowledge and networks needed to empower long-term sustainable ocean governance at a local level.
Together with data sets and research findings emerging from the expedition, this inclusive approach is intended to help the Seychelles implement a Marine Spatial Plan, which will see around one third of its national waters protected as part of building a sustainable Blue Economy.
This is important because the way the Indian Ocean changes in the coming decades will profoundly affect the lives, livelihoods and well-being of the 2.5 billion people living in the region
Nekton and its Missions
Nekton's Missions combine scientific research, capacity development, ocean governance and public engagement and all of this work is co-developed hand in hand with host nations.
Nekton is an independent not-for-profit research institute working in collaboration with the University of Oxford and is a member of the Blue Prosperity Coalition.
Monday, July 27, 2020
Marie Tharp’s adventures in mapping the seafloor, in her own words
From State of the Planet by Earth Institute
July 30 marks 100 years since the birth of Marie Tharp, a pioneering geologist and cartographer who created some of the world’s first maps of the ocean floor.
This week we’re celebrating her achievements and legacy with blog posts, webinars, giveaways, and more.
Tharp began working at the Lamont Geological Laboratory (now the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University) in 1948, a time when women weren’t always welcome in the world of science.
Despite these extra obstacles, she went on to change the course of history for geology and ocean exploration.
In the account below, she explains in her own words how she came to be a scientist, and what it was like to chart the bottom of the sea when so little was known about it.
This story, “Connect the Dots: Mapping the Seafloor and Discovering the Mid-ocean Ridge,” was originally published in the book, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia: Twelve Perspectives on the First Fifty Years 1949-1999.
Not too many people can say this about their lives: The whole world was spread out before me (or at least, the seventy percent of it covered by oceans).
I had a blank canvas to fill with extraordinary possibilities, a fascinating jigsaw puzzle to piece together: mapping the world’s vast hidden seafloor.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime—a once-in-the-history-of-the-world—opportunity for anyone, but especially for a woman in the 1940s.
The nature of the times, the state of the science, and events large and small, logical and illogical, combined to make it all happen.
Right up until World War II, all that water—a few miles deep and hundreds of thousands of miles across—proved an ample barrier, preventing humans from getting any picture of what lay at the bottom.
On any map of the world, three-quarters of the Earth was a uniform, featureless blue border for the continents.
Scientists thought the ocean floor was almost as featureless—a flat, unchanging plain, a dumping ground slowly filled by sediments eroding from land.
Early depth measurements, collected using ropes and lead weights such as cannonballs, suggested that the ocean floor was slightly more complex, however.
With 200 soundings obtained in this way, the Navy’s Matthew Fontaine Maury marked a plateau in the middle of the North Atlantic on his 1854 map.
In the 1870s, spot soundings taken during the legendary HMS Challenger expeditions hinted at a broad rise in the central Atlantic, and temperature measurements by the Challenger’s expedition leader, Charles Wyville Thomson, indicated that there was a barrier between the east and west basins of the Atlantic.
In early 1947, [Lamont’s Maurice “Doc”] Ewing undertook a Sigma Xi lecture tour with the official purpose of finding bright students to work in oceanography.
Actually, he was scouting for a group of technicians from wealthy families to whom he could offer adventure instead of pay.
After Ewing’s talk, Bruce Heezen, who was then a junior at the University of Iowa, introduced himself to Doc, who said, “Young man, would you like to go on an expedition to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge? There are some mountains there, and we don’t know which way they run.”
The following summer, Bruce went to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to join Doc on an expedition on Atlantis, using a continuous echo sounder to take profiles of the seafloor in the North Atlantic.
But Bruce didn’t get to go with him.
Instead he got his own ship, Balanus, serving as chief scientist, even though he was not yet a senior in college.
He got some great on-the-job training, went back to Iowa in the fall to finish his degree and then joined Doc at Columbia.
My course to Lamont was a little more indirect.
My father, William Edgar Tharp, was a soil surveyor for the U.S.
Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Chemistry and Soils.
Papa was a field man and his assignments were to make a soil map of a county, produce a written report describing the soil types and recommended uses and to collect soil samples for analysis in the chemistry division.
These were printed by the government and distributed to farmers, insurance companies and the university extension divisions.
We were constantly on the move, with Papa working in the Southern states during the winter and the Northern states in the summer.
By the time I finished high school I had attended nearly two dozen schools and I had seen a lot of different landscapes.
I guess I had map-making in my blood, though I hadn’t planned to follow in my father’s footsteps.
Throughout our travels, Papa always told me, “When you find your life’s work, make sure it is something you can do, and most important, something you like to do.” In college at Ohio University, I changed my major every semester.
I was looking for something I was good at, something I could get paid for, and something I really liked, but there weren’t many opportunities for women then, except as a teacher, secretary or nurse.
I couldn’t type and couldn’t stand the sight of blood, so I decided to try teaching and began taking education courses, which convinced me that I wouldn’t like teaching all that much.
I graduated with majors in English and music and four minors.
I never would have gotten the chance to study geology if it hadn’t been for Pearl Harbor.
Girls were needed to fill the jobs left open because the guys were off fighting.
A year after the war started, the geology department at the University of Michigan opened its doors to women.
In 1943, about ten of us girls responded to one of their fliers, which promised a job in the petroleum industry if we got a degree in geology.
It seemed like something I could do.
I earned a master’s degree and got a job with Stanolind Oil and Gas Co.
in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Some of the girls I went to school with went into micropaleontological work and spent their time looking through microscopes.
That seemed tedious, so I went to the University of Tulsa and got a degree in math.
Still searching for something more challenging, I went to New York in 1948.
I looked for work at the American Museum of Natural History, but I decided I didn’t want to work there after a paleontologist told me how it took two years to separate a fossil from the surrounding matrix.
I couldn’t imagine devoting so much time to something like that, so I tried Columbia to see if I could get a more interesting research job.
Just because I had a math degree, they sent me down to see Doc Ewing, but he was at sea.
I went home and waited three weeks for him to come back.
When he heard about my background, he was surprised and didn’t know quite what to do with me.
Finally he blurted out, “Can you draft?” I had had a part-time drafting job at Michigan, so he hired me.
“I never would have gotten the chance to study geology if it hadn’t been for Pearl Harbor.
Girls were needed to fill the jobs left open because the guys were off fighting.”
About two weeks later, Bruce arrived at Columbia.
At first I worked for anyone who needed me.
But after a few years Bruce kept me so busy that I ended up working exclusively for him, drafting and plotting ocean floor profiles.
During World War II, Ewing and Joe Worzel, working at Woods Hole, had developed the continuous echo sounder for the Navy.
With this new instrument, depth measurements could be made nonstop and round-the-clock.
A sound signal, usually an electronic ping, would be sent out at a regular interval, and a microphone inside the hull of the ship would pick up the echo.
As a ping was sent out, a stylus would be set in motion downward across a continuously spooled strip of four-inch-wide paper.
When the echo returned, the stylus would mark the recording paper by burning it with an electric spark.
The result was an uninterrupted profile of seafloor depths along the ship’s course.
Relatively uninterrupted, that is: The echo sounder depended on the ship’s electric power, which went off whenever someone opened the ship’s refrigerator.
When that happened, no echo returned and the sounder recorded depths as bottomless as the crew’s appetite.
With technological advances and Ewing’s drive and direction, tens of thousands of depth measurements in the North Atlantic had been obtained from 1946 to 1952 on cruises of Atlantis.
We also had some data from USN Stewart, which in 1921 was the first Navy ship to make a continuous track across the Atlantic.
We had interminable rows of sounding numbers that I was supposed to turn into highly detailed and complete seafloor profiles.
Bruce and Ivan Tolstoy at Lamont had devised sheets on Mercator projection to plot surrounding data at a scale of 1:1,000,000, creating the standardized system that is still used today by the Navy and Lamont.
Plotting on these sheets, Hester Haring and I went to work in 1952 at drafting tables in a lab on the second floor of Lamont Hall, near Bruce’s office with its coveted private study (a former Lamont bathroom).
First, Hester would plot the depths from the sounding data.
Then we plotted profiles with significant selected depths along the ship’s course.
The profiles had to be drawn in a consistent manner.
Any mistakes and someone like Bruce or I would scrawl a message like, ‘Plotted Backwards!’ on the profile and have it redrawn.
Bruce and I would then compare the depths on the profiles with the original soundings.
Eventually, after the plotting, drawing, checking, correcting, redrawing and rechecking were done, I had a hodgepodge of disjointed and disconnected profiles of sections of the North Atlantic floor.
Plotted on a map, the ship’s tracks looked like a spider’s web, with the rays radiating out from Bermuda, where most of the research vessels took on supplies and water.
Sometimes, the tracks zigzagged, as the ships fled from the paths of storms.
After another six weeks to arrange and piece together the profiles in proper order from west to east, I completed six more-or-less parallel, trans-oceanic profiles of the North Atlantic.
I noticed immediately the general similarity in the shape of the ridge in each profile.
But when I compared the profiles, I was struck by the fact that the only consistent match-up was a V-shaped indentation in the center of the profiles.
The individual mountains didn’t match up, but the cleft did, especially in the three northernmost profiles.
I thought it might be a rift valley that cut into the ridge at its crest and continued all along its axis.
When I showed what I found to Bruce, he groaned and said, “It cannot be. It looks too much like continental drift.”
At the time, believing in the theory of continental drift was almost a form of scientific heresy.
Almost everyone in the United States thought continental drift was impossible.
Bruce initially dismissed my interpretation of the profiles as “girl talk.”
But I thought the rift valley was real and kept looking for it in all the data I could get.
If there were such a thing as continental drift, it seemed logical that something like a mid-ocean rift valley might be involved.
The valley would form where new material came up from deep inside the Earth, splitting the mid-ocean ridge in two and pushing the sides apart.
Soon afterward, almost on impulse, we decided to make a physiographic diagram of the ocean floor in the style of A.K. Lobeck, professor of geomorphology at Columbia in the 1920s.
Unlike flat contour maps, physiographic maps show the terrain as it would look from a low-flying plane.
By 1952, Bruce had been on enough cruises to know most of the features of the Western Atlantic.
So, after about an hour of doodling, he produced our first diagram.
He was somewhat unhappy with his effort and asked me to do it over.
But both of us were pleased with the technique.
It allowed us to capture the seafloor’s many textured variations, contrasting the smoothness of the abyssal plains, for example, with the ruggedness of the mountains along the ridges.
But we also had an ulterior motive: Detailed contour maps of the ocean floor were classified by the U.S.
Navy, so the physiographic diagrams gave us a way to publish our data.
In retrospect, our choice of map style turned out to be significant because it allowed a much wider audience to visualize the seafloor.
I started using the physiographic technique to make a more detailed map of the North Atlantic.
Our goal was to present it as it actually existed and as it could be seen if all the water were drained away.
But, of course, there would never be enough ship tracks to do this.
In the face of a minimum amount of data and the immensity of the world ocean, Bruce took a logical and multidisciplinary approach.
We used data from wherever we could get it, from different disciplines and different sources, but took great care to ensure that these data from various sources were all plotted on the same scale.
We used hypotheses of ocean floor structure to fill in areas where we had meager data.
Our final guideline was that the sketching began from the shoreline seaward and from the mid-ocean ridge landward—that is, from the areas that we were most familiar with to those that we weren’t.
More and better data accumulated.
By 1952, Lamont had acquired the Vema and had installed on it the precision depth recorder (PDR), invented by Bernard Luskin at Columbia in a hole in the floor of Schermerhorn Hall.
The PDR provided much more accuracy than earlier echo sounders, allowing us to differentiate between smoother- and rougher-textured areas and to pick up more subtle seafloor features, such as seamountlets, scarps and sediment drifts.
By Vema’s twentieth cruise, the precise sounding data were combined with highly accurate ship tracking, thanks to Joe Worzel, who installed a satellite navigation system on Vema, the first ever on an academic research vessel.
Every other day, the captain of the Vema would read off soundings from the PDR records as the first mate plotted them along the ship’s navigation track.
Bruce had always insisted that soundings be read at every peak and valley and at every significant change of slope, rather than at equal time intervals of, say, 15 minutes.
The latter would have been easier to do, but it would have tended to miss small seamounts, scarps or canyons.
When each chief scientist completed his cruise and was replaced by a new one, he debarked with a roll of sounding data.
Hester Haring, with her meticulous handwriting, using a crow quill pen and India ink on blue linen, maintained the Vema sounding records on standard 1:1,000,000 sheets for many years.
These sheets became the bible to which we compared all other institutions’ ship data.
Vema data were classified as 9 on a 1-9 scale.
Less precise data received lower grades, which were labeled with large red numbers on sheets that began bulging in our ever-accreting files.
When laying several sheets from different places on a light table, we used these numbers to evaluate soundings quickly and to use them wisely.
While this work was going on, Bruce got involved in another project that provided another crucial source of data.
He and Doc had proved the existence of turbidity currents—slurries of sediment and water that behave as discrete streams within the ocean.
They documented that a 1929 earthquake off the Grand Banks had precipitated turbidity currents of such high speeds that they snapped trans-Atlantic cables.
Bell Laboratories was interested in laying new cables and asked Bruce to help determine the best locations for them.
Bruce hired Howard Foster, a deaf graduate of the Boston School of Fine Arts, to plot the location of recorded earthquake epicenters in the oceans.
In this pre-computer era, Howard had to plot tens of thousands of earthquakes by hand.
While I was at my map table, plotting the position of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the alleged valley, Howard sat at an adjoining table making the map of oceanic earthquake locations.
Both maps were created on the same scale, as Bruce insisted.
The earthquake epicenters weren’t as precisely located as our sounding data.
Their positions could sometimes only be located anywhere within an abominably wide range of several hundred miles.
But when Bruce accounted for this, he noticed that a nearly continuous line of earthquake epicenters ran down the center of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
Of course, Beno Gutenberg and Charles Richter earlier had noticed that a belt of shallow earthquakes followed the ridge, but Bruce saw that the earthquakes fell within the rift valley.
Because all our data were on maps of the same scale, we could superimpose the maps on a light table, and when we did, the earthquake epicenters lined up within the valley.
By then, I was certain that the rift valley existed.
Bruce had remained skeptical.
It was not until the middle of 1953, about eight months after I had worked up the first six profiles, that he accepted the idea.
Recognizing the validity of the correlation between earthquakes and the rift valley, we plotted the position of the valley by using earthquake epicenters for locations where there were no soundings.
The extension of the valley into the narrow Gulf of Aden and landward into the Rift Valley of East Africa convinced Bruce in mid-1953 that the Mid-Atlantic Ridge was part of a gigantic 40,000-mile-long mid-oceanic ridge system that extended throughout all the world’s oceans.
In fact, the mid-ocean rift valley takes its name from the terrestrial rift valleys of East Africa.
We made profiles of some of the valleys in East Africa and noted the topographical similarities between the valleys in the ocean and on land.
Bruce also noticed that the shallow earthquakes associated with the East African Rift fell within the valley walls.
He began to endorse the existence of a continuous central valley within the mid-oceanic ridge.
Doc began to get interested at this point.
He’d heard of this “gully,” as we called it, and he would pop into our lab from time to time and ask, “How’s the gully coming?”
Meanwhile, I had extended the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and rift valley into the South Atlantic, using data from another legendary oceanographic expedition, the 30 trans-South Atlantic cruises of Germany’s Meteor in 1925-27.
Sounding data from those cruises would have confirmed right then that the Mid-Atlantic rise extended into the South Atlantic and that it was not broad and gentle, as Maury and Thomson had thought, but narrow and extremely rugged.
But the discovery had remained hidden in the unanalyzed data as scientists at the time focused on physical oceanographic measurements of currents and seawater properties, rather than on the seafloor.
Then World War II interrupted further analysis.
Around this time, new data from other expeditions also revealed similar ridge features in the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.
Navy expedition had found a large north-south ridge system in the eastern Pacific.
While I busied myself with sounding data, Howard was plotting tens of thousands of earthquakes around the world.
The pattern we had noticed held.
Wherever there was a mid-oceanic ridge, there were earthquakes.
When the Indian Ocean earthquake belt was shown to be continuous with the East African Rift Valley, there was but one conclusion: The mountain range with its central valley was more or less a continuous feature across the face of the Earth.
Doc and Bruce announced our findings in 1956 at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Toronto.
The reaction in the scientific community ranged from amazement to skepticism to scorn.
In 1957 Bruce gave a talk on the mid-ocean rift system at Princeton, bringing along a globe we made that showed how the rift system extended all around the world.
After the talk, the eminent Princeton geologist Harry Hess, who later developed the theory of seafloor spreading, stood up and said, “Young man, you have shaken the foundations of geology!” The discovery of the mid-ocean ridge system was a revelation, but nobody could explain how it got there.
Bruce believed the rift was a tensional crack caused by the splitting of the Earth’s crust.
He still did not believe in continental drift.
It was very hard to go in the direction of that theory when the boss, Doc, like nearly everyone else in the scientific world, was violently opposed to drift.
I was so busy making maps I let them argue.
I figured I’d show them a picture of where the rift valley was and where it pulled apart.
There’s truth to the old clichés that a picture is worth a thousand words and that seeing is believing.
Like most scientists, Jacques Cousteau at first didn’t believe in the rift valley.
He crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the Calypso, towing a movie camera on a sled near the seafloor.
They came to where our rift valley was and found it.
He took beautiful movies of big black cliffs in blue water, which he showed at the first International Ocean Congress in New York in 1959.
It helped a lot of people believe in our rift valley.
“The reaction in the scientific community ranged from amazement to skepticism to scorn.”
In 1956, we first published the North Atlantic physiographic map as an accompaniment to the Bell Telephone System’s Technical Journal.
It was done in pen and ink.
The Geological Society of America reprinted the map in 1959.
To make the map, we first plotted lines of soundings taken by ships tracking across the ocean.
Then we converted the sounding lines into two-dimensional profiles of the seafloor.
Then we made three-dimensional sketches based on the profiles and plotted them along the ship tracks.
Finally we sketched in areas with no soundings by extrapolating trends observed in profiles made by actual soundings.
In other words, we made educated guesses to fill in the dataless gaps.
Like the cartographers of old, we put a large legend in the space where we had no data.
I also wanted to include mermaids and shipwrecks, but Bruce would have none of it.
We continued on, from one sounding to the next, and one ocean to the next.
We weren’t daunted by the tens of thousands of soundings we had to plot.
We were daunted more by all the data we didn’t have.
For the map of the South Atlantic, in some places we only had spot soundings from the General Bathymetric Chart of the World series.
We used data from the Meteor expedition to sketch in the mid-ocean ridge crest and the rift valley.
Data from the Vema 9 cruise helped us in equatorial areas.
We’d use any data available and change our minds as we got more.
For example, we at first thought the rift in the Atlantic was a long valley.
Then, in the South Atlantic, it was a long valley with some wiggles.
Finally, we recognized the fracture zones, which offset the ridge by hundreds of miles.
One of the more challenging areas of the South Atlantic was the remote Scotia Sea, for which there were little or no data available.
Fortunately, the pattern of the Caribbean and Scotia seafloors is strikingly similar, allowing us to make a valid extrapolation.
The South Atlantic diagram was published in 1961.
We had planned to study the Mediterranean Sea next, but we were diverted instead to the Indian Ocean, because a diagram of it was urgently needed to help plan the International Indian Ocean Expedition.
Now our efforts were thwarted by a long-lasting falling-out between Bruce and Doc.
There are two sides to that story, but the result was that Doc banned Bruce from Lamont ships and denied Bruce access to Lamont data.
He tried unsuccessfully to fire Bruce, who had a tenured faculty position at Columbia, but he did fire me.
From then on, I was paid through research grants that Bruce received from the Navy, and I continued the mapping working at home.
Doc could have scuttled our mapping efforts, but Bruce had forged relationships with researchers all over the world, going to sea on ships from other institutions.
By the early 1960s, we had recognized fracture zones in the Atlantic, but we couldn’t confirm their general direction and trends until 1968, when Bruce and I were able to secure a cruise aboard the Navy vessel Kane.
We zigzagged over what became known as the Kane Fracture.
Bruce found alternative sources of data.
His book with Charley Hollister, The Face of the Deep, had been translated into Russian, and perhaps inspired cooperation from Russian scientists, even during the height of the Cold War.
We received extensive soundings from the Soviet ships Ob and Vityaz, which surveyed the Indian Ocean.
Japanese soundings between Capetown and Antarctica, and data from the United Kingdom, Australia and South Africa, and several American oceanographic institutions, were all incorporated into the Indian Ocean map, published in 1964—a truly international effort.
And, I should note, it contained a big error.
I got so overwhelmed with the fracture zones in the Indian Ocean, I didn’t initially recognize a triple junction, where three mid-ocean ridges intersected.
We published the map with that error, but corrected it later when new data revealed it.
Inspired by the International Indian Ocean Expedition, the National Geographic Society wanted to commission a map of the Indian Ocean to illustrate an article on it.
Some time earlier, National Geographic had received a letter from a little girl in Austria who wrote, “I’ve been looking at your maps and my father can paint better than you can.” Intrigued, National Geographic editors sent their chief topographer to Innsbruck, Austria, to meet the girl’s artist father, Heinrich Berann.
Berann did serious paintings in the style of Leonardo da Vinci often with religious themes which, in my opinion, ranks him as one of the foremost painters of our century.
But he couldn’t earn a living doing this.
So he began to paint realistic alpine panoramas for advertisements promoting skiing for tourists.
National Geographic commissioned him to paint the Indian Ocean floor and hired Bruce and me as consultants.
We loved working with Heinrich, and his familiarity with painting the Alps translated beautifully to the seafloor.
The three of us published a panorama of the Indian Ocean in 1967 and then continued with the rest of the world’s ocean floors.
The final map we produced for National Geographic was of the Antarctic ocean floor in 1975.
The next step was obvious: to paint a panorama of the entire world’s ocean floor.
In 1973 the three of us submitted a proposal for the project to the Office of Naval Research.
To accomplish it, we had to simplify some of our previous work to accommodate the smaller scale called for by a world map.
At the same time we had to update our work to include the vast volume of data that had accumulated over the years.
We’d use all the data we had, but the data didn’t provide complete coverage, so there still were blank areas.
That was the biggest challenge: providing data for the blank areas.
Over the next three years, we traveled back and forth to Austria.
I’d go home, work up a blank area with any data we could get, come back to Austria, and Heinrich would paint that area.
Constantly adding new data, we changed our minds quite a bit as the panorama took shape.
Our efforts were aided by the advance of technology over the 25 years since we first started mapping.
In 1962, the World-Wide Standardized Seismic Network (which Lamont helped to establish, with instruments Ewing, Frank Press and other Lamont scientists invented) allowed seismologists to map earthquakes much more precisely.
The positions of seafloor spreading centers were more accurately located by magnetic data, the bulk of which was collected by Lamont ships.
Ironically, by this time, Ewing had moved to the University of Texas, so we could now use Lamont data, long denied to us, to finalize our maps.
The first proofs for the world ocean floor map arrived from the printers in time for Bruce to take them with him aboard the Navy’s nuclear submarine NR-1 on an expedition to explore the mid-ocean ridge off Iceland.
In 25 years, the study of earth science had advanced so much, the traditional mountain-climbing geologist with a rock hammer could now sample the seafloor in a submersible.
But Bruce died of a heart attack on that cruise, just a few months before the World Ocean Floor panorama was published in 1977.
I think our maps contributed to a revolution in geological thinking, which in some ways compares to the Copernican revolution.
Scientists and the general public got their first relatively realistic image of a vast part of the planet that they could never see.
The maps received wide coverage and were widely circulated.
They brought the theory of continental drift within the realm of rational speculation.
You could see the worldwide mid-ocean ridge and you could see that it coincided with earthquakes.
The borders of the plates took shape, leading rapidly to the more comprehensive theory of plate tectonics.
I worked in the background for most of my career as a scientist, but I have absolutely no resentments.
I thought I was lucky to have a job that was so interesting.
Establishing the rift valley and the mid-ocean ridge that went all the way around the world for 40,000 miles—that was something important.
You could only do that once.
You can’t find anything bigger than that, at least on this planet.
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