Tara sailing through the ice


17 July 2013

Land in sight! At the beginning of the week, between blue sky and sea we glimpsed a strip of land dotted with white. It was Novaya Zemlya rising timidly on the horizon. Tara skirted the northeastern tip of the archipelago at the legally-required distance of 12 nautical miles.
On board, some of us dreamed of landing and setting foot on the island, just to get a break from the constant movement of the boat. But we had to continue our journey eastward, crossing new meridians and moving always further from the French time zone.

Our last long sampling station took place only a day ago, but it already seems like ancient history. Of course we still remember its characteristics: the absence of DCM (deep chlorophyll maximum); phytoplankton evenly distributed throughout the water column; significant presence of copepods* and  appendicular**; and also clusters of dead microorganisms sinking to the sea floor.
The immense amount of work accomplished is already part of the past. That night following the fourth station was long: Tara thrashed about in the Kara Sea with gusts of wind at 40 knots. Passengers’ sleep was disturbed. Then came the calm after the storm – a sunny day after a night in the spray. It’s one o’clock in the morning and the sun is still flooding the main cabin where a few insomniacs are still hard at work.
The same time zone as India
We seem to be losing our sense of time a little more each day. Time is playing tricks on us. We  constantly have to adjust our watches to keep an imaginary link with the mainland. In 2 days, in the blink of an eye, we will go from 14h to 16h, from coffee  to snack time! Out of curiosity, we asked about the countries living at the same rhythm as us, or rather the countries where watches are set to the same time as those of the inhabitants of Dudinka. Following the meridian, we traversed Tibet and arrived in India near the Thai border. We have come a long way!
As long as we’re exploring distant lands, let’s dwell on these for moment. Maps teach us that Novaya Zemlya, this strip of land that looks whole,  is actually separated in 2 by the Strait of Matochkin. To the north is Severny Island, and to the south is Yuzhny. The first is covered with glaciers, the other is tundra – spotty vegetation composed primarily of mosses, grasses and lichens. According to the oral tradition of the Nenets, one of the indigenous peoples of Russia, the Sikhirtya or Sirtiya occupied this territory in prehistoric times, hunting walrus and whale with spears. But Russian archaeologists differ on the question of whether this consisted of a sedentary settlement, or just seasonal activities here.
One thing is certain: at present Novaya Zemlya is inhabited only seasonally – by an unknown number of soldiers, a handful of meteorologists, and a few Nenets who come here to fish and hunt.
In 1955, the archipelago was officially used for Soviet nuclear testing. Over the years, its shores turned into a graveyard for nuclear waste. Sergey reassures us that the area is checked every 2 years, and so far no radioactive leaks have been detected. But this information gives us the creeps. What’s more, the temperature has gone down 3 degrees in one afternoon. It’s zero.
4 AM : thumping on the hull
Novaya Zemlya is now behind us. We’ve headed east to avoid the ice. (Not only the time, but the ice is also playing tricks on us!) As maps arrive from Germany or Russia, we change our  course. Some maps show ice-free areas; others invite us to go around it. Who to believe?
4 o’clock in the morning: loud noises of ice hitting the hull awaken us. Tara tries to fight her way through compact ice. At 5 o’clock, the ice becomes sparse. 3 hours later, the engines are rumbling again, struggling against nature. The elements still have many surprises in store for us!
Anna Garcia Deniaud
*Copepod: crustaceans that look like microscopic shrimp. Adults of the smallest species are about 0.2 mm, and the biggest are about 10 mm.
**Appendicularians are zooplankton that filter organic matter and in so doing, accelerate the transfer of carbonaceous material to the ocean floor.

Bibliography: “Peoples of the North II”. Patrick Plumet