The moment of truth for the Northwest passage


21 September 2013

We’ve just left this charming village “Tuk” (Tuktoyaktuk, Canada) and its friendly majority of Inuit inhabitants. The following morning, however, greets us with reality which is the bet taken on by Tara Oceans Polar Circle. The new ice charts received this Saturday have not brought good tidings. These were reflected this morning in the expressions of Loïc Vallette and Lars Stemmann, captain and chief scientist of this new leg who will take us from “Tuk” to Arctic Bay (Canada). But as always on board Tara, we have experienced other situations and optimism reigns.

Saturday has begun well with a beautiful morning sun and almost 5°C . Everyone was well rested and those who were on night watch slowly surfaced. The alarm was probably more difficult for those experiencing “jet lag” following the forty-hour flight to reach “Tuk “.

Last night after raising anchor, Tara headed north and then east and is now almost at the entrance to Amundsen Gulf. This is the legendary entrance to the Northwest Passage, first crossed by the Norwegian adventurer by sea between 1903 and 1906. Tara and her crew have only seven short months to traverse the entire Arctic.

It is also a key moment, as we enter the second passage of the Arctic circumnavigation, a bet that is becoming more and more complex since this year’s ice melt will certainly not break new records.

But nothing ventured is nothing gained. Arctic enthusiasts have learned to be humble in each of their adventures, sometimes at their expense .

In summary, we are in the “wait and see” situation which is characteristic of any polar expedition and we don’t know what the Arctic will dish up in two or three days. What is clear and explicitly said by Loïc at the briefing this morning in the main room, “We will proceed for the moment as fast as possible to Bellot Strait without a sampling station. It’s our only chance to reach Greenland.” “And we’ll leave open the possibility of turning back,” concluded Lars.

This natural Bellot Strait is a curiosity in itself. It provides, at 71° 59′ North, a passage between the Boothia Peninsula and Somerset Island in the Canadian Arctic archipelago, which makes up a large part of the Northwest Passage. It is about 35 km long, and at some places in the western part, widths measure just 1-2 kms. The shores of the strait, which are named after Lieutenant Joseph-René Bellot, are steep and rise to 450 meters to the north and 750 meters to the south.

Bellot Strait is thus a great natural Corinth Canal, but there is one problem. This year, unlike last year, it is already partially frozen with patches of young ice and currents at eight knots depending on the tides. Today, it’s our only outward channel through the Northwest maze. In addition, from mid-September, the trend is the return of the cold.

After passing Russia’s Cape Chelyuskin, the Bellot Strait is the second crossroad of the expedition.

Vincent Hilaire