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Dispatch 10: The 'Cruiseship' JCR

15th August 2012

Three CTD watches, consisting of smart graduate and post-doctoral students,  JCR’s crew, and the ship herself have been laboring around the clock for the last ten days, 190 casts down, as many more to come.  Bob is noted, some might say notorious, for the tight resolution of his CTD casts (to measure temperature, salinity, and current velocity), sometimes only two miles apart.  The last cast in the most recent line was to take us close aboard the Greenland coast within 30 miles of Scoresby Sund, the largest fjord in the world.

A rumor began to ricochet around the ship, shipboard rumor being surely the fastest form of non-technological communication:  Having perceived that the weary crew and science staff would benefit, along with the science itself, from a brief break, Bob was going to give us a tour of Scoresby Sund.  As chief scientist, he has essentially chartered JCR, paying for the cruise with a grant from the National Science Foundation.  He doesn’t give orders; only the captain does that, but the ship takes him where he needs to go, if possible.  The rumor was soon affirmed as fact.  Trouble was, we’d been working in blind fog seemingly forever.

Paddy claimed it was my fault—I’d jinxed us by going around blathering about Scoresby Sund, also seemingly forever.  Named for William Scoresby, the exceptional 19th century whaler turned ocean scientist who mapped it in 1811, the fjord system is enormous, covering about 38,000 sq. km, with branches reaching some 350 km into the body of the great island.  It was among those places I’d dreamed about since boyhood, and I almost made it by sailboat in 2010, but ice defied approach; now, it seemed, fog would defy vision.  Just in case, I quit talking about Scoresby Sund.  It didn’t bode well that we couldn’t see a ship’s length in any direction at that last CTD station, but hope remained; there was still the 30-mile steam at eleven knots.  We were to arrive at the legendry fjord before dinnertime…

"A rumor began to ricochet around the ship, shipboard rumor being surely the fastest form of non-technological communication"

We powered out of a fog bank—and there it was, the northern point of the fjord, in the clear.  Crew in their civvies along with the science staff gathered as tourists on the bow, on the bridge, and the “monkey Island” atop the bridge, some of us giggling like children at the sheer magnificence.  As we rounded the point, the settlement of Ittoqqortoormiit, population 300, hove into sight, houses of red, blue, yellow, burnt umber, butterscotch, and purple barnacled to the rocks.  Still called Scoresbysund on our nav chart, the town, one of the most remote in all Greenland, was established in 1925 by a band of eighty Inuit settlers from Tasiilaq, who found good hunting in the region for walruses, narwhals, bears, and seals.  Ittoqqortoormiit, when we passed, was fronted by three spectacular bergs, one the size of a toppled Midtown Manhattan office tower with brash ice drifting down current glinting in the soft light.  On the far side of the fjord, layers of snow-clad, black-rock mountains sprawled in the blue distance twenty-nine miles away, but through the crystalline air, looked as if they were three miles off the beam (without trees or building or anything else to gage scale, it’s impossible to judge distance).

“Look at that!” said Paddy.  “A sun dog.”  One among the many atmospheric phenomena in these high latitudes, the sun dog (perihelion) appears as bright spots on either side of the sun, and now the orange sun and its dogs were ringed by a rainbow.  I looked away, then back to test reality; it was still there.

The painted town disappeared behind Cape Hope when the Captain turned his ship around a huge tabular berg into Hurry Inlet, a fjord within the big fjord, stretching 25 miles due north.  On our starboard hand: a low-lying, almost meadow-like landscape strewn with boulders of indeterminable size backed by pyramid mountains with tongues of glaciers weaving around their flanks.  Away to port: serrated mountains with their layered bands of sand- and limestone, basalt and columns of greenstone dropped vertically into the sea.  Standing on her bow, we talked and laughed and delightedly pointed out to each other this feature and that, passing a pair of binoculars back and forth, and, lacking hard knowledge, we speculated on geological cause and effect.  As if all we’d seen were still insufficient, at 2300, the sunset treated us to an extravagance of yellows and oranges backlighting the saw-toothed mountains while high wisps of icy-white cirrus seemed to emanate from the sun glow.  Ben, Sam and I ended that wonderful evening with a sauna while we listened to Miles Davis, Kind of Blue.  No kidding.  And then there was still the morning after.


It was a beach day, warm, cloudless, the sea dance-floor flat.  In fact, there was a beach, rare indeed in these parts, if with snow instead of sand, at the bottom of a bowl carved in the mountainside by a vanished glacier.  Chief mate Robert was at the helm, exuding his usual high professionalism, conning her dead slow over un-sounded bottom close aboard, really close, to a place called Kap Tattershall, aiming at a CTD position amid several sparkling bergs.  “Bottom’s coming up now, seventy-nine meters,” he said, stepping back to the helm from the echo sounder.  “There’s a moraine here….Sorry this is taking so long, Bob.”  Was he kidding?  Bob and I watched as he stopped the ship in 50 meters, “three cables” (0.3 nautical miles) from the beach.  The on-duty watch deployed the CTD.

Bob’s plan was to stick right here in the shadow of the mountains and launch the small boat, called a RHIB, to document the cast in video and still photography.  (I doubt there’s another world-class scientist who cares more about communicating this work and life to the public, and those of us so fortunate to do it for him are eternally grateful.)  Though camera-less, obtrusively superfluous, I geared up in hardhat, flotation suit, PFD and hung around the starboard-side launching position with useful photographers Sam, Rachel, and Sindre.  No one told me to get lost, go write some blah-blah, so I climbed aboard the RHIB.  Third Mate Ben (not to be confused with Ben, our other videographer) drove the boat to the enormous grounded bergs.  Others drifted out on the thin wire of the horizon.  Diamonds of light glimmered on the facets of the wavelets.  We passed through a ten-meter channel between two blue-veined bergs, shutters rapid firing, close enough to touch them.  Crackling rivulets and torrents of melt water spilled from their sun-exposed tops three decks overhead…. All Greenland is melting.  For those of us from the temperate zones, climate change is still a threat hull-down beneath the horizon.  In Greenland the climate has already changed.  No, no, pinch off dark thoughts that spoil the view.  As if on cue, we heard a cannon shot from the other berg.  It had calved a huge slab of ice, but we’d missed it.  Then another with a spectacular splash, while we watched; Rachel got it.
JCR got underway without us, and we chased her to shoot her passing at ten knots, and after we did it again, the Captain called us aboard.  We climbed the ladder and over the bulwarks onto the main deck.  I looked back at the mountains, the bergs, the blue sky and glassy sea recognizing, with a twinge of longing for their inevitable passing, that this had been a rare, pure, and exquisite moment in my life.  Goodbye, Greenland.  Good luck in whatever the future holds for you.