Trip to the North Pole#
Panorama stitching and processing: AirPano
30 June 2012
with kind permission of AirPano
For more than a hundred years there have been disputes about the conquest of the North Pole. It all began in the second half of the 18th century and reached its climax in the beginning of the 20th century when in one week time Americans, Frederick Albert Cook and Robert Edwin Peary, both claimed to reach the North Pole. The first one claimed that he reached the North Pole on April 21st, 1908, while the other claimed that he reached it on April 6th, 1909. But none of them has ever been able to provide conclusive evidence supporting the fact. Apparently, none of them actually reached the North Pole, and the only reason they tried to prove the opposite was their unwillingness to give victory to someone else.
In the 20th century reaching North Pole has turned into some kind of a sport. Over a hundred years it has been conquered in all kinds of ways: by flying a hot air balloon, a dirigible, and an airplane; by taking a nuclear submarine and a nuclear icebreaker; by skydiving, and even by exploring it in "Mir" deep research vehicles.
In the 1970's, 80's and even 90's the focus has shifted from using technology to challenging individual strength and one's ability to overcome increasing difficulties: in 1978 Naomi Uemura (Japan) was first to reach the North Pole alone on dog sleds. In 1979 the first ski team to reach the North Pole was a team from Soviet Union. In 1986 an international dog-sled team was the first to reach the Pole without air support; it was also the first time a woman was a part of the international North Pole team. The same year Frenchman Jean-Louis Etienne was the first to reach the North Pole on skis alone. In 1994 Norwegian Borge Ousland was first to reach the North Pole on skis alone and unsupported. In 1999 an international team of divers was successful at scuba diving exploration at 90° latitude. The first attempt at an underwater exploration of the North Pole was made a year earlier and ended tragically with the death of the Russian diver Andrei Rozhkov.
Nowadays it is much more easier to reach the North Pole. During short Arctic summer Russian icebreaker "50 Let Pobedy" (translated as "50 Years of Victory") makes three round trips taking tourists from Murmansk to the "top of the world". Each expedition takes two weeks — in addition to the "Earth's crown" it also introduces tourists to Franz Josef Land Archipelago.
To be honest, I have never imagined I would be interested in traveling to the North Pole on a nuclear icebreaker. Usually I am after colorful rich subjects that can only be depicted in complex multi-row panoramic photographs. And the North Pole could be described as "white silence" As strange as it may sound, this very idea convinced me to actually do it. I thought: "It's quite a challenge! Many photographers out there can take beautiful pictures of Grand Canyon on a sunny day, but how many of them can make at least few decent photos of the North Pole?" I called Oleg Gaponyuk and offered him to accompany me on this journey. He liked the idea and saw an opportunity to do something on the North Pole for the first time in history — to take aerial photo panoramas from a helicopter. However Rosatomflot (Russian Atomic Fleet) could not change their summer cruise schedule to let Oleg squeeze a visit to the North Pole into his busy schedule. "Andrey, would you do me a favor?" he called me "I will give you my camera and draw the outline of what I want you to shoot. All you'll have to do is push the button and take a couple of spherical panoramas."
And there I was on board the icebreaker, wiping off sweat after lifting 60 kilograms of my and Oleg's equipment, and trying to understand where the hell I was. Russian icebreaker "50 Let Pobedy" is a huge red-and-black monstrosity and one of the most modern and powerful ships in the world. It was built in 2007, but every line and detail tells you, "I was made in the Soviet Union." Frankly, it really makes a strong impression on you, and it becomes even stronger once you see this ship sail through ice. It breaks meter-thick ice floes as if they were eggshells!
The most impressive thing is how fast it pushes through the ice floes. I couldn't resist and took a video, which I usually don't.
You could never forget the vibration of the vessel while it is making its way through the ice and the scratching sound it made. It seemed like the sensations pierced my whole body. There was a swimming pool on board located close to the engine room. So while taking a dive you felt even more "connected" to the iron monster. Quite an unusual sensation — I highly recommend it.
But let's return to the beginning of our journey. Next to us on the pier there was an aircraft carrier "Admiral Kuznetsov". On board one could see a yellow dot and some action going on around it.
Only at home looking through my photos I realized that it was a fallen crane. And, like in the famous story, several men stood around it scratching their heads and giving advice to their boss with an enthusiasm.
Perhaps it was a chance for their boss to shake up the drab existence at the port, because 6 hours later, when two motorboats towed us from the pier, and we headed for the exit from the Kola Bay, the number of spectators around the crane didn't decrease, and nothing was done to resolve the problem.
So, after a morning sightseeing tour around Murmansk, visiting the icebreaker "Lenin", and a hustle of going through Atomflot strict security and finding our cabins, we all gathered in a lecture hall to meet our crew.
They told us how many minutes a person can survive overboard in the icy water, and how to put on a survival suit.
And here is our captain introducing his officers the next day on so-called Captain's cocktail party.
North Pole cruises attract rather colorful crowd. This variety may be the reason why organizers try to sort tourists in three groups according to the number of cruises that ice-breaker makes during a short polar summer: Western group (mostly Americans and Europeans), Russian group (Russians and Europeans), and Chinese group. Recently a number of wealthy Chinese individuals wishing to travel to the North Pole has grown so much that they even overshadow ubiquitous Japanese. I got on the second tour where one half of passengers comprised of Russians and Germans, and the other half comprised of Swiss, Taiwanese, French, and Austrians (about one to one and a half dozen people). There were also some Americans, Canadians, British, Australians, Italians, Bulgarians, Belgians, Ukrainians, Malaysians, and Koreans.
There were a lot of retirees among Europeans. You could see their responsible attitude towards the tour: they planned everything beforehand and were prepared for any situation. There were also many young people (judging by their appearance and behavior). I also saw some middle-aged couples and fathers with their sons. But mostly people travel alone.
Russians usually end up on a tour like this by chance, but only among Russians you would see families of four people traveling together. Also, the Russians are usually the first ones to book most expensive cabins; and only after they board the ship they start asking themselves "what am I doing here?"
So we finally went out to sea. I looked around to get acquainted with fellow passengers and discuss expectations for the upcoming trip. It turned out that people traveling to the North Pole stocked up on movies, books, etc. — they were under the impression that life on the icebreaker comes down to idleness and taking rare pictures of polar bear from the deck. But the reality wasn't what they expected! Life on board was in full swing, and most of the passengers rarely had free time between different kinds of activities: icebreaker tours, expert lectures on arctic history and ecosystem, photography workshops, etc. As well as The Poseidon Holiday, barbecue on the deck and on ice, swimming in the ice hole, debarkations from "zodiacs" boats, and helicopter drop offs. And all those activities were fueled by four meals a day, Captain's Buffets, gym sessions for those who want to keep in shape, pool, and sauna. And of course the bar with wide assortment of drinks and live music. There was a library on the icebreaker, which had different books and photo albums about Arctic history, geography, and nature. They also served tea, coffee, and buns round the clock. Of course, as with any cruise, there were those who focused on most difficult tasks, such as cleaning out the bar. But the rest of passengers tried to participate in every activity.
No doubt that all cruise activities revolved around our expedition leader, Ian Brid, a man of truly atomic energy and endless charm. He has been to more than 115 countries as the expedition leader and director of expedition cruise ships, ocean liners, and river ships. He is fluent in German, Spanish, French, Dutch, Danish, and English. Ian knows just a few phrases in Russian. He conquered the North Pole seven times. But his special talent was conquering his audience. He had great sense of humor along with willingness to help, inspire, and explain. And if only you could see how he held the traditional cruise auction! I should have filmed his performance on my camera to show it to my friends as an exciting television show. Ian charged everyone around him with his energy and made the long journey pass in a blink of an eye.
It's quite a task to please the audience that paid twenty thousand dollars for the show. On our cruise it was accomplished brilliantly. The staff was passionate about traveling and very fond of natural beauty of the North. They were friendly and highly professional — you could feel their drive and it was obvious that the guys were doing their best.
Interestingly enough, despite the fact that the cruise organizer was a Russian company, most of the staff comprised of foreigners (unlike the technical crew of the ship that has no contact with passengers, the cruise personnel works directly with people and is recruited solely for that purpose). I also met the owner of the icebreaker, Nikolay Savelyev. According to his words there was a time when the cruise staff was comprised of Russians. They were very diligent workers, but, being Russians, they had a bad habit of drinking at the bar after work. There is no harm for young men to do this for a couple of days. But there are some consequences after a long period of drinking. And even if these consequences are almost unnoticeable, they do affect the work performance in a negative way. Foreigners have different values: they put their work first and after finishing a shift they go to bed, because they understand how important it is to be fresh and energetic the next morning to take care of the passengers and address any possible issues.
The cuisine onboard was beyond praise. Not every restaurant can offer you such exquisite dishes that our chefs made in challenging conditions. Organizers spared no effort in putting together a very talented team. A new selection of seafood, meat, vegetarian dishes, salads, and desserts was served to us on a daily basis. There was even a special chef responsible for the pastries. I brought back menu as a trip souvenir, which excited great interest among the female audience.
For example, I've never tried a lobster like this before:
The meat was so tender, but I can't remember the name of the dish:
However a conqueror of the North Pole does not live by bread alone. This is how we celebrated the Poseidon Holiday as suggested by our court photographer — pardon — expeditionary artist Rainer Ulrich:
Of course, at the end of the celebration we had a barbecue on the deck.
With ice came polar bears.
Truth be told, the number of polar bears that you come across during a cruise varies greatly. A year ago, during the "Chinese tour" (with Sergei Dolya, a famous blogger) there were so many polar bears that people stopped reacting to their appearance at all. Something that I cannot say about our tour... Usually, at a sight of a bear the icebreaker would slow down or stop to give passengers a chance to admire the animal and to take some pictures. The most beautiful sight is of bear with its cub. You can lose the sense of time while watching them.
Although photos from other Polar expeditions show a lot of people with long-range "photo guns" ready to snap a perfect picture, I was surprised that there were no people with good cameras on board of our cruise. There were no cameras with telephoto lenses at all (I didn't take mine either, but only because I had tons of other photo equipment to carry around). So I made the following conclusion: smart bears simply decided that there was nobody worth posing for.
Time flew by, and we finally reached the North Pole. Our captain showed miracles of maneuvering and steered the ship exactly on 90° latitude. According to my watch it happened at midnight. However, our cruise time was different (2 hours offset) for passengers and for the crew; and I set time on my cameras by Moscow.
So what you should do in that situation? That's right: drink champagne, shout hurray, take pictures, and wave flags.
After that, our captain looked for a suitable ice floe for debarkation. Each year this task becomes more and more difficult, because of a catastrophic melting of the Arctic ice. Average summer temperature rises to +5° C. Wind and currents break huge ice fields into separate blocks of ice that periodically freeze back together again at lower temperatures. It was very foggy due to the high humidity and air temperature fluctuations (around 0 degrees). Or, to be more precise, there was only fog at that time of the year
Finally, by noon the captain finally found the right field for debarkation. They began to unload equipment for a celebration. They put guards along the perimeter in case bears attacked. I took some panoramic photos while the snow was still fresh and untouched.
By the way, the glade water is safe to drink, because it is sweet and consists entirely of melted ice, which is very clean. Some people even filled plastic bottles with the water to take home as a souvenir.
According to an old tradition, everyone prepared to take a "tour around the world" by walking around the "NorthPole 90" pointer. We even arranged with organizers to make two circles instead of one. It would look much better when photographed from above!
Click image to view a spherical panorama from the very center of the North Pole
After taking a group photo people broke up into different interest groups: taking a walk along the ice track, pulling the icebreaker to the North Pole pointer, rinsing rubber boots in fresh puddles, and, of course, taking pictures of other people doing all of the above.
As for me, I finally started shooting spherical panoramas from above the icebreaker — the photos had to be taken from the lowest possible height so a viewer could experience the "effect of personal presence." The idea was to create an illusion that if one reaches out he could touch the ship. Naturally, the actual distance to the elements of the icebreaker must be substantially longer than a person's arm; otherwise the icebreaker won't fit into a frame. Most of the time I shot from 5-meter distance above the ship or from the side.
It is possible that I was the first one to look directly into the pipe after the launch of the icebreaker. At least, our brave crewmembers, who volunteered to help me during the photo session, could hardly resist the temptation to send me away with a flea in my ear after I asked them to climb to the very top. However, they were quite pleased by new experience.
While we had fun shooting panoramas, very delicious food was served on ice and hungry passengers ate it very quickly. Alas nothing was left when I came, but they told me the food was very tasty. Of course, I believed them
Our next entertainment was swimming in the ice-hole. Usually they search for big ice-holes and build ladder and other necessary small things. Although they couldn't find any large or small ice-hole, and had to skip that part of the entertainment program, it was still a Russian cruise! If they promised swimming in the ice-hole they should keep their promise! So said, so done: they found a crack in the ice, cleaned it a little bit, and invited people to take a dip.
The first ones to go were Russian men followed by the foreigners.
And then the rest of the crowd followed. It was particularly amusing to watch Chinese swimming in the ice-hole.
After the "around the world" tour at the North Pole pointer and the ice-hole swimming we went to see the Franz Josef Land. These islands were discovered by accident in 1872 by Austro-Hungarian expedition that sailed on steam schooner called "Admiral Tegetthoff." The ship was damaged by ice and, as a result, it drifted into unknown territory. After exploring the land, Austrians named it after their emperor. Russians visited Franz Josef Land for the first time in 1901. Vice Admiral S. O. Makarov organized an expedition to explore the southern tip of the archipelago. Before that British, Americans, and Norwegians explored the new lands. Franz Josef Land fell under Russian jurisdiction in 1914 when I. I. Islyamov came here in search of the missing Sedov expedition and hoisted the Russian flag on the islands.
We reached the Hooker Island, one of ten largest islands of the archipelago. There is famous basalt Skala Rubini (Rubini Rock) with largest sea bird colony in the world. According to Google, forty thousand birds of different species inhabit the rock. I was able to see the seagulls and something resembling penguins (helpful Google suggests that it were guillemots).
When I started shooting panoramas I got greedy and used my 300mm lens in hope of getting a closer view of the birds, and was punished for doing so. Carried away by the process, I didn't notice the icebreaker slowly sailing away from the rock. There is no software that can stitch a panorama consisting of several hundred images taken from a moving ship! I noticed the change in image scale only on the 14th row of my panorama. It's funny, but at home I actually found a way to stitch them together without any problem.
Another attraction of Hooker Island is located nearby in the Tikhaya Bay. There used to be a Soviet weather station, and some of its buildings have survived to this day. Gray, almost white wood doesn't decay in the cold, and it seems like the last expedition left the station only recently despite the fact that fifty years have passed since the weather station had been relocated to one of neighboring islands. There are three crosses that stand near each other by abandoned buildings. They were put there in memory of those who lost their lives in these lands trying to reach their destination. It was here in Tikhaya Bay, where members of the Georgy Sedov expedition spent their last winter stay; the expedition mechanic Ivan Zander is buried under one of the crosses; and Georgy Sedov is buried on Rudolf Island.
There were people at the camp: a few unfriendly men and one female representative of the united Germany (who we couldn't see). The government has allocated huge funds to clean the Arctic and for that purpose a landing force was sent to the archipelago. Men told me that they were going to build a museum on the site of the old weather station.
The next stop was the Champ Island. It's famous for its unique spherical stones, the origin of which still doesn't have a reasonable explanation. They resemble Moeraki Bolders in New Zealand, except for the variety of sizes: from the ones that can fit into the palm of your hand to giants two meters in diameter. We made an explorative voyage on "zodiac", but we couldn't disembark because of the heavy fog.
Going around one of the island capes, we saw a polar bear (a white dot in the center of this picture) that was trying to find a meal in one of large bird colonies. But the bear was very unlucky: nests were built high up on cliffs, and it couldn't reach them. The bear looked ill and there was very little chance that it would survive for a long time. I felt sorry for the bear. Reading about the extinction of polar bears I didn't take it too personally. However, observing it in real life made me see things in a different light.
And this is a huge glacier slowly slipping into the sea.
From time to time icebergs break away (not very large ones comparing to the Antarctic, but not small either).
Undoubtedly, the "heart" of the icebreaker is a nuclear-powered reactor (or two reactors to be precise), but it's impossible to look right into the "heart" because it's located deep inside the ship and connected to a number of other mechanisms and parts, and placed in a protective casing. However all other facilities are available for exploration and make a lasting impression. There are two generators in the great hall that convert energy from nuclear reactors to electricity.
Icebreaker's "internal organs" make a deep impression on you, especially the combination of power and the manner in which it's operated. There is an insane number of sensors at every corner, and valves and monitors that someone must be able to "read" and "turn." Somehow it reminded me of Soviet missiles built entirely from lamps. It's hard to imagine how all of that works, how much effort it requires, and how to find people capable of operating them.
And now the icebreaker crew, the staff of Poseidon Expeditions Company, and yours truly are saying "Goodbye!"