Nordic Summer: Journey into the Ice

October 19, 2001 | Tags: Arctic, Europe

Nadia Eckhardt, October 2001

For those of us accustomed to life in more temperate climes, the word "summer" evokes a particular set of images and activities. Among these are trips to the beach, barbecue dinners, and, of course, long, long hours of daylight. Well, if you love the gifts of the season, but want to experience them from a new perspective, we offer summer's bounty in an entirely new setting.

On our Nordic Summer expeditions, departing 27 June 2002 aboard the M/S Endeavour, you will witness beaches as you've never seen them, crowded not with lifeguards, sun worshippers, and swimmers, but with kittiwakes, fulmars, and walrus. You'll enjoy your barbecue on deck in the crisp northern air, and if you love long summer days, nowhere are they longer than above the Arctic Circle. In addition, you'll sail beautifully carved fjords, explore wondrous archeological sites, gaze upon Europe's largest seabird colonies, experience the vast array of Arctic mammals - seals, walrus, whales, and more. Moreover, you'll behold the grandeur of endless ice fields.

Split into two parts, Nordic Summer links our popular Britain and Spitsbergen programs with the exciting destination of Norway. The first leg travels from the Scottish Isles to Norway, the second from North Cape to the islands of Svalbard. Both itineraries introduce a wealth of natural and cultural discoveries to the adventurous traveler.

Our journey began in Scotland's capital city of Edinburgh. After a day perusing the sights of both the city and Perth, the former seat of Scottish kings, we set sail for the Orkney and Shetland Islands. These isles are archeological treasure troves containing some of the best-preserved Neolithic sites in northern Europe.

From the Shetlands, we sailed north, plying the same route as the Vikings of old. Our early morning entrance into Raunefjorden afforded us our first, breathtaking look at Norway's legendary fjords. Tiny cottages nestled among towering pines, all perched on the sides of steep hills that flowed directly into the fjord.

We spent the next six days experiencing the diverse wonders of coastal Norway, including the spectacular Tokagjelet Gorge and Folgefonna Glacier, the picturesque towns of Alesund and Kjerringoy, and the islands of Runde and Rost, home to millions of nesting seabirds. The first leg of our journey ended at Nordkapp (North Cape), the northernmost point of land on the continent.

The second part of our voyage ventured into the sea ice of Arctic Norway. The dense, shifting sea ice allowed us to conduct this portion of the itinerary in true expeditionary fashion. As the ice-hardened M/S Explorer made its way to Svalbard, we kept a sharp lookout in the Arctic light for polar bears. We had seen seals, walrus, fin whales, and more than 230 species of birds, but a glimpse of the much-coveted bears had eluded us.

Then, five days out of port, success. We had just been served the main course at dinner when Tim was called away. He returned and whispered, "We've got polar bears up ahead." Now, would our passengers be willing to forego the highlight of their meal for bears? Of course. I announced that we were approaching polar bears, and the next few minutes were joyous bedlam as passengers grabbed hats, parkas, binoculars, and cameras and hurried to the deck.

Our captain slowly maneuvered our ship forward, our hull crunching through the ice, until we were within 100 meters of our prize, a mother and two cubs. Amazed, passengers took hundreds of photographs. Our only worry, that the chef would be upset at our ignoring his exquisite meal, was allayed when we spied him on the crowded deck, camera in hand, happily snapping away.

Over the ensuing days, we sighted six more polar bears, an impressive total. Spotting animals in the wild is often a chancy affair, but as Louis Pasteur noted, "Chance favors the prepared mind." Our intensive preparations and constant vigilance paid off. The result was one of the special moments that embody the very spirit of adventure travel.

Nordic Summer was replete with memorable images and moments. From the archeological wonders of northern Scotland to the ice-covered islands of Svalbard; from idyllic fishing hamlets to the remnants of polar expeditions; from the stunning profusion of birdlife to the wealth of Arctic marine mammals, Nordic Summer can stand with the very finest expeditions Zegrahm presents.

Assessing the Risk: How Safe is Safe?

July 20, 2001

Werner Zehnder, July 2001

Safety is an issue that arises when considering adventure travel. Our far-flung expeditions often journey in or near regions that, for one reason or another, are considered dangerous. Passengers will sometimes call our offices inquiring, for instance, "How safe are we traveling in the Philippines or the Middle East?" These concerns are important and valid and I wish to address them from the standpoint of Zegrahm Expeditions' philosophy and procedures, as well as my personal observations.

First, our passengers' well-being is paramount. We plan our expeditions with the utmost care, weighing a number of factors when selecting destinations. Safety is chief among these. We consult government officials, representatives from the private sector, and even researchers conducting fieldwork. Program managers and expedition leaders conduct scouting trips, both to select optimum routes and sites, and to judge the lay of the land. Obviously, we do not send travelers into war zones or areas where civilization has collapsed. Rest assured, we would never send anyone to a region where we would not go ourselves.

Perceptions can run counter to reality, a situation often abetted by the media and, in this case, by the United States government. My wife Susan and I recently experienced this dichotomy firsthand during a trip to the Middle East, Indonesia, and the Philippines, three areas currently perceived as perilous. Our purpose in visiting the Middle East was to scout for upcoming expeditions. To this end, we visited several countries in the region, including Iran, a nation that has recently opened its borders to tourism. For many Americans, the word "Iran" conjures images of militant protesters burning the American flag. The State Department reinforces this perception; a Travel Warning posted on their web site warns U.S. citizens to "defer travel to Iran" because "...hostility to the United States remains in some segments of the Iranian population."

Let us place this in an appropriate context. The hostage crisis was over twenty years ago; a generation has been born and achieved its majority since then. Times, and governments, change. Furthermore, the State Department's warning is dated 14 September 1999, not exactly an up-to-the-minute report. Hostility? We encountered none. On the contrary, we were very warmly received by the Iranian people.

Departing the Middle East, Susan and I flew to Indonesia to join an expedition traveling through Sulawesi and the Philippines. You may have seen the headlines regarding these countries: "Indonesia Poised for New Round of Turmoil," "Philippines President Says Coup Plans 'Fizzled Out.'" The State Department cautions, "A series of security-related incidents has made travel unsafe in certain areas of the Philippines," and "American citizens resident or traveling in Indonesia are advised to exercise caution at all times..."

I am not suggesting that one disregards these warnings as false. Taking proper caution is essential in adventure travel. These areas are potentially volatile and we take this into account; planning and common sense mitigate possible danger. As an illustration, consider Seattle, where I live. Seattle is a relatively peaceful city. Yet, like any big city, Seattle has its seedier areas. Do I tell my friends that visiting Seattle is unsafe? Certainly not. They should merely avoid unsafe areas at inopportune times.

Apply this reasoning to the Philippines. Yes, Muslim insurgents occupy a couple of islands in its southern reaches. But remember, the Philippines comprise 7,000 islands, the vast majority of which are perfectly safe. We did not put ourselves or our passengers in harm's way by hobnobbing with revolutionaries; rather, we availed ourselves of the wonders offered by the thousands of other islands in the archipelago. The result was a magnificent expedition. Had we avoided the Philippines entirely, we would have denied ourselves a most pleasurable and enriching experience.

We strive to assemble as complete a picture of a country as possible, drawing from a number of sources. When reading media reports or government missives, we always consider their motivations. The media are controlled by large, for-profit corporations. They must make money, and danger sells; their focus will always be on the dramatic. The State Department has an obligation to be overly conservative when issuing advisories. Also, these advisories are often politically motivated to enforce current foreign policy. Let us return to the Seattle analogy. The city has certainly made headlines during the past few years-WTO demonstrations, Mardi Gras riots, an earthquake. A foreign country could very well issue a Travel Warning for Seattle based on these. Would they be correct in doing so? No, because these events are only a very small, transitory part of living in Seattle.

In closing, let me say that Zegrahm Expeditions constantly monitors situations around the world. If you have questions about a region's safety, please call us and we will offer our frank appraisal. It is an important element in our ongoing mission to offer the best in expeditionary travel to the remote parts of our world.

Jellyfish Lake: Return from Extinction

July 20, 2001

Dick Dewey, July 2001

Remember the "big one," the El Nino of 1998? Daily satellite photos tracked a red-colored tongue of warm surface water moving west from Peru to the Philippines, through to India, and beyond. By January of 1998, astounded scientists reported tides half-a-foot higher than normal, ocean temperatures hovering above 95 degrees, cloudless skies, and no trade winds, creating an unbelievable drought that lasted nine months.

Palau resembled autumn in Vermont as the lush tropical forests wilted and died. Palau's reef corals suffered deaths as the coral animals choked from too much oxygen given off by the symbiotic algae living in their tissues. The corals responded by expelling their internal single-celled plants, causing coral bleaching. Then, without the nutrients from the expelled algae, the corals died. And the same warm water, for the same reason, killed all the Mastigias jellyfish in Palau's famous Jellyfish Lake.

Up until last fall, the situation was bizarre, seemingly hopeless, and sad. Palau's reputation as one of the "seven biological wonders of the world" had been based on this magnificent lake and its jellyfish.

One hope remained. Jellyfish have a tiny asexual larval form, called a scyphistoma, that lives attached to the lake bottom. Anemone-like in appearance and about as long as a chocolate sprinkle, if they had somehow survived the warm water, could they perhaps eventually repopulate the lake?

Last November, temperatures in the lake had dropped to a normal 86 degrees. Scyphistoma living in the mud 30 feet deep began producing pinhead-sized jellyfish. They multiplyied by the hundreds of thousands, reaching four million, their former number, by the time of our Zegrahm Expeditions tour last March.

It was as if the jellyfish had never gone. Snorkeling out into the lake's clear water we were surrounded by pristine Rock Island. Below us was a "closed ecosystem," a marine lake that has not recruited any new species for millions of years and receives few new nutrients or minerals. The lake holds microscopic crustaceans, called copepods, in the plankton. It is the copepods that the scyphistoma larvae fed on for almost two years, waiting for the water to cool.

The Mastigias jellyfish were everywhere around us, bumping gently into snorkelers, pulsating, seemingly directionless. One Zegrahm participant described her snorkel with them as "embryonic." Others said it was the most exciting thing they had ever done. Not aimless, Mastigias actually follow the sun across the lake each day, slowly turning counter-clockwise to expose their internal gardens evenly to the hot tropical sun. At night, the jellyfish swim down 40 feet and return to the east end to await dawn. The nightly return is needed for, at the 40-foot level, the jellyfish fertilize their internal plants in the rich chemical soup of the lake.

Jellyfish Lake's jellyfish have returned.

Dick Dewey began guiding Zegrahm tours to Palau and Micronesia five years ago. Dick is a marine ecologist on the faculty on Portland State University. In March 2002, he will be a lecturer on the Clipper Odyssey and will lead the snorkel trip to Jellyfish Lake with Jack Grove.

Sea of Okhotsk: Realm of the Sea Eagle

July 20, 2001

Having spent the last 30 years traveling the earth and exploring her spectacular natural wonders, I can honestly say that I've been almost everywhere. Of the few areas that I haven't visited, one in particular represents a long-unfulfilled dream for me, Russia's expansive Sea of Okhotsk. I will finally realize this dream next year when Zegrahm and Eco Expeditions launch a pioneering expedition to this once-off-limits corner of the globe. This program, departing 24 May 2002 aboard the Clipper Odyssey, will circumnavigate the Sea of Okhotsk in true expeditionary fashion; many of our landings will be first-ever visits by seafaring Western adventurers. There are few places left that you can go and know that virtually no Western eyes have beheld their vistas.

Our innovative voyage begins in late spring, just as the ice floes have started to disappear and wildflowers begin to carpet the tundra. Every day, we shall witness a stunning display as millions of birds migrate north-whiskered auklets, Siberian rubythroats, yellow-breasted buntings, Far Eastern curlews-these and many more species will be arriving to establish their nests. As an ornithologist, I can tell you that, from a birding perspective, the area is literally unexplored, presenting unmatched photographic opportunities. Iony Island is so tightly packed with cliff-dwelling murres that some must nest on a flat plain; our stop at Talan Island will bring us into proximity to the world's largest colony of tufted puffins, home to nearly one million of these birds.

The Sea of Okhotsk is also the domain of the magnificent Steller's sea eagle, the world's largest raptor. These birds, true icons of the area, are so huge, so powerful, that they have been known to carry off 40-pound baby seals. Writing in International Wildlife, Lucille Craft notes, "Placing a Steller's beak beside that of a falcon, kite, or osprey is like setting a hatchet beside a penknife." Only about 7,500 of this species of eagle remain in the world and can only be found here.

Birds compose only part of the rich wildlife tapestry. We will see rivers choked with salmon; beaches full of fur seals just arriving to pup; hills roamed by wolves, bighorn sheep, and Arctic fox; and the wildlife-rich Ptichi Islands, home to cavorting sea otters. With luck, we will catch sight of the lumbering Kamchatka brown bear, an animal equivalent in size to the famed Kodiak bear.

The ocean waters hold an amazing profusion of whale species. Once hunted nearly to extinction, the populations have recovered due to anti-whaling laws; we may see pods of orcas 200-strong. In addition, we should spot the Dall's porpoise, a marine mammal capable of traveling at speeds up to 30 miles per hour.

The landscapes are as remarkable as the animals they contain. Our itinerary includes the Kamchatka Peninsula, land of smoking volcanoes. Of the 300 volcanoes found here, 29 are active. These geological marvels are rivaled by the Kuril Islands, an archipelago nearly equal to the Hawaiian Islands in landmass. Its 56 islands boast a total of 40 active volcanoes.

For those interested in human history and anthropology, the Sea of Okhotsk is a treasure trove. Sakhalin Island, one of our first stops, was first inhabited nearly 12,000 years ago. We shall meet the indigenous Nivkh people, descendants of the island's original Neolithic settlers. Tides permitting, another ethnic group, the Oroki, may meet us at Piltun Lagoon, herding their reindeers across the tundra as they have done since prehistory. A people without a written language, the Oroki are Russia's smallest indigenous group, with only about 200 remaining today.

Sakhalin's recorded history stretches back 2,000 years. The West's first notice of the island came when Marco Polo returned to Venice, bearing with him maps clearly delineating Sakhalin, Kamchatka, and the Kurils. The Japanese explored the island in 1635, followed by the Cossacks in the 1640s, and the eventual tug-of-war between Japan and Russia that lasted into the 20th century.

Our ship also calls at Okhotsk Town, the first settlement in the region. The Danish explorer Captain Vitus Bering headquartered here in the 1720s, using the town as a base from which he launched two extraordinary expeditions. Okhotsk seems frozen in time; its modest clapboard houses surrounded by small gardens appear unchanged since Bering's era.

No matter what your interest-birding, botany, hiking, history, photography-you will revel in the Realm of the Sea Eagle's breathtaking environment. I hope you will join me on what will be one of the landmark departures of 2002.

Assessing the Risk: How Safe is Safe?

July 19, 2001 | Tags: Making A Difference, Travel Tips

Werner Zehnder, July 2001

Safety is an issue that arises when considering adventure travel. Our far-flung expeditions often journey in or near regions that, for one reason or another, are considered dangerous. Passengers will sometimes call our offices inquiring, for instance, "How safe are we traveling in the Philippines or the Middle East?" These concerns are important and valid and I wish to address them from the standpoint of Zegrahm Expeditions' philosophy and procedures, as well as my personal observations.

First, our passengers' well-being is paramount. We plan our expeditions with the utmost care, weighing a number of factors when selecting destinations. Safety is chief among these. We consult government officials, representatives from the private sector, and even researchers conducting fieldwork. Program managers and expedition leaders conduct scouting trips, both to select optimum routes and sites, and to judge the lay of the land. Obviously, we do not send travelers into war zones or areas where civilization has collapsed. Rest assured, we would never send anyone to a region where we would not go ourselves.

Perceptions can run counter to reality, a situation often abetted by the media and, in this case, by the United States government. My wife Susan and I recently experienced this dichotomy firsthand during a trip to the Middle East, Indonesia, and the Philippines, three areas currently perceived as perilous. Our purpose in visiting the Middle East was to scout for upcoming expeditions. To this end, we visited several countries in the region, including Iran, a nation that has recently opened its borders to tourism. For many Americans, the word "Iran" conjures images of militant protesters burning the American flag. The State Department reinforces this perception; a Travel Warning posted on their web site warns U.S. citizens to "defer travel to Iran" because "...hostility to the United States remains in some segments of the Iranian population."

Let us place this in an appropriate context. The hostage crisis was over twenty years ago; a generation has been born and achieved its majority since then. Times, and governments, change. Furthermore, the State Department's warning is dated 14 September 1999, not exactly an up-to-the-minute report. Hostility? We encountered none. On the contrary, we were very warmly received by the Iranian people.

Departing the Middle East, Susan and I flew to Indonesia to join an expedition traveling through Sulawesi and the Philippines. You may have seen the headlines regarding these countries: "Indonesia Poised for New Round of Turmoil," "Philippines President Says Coup Plans 'Fizzled Out.'" The State Department cautions, "A series of security-related incidents has made travel unsafe in certain areas of the Philippines," and "American citizens resident or traveling in Indonesia are advised to exercise caution at all times..."

I am not suggesting that one disregards these warnings as false. Taking proper caution is essential in adventure travel. These areas are potentially volatile and we take this into account; planning and common sense mitigate possible danger. As an illustration, consider Seattle, where I live. Seattle is a relatively peaceful city. Yet, like any big city, Seattle has its seedier areas. Do I tell my friends that visiting Seattle is unsafe? Certainly not. They should merely avoid unsafe areas at inopportune times.

Apply this reasoning to the Philippines. Yes, Muslim insurgents occupy a couple of islands in its southern reaches. But remember, the Philippines comprise 7,000 islands, the vast majority of which are perfectly safe. We did not put ourselves or our passengers in harm's way by hobnobbing with revolutionaries; rather, we availed ourselves of the wonders offered by the thousands of other islands in the archipelago. The result was a magnificent expedition. Had we avoided the Philippines entirely, we would have denied ourselves a most pleasurable and enriching experience.

We strive to assemble as complete a picture of a country as possible, drawing from a number of sources. When reading media reports or government missives, we always consider their motivations. The media are controlled by large, for-profit corporations. They must make money, and danger sells; their focus will always be on the dramatic. The State Department has an obligation to be overly conservative when issuing advisories. Also, these advisories are often politically motivated to enforce current foreign policy. Let us return to the Seattle analogy. The city has certainly made headlines during the past few years-WTO demonstrations, Mardi Gras riots, an earthquake. A foreign country could very well issue a Travel Warning for Seattle based on these. Would they be correct in doing so? No, because these events are only a very small, transitory part of living in Seattle.

In closing, let me say that Zegrahm Expeditions constantly monitors situations around the world. If you have questions about a region's safety, please call us and we will offer our frank appraisal. It is an important element in our ongoing mission to offer the best in expeditionary travel to the remote parts of our world.