Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Svalbard Archipelago, Polar Bears, and 80º North

There was no internet on our ship in Svalbard, the Sea Adventurer, so am posting photo's from there now from Iceland.

It was obvious that we were headed to an "Ice Age" as we entered Svalbard, also known as Spitzbergen after its largest island.

Great views from our 757 jet of an icy lanscape

This the Common Eider

Eider down is some of the best down for insulation and locals are allowed to pick this up for market after the nesting season.

The sign reads, "Svalbard delights all" but the meaning is that polar bears can be encountered anywhere - protect yourself when going out in the country.

Svalbard is the location of the Global Seed Vault, where important seeds are stored to insure against global losses of any cause.

These are Paleocene (about 55 Ma) sediments that are rich in leaf fossils and coal deposits. The earth's climate was about 15º F warmer then than it is now, meaning that high latitude lands like Svalbard were warm and humid.

Sailing out of Isfjorden to the west and the open Atlantic. The latitude here is about 78º 30'.

A large whale was spotted on the first night

With a blow nearly 30 feet high, it could only be one kind - our planets largest animal, the Blue whale.

It is a magnificent creature

Sailing into Magdalena Fjord on our first morning

A classic U-shaped valley with a nunatak in the middle of it

Harbor seals were spotted near Danskoya (Danish Island)

They were quite curious of our Zodiac boats

After dinner, we came quite close to a mother polar bear and her 5-month old cub

I was able to get some good shots. Note that she is wearing a collar as part of a population study.

These animals have been protected from all hunting since 1973 but loss of habitat is a concern as the sea ice shrinks

Polar bears are closely related to brown bears, especially the Kodiak bear. They likely evolved from them during the Pleistocene.

This cub will likely stay with its mother another winter in the den and then make out on its own in about nine months time.

It was really special to watch them for 1/2 an hour

In Widjefjorden we saw an outcrop of the Old Red Sandstone. This is one the most well-known rock units, even for North Americans, as its fluvial origin entails many important aspects of depositional geology. It was a real treat for me to see it here in Svalbard.

The glaciers edge and the erratic boulders that fell from it

A thick fog envelopes the Sea Adventurer

A deck Bar-B-Q while at anchor in a frosty bay

We made our first landing on Spitzbergen at a place called Alkhornet

The tundra was quite soft and soggy, making walking a little difficult

Curious reindeer

They came really close as they have no land predators

Male reindeer

These are Neo-Proterozoic meta-sediments that are about 930 Ma

Close-up of the quartz-filled fractures

Buttercup flowers

Purple saxifrage

Even thought there is not one tree on Svalbard, much driftwood from Siberia makes its way to these islands

Across we spotted a large herd (or pod) of walrus

The males all congregate on the western side of the islands this time of year, while the females are on the eastern side.

They can weight up to 4,000 lbs.!

We got to within about 50 meters of them

No sparring was observed this time but they were big!

It's on to Iceland now

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Not Your Cold War Moscow

As a child of the 60's and 70's, images of warty old women hunched over in long bread lines were seared into our memories. The ghost of Leonid Brezhnev is on the Kremlin wall saluting goose-stepping soldiers as sinister music plays in the background. The bogey man was out there waiting to pounce on cheerful children frolicking in the California sun. It's hard to forget those images but Russia has moved on from the Soviet era. It's the 21st century over here but still, we Americans may have had too many grainy black white films etched into our memories to let those images go.

Our guests and I continue to ask the local guides about the Soviets. But they don't care and its been over for almost 25 years now. I have found something quite different in Moscow - a vibrant city that seems exceptionally comfortable in its own skin. Not once have I felt threatened while walking the streets. I  saw one man in a city of 18 million who may have been homeless. There are way too many automobiles on the streets but very few blaring horns are heard. Wide green city parks, a very large meandering river, shops, young people, even tranquility among the hoards. It's just a glimpse I know, but much can be learned by watching people go about their daily routine. What a surprise this has been!

This is St. Basil's Church in Red Square. I thought it was the Kremlin but its a church.

It is exceptionally colorful

This is GUM on the west side of Red Square. It is a giant shopping mall.

The Kremlin is a fortress of 78 acres surrounded by a red brick wall and the seat of government for Russia. Just outside the wall n Red Square is Lenin's Tomb.

We had taken a five hour flight from Siberia but turned our clocks back five hours. So after a full day already, we arrived at 10:30 AM and time for a tour of the city center by boat.

It is a great way to see the city as the Moscow River meanders back and forth through many different parts of the city. I had no idea that Moscow had a Paris-like river within it.

A giant statue of Peter the Great along the river. We were not allowed to take pictures inside the Armory, but this is where much of the royal treasures of the monarchy are kept and the collection is indescribably rich - jewel-bedecked Bibles, gold chalices, 16th century carriages of the kings and queens, 12th century armor and chain mail. The Armory inside the Kremlin is a must on any visit to Moscow.

The view of St. Basil's from the river boat

We visited two churches inside the Kremlin walls. I love to see religious iconography and this place is rich in it.

The Kremlin grounds are well kept and a joy to the eye in summer

The Novodevichy Convent where "discarded" queens were sent by the kings

We also visited the Novodevichy Cemetery, which has some scenic and colorful headstones of important Russian actors and politicians.

Like this one

Or the grave of Boris Yeltsin with the colors of the Russian flag

Easy to know what he did
How about the grave of the quintessential bogey man - Nikita Krushchev.

Moscow, like many old European cities was walled for protection. When the walls came down, they were replaced with parks and avenues.

We had lunch in a restaurant near this park and a wedding was going on nearby. This woman exemplifies the spirit and optimism of the youth here. They are suspicious of their government, unsure of their intent, and wanting to be a part of the larger world they inhabit.

We took a tour of the Moscow Metro and saw four or five of the ornate stations

Most were built after World War II

One of the them has 90 sculptures, many of Soviet era athletes

I saw many people rub the nose of this dog for good luck

This is the center of Moscow, their geographical baseline. It is said to be 700 kilometers to St. Petersburg from this spot. Many stand within the circle and throw a coin over their shoulders.

I've never seen this before, but this dog was begging for money

The GUM shopping hall is huge

We also visited Star City, outside Moscow. It is the equivalent of the Johnson Space Center in Houston

Here they have on display the MIR space station and the Soyuz capsules

We got a talk from cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin who spent six months on the International Space Station in 2013

He was an incredibly gracious guide for our small group in the MIR capsule and he showed us a 15 minute video of his time up there

We visited the winter home of Leo Tolstoy, the famous Russian writer

Some scenic views of the house

Backyard scene

The Christ the Savior Church along the Moscow River. Joseph Stalin had the old church torn down here but it has been rebuilt since the fall of the Soviet Union

Pedestrian bridge across the Moscow River. It was almost like being in Paris.

The Kremlin from the pedestrian bridge

Kremlin towers

The old and the new in Moscow

City apartments

Life goes on! And so does this trip. After three nights in the big city, we now head up to the high Arctic and Spitzbergen. We'll be on a five day cruise looking for polar bears and walruses and glaciers. No internet there so I will write more once we get to Iceland on Friday.