I have just spent 17 days (counting the days above the Arctic Circle) in Greenland, accompanying the Greenlandia expedition which, under the direction of Vincent Hilaire, aims to follow the development of the small village of Ittoqqortoormiit (the most isolated in East Greenland). In doing so, he is following in the footsteps of Commandant Charcot. A hundred years ago, the Pourquoi Pas anchored there. The good doctor Charcot had lived, treated and exchanged ideas with the inhabitants of this small village.
During his travels, Charcot would take artists – his wife was the first – and scientists on board. A little further south, the young Paul-Émile Victor disembarked for a wintering period and spent a whole year living with the Inuit before later crossing Greenland from west to east with three companions. It was this whole adventure that I discovered during my navigation, particularly the geological and palaeontological samples taken by Charcot in his time and reproduced identically by two researchers from the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in the same places, on land and at sea, 100 years later. All this is to remind us of the history and expertise of French polar research, which we must continue to support. I’m working on this with several of my colleagues in the National Assembly: we’ve just tabled a proposal for a polar programming law.
Here are a few notes by way of a logbook, which I hope will give you an idea of this journey alongside French scientists and adventurers in Greenland.
On Monday 21 August 2023, aboard a small nine-seater plane, I flew from Iceland to Greenland. We landed at Constable Point. Another 10-minute helicopter ride and we reach our destination: the most remote village on the east coast of Greenland, Ittoqqortoormiit. Jean-Baptiste Charcot had set up his base camp here for the International Polar Year of 1932-1933. We are in Hurry Inlet, the gateway to the Scoresby Sound, a fjord of almost 14,000 km2, the largest in the world. There are two Greenlands. The west, bordered by the Gulf Stream. The east is bordered by the Arctic Current, which makes life there much more difficult. It is a land six times the size of France, with a status similar to that of Polynesia, and which links it to Denmark.
The Kamak on which we are embarking may be an old Antillean charter yacht, but it is perfectly suited to our polar programme! The wind is between 25 and 35 knots from the North. The slightly exposed anchorage meant we had to clear quickly. For the first time this season, we hoisted the yankee and one end of the mizzen. We were sailing at six or seven knots. We came across our very first ice, before seeing our first musk oxen. We spend the night at anchor at the entrance to the fjord. Our aim is to enter the fjord to recover fossils from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Marie-Béatrice and Peggy, our two palaeontologists from the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, have identified three sites to explore, already worked on by one of their Danish colleagues in the mid-1980s. The entrance to the Scoresby Sound is surrounded by icebergs which, as Isabelle, the second in command, says, “are clogging up the ring road!” There were “bergs” as far as the eye could see, changes of course to avoid the growlers and shapes to give to the ice cubes: here Geluck’s cat, there a swan or a French Brittany cottage with sky-blue shutters reminding me of those in my house.
On the way to Minland, Juliette and Florian orchestrated two plankton sampling sessions: a good number of plankton, and copepods in particular, but far fewer Arctic cod larvae than last year, which raises serious questions. Identification of the valleys to be explored by sea. We decided to anchor at Port Charcot, 5.6 miles from our research site. Port Charcot is a superb anchorage where, in conditions different from our own, the commander had come to anchor aboard the Pourquoi Pas, thus further inscribing his name in French polar history. It was decided that we would walk to the work areas through the valleys, cutting straight ahead and going along the coast for the last few kilometres, between a long beach of pink sand and a rocky cape that we crossed as best we could. This 12 km walk will take us a good six hours, at the end of which the Kamak will pick us up. A glance at the altitude will allow us to envisage an anchorage close to the area to be worked on if the anchorage doesn’t move too much. Since the first night, the weather has been fine, too fine. Some of us are wearing T-shirts and the temperature is probably over 20 degrees. At 70 degrees North in the Arctic Circle, that’s a lot.
Our researchers at the Museum know exactly where they want to go. Geolocation saves them precious time. One dreams of finding ostracods, the other plesiosaurs. “Don’t try to understand Jimmy”, Florian tells me, they know what they’re doing and they know what they want: to compare their samples with those of Commandant Charcot, whose crews always included scientists. The research lasted two days. The samples were later studied in the laboratory, before joining the Museum’s collections of thousands, millions of other underwater samples.
Saturday 26 August is the last day of sampling. We’ll be spending it on board. Since the beginning of our stay, the weather has been exceptionally fine and warm. Vincent, the expedition leader, thinks that we are, unfortunately, going to break new temperature records. We can see the icebergs on their water and hear them calving, i.e. breaking with the same noise as thunder. We can also see the glaciers in the fjord retreating year by year.
Saturday was cold and rainy, so boat, bunk and reading. I took the opportunity to finish the biography of Paul-Émile Victor. In the end, things haven’t changed. Greenlandia, like Tara and Polar Pod, are driven by the same values as Commander Charcot, Victor and all those who went there. A day to read, sleep and share. It’s traditional to share knowledge through conferences. Yesterday, Marie-Béatrice told us about the 12 boxes found and never studied by Commandant Charcot.
On Sunday, the weather is as cold and wet as ever, but we’re leaving Port-Charcot to take the same underwater samples, at a depth of 400 m, as the Polarstern beyond Charcot expedition, yet another opportunity to understand why the Arctic Circle is warming up four times faster than temperate zones. To see Marie-Béatrice’s delight, both samples were a success.
On Monday we left Bear Island, where we had an excellent anchorage. We’re skirting Greenland, with its 7 to 800 metre-high cliffs, and above all, we’re on the edge of a nature park, which gives us hope of seeing some narwhals. Ah, those narwhals, which Vincent has been dreaming of seeing for as long as he’s been sailing in these parts. The sun is back, but the air is much cooler than last week. I feel calmer with these few degrees less. The last ‘Van Venne’ – a small bucket used to collect sediment samples – brings up a clam that I open greedily, somewhat to the surprise of my companions, but you can’t refuse a taste of the Scoresby clam!
The Kamak‘s crew consists of a captain, David, a sharp Savoyard, who takes great care of his boat. The engine and engine levels are inspected regularly, and the bilge pumps are checked just as often. He knows he can only rely on himself when sailing in such remote areas. When he’s not skippering, he’s a ski instructor, a roofer, a bricklayer, always out in the open air. His second is called Isabelle. She has sailed like me in five lifetimes! West Indies, Mediterranean, Atlantic in all directions. She also needs the cold and often sails to Svalbard, which I really want to discover. Finally, Min is a chef as well as being a discreet sailor. He’s a generous and attentive chef. I can’t remember if it was the blanquette, the pizza night or the musk ox stew that I liked best, but all I know is that I had more of everything every time! One last sample at ground zero near Port-Charcot and that’s it for our two researchers.
Wednesday is going to be a day of relaxation. Since the start of the mission on board, we’ve been passing on a bad case of the flu, which is really tiring. Some of the crew prefer to stay on board, while others go fishing. I’m off with Isabelle, Peggy and Yann, climbing from one hill to the next in search of the best viewpoint of the Charcot glacier and the freshwater lakes it has formed as it retreats. The lake where our 3rd team of anglers went to catch some grayling. We’ll be cleaning the fish and enjoying them over an impromptu barbecue on the beach before the big 150-mile return crossing to Ittoqqortoormiit, which we’ve decided to do at night. The nights have become much shorter over the last 15 days, and while we can still make out a glimmer of light to the north-west, the full moon is shining down on us to the east, allowing us to see the little bits of ice we need to avoid. The night is beautiful, the fjord a lake, and the coolness very bearable, much more so than the 15-knot easterly wind that rises around 7 a.m. “It’s a pity we’re upwind,” says David, “I’d like to have set the sails”, and I’m curious to see how this pretty sailing boat, which must weigh more than 50 tonnes, works.
What can we take away from these 15 days sailing in the Scoresby Sound? The weight of history and the legacy left by its pioneers. Commander Charcot and his crew, Paul-Émile Victor and his companions on the Greenland crossing, who came to integrate with these inhabitants of the Far North, to share with them and understand them better. A life of adventure and exploration. Victor set up a weather and glaciology station at the top of this second largest ice reserve after Antarctica, and the spirit of this station is perpetuated today by the researchers we took on board. This life given to the poles cost Commandant Charcot his life, but led to the creation of the Éxpéditions Polaires Françaises (French Polar Expeditions) and put our country on the map of polar nations. Yes, I saw a lot of icebergs, and therefore glaciers that continue to melt; yes, I saw very little animal life, few birds, few seals, no marine fish; yes, I saw, especially during the first week, days spent in T-shirts. But I also saw a Greenlandia expedition and its leader, Vincent Hilaire, totally committed to knowledge, research, information and sharing, as were his noble predecessors, and who continues to keep alive the adventurous and scientific spirit of French polar research.
Jimmy Pahun,(text and photos)
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