MURMANSK, August 25. /TASS/. The 50 Let Pobedy (50 Years of Victory) nuclear icebreaker returned from a voyage to the North Pole, which was devoted to the 40th anniversary of conquering the planet's northernmost point by surface vessels. This expedition was the 129th voyage since 1977 to the North Pole, where more than a hundred voyages had been made by Russian nuclear icebreakers.
The first surface vessel to reach the North Pole was the Arktika nuclear icebreaker let by Captain Yuri Kuchiyev, who on August 17, 1977 together with his crew landed on the globe's top. The heroism of the Russian scientists and sailors opened the North Pole for researchers of the Arctic, and later on - for tourists, who now enjoy the opportunity of getting to the planet's northernmost point without special training.
"Back then, nobody could imagine tourist would travel the North Pole," deputy head of the Polar Explorers Association Vladimir Strugatsky told TASS.
Tourist cruises to the North Pole became popular some 25 years ago, and for all these years, every summer about 1,000 passengers travel to the cherished 90th degree of the northern latitude. Most tourists take routes to the North Pole on board nuclear icebreakers from the port of Murmansk. The only icebreaker of the five Atomflot (nuclear fleet) has, which is suitable for serving tourists is the 50 Let Pobedy.
"Onboard [the 50 Let Pobedy icebreaker]... with a small cut of the crew it may be possible to organize ... up to 120 passenger places," Atomflot's Director General Vyacheslav Ruksha told reporters. "The icebreaker has all necessary technology resources for that."
The 50 Let Pobedy serves five tourist voyages to the North Pole a year. The program is for summer only - at that time the ice situation is most favorable in the Arctic, and the icebreaker is not working to take cargo vessels along the Northern Sea Route. This summer, the icebreaker had made six trips to the North Pole - the sixth trip was the jubilee voyage, which united members of the first expedition, which went to the North Pole on board the Arktika icebreaker, as well as scientists and designers, who work on icebreakers and their parts, and officials.
An expert of the Russian Academy of Sciences Boris Ionov, who back in 1977 soon after graduation from a university, joined the expedition and was the first to descend from the Arktika icebreaker onto the ice of the North Pole, says that first trip of 40 years earlier decided his future.
"I must say, the titles I have gained - Doctor, Professor, all they are related to a big extent to the first voyage to the North Pole," the scientist said. After that voyage in 1977, he returned to the Pole twice, and one of those trips brought him to the pole to stay there for a year for scientific work.
Vyacheslav Melikhov in 1977 was senior engineer-operator on the Arctic. The jubilee voyage to the North Pole was second for him. And this time he tried the role of a passenger.
"I am so idle here now - it is for the first time ever that I am a passenger onboard," he said. "A strange feeling to be a passenger."
Those, who feel comfortable being passengers, make reservations years in advance. Because of the short summer season and the big interest to visiting the North Pole, the reservations for trips onboard the 50 Let Pobedy are for years ahead - this year, reservations are available for trips due in 2019. The Arctic tours are most popular among the Chinese, the Americans and Europeans. Russians are not often visitors of the North Pole as yet.
A pole cruise is ten days long. The culmination for every passenger is when the vessel arrives to the point with the geographic coordinate of 90 degrees Northern latitude. The captain announces the goal is reached by giving a few long whistles.
Later on, the icebreaker's crew, like it was 40 years earlier, begins searching for a strong ice, where passengers could land to raise the flagpole and to make the shortest possible voyage around the globe, crossing all the meridians. Lately, tourists tend to have a BBQ on the North Pole and take a swim in the Arctic Ocean.
The voyage from Atomflot's base to the North Pole took only three days, which is the record of 40 years in reaching the pole by a surface vessel. Back in 1977, the Arktika's voyage to the pole was eight days long. The shorter time may be explained by a few factors, including the changed route, as the 50 Let Pobedy moved to the pole straight forward, not via the Kara Sea like the Arktika had to.
"Now we have experience in high latitudinal voyages," an outstanding polar explorer Viktor Boyarsky said. "We have qualitatively different satellite information to trace the opening (free from ice - TASS), as even with the power they have - icebreakers are trying to move in the water if they can avoid ice."
Besides, he continued, "the cyclic changes of the situation, as for the recent two decades the ice is much lighter - fewer many-years' ices, they move quicker, fewer compression zones, more water, and thus an icebreaker is practically bound to reach the North Pole."
In the recent practice, only once, in June 2005, an icebreaker could not make it to the North Pole, he said. The vessel, which had departed from Spitsbergen, stopped in ices because of a busy schedule of passenger vessels, and did not make it to the final destination.
"For an icebreaker the phrase 'did not make it' does not exist," the explorer said. "It could have taken it not 10 days, necessary for us, but 20 days. But, since the passenger schedule is very busy, the vessels are close to each other, and the decision was to return to the port."
On the return voyage, the 50 Let Pobedy approaches the Franz Josef Land. As the icebreaker is getting closer to the archipelago, more tourists are coming on deck - while some enjoy the changing scenic landscape, the others are watching closely the ice to see walruses and polar bears.
In summer, seeing a polar bear in the Arctic is no wonder - some of them are curiously coming to the icebreaker. Mothers and little cubs, on the contrary, prefer to stay away, but they still remain close enough to view them easily. This time, guests within ten days were lucky to see bears three times. Tourists also enjoy watching small groups of walruses relaxing on the ice.
On the return trip, if the weather allows, tourists stop at islands of the Franz Josef Land - on the Heiss Island, where during the navigation five scientists are working at the Observatory, and on the Champ Island, which is famous for round stones.
The icebreaker's crew planned a stop at the Champ Island, but a polar bear changed the plan. If the Arctic's biggest predator is even only in sight, tourists are not safe, and thus, they had to take a helicopter ride to view the island from the sky.
Atomflot's tourist business is rather for the image than for revenues. The authority's head, Vyacheslav Ruksha, said the voyages to the North Pole account for only 1.5% of the revenues, and in case of more attractive orders to escort vessels along the Northern Sea Route the 50 Let Pobedy will rather focus on the other tasks.
Due to the delay with the new Arktika icebreaker as well as to development of Arctic projects, Atomflot may very soon refuse from serving tourist cruises.
"I think, in 2020 already we shall refuse [from tourist voyages - TASS]," the official told reporters. "The Arctic summer is very short - only July and a small part of August. If we have work for all of July and half August, then, of course we shall refuse from tourist routes - then we shall have different work to do, more profitable."