Our passage through the first stretch of ice beyond the northern Russian islands is easy. Polarstern is in and out the other side more quickly than anyone expected. Soon we turn northwards. Again, Rex warns us that the icebreaking motion might get more pronounced and the ship might have to do more ramming, reversing and ramming the ice again. “I very much doubt we can keep going at this pace,” he says. But still Polarstern ploughs on at seven knots (13km/h), pitching from side to side now and then. The journey is almost too smooth.
In another day we enter the core of the summer sea ice. Angular fragments rise up as the ship splits small floes. As we pass through brief leads of open water, sometimes the chunks of ice are caught in whirlpools at the side of the vessel. At other times the split ice tilts up in a slow, idle way to let us pass. Some of the ice we pass seems thick, with six inches or so of compact snow over a deep layer of translucent blue. Towards the bottom it merges into a murkier layer of spongey ice, like a brownish mushy honeycomb that easily sloughs off into sludge.
As we approach 135 east and 85 north, there is one floe that has caught the eye of the expedition leaders. It is sitting almost directly in the “sweet spot”, just a little further to the west at 130 east and 85 north. We approach the floe overnight to make a closer inspection, continuing to break through the ice at speed. “It is a quite nice floe, it has that body of open water right next to it that will freeze over, so we would be able to look at the fresh ice here and the older ice on the other side,” says Rex.
But a helicopter survey reveals a problem. The Akademik Fedorov, the Russian supply ship aiding Polarstern in the first phase of the expedition, has gone straight through it. Satellite images reveal the unmistable clear path of a vessel running right through the middle of the floe. There are so few large and thick floes in the right region that look promising, losing one of them to an accident is no joke.