Throughout human history, the Central Arctic Ocean (CAO) has sat relatively undisturbed at the top of the world, protected by a perennial shield of sea ice. With icebreakers being the only surface vessels to navigate these waters, you can imagine my surprise when we received an email from polar explorer Pen Hadow, enquiring if we were interested in sailing to the Central Arctic Ocean with our two 50’ sailboats as part of his Arctic Mission project to raise awareness about CAO’s increasingly accessible waters.

In my mind, the CAO was still locked in ice, a place where a sailboat could only get to by freezing in and drifting like the Fram in 1893 or the Tara in 2003. A quick look at the ice charts from the summer of 2016 brought me back to reality. The CAO was not just marginally accessible, large portions of its waters are now ice free in the summer and significant leads have opened all the way to 88N, only two degrees from the North Pole.

The Arctic Mission team at work on the ice. © Erik de Jong

While I have spent a significant amount of time sailing in Greenland, Svalbard, Arctic Canada and Alaska over the last decade and have noticed significant changes in accessibility and ice cover in those areas. I had not anticipated that the CAO would change as rapidly. By March 2017, the Arctic sea ice extent had reached a record wintertime low and the question became not if we would be able to sail into the CAO the following summer but how far would we be able to go and what would we find? In addition to bringing awareness to these newly assessible waters, we would also be studying and documenting the marine wildlife and ecosystem that are no longer shielded by year-round ice.

The seas finally subsided as we crossed the invisible border between Alaska’s Exclusive Economic Zone and the Central Arctic Ocean. It felt as if we had entered a calm lake, perfect conditions for our science team to begin their work documenting the wildlife and ecosystem. While the whole team had to adjust to life without land, scientist Tim Gordon and wildlife biologist Heather Bauscher had the added complexity of carrying out their work from a sailboat instead of a large, well-equipped research vessel. While a larger vessel would have made their work easier, both felt it was important to have as little impact on this newly accessible part of the Arctic as possible.

On our way North, we stopped frequently to gather scientific data, including using a CTD (short for conductivity, temperature and depth). Tim and Heather lowered it to a depth of 100 metres to measure the chemical and physical properties of the water to gain a better understanding of how melting ice is changing the habitat for animals living below the surface.

It can take a year or even two before all the analysis and results from a scientific research trip like this can be completed and shared but not everything we saw needed to be verified by a lab. On two separate occasions we found sizable chunks of plastic in the form of polystyrene foam. Though it was disheartening to see, it was a reminder that a lot of decisions need to be made about the CAO’s future.

The Arctic Mission team at 80 North. L to R: Conor MacDonnell, Heather Bauscher, Jaap van Rijckevorsel, Frances Brann, Nick Carter, Erik de Jong, Tim Gordon, Krystina Scheller, Fukimi (Shikoku Ken), Pen Hadow, and Tegid Cardwright. © Conor McDonnell

Even after we started to encounter sea ice, we still found ourselves sailing through large amounts of open water and rarely having to make major adjustments to navigation. The presence of ice however, meant that we needed to keep a vigilant polar bear watch. Scanning both the ice and the water, it wasn’t long before we spotted fresh tracks and in the distance with the aid of binoculars, Heather spotted a mother and cubs on a small ice floe.

The presence of ice made it easier to transfer team members and gear between the boats but it was not always easy to find sea ice that was stable enough to walk on. Being able to work from the ice was convenient for Tim’s acoustics recordings. From the ice Tim could set up his equipment and launch it on a paddleboard, far enough away from the boats that their presence would not interfere with the recordings.

Sound travels extremely well through the sea, especially in the Arctic Ocean where special thermal gradients lead to ‘acoustic ducting,’ a physical phenomenon that causes sound waves to travel faster and further in these waters than they do anywhere else on Earth. Many of the animals that inhabit the CAO’s waters have had to adapt to use sound rather than sight as their main tool for communication, navigation and hunting as historically with the ice cover, very little light has penetrated these waters. Narwhals for example hunt for fish up to a mile below the ice using biosonar, emitting 1,000 high-pitched clicks every second and listening to the reflected echoes, essentially seeing by sound. As well as looking for ways to protect the Arctic Ocean, it is also important we listen and understand the silence of the CAO’s waters to understand how big the impact of noise pollution would be if commercial activity entered the area.

Four hundred and nine miles into the CAO, we rafted the boats to an ice floe for a 24-hour science stop and to get a better feel for how the ice was moving before continuing North. While the current, wind and water temperature forecast were favourable, those conditions never materialized. Instead, the updated satellite images showed the ice was closing in behind us. It was almost September and the water around us was already showing signs of freezing for the winter. There was no question, it was time to turn around and head south.

The ice chart for the last week of August 2017, showed that there was a lead from the Russian coast all the way to the Geographic Pole. The lead appeared to be navigable, but we were over 1,000 miles to the east and the lead was only open for five days. It was a sobering reminder that it is only a matter of time before a small yacht can get to 90 North. It was humbling enough knowing that we were the first to make it to 80 North in the Central Arctic Ocean with normal surface vessels. There was no question in our minds that a fishing fleet could easily enter these waters.

Before we left the CAO, we took the time to pause and admire its waters, from the lion’s mane jellyfish surrounding us in the clear water to the newly forming ice starting to skim its surface. While we felt privileged to sail in waters that had previously been inaccessible. Our main goal was that our journey and findings would bring awareness to the fact that the international community is in a unique position to decide whether commercial activity will ever take place in the COA. While the five Arctic countries have already agreed to hold off on fishing until further studies are carried out, there is no agreement in place that prevents other countries from fishing these waters.