Crossing the warmest Arctic Ocean

“Professor Molchanov” on its way northwards through the White Sea.

WHITE SEA: The first full day at sea for the Nansen Memorial Expedition was a great mixture of exploring the ocean on the outer deck and learning the history given in lectures on the inside.


Is the Arctic cold? It all depends on how you define the geographical Arctic. Today, we stick oceanographers’ definition and they include the White Sea to the list of Arctic Oceans. Well, next time going to the Arctic bring sun-protection cream.

In the northwestern horizon we can see the shore of the White Sea with the sandy banks of the Kola Peninsula. We cruise towards the Barents Sea in calm seas and glorious sunshine. With a full day at sea, and still no Arctic cold winds, I spent most of the day on the outer deck. “Professor Molchanov” is perfect for staying out and exploring the sea.

Before St. Petersburg was founded in 1703, Arkhangelsk was Russia’s main port for international maritime trade. Sailing out the White Sea today does not place you in any kind of peak hour of vessels traffic. We met only a few vessels during the entire day and for hours you can feel totally alone at sea.

So, why is it called the White Sea? It can’t be the color of the water itself. Due to lots of acids washed out to the sea by the rivers, like Northern Dvina, the water has a kind of dark yellow color. There are several explanations depending who you ask. And believe me, onboard our expedition vessel there are many experts and professors to ask. Both locals from the University in Arkhangelsk and inflight experts from Norway. Summed up; let’s just say the sea got its name either because it is covered with white ice in the winter, or because it is so foggy in the summer that all you see is white (knock, knock, we haven’t seen the fog yet).

During the morning hours, several harp seals were swimming by the vessel, curious looking at us, before diving again. Seals are numerous in the White Sea. Until recently, hunting seals on the ice was a tradition of economic importance for the Pomors. That’s what the Russians living around the White Sea call themselves. Pomors means “seaside settlers.”

Truly White Sea is the beluga whale. We could see many of them all day long. The beluga (Russian for “white one”) is a small whale found in most Arctic waters from Svalbard in the north to here in the White Sea in the south. It weights over a ton and averages over 4,5 m in length. You don’t have to be an expert on sea mammals to identify a beluga; its pure white color is easy to spot even in long distance. Unlike the seals, the belugas keep a distance to our vessel. Sad for the photographers on the outer deck.

The Nansen Memorial Expedition is in addition to explore the Russian Arctic seaways also a floating lecture paradise. I guess you will find few vessels on the world oceans today with so many PhD and professor titles as among our Nansen memorial expedition. Today, we joined several Norwegian historians that told us about the fascinating life of Fridtjof Nansen and why he managed over 40 years to build such great scientific Arctic cooperation with his Russian colleagues.  Then we joined Svein Ruud for his talk on Jonas Lied, the Norwegian business man that convinced Fridtjof Nansen to sail with him to Dudinka, the route our voyage takes today exactly 100 years later.

In the afternoon, we joined Andrey Repnevsky for his talk about the Pomor trade and exploration of the Arctic. The lecture triggered a highly interesting debate among the Russian participants. Are the Pomors a group of people with their own identity linked to special rights for fishing and hunting, or just a group of people around the White Sea with a slightly different historical background?

I don’t have the answer. I can just sign up to the statement by Hubert Griffith from his book “Seeing Soviet Russia” from 1932:

“What one knows before one goes to Russia is not worth knowing. In Russia one learns a new truth a minute.”

At sunset, we sailed towards the northern entrance to the White Sea, where the water turns blue and the wind is slightly colder.

Captain Viktor Aleksandrovich drives the ship slowly, but straight north, having plotted in Cape Kanin on his navigation screen.

During the night we will no longer be in the White Sea. The Barents Sea welcomes us and the shore that rises in the east tomorrow will be the Nenets Autonomous Okrug.