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Dispatch 6: The Magic Kyst

5th August 2012

I was dreaming of something set in a city far to our south when Ben opened my door at 0300.  “Dallas,” he said, “I think you’ll want see this.”

I knew what he was referring to.  The East Greenland coast (“kyst,” as it appears on the Danish charts).  We’d been talking about it for days in the face of all this fog that that threatened our view.  I dressed hurriedly, sloppily and scurried to the bridge.  The fog-free sight was stunning, literally.

Greenland's East Coast at Sunrise
Thousand-meter, saw-toothed, black-rock mountains—cirques and arêtes and every other feature of an ice-carved environment, out-flow glaciers winding sinuously around their flanks—soared vertically from the sea.  Layers of pointed peaks, one higher, sharper than the last stepped inland toward the great Greenland Ice Sheet.  From behind the mountains, the sun cast shafts of ethereal pink and orange light out over the ocean and beneath strands of dark clouds as if intentionally added for the sake of dramatic contrast.  Indeed, this, the Blosseville Coast, seemed unreal, something concocted by an over-caffeinated 19th century scene painter for blatant audience impact.  How could such a place be actual?


'Were the mountains but a dream, the light a hallucinogenic glare?'

I went to the chart table for names and distances and lat-lon coordinates; the paper representation felt more concrete and readily graspable than the place itself.  Piers, the Second Mate on the twelve-to-four watch, had just plotted our position, 68°35’ North by 026°10’ West, eleven miles off of Kap (“cape”) Tupinier, toward which he drove the ship at six knots, a prudent pace in these essentially uncharted waters.  (He wears this plaid hat with earflaps and chinstrap in preposterous contrast to his natty navy-blue uniform sweater with epaulets.)  “The last CTD station on this section lies just inshore of those two icebergs.”  The one on our starboard bow, veined with blue ice, was slightly smaller than Westminster Cathedral, but hardly less spectacular.  Both were on the move, drifting southward on the East Greenland Current, the reason for our presence on the Magic Kyst.  Yes, there was science going on; it wasn’t merely tourism.

East Coast Iceberg
The Blosseville Kyst, arcing southwestward for a couple of hundred miles south of Scoresby Sound (Kangertittuaq, in Greenlandic), the largest fjord in the world, may be the least explored region north of Antarctica.  There are no settlements, no signs of human presence, no valleys, no vegetation, no flat land at all, nothing conducive to human existence.  Not even the Inuit ever come here and never did, at least not for long and certainly not overland.  No, the Blosseville Kyst is a glimpse of Earth in her younger days.

Painted Iceberg
Robert, the Chief Mate, relieved Piers at 0400 and drove the ship to the final CTD position within a mile-and a half of Kap Tupinier.  He stopped the ship, and the CTD watch lowered the instrument into 100 meters of water to measure the temperature, salinity, and velocity of the East Greenland Current, while the rest of us continued to gawk, remark, and exclaim.  Bob, Chief Scientist, clipboard in hand, came on the bridge during the cast.  “Does this place look familiar to you guys?” he asked Ben and I rhetorically.  It did indeed.  We had been here to this very spot in the East Greenland Current one year ago aboard the Wood Hole Oceanographic Institution’s research vessel Knorr.  Nothing has changed except the icebergs and imperceptible erosion..

Icebergs travel the Denmark Sea under the moon during sunrise
Well, it’s 1130 now.  We’re steaming east toward the next mooring site, and from the bridge wing, I’m watching Greenland fade in the fog bank, only the highest, snowcapped peaks protruding.  Now they too vanish... Was it ever really there, this magic coast?  Were the mountains but a dream, the light a hallucinogenic glare?  No, no, it was real.  I have witnesses, plots on the Danish chart by responsible officers, and Rachel’s photographs to show for it.  She was up all night shooting them.  She left a note at her workstation.  It says, “I’m sleeping.  Wake me only if there is: a small-boat deployment, polar bears, dragons, martinis.”
- Dallas

Sam Mansfield, Videographer, views the East coast of Greenland during sunrise