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First Sri Lankan at the North Pole

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After experiencing four nights on the Most Powerful Ice Breaker in the world (powered by a nuclear plant generating 75,000 HP), ‘The 50 Years of Victory”, carrying 128 passengers from 24 countries was getting closer to the North Pole. On the 28th July 2011 at 1400 hours, the ship had cruised almost 1,200 NM (Nautical Miles) from Murmansk Port and as per GPS data log, it had reached 88deg 28’ N. This was its 11th voyage to the North Pole. The ship’s crew fixed a pole to the Sri Lankan national flag that I was carrying all the way from Sri Lanka to be raised at the bow deck of the ship, on reaching the North Pole.
In the Arctic, the North Geographic Pole 90deg N is fixed on the surface of the Ocean which is the northern axis of rotation of the earth; our final destination! It should not be confused with the North Magnetic Pole which moves over time with its position varying year to year.

The sea ice covers a staggering 7% of the planet surface of which over 90% is in the Antarctic region while it is less than 7% in the Arctic surface. Some predict that by the year 2080 this may disappear in the Arctic during summer. According to the expedition leader, four years back when the Ice Breaker was on a similar voyage to the NP, they were not alone since they spotted a submarine from the USA in the pole’s vicinity.

The passengers as well as the expedition team and the crew were all excited, waiting for the moment of celebration. At the Aft Saloon at 1700 hours, Mr. Jan, our expedition leader briefed us on the activities to follow the next morning on reaching the North Pole. It was at 2351 hours (Russian time) on the 28th July 2011 when the Captain sounded the horn of the ship signaling that we had finally arrived at the North Pole – 90 deg N.

All of us were at the bow deck of the ship celebrating the event with champagne, where I raised the Sri Lankan flag at the end of the ship’s bow; the first Sri Lankan to reach the North Pole in the known history of the world. Weather and the light were good and the temperature was at zero degree C. “The 50 Years of Victory”, under Captain Dmitriy, was the 86th Ship to reach the North Pole while the first ship to the NP had been “Arktika” that landed on 17th August 1977 which was also a Russian ice breaker. After one hour at the Pole the ship steered slowly for a few hours to locate a suitable and safe position for our landing on the North Pole.

It was on the 29 of July at 0950 hours when I landed on the North Pole and raised the Sri Lankan flag on the ice. All the guests were asked to join the circle on the Pole and observe a minute’s silence before walking slowly on the circle till we came back to the original position. One could say that we had walked around the world in ten minutes. The next event was the Capsule Ceremony at the Aft of the Ship. The capsule is made out of stainless steel to last forever and it contained wishes and memories of all the passengers and to which I inserted my business card. It was thrown into the water at the Aft of the ship by Mr. Jan. We presume that it would have reached the bottom of the Arctic Ocean where the depth at the North Pole is over 4,000 meters.

Later, a picture was taken with Captain Dmitriy at the North Pole on the ice. Some had a dip in the icy sea water; temperature at minus 1.80 deg C and they were given certificates for their bravery. Later BBQ was served for lunch, on ice. Being at the North Pole was similar to one being at the Top of the World and at the Pole the time can be set to any country in the world. At 4 pm, we were all on board and had to say goodbye to the North Pole for our return journey to Murmansk. It was a great feeling to be at the North Pole!

On the 30th July, Saturday, at 0700 hours the GPS reading on the Latitude was at 86 deg 11’ N. This means that we had moved almost 240 NM from the North Pole. The Ship steered steadily breaking ice throughout the day at an average speed of 15 knots towards Cape Fligely in the Franz Josef Land. All the guests felt very uncomfortable due to the shaking of the ship. In the afternoon we had a glimpse of a Polar Bear on ice which ran away after seeing our ship. At 1800 there was the Northern Charity Auction at the Aft Saloon and the proceeds collected were to be donated towards the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) for Polar Bear conservation and it was a very successful auction with a collection of over 50,000 Euros, within half an hour.
On the 31st July 2011 at 0630 hours when I got up from bed, the GPS recording in my cabin TV screen was at 81deg 52’N and 59deg 12’E. The ship was parked facing the glacier of Cape Fligely. The weather was good with sunshine. The images taken of the glacier from the ship were excellent. After breakfast at 0900 hours, we were flown into Cape Fligely where we spent some time taking pictures of the beautiful surroundings covered by the glaciers. We went back to the ship by lunchtime. In the late afternoon the ship started moving towards Champ Island, which was our next stop. The weather suddenly turned to a foggy atmosphere hence the ship cruised very slowly.

We were to reach the Champ Island in the morning of 1st August. The weather was not in our favour for the helicopter to start. Instead we had an engine tour of the ship in the morning hours. It was only in the afternoon we were flown to Champ Island. This land had some rare and fascinating geological formations and flora, which were captured by my camera including a few beautiful North Pole flowers.

While we were on the island, one of the expedition staff shouted, “Polar Bear, Polar Bear!” This is when I noticed a figure moving quite far on the water towards an iceberg in the direction of the ship. So I called all who were close to the water to move upland. The helicopter tried its best to change the direction of the Bear’s movement. At one stage the Bear came to the land and the security had to shoot into the air to scare the Bear for it to move away from us.

We were all on board in the late afternoon and the talk for the evening was all about the Polar Bear. Some of my images of the Polar Bear were used in the souvenir DVD given to passengers by the NP expedition staff. Later in the evening we reached the ice cap of Wilczek Island. The ship came very close to the island and we almost touched the ice cap. Every passenger had a great and memorable experience being very close to the ice cap.

The following morning at 0900 hours the ship had reached 80deg N. The weather was windy and foggy, which was unfavorable for a helicopter landing in Cape Tegetthf, which was named after the Austro-Hungarian ship that was in polar region research in 1874. The Captain waited till 2000 hours but there was no improvement of the weather for the helicopter landing hence the Captain decided to start the ship engine to move towards Murmansk Port.

On the 3rd August at 0630 hours we were close to 78deg N. Further, 600miles to reach our destination, the atomic port of Russia and the ship was steering on clear water. It was late night on 4th August when we approached Murmansk Port. The following morning I had to bid goodbye to the “50 Years Victory”. It was also time to say adieu to most of the friends I met on this North Pole Expedition as they were heading home that morning. Some of us had a flight to Helsinki later in the afternoon hence a city tour was organized for the morning where we visited the first Nuclear Ice Breaker built by the Russians and later the Murmansk Museum. I stayed a further night in Helsinki with the rest of my friends from Taiwan and Holland and returned to Sri Lanka on the 10th of August 2011 after a brief stop-over in London.

In conclusion, with all my adventure trips to many parts of the world, the North Pole Expedition is something that I will never forget for the rest of my life. I am also proud to be the FIRST SRILANKAN AT THE NORTH POLE- the date and time being 28th July 2011: 2351 hours, Russian time.

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