A Hole to See the Ocean Through

by Ellie Ga

Dispatches from a drifting polar vessel.

"A Hole to See the Ocean Through" was commissioned by Triple Canopy as part of its Internet as Material project area, supported in part by the Foundation for Contemporary Arts and the Brown Foundation, Inc. of Houston.

By the time I come aboard in late September, Tara has been drifting for one year. The sun makes a complete revolution around us each day, while slowly spiraling downward. The crew has been using the ship’s bulletin board to keep time, posting the sun table and the weekly weather forecasts, conjecturing how far the ship will drift in the coming week. On October 4 the sun sinks below the horizon, and a season of perpetual twilight begins. The transition is like walking around with your eyes half closed. You get sleepier and sleepier; your eyelids drop another millimeter each day. Then one day they don't open at all. We remove the sun table and replace it with a table that indicates the time of the full moon’s rising and setting. We wait with much anticipation for the moon to be continuously overhead, because it has become our daylight.

The Drift

Explorers used to avoid having their boats get stuck in the polar pack ice. When that did occur they would make the best of it, setting up camp to make observations of the surrounding area. More often than not the ship would collapse from the pressure of the ice. This is what happened to the USS Jeannette, accidentally set adrift in Siberian waters in 1879. The expedition to the North Pole, which no one had reached before, was officially launched by the US Navy but financially sponsored by James Gordon Bennett, owner of the New York Herald, at the time the most widely distributed newspaper in the country.

Many explorers still believed in the ancient myth of the Hyperborea, the land beyond the north wind, where the pack ice would give way to a paradisiacal island encircled by the temperate Open Polar Sea. The Herald, which had eight years earlier sent Stanley to find Livingstone in Africa, wanted exclusive rights to this story. After leaving San Francisco, the Jeannette, manned by Captain George Washington De Long, a naval crew, and a Herald journalist, traveled north through the Bering Strait. Within two months the ship became trapped in the ice near Wrangel Island in far east Siberia. The ship drifted for nearly two years before caving in, leaving the crew to drag their small whaling boats across the ice in search of civilization or open water.

Three years later, clothes and documents from the Jeannette washed up on the coast of southwest Greenland, nearly three thousand nautical miles from Wrangel Island. Norwegian explorer and biologist Fridjtof Nansen took a particular interest in these objects. He knew the ocean currents couldn’t have carried the relics such a distance without crossing the upper reaches of the frozen Arctic pack ice. He became convinced of the existence of ocean currents that flowed underneath the pack ice, causing it to move in a somewhat predictable manner. In order to test this theory he had a special boat, the Fram (Norwegian for “forward”), designed with a pointed stern and rounded sides to prevent the ice from getting a firm hold on the hull. In 1893 the Fram was inserted into the pack ice in the New Siberian Islands, becoming the first expedition to drift purposefully. Though Nansen and his crew failed to reach the North Pole, they drifted for three years, traveling further north than anyone had before and proving that the pack ice moves according to a wind-driven ocean current. The crew made continuous soundings by cutting holes in the ice; they discovered mountain chains on the Arctic seabed and determined that, contrary to myth, the surface of the ocean around the North Pole is frozen.

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False Prediction

In the old days, explorers used to spend most of their time figuring out where they were. We, however, know exactly where we are at each moment. The question is: How long will we be stuck in the ice? For the most part we rely on the weather forecast to shape our sense of the future, which makes me wonder if there isn’t a prophet held in higher esteem by our society than the weather forecaster.

We are so far north that we don’t even have a time zone. We operate on Paris time, because headquarters wants us to be available during its office hours for phone conferences, interviews, and discussions of logistics. We observe the shift to daylight savings time, setting the clocks back an hour, which, incredibly, causes the same momentary confusion as it does back home.

The Olive Pit

In order to drift, a boat must travel to a point where open sea and frozen sea meet. Once there, ice soon attaches itself to the boat, immobilizing it. Tara was built to be the second boat in history to purposefully drift in the polar pack ice. She was designed as a smaller, lighter Fram, one hundred feet long and made of aluminum instead of wood. Like the Fram, Tara has retractable rudders and is shaped like an olive pit. If an olive pit is held too tightly between the fingers, the pressure will force the pit to shoot out. Ostensibly, Tara would react the same way to ice compression, popping above the ice instead of being crushed between the floes.

I come aboard in September of 2007, a year after Tara’s rudders were retracted, her engines were shut off, and she began to drift with the movement of the eastern Siberian ice. There are ten of us: Six are French, one is Russian, one is Norwegian, one is a New Zealander, one is American; seven men, three women, two dogs. The sunless days are marked by established routines: the sauna every four days, a shower every seven days, night watch every five days. Sometimes I mark the days of the week by the amount of alcohol I get: Monday, none; Tuesday, two glasses of wine; Wednesday, a predinner drink; Thursday, none; Friday, none (but I get to take a shower); Saturday, a predinner drink; Sunday, one can of beer.

The Plankton

Using a chainsaw to cut a hole in the ice, we fill our Nansen bottles with samples of plankton—the only other form of life this far north besides the occasional polar bear. The name of this organism comes from the Greek word planktos, which means “to wander.” Plankton cannot move of its own volition, but only drift with the ocean currents. We, too, are planktonic as we drift. And since the future eludes our control it has become our obsession: Every morning we go into the office and check the GPS coordinates and the satellite images of the ice’s edge, as if reading the headlines of the newspaper.


We also use the hole in the ice as a recycling bin, depositing our cans and glass into the sea. I’m told that after a couple of years the refuse will be transformed into sand. Looking at this hole in the ice, I imagine the recycling of water: It takes more than three thousand years for one molecule to travel along the oceanic conveyer belt, past the equator, down to Antarctica, and back up to the Arctic again. As water from all the oceans of the world has passed through the Arctic, the sediment of plankton fossils has been converted into crude oil; the seabed is estimated to conceal one-quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas supplies. The five countries with Arctic borders (Denmark, the US, Russia, Norway and Canada) are currently working to prove how far their continental shelves extend toward the North Pole and what drilling rights they might claim as a result.

Big Brother

We make daily pilgrimages to the snow pits located on the ice fields, which we’ve named Helsinki, Copenhagen, and St. Petersburg. Because the boat is drifting for so long, and because it is drifting throughout the winter, the data we gather is rare. We are constantly extracting ice cores and measuring snow temperature and thickness. This fieldwork has the feel of a divination ritual: We stick a thermometer through layers of snow and shout out numbers, which are written down and emailed to the labs in Paris. “For all of our struggles to gather this information in the cold, wind, and darkness,” the ship’s French scientist tells me, “we are ultimately collecting data to feed a supercomputer that can process nature’s mortality in forty-eight hours.”

Once a week we’re videotaped while eating dinner, at the request of a French psychologist studying the effects of solitude on the group. She’s part of a team planning a simulated Mars mission in Antarctica, which would entail putting a small crew in an enclosed bubble. The tapes end up at headquarters in Paris. We wonder who else watches them.

Bay Leaves, a Letter

Thursday and Sunday evenings we take a sauna, which breaks up our regimented routine. A pot of soup, cheese, and wine are left out; we can eat dinner whenever we please. Nevertheless, we usually choose to eat together at the same time. Since we are on rations, the cook puts one bay leaf in the soup. If the leaf turns up in someone’s bowl, the Russian scientist says, “A letter will be delivered to you soon.” We don’t have the Internet; once a day an iridium satellite phone makes a data call to retrieve our emails. The only world news I hear in the first three months is that Al Gore has won the Nobel Peace Prize and that Nicolas Sarkozy has been engaged to the top model Carla Bruni, much to the shock of the crew.

Weather Signs

Mares’ tails and mackerel scales make tall ships take down their sails.

Clear moon, frost soon.

A wind from the south has rain in its mouth.

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.

The Rabbit

Technically we are at sea, and there are sailors’ superstitions we must oblige. For example, on a French vessel it's bad luck to say rabbit out loud (in any language). This harkens back to the days when boats were made of wood and live animals were kept on board for food. Rabbits would often eat through their cages and then gnaw away at the the ship. Oftentimes I pass the Russian scientist in the hallway and he pantomimes the forbidden word for my amusement, mounting gloves on either side of his skull and flapping them like bunny ears.

We never know when a major break in the ice will occur. One day in December the ice fractures and we lose our survival tent, toilet, tractor, and some drums of diesel. Floes begin to separate as we drift closer to the edge of the ice, and we scramble to pack the equipment we’ve stored on its surface. We’re constantly betting on the exact date we’ll escape the ice. We receive predictions in the form of phone calls from headquarters in Paris forecasting the wind direction and air pressure.


Occasionally I see a large fissure form in the ice and am reminded of reading the lines of someone’s palm to tell her future. I light up these fissures with a headlamp, as if doing so will reveal the points where the ice might weaken and break, freeing us.

I trace the lines on the palms of my crewmates' hands, in the color of their choosing. The chief, who has lived on Tara for two years now, says it’s the most sensual experience he can remember. I must admit, it does feel pretty damn good: The carpenter traces the lines of my left hand in green and says how difficult it is to know me, and I tell him that I’ve been thinking about this too, and we agree that there are many ways to know a person, and we leave it at that.