Planes, Trains and Zodiacs


Our home for almost five weeks docked in Adventfjorden, Svalbard. Photo by Dragonfly Leathrum

Our ship arrived in Svalbard; it was wonderful to see land again, especially the mountains, glaciers and Fjords of Spitsbergen. I awoke early Tuesday, September eleven to take photos of the sunrise in Adventfjorden, a bay of Isfjorden. Gulls and the occasional fishing vessel greeted us as we sailed towards Longyearbyen. There was no room for us in port so we dropped anchor in the harbor and traveled by zodiac and rescue boat from the ship to shore to see the small, stark town.


Sunrise in Isfjorden. Photo by: Dragonfly Leathrum


Longyearbyen as seen from the R/V Maria S. Merian. Photo by: Dragonfly Leathrum

Longyearbyen is the northern most town in the world at 78º North with coal mines, a small university, and polar bears. The polar bears are an actual concern. Recently a guide from a cruise ship tour was killed as was an English Boy Scout camping close to town. There are posted road signs everywhere with warnings of polar bears. Exploring mountains and glaciers beyond tight town limits, you need a gun and a guide. I was happy to read that they use scare tactics and don’t shoot first. (The guides, not the bears) We spent an afternoon on the small main street drinking coffee and picking up a few souvenirs. I’m not a souvenir buyer by nature but this was a special circumstance. I am pretty sure that I will never have the opportunity to return, although never say never, I did not expect to show up here in the first place. Hell, I had never even heard about this town until last spring. Two mates from the ship Andreas and Andreas had fun geocaching in town which left me with time to take photos as I walked with them. Being in Longyearbyen at the end of summer it is hard to imagine the place in the winter. I was already wearing a winter coat, hat and gloves. The parking lots are filled with snowmobiles instead of cars because, like in the movie Pleasantville, all roads end at the edge of town.


Andreas W. and Andreas M. document their geocache find at the oldest building in Longyearbyen. Photo by: Dragonfly Leathrum


The main shopping street in Longyearbyen. Photo by: Dragonfly Leathrum

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The glacier at the edge of town. Photo by: Dragonfly Leathrum

Returning to the ship late afternoon, we packed and cleaned our cabins and laboratories prior to our departure the next day. The wind was strong and icy and the sea choppy, so we had to put on survival suits to protect us in the small rescue boat that ferried us back to shore where a bus was waiting to bring us to the airport. The airport was super tiny and the runway super short. The pilot apologized in a few different languages for the bumpiness of the runway and explained that the pavement breaks up every summer. No big deal. The views at take-off were amazing.


A view of the Merian in the harbor from Longyearbyen. Photo by Dragonfly Leathrum


Shipmate Uli waits for his flight in the Longyearbyen International Airport terminal. This room is the only terminal/ gate. There is a room next to this of the same size with a few ticket counters and security. Photo by: Dragonfly Leathrum

Instead of heading straight back to Bremerhaven with our housemate (there is no “straight” back from Svalbard), Andreas and I decided to spend a few days in a small town south of Copenhagen in Denmark. We stayed in a quaint, dusty Airbnb in Nykøbing with a garden full of apple trees and a bicycle for Andreas to escape on to find more geocaches in a forest along the Baltic Sea. It was a beautiful Danish town founded around a 12th century medieval castle. After the Reformation the castle was the residence of widowed queens from Denmark and Germany. Many streets were permanently closed to vehicles and turned into a maze of pedestrian areas with bookstores, shops, and cafés where we spent our time. Seeing the green of the trees and grass was a bit of a shock to the eye after looking at the ocean for so long. Andreas told me that this happens to him every time he returns from long sea voyages. It was interesting to witness it for myself. On our second night the town had a DJ concert in the main square and the bass rocked the place for blocks. We found a little restaurant below street level where the occasional bass sound from the concert penetrated the thick stone walls. The bass reminded us of the engine rumble of the ship. The “land sickness” I was experiencing since leaving the ship made it feel even more so. Luckily, I only felt dizzy when sitting at a table and was fine walking and biking.


Nykobing Falster, Denmark. Photo by: Dragonfly Leathrum

It’s good to be back in Germany and each of us is trying to remember and re-establish our former routines. Our housemate, Andreas’ graduate student, is looking for an apartment. Andreas joined a competitive table tennis club and goes to practice three nights a week while I am catching up on blog writing, organizing the few thousand photos I took last month, and drawing and painting. I’m also reading a great book we found in Denmark written by Mark Twain called “The Innocents Abroad.” It describes his European travels by ship 150 years ago. It is hilarious, especially after my own European adventures.

Written by Dragonfly Leathrum 9/26/2018

Coldest Labor Day Ever!

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Sea ice on the Northeast Greenland Shelf. Photo: Dragonfly Leathrum

BERGFEST! celebrated the midway point of our expedition. The cooks outdid themselves last Bergfest Sunday with incredible meals that I can’t describe without upsetting my vegan friends. All on board contributed to a seriously eclectic, playlist with almost three hundred songs of dance music from around the world. I think it went on until three or four in the morning. What a great beginning to week four.

This was the coldest, iciest week as R/V Maria S. Merian sailed beyond 80̊ North latitude. The goal was to recover a mooring in front of the 79̊ N Glacier on the east coast of Greenland. Unfortunately, the Merian is not an icebreaker and there was too much sea ice to get close enough to the glacier and mooring. The scientists were able to take CTD measurements in the area, though.

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Scientist Ellen Werner points to our location just about 500 miles from the North Pole. Photo: Mubashshir Ali

Labor Day morning there was snow and ice on the ship. No pool parties and bar-b-que for us Americans on board this year, but who misses those things when sailing among icebergs along a coastline with snowy mountains. Yes, it did SNOW, on Labor Day, how cool, literally! At sunset the glassy sea mirrored the moon’s reflection in front of Greenland’s glaciers. The temperature was below freezing and you could hear the deep booming sound of the icebergs crashing around in the distance.


SNOWING! Photo: Dragonfly Leathrum


The moon’s reflection. Photo: Mubashshir Ali

That was the good news, unfortunately this northern location prevented us from receiving internet or satellite signals. That made ice navigation difficult. Visually you can see about twelve miles ahead, if it’s not foggy. It was foggy.

The next morning Scientists Mubi and Luisa spotted a polar bear swimming near the ship and I missed it! I was disappointed, but happy that others were on watch and shared a few images.

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Polar bear looking for ice and seals. Photo: Luisa von Albedyll, enhanced by the 4:00 am CTD shift

Midweek, moving east away from the coast, we encountered larger waves and swells again which did not make me feel so great. The sea eventually settled down when we sailed up to bands of sea ice. The Arctic sea ice flows with the cold, fresh East Greenland Current from north to south and we had to cross it to get back home. The band is made up of very old ice. It’s an interesting change from the more scattered sea ice near the coast as thin bands of dense thick ice stretch out for many miles along a sharp drop of bottom depth. After watching ice float by all day and getting cold doing so, I warmed up at an evening birthday party for two of the crew.


A band of Arctic sea ice moving south. Photo: Dragonfly Leathrum

As the week drew to a close there was much work to be completed for the end of the voyage. Some people were busy deploying and recovering moorings and others processing final data and composing expedition reports. The cooks surprised us again with an awesome Bavarian meal which included a Bavarian white beer. A welcomed change from the Jever Pilsener that my cabinmate likes. Also, Dr. Andreas Muenchow won the ping pong tournament in a smashing final match, the winner of foosball is still to be determined.

These weeks aboard the R/V Maria S. Merian (the original Maria S. Merian was a famous botanical artist) have been an unforgettable experience. Not just because I have taken over two thousand photos to remind me, but because of the friends I’ve made and everything I’ve learned about Oceanography and living on a ship. I’ve been to places and seen things that most people won’t have the chance to experience and I’m extremely grateful to those that asked me to be a part of the voyage.


Dr. Andreas Muenchow winner of the MSM 76 Ping pong tournament. Photo: Dragonfly Leathrum

Mostly loving every minute

R/V Maria S. Merian headed from Greenland’s ice to Iceland’s green hills to Greenland’s ice again during our third week at sea.IMG_4561 (2)

South of Iceland Surtsey Island is visible in the distance. Photo: Dragonfly Leathrum

We sailed from west to east along southern Iceland to recover ocean moorings from a submarine ridge that separates eastern Iceland from the Faroe Islands. There were a lot of Icelandic fishing vessels in the area most of which left for port as the weather turned bad. Time passed strangely for me when breaking waves at 13 ft and gale force winds of 63 mph hit us. My cabin window is four or five stories above the sea and this sea was splashing up against my window as the ship crashed through the waves. Windshield wipers cleared the windows of salt water on the bridge one level above my cabin. It was intense.

I spent the day sleeping, drowsy from the seasick medicine. My cabin mate was awesome, he left his lab and checked on me throughout the day bringing little pieces of bread and reminding me to drink water. At one point I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom and I noticed that the water was flowing sideways from the tap. I almost called out to my cabin mate before I realized that the ship, the bathroom and myself were all in fact sideways. The seasick medicine makes me dopey too.


The spray from the storm waves at the bow of the ship. Photo: Dragonfly Leathrum

Eventually the calm eye of the storm found us and even though the seas were still rough the sky brightened. When the fog lifted we saw the mountains of southern Iceland and the Vestmannaeyjar Islands. Cabin mate was excited that Surtsey, created by a violent volcanic eruption in 1963, and the biggest Island we could see, was two years younger than him. Puffins live there, but I saw none through my telephoto lens.

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Icelandic mountains and a glacier on the horizon. Photo: Dragonfly Leathrum

The rough seas soon returned as we headed back to Greenland now to the north of Iceland. I walked around the ship holding on to railings and stumbling from one side of the gangway to the other. To travel anywhere on the ship stairs are involved and depending on whether the ship is pitching, rolling or both gravity shifts a bit. You can time your steps to save energy, that is, climbing up the stairs is easier when the ship is moving down and gravity “feels” less strong. In the cabin I used elbows, shoulders and hips to hold open cabinets and doors while trying to get dressed. I also found myself sitting longer than usual at the dinner table, because the thought of trying to walk across the moving floor with a tray full of glasses and dishes seemed like a bad idea. It reminded me of the first time I was a waiter on a train. Knitting, sleeping and complaining were about all I got up to.

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Foosball (Kicker) and table tennis tournaments below deck. Photo: Dragonfly Leathrum

By Friday we were closer to the east coast of Greenland, a little further north this time. We encountered calmer seas, with a few icebergs. Scientists and crew were competing in Foosball (kicker) and ping pong tournaments below deck when they were not processing data from CTD stations, recovering moorings from the ocean, or running the engines of the ship. Foosball in high seas is pretty unpredictable.

Another storm was on the horizon with high winds. I packed away all loose things laying around the cabin, showered while I still could without being thrown around, and ate a bit more in case the storm made me seasick. I also spent my time on deck taking pictures.

Saturday arrived, but the storm did not. The waves picked up, but the winds did not. Traveling north across Denmark Strait to Greenland, I noticed the temperatures were dropping. Ice formed on deck and we were forbidden to go outside. The mountains of Greenland seemed close and became clear, sea ice appeared, and more icebergs drifted south as we moved north. The week and August ended with an unusual, beautiful sunset behind layers of fog and mountains.

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Sunset behind fog and mountains on Greenland’s eastern coast. Photo: Dragonfly Leathrum

So much beauty in the world

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The R/V Maria S. Merian creates gentle waves on calm, sunny day in Scoresby Sound. Photo: Dragonfly Leathrum

Land ho. Greenland. We glimpse mountains that peek through low-lying fog with clouds above as the ship slowly approaches the coast. Scoresby Sound is one of the largest and longest fjord systems in the world. My telephoto lens is working overtime to focus closer on the snow and glacier covered peaks. Before entering the Sound, we took measurements at the mouth by way of moorings and CTD stations. Only then our journey into Scoresby Sound began. We determined how much warm water enters the Sound and how it travels to reach the melting glaciers that produce the many icebergs we saw.

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Greenland barely visible through the fog as we approach the mouth of the sound from the Demark Strait. Photo: Dragonfly Leathrum


My favorite iceberg of the many I saw. I really like the bright blue ice intersecting the white. Photo: Dragonfly Leathrum

At first, we could see a few icebergs in the distance. I took photos of every one that passed. I would try to go back to my cabin to process photos and another even more interesting iceberg would appear just outside the porthole of my cabin. The mountains along the Sound appeared wild and unspoiled. Some peaks were covered by snow, some were not, some had waterfalls, others were dry. It is August after all, the height of summer with 20 hours of sunlight. My favorite feature, besides the distinct layers of sediment, were the many small and steep glaciers that had found their way to the Sound and the paths they create by carving the mountains. The passage of time is easily read here.


A tidewater glacier making its way around an obstacle shaping the landscape. Photo: Dragonfly Leathrum

I’m intrigued by the changing colors of the ocean from almost black to bright blue. The color morphs each day and even during the day as we change our location and clouds filter the light. About 200 miles into Scoresby Sound we entered into the Nordvest Fjord. One day the water was still, almost glassy. The ocean reflected mountains and icebergs alike which created an image of peace, tranquility, and awe. The next moment winds picked up, creating waves that smashed into icebergs. Another day the water looked a deep turquoise and later changed with the sun to a bright turquoise I have not seen before. Pictures taken this day look like we were in the Tropics instead of the Arctic.


A bright day aboard the ship in the Nordvest Fjord with a turquoise sea. Photo: Dragonfly Leathrum

Despite the distracting, dramatic landscape serious work was to be done. Mapping the rugged seafloor, Ellen’s instrument revealed a new science to me. She discovered that many of the islands in front of us were in the wrong place on the maps we had. I learnt a new word, “bathymetry” for this science that Ellen Werner of the University of Munich explains in daily meetings. I always look forward to her segment and watch her slowly evolving maps with new discoveries. Also, in our nightly meetings the scientists give short talks about their current work at home, because not all students work on Greenland Oceanography. They even let me give a talk about my artwork. No graphs or charts in my power point, folks.

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Ellen Werner discusses newly mapped bottom topography near the Denmark Strait. We call the Sea Hill, Ellen’s Hill. Photo: Dragonfly Leathrum

My seasickness retreated and I feel more surefooted on the ship. I am conquering my fear of heights as I get more comfortable standing closer to the ship’s railings when taking photos. Calmer seas also allowed me to paint again:

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Watercolor and colored pencil of an iceberg in the Scoresby Sound. 24cm x 17 cm by Dragonfly Leathrum


Written by Dragonfly Leathrum 8/28/18



Rollin’ on the waves with my scientist homies


Sort of ready for the safety drill.  Photo by Andreas Muenchow

Seasickness comes and goes. I was hoping to be okay after five days in, and most of the time I am, but I’m still reliant on the seasick pills. There is nothing in my adult life that can describe what this feels like, but there are two experiences from my childhood that match it well. The first is riding backwards in the way back seat of a full-size station wagon in West Virginia. West Virginia is full of roads with sharp turns in the mountains where the road will also “drop” you for a second if you drive too fast over a rise. The second is swinging on a swing. The particular swing I’m thinking of was connected to my babysitter’s swing set. It was two benches connected to each other by a metal frame that you could pile a lot of kids on. We would pretend that we were either pirates at sea or for more drama, escaping the pirates. Of course, there were always alligators, sharks or both underneath, so you couldn’t just jump off when the swing got too high and the poles started to pull out of the ground.

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Rock and roll childhood

This is what being on the ship feels like to me only besides swinging from side to side the ship can swing in any direction, sometimes all directions so you feel a bit stirred up. Imagine that you’re swinging high on this swing but there is nothing to hold on to. Now imagine that you are doing this taking a shower, carrying a tray of food, reading, typing or doing anything that you need to do in a day. I thought that it would be a nice motion for sleeping, and sometimes it is. When it’s not, like last night, it reminds me of the scene in the early surfer movies where a girl would be thrown up in the air on a blanket on the beach, caught falling and then thrown up again. Okay, I didn’t mean to write thrown up, but you get the picture. The movement of the ship never stops. You can’t get out of the car, jump off the swing or ask the hunky surfers to please, for Christ sake, put you down. This morning was a rough one, I saw spray at my window over four stories above the ocean and the ship is moving quite a lot. This very green Dragonfly stayed in bed hoping that sleep, dreams and a seasickness pill might make it better, it did. Knitting, staring at the horizon when it’s visible and peppermint tea help as well.

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View from the galley porthole.

Not everything about the ship being in constant motion is bad as I discovered watching a Star Wars movie the other night. The ship was rocking in the same motion as the land speeders racing through the forest. It was really cool. People pay money to have this experience in theatres. I’m going to watch the Phantom Menace tonight for the pod race, unless it makes me sick.

A lucky artist at sea


Dragonfly Leathrum on the main deck of the R/V Maria S. Merian in Scoresby Sound, Greenland. Photo by Simon Wett UHH

I am neither scientist nor sailor but an American artist living in Bremerhaven, Germany looking at Greenland beyond the rails of R/V Maria S. Merian. How I got here is another story, but my purpose is to convey work at sea to a broader audience with support from the U.S. National Science Foundation. Dr. Torsten Kanzow of the Alfred-Wegener-Institute is leading scientists from Germany, England, Greece, India, and the USA in their various projects. We are all collecting ocean data in the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland and in Scoresby Sound in Greenland. Even though I have been seasick on and off this first week of four, observing students, technicians, engineers, and crew working together is an eye-opening adventure.


The Maria S. Merian docked in Reykjavik Harbor. Photo by Dr. Andreas Muenchow UDEL

The research vessel R/V Maria S. Merian is all work all the time. Different groups fill every minute of twenty-four-hour work days. They collect and process data, prepare instruments for year-long deployments into the ocean, and recover instruments placed in the water in prior years. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I document what is happening from an artist’s perspective using photographs, drawings, paintings, and blogs. My first assignment was to photograph all members of the science party so a large poster could be made to help everyone get to know each other. Two days later I was seasick and missed a good photo opportunity when scientists, technicians and crew recovered a first mooring from the Denmark Strait. Dr. Andreas Muenchow from the University of Delaware covered for me and probably took better photos because as a seasoned sailing scientist he is more comfortable with deck operations.

The next day we saw an iceberg: My First Iceberg! Little did I know there were thousands of icebergs just beyond my horizon that I will write about next week.

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Iceberg in the Denmark Strait. Photo by Dragonfly Leathrum

We sailed back and forth across the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland to map a massive plume of dense water cascading cold Arctic water down the sloping bottom into the Atlantic Ocean. The ship stops every hour or so to lower a metal frame called a CTD that has many sensors and bottles strapped to it. This measures temperature, salinity, velocity, and oxygen levels. The scientists and crew also deployed and recovered moorings which measure similar things. The moorings are weighted down at the bottom with old train wheels. A nice bit of upcycling. All scientists meet every evening after dinner to compare new data and ideas that were collected and processed during the prior day and night. They organize all this in graphs and charts. It is fascinating to see the information visually. As a lucky artist I receive somewhat unexpectedly an advanced tutorial in physical oceanography without taking a single class in mathematics or physics.


Mooring deployments in the Denmark Strait August 2018 from aboard R/V Maria S. Merian. Photo by Dragonfly Leathrum

It was a good first week even though my sea sickness pills are all gone. The scientists, mostly students, are extremely bright, nice, and working hard at their stations. The weather has been fair during the week. We enjoyed some unexpected sunshine and we huddled through a few cold and foggy days. I photographed sunsets, moon rises, whales, dolphins, and many of the different sensors, scientists, and science work. Calmer seas here and there allowed me to complete two paintings of Iceland as well.

“You may find yourself in another part of the world.”

I never dreamed that I would be sailing off Greenland starring at an iceberg. To quote the Talking Heads, “This is once in a lifetime.”IMG_2380 (2)

First iceberg sighting.

Traveling is never easy in Germany for us Americans abroad: Andreas and I left Bremerhaven, Germany for Reykjavik, Iceland, but upon arrival at the station we learned that our train had been cancelled. Stress, panic, can we catch another train to catch our plane to catch the ship? Or would we be, “Letting the days go by” incognito in Bremerhaven? Have a month offline to ourselves to work on other projects and maybe show some of Andreas’ old iceberg photos at the end of the month? It didn’t sound like a bad plan.

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Bremerhaven train station. Andreas took this shot to prove to the conductor that our train was cancelled.

Alas, our replacement, slow, and very local train delivered us in the nick of time to Hamburg airport although much later than we hoped. This put us at the end of an hour-long check-in line for Iceland Air. No quick kiosks here. We queued up behind two giant backpacks which were hiding two German Physics students from Berlin. Here we met a laidback, cynical Canadian Professor who studies birds somewhere in California. The hour-long chatting about Iceland, ships, politics, and philosophies of life and traveling was the highlight of our travels. We all made it to Iceland with no time or sweat to spare. This is our second experience with Iceland Air in a month: we know how to work their video on the headrest, we have their introductory video, and we have their Iceland advertisements memorized. Yet, both Andreas and I forgot headphones and we had to read lips watching in-flight movies.

Three hours later we landed in Keflavik, Iceland where the captain announced that he was dropping us off at the front door and that we had to watch our step. He wasn’t kidding. In Iceland they let you off the plane parking on the tarmac and everyone walks to buses ferrying you to the terminal. In contrast, we were blown by the welcomed cold wind towards the terminal. [It was unseasonably hot in Germany.] A taxi was waiting for us, because the ship’s agent had arranged this transport to the ship docked in Reykjavik.


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The Harbor where the ship was docked in Reykjavik. Top: Photo from the ship. Bottom Watercolor and colored pencil.

The forty-minute taxi ride included background music of Joy Division on the radio and a landscape of rocks. Iceland is like no other landscape I’ve seen. I kept pointing out the window exclaiming, “Ooh look at this and did you see that?” We saw a lot and I mean A-LOT-OF-ROCKS. We saw rock sculptures, rock gardens, random rocks, rocks to divide parking lots … We also saw a sign for Dunkin’ Donuts, cold people on bicycles, beautiful mountains in the distance, and empty plains with more rocks.

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Rocks! Watercolor and colored pencil of the landscape near Keflavik. 6.5”x9.5”

Iceland, wow. Where am I? David Byrne to the rescue:

“How did I get here?”

“This is not my beautiful house.”

“How do I work this?”

“Under the water, carry the water

Remove the water from the bottom of the ocean,” and measure the salinity and oxygen levels, please.


Written by: Dragonfly Leathrum       August 18, 2018