Furthest North in the Time of COVID.
I hadn’t planned to be in the arctic during a COVID pandemic but there was availability at short notice on the only boat out of Svalbard and so here I was at 82 degrees 15 minutes North in the fog at the edge of the pack ice. The previous 48 hours had been rough and most of the group had spent time below deck on their bunks, coping with the motion of the small boat through rough waters as we sailed around the western side of the island of Spitzbergen on the way to the ice to the north. Now at the edge of the pack we are on deck scanning the ice edge for signs of our elusive ursine species of interest. Ole J Liodden, the expedition leader and internationally famous wildlife photographer remarks pensively that we are almost certainly the most northern humans on the surface of the planet. Ole has had 50 trips around Svalbard and I’m comfortable that if anyone can find bears, that he can. We didn't find polar bears here at the Ice edge, so we turned South following the ice charts to another promising area. Later that day, as I watched Fulmars dip their wings in the Arctic Ocean, Eiric, the assistant leader, pointed out that I was looking in the wrong direction as on the other side of the bow was a polar bear sitting on ice an floe.
This wasn't my first trip to the Svalbard archipelago, and I guess it won't be my last, but it has certainly been different. Flying into Norway reminded me of a golden age of travel, remembered from my childhood, when you could get through security quickly and find space on the aircraft for your hand luggage without a battle. Even so, you still get the usual questions when you have as much camera gear as I do and it all has to be put into separate trays for screening. Being a photographer, my hand baggage is far more important to me than my clothes in the hold. I can replace lost clothes in Longyearbyen, but I’m pretty sure I could not replace the camera bodies, lenses and laptop in my rucksack.
Parked alongside runways as I flew through various European airports were rows of aircraft, neatly arranged by airline and then by aircraft type. COVID has decimated air travel and the tourism industry this year and it felt almost like a victory over the disease just be able to land in Longyearbyen. Of settlements with a permanent population of over 1000 people it is the world’s northernmost . Cloud covered the region for much of the flight out of Oslo, dropping through the murk into a typically arctic overcast as we approached Svalbard. Much of the time in the these northern latitudes you feel like you exist in a small vertical space between the ground and the overcast. The airport remains the same, the final approach along the fjord with mountains and satellite domes above you, the chill in the air and the frisson of excitement as you descend the aircraft steps, the guaranteed Polar bear sighting (stuffed and male) alongside the arrivals carousel, and then the ordered chaos of the bus. The road from the airport follows Adventfjorden past the docks and the power station and on into town. On the mountainside are the remains of the pylons and cable ways of the cable car system that transported coal from the mines to the docks before the mines closed and when Longyearbyen was still just a company town.
The town itself felt distinctly quiet compared to my previous visits: the outdoor clothing stores had plenty of stock but few shoppers, the cafes and bars were quiet with a handful of travellers spread out socially distanced amongst the tables. Because of the various travel challenges, I had a spare day to spend before joining the boat. The girl at the North Pole Expedition museum described the feeling of emptiness around the town as unbelievable. Almost as unbelievable to us now as the stories of obsession, deprivation and sacrifice told on the walls and displays of the museum. An enormous cost both in currency and lives, the stories of true heroism and the stories that were absolute lies. A century or more on, it is hard to believe how challenging it had been for those first explorers trying to reach the North Pole. Balloons, airships and early aircraft had all had their challenges, successes and disasters. Famous names made and famous lives lost in expeditions to reach a particular point on the surface of the planet.
I walked up on the hillside above the town, careful to stay within the allowable walking area; beyond it you must be armed by law for your own protection. You can come across bears anywhere on the islands, and bears are the apex predator. Whilst it is rare for bears to kill humans, it is certainly not unknown. Within a week of my leaving Svalbard a bear had swum across Adventfjorden and killed a camper near the airport.
From the high ground I could look down at the boat I was to join, now tied up at the harbour side. The MS Origo had spent 3 months at anchor in Adventfjorden going nowhere. But finally, WildPhoto had persuaded the authorities that expeditions could be safely run, and we were to be the fourth expedition of the summer.
Before leaving for Norway, there had been general health questionnaires. In the background we had been screened as suitable for this trip into the remote arctic. Joining the boat required an updating of the health questionnaires and a temperature check; and once on board all the rules that applied ashore in Norway were followed on the boat. Meals in the lounge were at tables marked out with COVID safe spacings and we were constantly encouraged with our hand hygiene and the use of alcohol (for hand disinfection!). We ended up a group of 8 committed photographers on a boat that had originally been configured for 24 passengers; though in recent years has only been used for 12. With 2 available large Zodiacs we had the luxury of at most 4 or sometimes only 3 photographers on each RIB. With the COVID precautions and the cool fresh air there wasn’t even a hint of a sniffle over the 10 days at sea. And we became the 4th successive COVID free expedition.
But back to the bear. We were in loose ice, small bergs and bergy bits, easily brushed out of our path by the ice enabled bow. The characteristic noises as the ice scraped along the side of the boat silenced as we came to a halt, drifting as we watched the bear on the ice flow. Curious of us, the bear flicked his tongue out and tasted the air, decided we were neither edible nor a threat and settled down again on the flow. This was probably a solitary male, though it’s difficult to be sure from a distance, but clearly in great shape, dozing on the ice as the clouds lifted and by some amazing coincidence the weather broke and the sun emerged. A photographic Nirvana of light and subject. Polar bears on ice in the sun, even better than chocolate sauce on ice-cream!! We were drifting towards the ice and bear when someone noticed a shape moving in the water, perhaps one hundred metres further away. Butter yellow head and a pair of dark eyes, black nose. By the way it was moving, it had to be large and looking to impose territorial ownership. As it slipped between the pieces of ice, our sleeping bear appeared un-aware of the interloper. Eyes remaining firmly closed. The new bear swam closer silently picking its way towards us, fifty metres became twenty-five, then ten, then five. There was silence on the boat. Putting two large bears together under these circumstances always has the risk of conflict. Under some conditions bears are comfortable in each others presence, but at other times serious fighting can occur.
Apparently from sleep and with a leap into the water, our first bear exits the iceberg, clearly far more aware of its surroundings than we had realised and also very keen not to be too close to the new arrival. And as the second bear climbed onto the vacated ice we could see why. Massive and in great condition, this had to be an adult male in the prime of life. Undoubtably the biggest bear that I’ve ever seen, and like the previous occupant of the icefloe, completely unfazed by our presence. In some parts of the world I’ve seen bears run at the faintest smell or sound of humans, here drifting alongside the boat he was inquisitive, tasting the air, dropping into the water to swim alongside the boat. After a moment it became clear that he was looking for a way onto the boat, possibly with malign intent on the bunch of upright seals that were peering down at him. Fortunately, the freeboard is perfectly adequate to keep him in the ocean and us safely and socially distant. Having circled the boat a couple of times, he hauled himself onto a floe, shook the water off and settled down to rest. We ended up with two very healthy bears on the ice, both within camera range and in great light. Chocolate sauce with a 99 on luxurious organic full cream raspberry ripple!
In the calm sea, we drifted through the ice, the two bears socially distant from each other, driven by an evolutionary induced behaviour, whilst we waited. At that time of the year, and at that latitude, sunset was about 3 weeks away. So, at around 10:00pm the light becomes gold, not for a golden hour as at more sensible latitudes, but for four hours or more. Time to get into Zodiacs and meander through icebergs in the company of polar bears. The swell introduces challenges for autofocus and long lenses, but also opportunities as the bears rise above you on the crest of the wave and you drop into the nadir. Eventually cold and exhaustion forces us back to the boat and we turn south towards land.
In previous trips to Svalbard I’ve seen both healthy bears and hungry bears, and this time on the northern coast of the archipelago we came across a bear scraping a living amongst the rocks on the foreshore. Much thinner than the seal fed bears we had seen on the ice. Here the ice had melted weeks before, perhaps without many seals anyway, and now this bear was trying to eke out meagre fat reserves until the ice froze again in autumn. It wasn’t clear to me whether this would be successful. Is this climate change, or is this a natural process? Bears apparently age more normally now, since hunting was banned on Svalbard, and after all nothing lives forever. I couldn’t tell you, but the science of polar bears is riven with opinion and prejudice and facts seem to get lost. To me it is difficult to believe that Canada allows 600 polar bears a year to be shot but doesn’t accurately know the true size of their population. The Inuit get the tags, or licenses, to shoot the bears, but a quick internet search tells you how the system really works. And of course, if you want a trophy, you’ll take the biggest animals you can find.
Turning west then south to return to Longyearbyen we stopped at Virgohamna from where a number of airship expeditions set out for the north pole. S.A. Andrée died having set out from here in his search for the North Polar and the American, Walter Wellman launched a number of unsuccessful expeditions before finally giving up. Here on the shore there are the remains of their camps and the machinery used for the on site production of hydrogen gas using iron filings and sulphuric acid. Before it’s use as an airship base, Virgohamna had been an off shoot of the Smeerenburg whaling station.
Across the bay from Virgohamna is Smeerenburg, or Blubber Town as it evocatively translates. This is now a historical site with a very few remnants of the processing plants for the whalers. Founded in 1614 and abandoned around 1660. Abandoned because in that short time the locally accessible Greenland Right Whales, now known as Bowhead whales as they have since been shown to be genetically different from the other Right Whales, were effectively wiped out. Modern estimates put the original Greenland Right Whale population at well over 45000 individuals before the whalers arrived. Similarly probably 15000 Walrus were taken from the shores of Spitzbergen, with very few of the original population surviving. The 1000 or so you around Svalbard now are ‘immigrants’ from Jan Meyen island. It’s difficult to get an estimate of total seal harvest, but in 1924 alone over 300,000 seals were killed.
Polar bears were killed in large numbers initially by the sealers and whalers and later by hunters. This wasn’t some form of sport hunting or traditional Inuit hunting, but early automation with baited traps triggering a loaded rifle. No risk really for the hunter. Early Polar bear hunting wasn’t recorded, but 1871 and 1973 hunters killed or captured over 30,000 polar bears. There were peaks of up to 900 bears a year being killed, whilst the modern Svalbard population is estimated at only around 3000.
Amongst this history I was pondering on the impact we humans had had; the drive to explore these regions had originally been to open up trade routes, but then the value of the natural resources, the seals and whales, had been realised. And despite the terrible conditions, the whalers and sealers had set about the slaughter with enthusiasm. How many bears would that seal population have supported before we decimated the seal numbers? These are islands whose seas were once teeming with marine wildlife, and having taken their food source we then shot the remaining bears for their skins.
We turned towards home from this unsettling place and travelled south to Kongsfjorden, or Kings Bay, with its settlement of Ny-Alesund. This is another place steeped in polar history as the settlement, originally based around coal mining, became a base for attempts to fly to the North Pole by aircraft and airship. Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the south pole, and the American financier Lincoln Ellsworth setting out from here in flying boats in May 1925. This was unsuccessful, but it was again from here that the airship Norge set off in May 1926 with the intent of flying across the arctic to Alaska, carrying amongst others Umberto Nobile (who would subsequently be rescued from an airship crash on the polar ice-cap), Amundsen and Ellsworth. On the way they over flew the North Pole dropping Italian, Norwegian and American flags. When the Norge set off, it was understood that Robert Peary and perhaps Richard Byrd had already reached the North Pole. However now the flight of the Norge is generally accepted to be the first time the North Pole had truthfully been reached.
Whilst Ny-Alesund, which is incidentally the site of the worlds most northerly train, is on the southern side of the fjord, on the northern side is a significant bird cliff. As always in Svalbard, the various bird cliffs provide a food source for predators and scavengers. It’s not unusual to find Arctic Foxes around these cliffs and from Zodiacs a few metres offshore we were able to watch a pair of cubs play on the beach. An adult was around, but kept a low presence as the cubs chased each other around the rocks and over the sand. This sort of play teaches them the essential skills to hunt and chase.
How far foxes travel depends on the local availability of food. Most remain in relatively local areas, though a couple of years ago a collared individual was tracked walking over 2000 miles across the winter ice to Canada!
Our last night at sea was marked by an evening at another historical old whaling site which features a regular walrus haul-out. Here these tusked and scarred big animals haul out together onto the beach, sleeping alongside and often on top of each other. There’s a continuous grumbling of scratching with flippers, warning bellows and general scratting. Often the easiest way back into the water is simply to roll down the slope, occasionally however something spooks a group and they hit the water in a hurry with much splashing. Mostly though they are reasonably settled, backlit by the low midnight sun.
Having seen virtually no-one for days, we were now heading back towards Longyearbyen and a return to the realities of a COVID world. By the time we retraced the passage past Prins Karls Forland and into Isfjorden for our return to port, Norway had imposed quarantine on the UK. We had all remained perfectly fit on board, the worse affliction being seasickness. The commitment to hygiene on board had been impeccable, by both crew and passengers. Handwashing and then alcohol rub before entering the communal spaces had occurred without question. Any lapse was met with a friendly reminder, from either crew or fellow passengers. No one had complained. An initial sense of nervousness had soon dissipated as confidence grew in our bio-security.
Had Norway imposed quarantine two weeks earlier then for those of us coming from the United Kingdom the trip would have been cancelled, and as we ultimately made up the majority of the passengers, the voyage itself would have been cancelled. As the infection rate at that time was less in Norway, and even less again in Svalbard, than in the UK, and we had been screened both before and on arrival with all remaining well, I was relaxed that I was unlikely to be carrying COVID in either direction. Clearly it is possible to travel safely in the time of COVID, and the impending arrival of vaccines, together with more reliable rapid screening tests, should lead to the re-opening of travel destinations. Whilst to some that may seem a luxury for the ‘rich’, the reality is many people who profess that travel is for the ‘rich’ themselves travel, and many people across the world who are not ‘rich’ depend on travellers for their living.
Returning to the original question; so were we the furthest north humans on the planet, as Ole had surmised? Well, not quite. At that moment, there was no one between us and the North Pole on our line of longitude, but locked into the ice at a more Northern latitude was the German Mosaic expedition aboard the MV Polastern. Worryingly, they were finding the ice to be thin and far easier to navigate than they had expected. And the science shows that 2020 had the least October sea ice extent ever measured. I wonder what that will mean for the bears?
© Russell Millner 2020