Saturday, September 26, 2009

Prins Karls Forland, Svalbard, Norway

We sail slowly down the coast. Traveling south, the air and sea grow warmer, and when I stand up on deck I can actually A humid green scent missing from the high arctic ice.

We travel to Crossfjorden and its' glaciers, hanging from ragged mountain peaks. They're all but lost in low gray cloud cover, but when even the smallest ice breaks away, the fjord echoes with thunder. In the gray light at the end of our trip, everyone seems subdued.

I don't recognize the man in the mirror. Gray stubble, baggy eyes, face slack and jowly as a depressive basset hound. My clothes smell of dead whale. It is so time to go home.

As we sail past Prins Karls Forland, a thin strip of island that protects this coastline from the North Atlantic swells, winds rip the fabric of cloud cover to let in beams of sunlight over the peaks. We are here late in the summer season. The mountain peaks have shed last winter's snow from all but the most shadowed and protected clefts. Brown dust coats the glaciers in streaks. Within a few weeks, autumn snow storms will return, coating these peaks in white, freezing the sea and putting the land back to sleep.

Sometime after midnight, the sun emerges tentatively through a break in the clouds. Glowing orange and low on the horizon, it sends a pale glow across the mountains lining Isfjorden and onto the boat. We put down the last dregs of our celebratory wine, scurry up on deck and take one last round of pictures before we go.

August 20, 2009 - Spitsbergen Island, Norway

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Sallyhammna, Spitsbergen Island, Norway

Polar bears are blessed with an extraordinary sense of smell. It's critical to their survival on the arctic ice. A whiff of seal, the scent of fresh prey, mean food and survival for the bear.

When a 40-foot Fin whale carcass washes up, stinking and bloated in the late summer sun, it feels a little like cheating. Still, it was an opportunity too good to refuse, either for us or the bears.

We motored for six hours to reach Sallyhammna. The bears had to walk, but it seemed worth the effort. The table was set and the guests have arrived.

Our first mistake may have been anchoring downwind of the carcass. We had a lovely view of a parade of bears swimming out to feed on the whale which lay grounded in the shallows, floating on the tide. The boat, already rank with the scent of wet socks and unwashed long johns and dubious cooking skills, now stank of cetacean road kill too. We smell worse than a fish monger's dumpster. During a sanitation strike. In August.

But the bears seem to mind not one whit.

We count as many as twelve in the surroundings hills, though it's hard to keep track as waddle off into the snow to sleep off their blubber hangovers. They swim out to the whale one or two at a time, ceding their spot to any bigger bear that comes along. It looks like tough going though. The blubber has gone slimy and fibrous and soupy and the bears struggle to get a purchase even with their sharp teeth. All but the smallest loner cub, who comes out during the small hours of evening and scuttles away at the first sign of competition, look well fed and glossy. They gorge, then go off to swim and play in the 36° water.

It's not a bad life if you can suppress the gag reflex.

August 18, 2009 - Sallyhammna, Spitsbergen Island, Norway

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Pack Ice, Latitude 80° 40', Svalbard, Norway

In life, there's the hard way and the easy one. The path of noble purity, and just getting the job done.

In our quest for the perfect polar bear image, the noble white lord of the arctic on the pristine polar ice pack, we spent long hours on the righteous path, sailing to the edge of the pack ice, then motoring slowly for more then 50 nautical miles of constant critter hunting.

I climb 35 feet up the mast, straddle a cold, metal slat half a butt cheek wide, then tie into a safety line and scan the horizon through my binoculars from a uniquely uncomfortable perspective.

The trick to spotting polar bear on the ice is looking for their subtle color difference. Sea ice is white and blue. Polar bears fur shades toward cream or yellow. Under the high arctic midnight sun though, every patch of snow and ice within a hundred miles was bathed in a golden glow. Lovely to be sure, but it lent every hump, nook and hollow a distinctly bear-like appearance.

It made for a very long night, and by seven we were all bleary eyed and hallucinating. And the total bear count? Zero. Nada. Zilch.

We turned to each other, shook our heads and said "Screw this," and headed for the dead whale.

Sometimes you just need to get the job done.

August 16, 2009 - Latitude 80° 40', Svalbard, Norway

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Hinlopen Strait, Svalbard, Norway

I am alone, forty feet down, under the ice.

I told the people who love me that I wouldn't do this. A massive iceberg looms above me, blocking out the sun, cutting me off from the surface. One more broken promise. There might be a rule in the scuba diving canon that I'm not breaking at the moment, but it's not for lack of trying.

If I swim close enough, the iceberg's surface is a finery of ancient frozen bubbles and gentle melting curves. From a distance, it seems a hulking beast. The sea, flirting with freezing even in the height of summer, is cloudy with life of an almost primordial nature. Hundreds of small jellyfish float past, their tendrils fragile enough to dissolve with a touch.

Above me, there is light and air. Below is 1200 feet or more of cold, still water. I hang suspended, listening to the pop and crack of ice, my hard breathing, blood rushing in my ears, the weight of my conscience.

I am alone and adrift in a cold sea, looking hard into the darkness. Below me, the green fades to a lifeless black, but I don't have the courage to go deeper, to plumb the depths in search of judgement or redemption or finality.

I turn instead to surface, swimming back toward the light, the sun and the world of the living.

August 16, 2009 - Hinlopen Strait, Svalbard, Norway

Friday, September 18, 2009

Malmgren Island, Svalbard, Norway

The big bear stands atop the island like he was king of the hill. He was certainly lord of this square mile or two of weathered dolomite rock, filled with bird nests in summer and surrounded by endless seal-populated acres of ice as far as his beady little black eyes could see. It doesn't look like a bad life, all things considered.

He was easy enough to spot as we motored through the archipelago in the zodiac in a morning of fog and cold. A small cream-colored spot on the ancient brown rock. He glared down at us from his perch, but soon grew bored and went back to sleep. The big boat joined us, but we had to wait until nearly midnight before the bear finally woke and deigned to visit.

A quick bank of fog arrived at the same time he did, and the six of us jockeyed for position on deck, shooting into the misty half-dusk. I finally slipped down into the zodiac for a better angle, and Heinrich hopped in top paddle me closer.

Steve practically leapt off the deck to get into the boat, like it was the last lifeboat off a sinking ship. Smart boy, that.

August 13, 2009 - Nordaustlandet, Svalbard

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Nordaustlandet, Svalbard, Norway

Today we played a game called "Let's Sneak up on a Enormous, Shit-smeared Pinniped."

It went about well as you'd expect.

The prospect of a break in the weather on Lågøya Island in Nordaustlandet got us moving early. The rising sun made some small effort to burn through the fog, and we gulped down scalding coffee and headed for the walrus haul-out here at five in the morning. Two dozen of the brutes were heaped on the black sand beach, belching and farting with contentment.

We slowly worked our way up to within ten yards of the nearest set of tusks, then five, and finally it turned into some sort of low-grade contest of machismo. I was the last man left, approaching within a yard or two of an enormous bull. I knelt carefully beside him, photographing the herd at rest. As he breathed, I was enveloped in a calming, warm cloud, and I felt an almost benevolent tolerance of my presence.

When I tried to swim with the walrus later, the greeting was a bit cooler. Sliding into the water, I slapped my fins like a playful brother walrus, and one big bull with two young acolytes circled me, taking my measure, before approaching. The enormous male swam a bee-line for me, not stopping until he gave me a single, hard head butt with his snout and tusks. They could hear the crack of ivory tusk on my glass camera dome back on the boat.

That was enough of a warning for me. I scurried back to the skiff, crawled in and unceremoniously announced my retirement from undewater pinniped photogtgraphy.

August 11, 2009 - Lågøya Island, Nordaustlandet, Svalbard

Monday, September 14, 2009

Nordaustlandet, Svalbard, Norway

They could almost be sleeping.

Lying in this cold island, blanketed in fog, two polar bear cubs lie within a few yards of each other. Abandoned, starved, silent in death.

It's about the saddest thing you could ever see.

Lågøya, Low Island, is a flat slab of crumbling dolomite somewhere north of 80° latitude, in Svalbard's Northeast Lands. A few dozen runty reindeer call it home, a marginally less inhospitable home than the surrounding bleak wastes at the northern edge of their domain.

Walrus haul out on the beach here too, a mountain of flash and ivory tusks. Maybe that's what drew the cubs' mother here, in some desperate attempt to pull down some larger, stronger prey. If she had died on land, the cubs would have stayed by her side, mewling and crying until they fell still. She may have died on the ice, or simply walked away when the cubs faltered. There's simply no way to know what happened.

In the end, the cubs had only each other.

An arctic fox may find them soon, or another polar bear sniffing for carrion. This is an unforgiving, unsentimental land.

For now, they lay almost untouched, their eyes closed, fur coats damp with the mist, sleeping on.

August 10, 2009 - Lågøya Island, Nordaustlandet, Svalbard

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Nordaustlandet, Svalbard, Norway

After 30 hours of staring into the mist, she emerged without a sound. Her steps were more confident now, but she still took a slow, wandering and cautious course toward the boat.

The ice around us continues to melt though the temperature hovers near freezing. She now wades through pools, leaps over narrow leads and once punches through the rotting ice and has to swim through the frigid sea.

We now have a sense of her routine, though I gathered half a dozen noise grenades and loaded three rounds in the 30-06 rifle.

Just in case.

She sniffed her way around the boat's waterline, tasting and rejecting bits of washed up trash.

We scrambled around on deck, photographing her reflections in the icy pools. Bearded seals pop their heads up nervously in the open water and she scurries off to hunt for real food. Settling in along an open lead, she curls herself into a ball and waits.

We watched and waited, praying to see a true hunt. I could already see it in my mind's eye. The hapless seal surfacing, a powerful lunge, the brief struggle and then blood on the ice.

Of course, precisely none of this happened. Heinrich returned with the zodiac from an excursion and motored into a nearby open lead. The bear stared, looked faintly put out, and returned to sniffling around the boat some more.

Curious about all the frantic to and fro on deck, she reared up and placed her paws up on the bowsprit, staring back at us. She didn't seem all that impressed, since after that she simply walked away, ambling across the broken ice as if down a city sidewalk before vanishing again into the swirling fog.
August 9, 2009 - Sabine Bay, Nordaustlandet, Svalbard

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Nordaustlandet, Svalbard, Norway

For two days and more, we sit in the ice, starring out at a world of snow and ice and fog, all in gradations of gray.

When the clouds deign to lift, we can make out specks of black; ringed seals and the occasional yellow blob; distant polar bear.

I pace the 30 feet of available deck space, growing anxious, bored, depressed, subdued, achy, resigned and back again over the hours. We divide the day and night into two hour shifts, sleeping and eating at strange and uncertain intervals.

Beyond the slow, inevitable melting, the view does not change.

The boat and the ice begin to feel like a prison.

Powered by two bracing cups of coffee and more anxious dreams, I scramble up the mast and survey our surroundings. Ice, mountains, snow. At the edge of vision, I can still make out one large polar bear, walking along the shore, on patrol. Not exactly walking away, but not venturing any closer, either.

Soon the fog descends, and steals him away as well.

August 8, 2009 - Sabine Bay, Nordaustlandet, Svalbard

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Nordaustlandet, Svalbard, Norway

I wake from the deepest of sleep, like swimming up from deep water. Steve is shaking me, saying "Dude, it's show time" He growls, bares his teeth and waves his fingers like claws for effect.

We've got a bear.

Anchored in the ice along Sabine Bay near Scoresby Island, a young bear swims stealthiy up to the ice edge, then nervously walks across the ice, circling closer.

All this happens while I roll over in my bunk and drift back toward sleep. I finally force myself up on deck, tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth and immediately stumble over someone's tripod.

The bear is equal parts curiosity and caution. She nervously yawns, dropping to her knees and crawling in the snow. Finally, she makes up her mind, hops over a small patch of water and sidles over to the boat. She stands up on her two hind legs, rising nearly up to the boat's deck, and peers in at us. Soon she's leaning on the bowsprit with one paw on the anchor, three feet away from me.

With one good leap she could be on deck with us, and then we'd have some excitement.

August 7, 2009 - Sabine Bay, Nordaustlandet, Svalbard

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Nordaustlandet, Svalbard, Norway

The moment you see one is electric.

Amidst the endless miles of broken ice and snow-covered shoreline, there are two black eyes staring back, and it hits you with a jolt of recognition. We have a bear.

We have sailed for days through two days of fog and mist and bleak, barren landscapes north of 80° latitude with little to show for it. Steve and I stood staring through binoculars for hours on deck. Suddenly there he was, clear as day, a polar bear resting on a patch of steep snow, perched high enough to survey the surrounding miles of ice for his next meal. We stopped and watched, and the bear grew curious, sniffing the air, catching the scent of unwashed men and mouldering laundry.

Finally, he sits up on his back legs like an eager dog. There must be something dead to smell that bad.

August 6, 2009 - Nordaustlandet, Svalbard

Friday, September 4, 2009

Nordaustlandet, Svalbard, Norway

It might have been the garlic that finally did it.

We knew there was a polar bear out there. The carcass of a young bearded seal lay on the ice, stripped to the bone. Close by, a shattered vertebrae, the stripped and creepy fingerlike bones of flippers, a brilliant red chunk of frozen bloodsicle.

It felt like stumbling upon a particularly nasty crime scene.

Another tribute to the polar bear's prowess turned up on the ice lies a few yards away; a nearly complete seal skin, peeled away and left in a heap. This bear was well fed. Fastidious, too.

Heinrich sailed the boat into pack ice at the mouth of Lady Franklin Fjord, we got ready for dinner and waited. The boat filled with the smell of Italian cooking as Steve labored over a Norwegian variation on chicken parmesan.

Steering clear of the steam down below, I sat in the wheelhouse, glassing the empty ice. The white fog ebbed, and out of the blankness I saw movement; then the shape of a young bear striding purposefully toward us.

Tripods clattered and gear quickly assembled on deck as the bear walked to within 100 yards of the boat, sniffing the air, curious but cautious, circling and approaching us until someone knocked over a tripod with a clattering thud.

The spell was broken and the bear grew guarded, less curious, more aloof. He ambled off, and we sat in the wheelhouse staring at the white on white landscape for hours. He kept a good quarter mile away, rolling on his back, playful and tormenting us before finally vanishing into the fog.

But we had our first bear.

8/4/09 - Nordaustlandet, Svalbard

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Nordaustlandet, Svalbard, Norway

Locked in the melting sea ice, I am surrounded by white fog, white snow, gray seas. I stand watch on deck, waiting for the ice bear to emerge from the mist.

I'm feeling foggy myself from lack of sleep and painkillers. Washing down my Percocet with Glenfiddich has done nothing for my cognitive skills. I stand woozily looking out in to the half light of arctic summer. We've sailed beyond 80° North and shoved into the ice hoping for bears, but for now there is nothing but breathless calm and an utter absence of color.

I start to imagine that the ice itself has started slowly breathing.

Sounds travels far in this stillness. I can make out walrus grunts, the distant calling of geese and ducks, the whirring wing beats of passing gulls.

I imagine shapes blending with the ice, shadows emerging from the fog. But the only certain signs of life are two black snouts swimming across the bay. I grab my binoculars and stare dumbly, watching them moving silently, breathing and then quickly submerging. Finally I realize they're bearded seals, looking for a safe patch of ice to rest upon.

They slowly roll over and dive deep, disappearing into the icy gray sea as the fog rolls in.

August 3,2009 - Nordaustlandet, Svalbard