One Bear, Two Bears

 

27 September – 81° 45’N, 6° 34’W

The phone rings. It’s just about 11pm.

“Get up here, there’s a bear.”

It’s Kevin Hand, calling from the ship’s observation deck. Six decks below, I’m just snuggling in for the night.

“Seriously?!” I asked. (Hand, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is pretty good at pranking me.)

“Yes.”

I slid into my shoes, slung my camera over a shoulder and sprinted down the hallway, collecting folks along the way.

We sped up to deck nine and found a dozen scientists already gathered outside — some wearing pyjamas, at least one in gym shorts — breathing foggy clouds into the frigid Arctic air and staring at a distant, icy ridge.

About two hundred meters away, two small, creamy smudges were casually making their way across the snow-covered ground: a mama bear, and her rather large cub. The polar bears were smaller and yellower than I had expected – somewhat off-colored splotches painted onto a mostly monochrome evening landscape, and they sometimes disappeared behind jumbled piles of ice.

 

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Polar bear photo: Kevin Hand (NASA-JPL)

 

The ship’s crew shined a spotlight on the pair, and the mama bear occasionally paused and looked in our direction. Cameras clicked, binoculars were passed around, and the bears continued on, gracefully skirting ridges and frozen ponds amidst continued guidance on their position from sharper-eyed team members and exclamations of “#$&! it’s cold out here!”.

Of the Arctic’s megafauna, polar bears are pretty much number one on everyone’s wish-list of critters to see (narwhals are up there, too), though they’re almost perfectly camouflaged in this frozen sea. Curiously, though, these bears are not actually white. Rather, their skin is black – and covered by layers and layers of translucent, hollow hairs that scatter visible light and lend the bears a whitish appearance. Threatened by shrinking sea ice, the polar bear population is diminishing. Yet here, off the Greenland coast, the bear density is said to be among the highest on the planet.

Locked in thick, multi-year ice for more than 48 hours now, we’d been expecting to see the opportunistic, unpredictable carnivores at any moment, but until last night, had seen only a smattering of pawprints (and about a half-dozen seals).

As the bears escaped our spotlight and moved into the Arctic twilight, I turned away from the indigo sky to head back inside. To the southwest, a crystalline moon carved a gleaming white crescent into the orange, sun-stained horizon – it was the first glimpse we’ve had of the evening sky’s inhabitants since we’d left port.

I high-fived Hand (who had not been joking), and thanked Victor Naklicki, from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who’d first spotted the pair (and now has a reputation to maintain!); and now, tucked back into bed, I am busy embedding those precious bears, a razor-sharp lunar sliver and icy blue ridges into my memory. The Arctic as we know it is disappearing – will these scenes even exist in a decade or two?

 

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Sea ice drawing: Autun Purser (AWI)

Nadia Drake is a contributing writer at National Geographic, and is on assignment with the HACON team as it explores the Aurora hydrothermal vent field.

 

Our slow but magic progress towards Aurora

26 September – 82° 13’N, 5° 07W

It has been 3 days since we left Longyearbyen and we are slowly making progress through a maze of ice floes, big and small, some pushing against each other making dramatic pressure ridges that block our way, make us turn, find a new lead of open water. But we slowly move northwards.

During this time, some groups have been preparing their labs, the NUI team has been busy getting the vehicle ready after the first test dive in Longyearbyen and many of us have been using the transit time (away from email) to finish papers or proposals. But there has also been time for seminars about the Aurora vent site and about NUI, for taking a thousand photos of the ice, and more ice, and more beautiful ice….and for the first pub quiz of the cruise, with a price included for the winning team!

 

Moorings on the ice edge

21 September 2019 – 81°N

The first days of the cruise have been dedicated to the recovery of moorings for colleagues at the Uni. Bergen and other research groups. The moorings have been collecting data for 1 year and many people are eager to see this data back on shore! Helge was in charge of the mooring operations, with help from several of us on board happy to be out on deck helping to disassemble the moorings, wash and photograph the instruments, while others in the lab downloaded the data and packed everything so the instruments can be shipped back home.

Three of the moorings were on the ice edge, so for many of us, this was our first time at going through ice on an icebreaker. A truly impressive experience, to find yourself on board this stable and strong vessel, surrounded by ice of whites, greys and that unique ice blue. The cold wind did not stop us from going out on the helicopter deck with cameras and smiles!

Sea ice is startlingly captivating

23 September 2019 – 81°N

On Saturday, we woke to the Kronprins Haakon smoothly parting a frozen ocean, a process that – from our cabin on deck three, just above the sea — sounded like an oversized spoon being pushed through a planetary-scale slushie.

For a while, we stared as neatly fractured chunks of ice drifted apart, seemingly just beneath our toes, with water rushing in to fill the rapidly growing cracks.

From up above, on the ship’s lofty observation deck, the icy crust transformed the Arctic ocean into a vast, watercolored surface of white and gray, punctuated by scattered chunks that glowed a vibrant blue, as if lit from within by an otherworldly light.

I grew up by the ocean and know it well – but this sea was a stranger, so compellingly foreign and moving in such mesmerizing ways.

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Photo: Nadia Drake

Sculpted by wind and water, the ice takes myriad shapes – some pieces smooth and flat, others pieces jagged and piled – kind of like clouds drifting across the sky. Except the ice isn’t fluffy, but is fractured and broken, as if Thor took his hammer and smashed a frozen crust into a jagged, moving jigsaw puzzle. It’s not just decoration for a lackluster sea, though; sea ice is crucial for healthy Arctic ecosystems, and indeed, for the health of our entire planet. Scientists who know the ice can tell how long it has been around, and whether it formed this season or is a veteran of multiple winters. Perhaps not surprisingly, the crusts that accumulate and survive multiple orbits are waning – they’re vanishing, just as glaciers melt and icebergs thaw and ice shelves collapse.

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Photo: Nadia Drake

Now, as we head back to Longyearbyen to pick up a crucial, delayed piece of equipment, the Arctic water is again rough, a white-capped expanse of excited, roiling gray. Soon, though, we’ll return to the ocean that caps planet Earth, and dive beneath its surface to explore its alien abyss.

Nadia Drake is a contributing writer at National Geographic, and is on assignment with the HACON team as it explores the Aurora hydrothermal vent field.

Ready, steady, go!

19 September

Today all the boxes and equipment were brought on board and the different teams were busy unpacking boxes and setting up labs.

Mob

And finally, at 22:00 we said good bye to Longyearbyen! Before we start our HACON adventures exploring abyssal hydrothermal vents under ice, we will spend the next few days recovering several moorings for other colleagues.

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