It’s 6am, I’m sitting in my hotel room in Helsinki. In just a couple of hours, myself, a few other expedition members and 120 well-paying travelers will head to the airport, board a charter flight for Murmansk, bus to the Atomflot Nuclear Base where we will board the world’s only nuclear-powered passenger icebreaker vessel, bound for the North Pole on the first of three 10 day trips.
I will be the Expedition Photographer on board NS 50 Years of Victory for 5 weeks, 3 round trips from Murmansk to the North Pole. This morning it feels like the first day of school, I am full of nerves. I have come to feel at home on the MS Expedition, so venturing out to learn a new ship, a new team, a new itinerary is daunting.
Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, this ship will have no Internet connection so I will be radio silent for a while. I am hoping to get a bit of wifi on our first turnaround day in port on the 26th.
At the Kittiwake colony known as Diskobukta I saw Arctic Foxes, even lame ones, taking the birds with seeming impunity. Here the lame one is carrying two back to the den to cache before heading back out to increase his stock. Arctic Foxes are nomads par excellence, following Polar bears across thousands of square miles of sea ice through the winter and they appear to have little site fidelity, meaning they may not return to the same places every year.
Later, in the polar desert of Nordaustlandet far to the north of Diskobukta, I found a small fox den excavated inside the skull of a Bowhead whale, around 40m above sea level (see the bottom photo of another nearby skull).
The Bowhead population in Svalbard is estimated to once have been the largest in the world (approx. 35,000) but post-whaling they number in the tens. They are incredibly long-lived, with estimates ranging as high as 200 years. Individuals killed in the 1990s (a sustainable hunt still exists in the Pacific) were found to contain stone and jade harpoon heads, indicating they had survived hunts over a century before. Despite their slow reproduction (females become mature at around 15-20 and produce a calf perhaps every 4 years or so. They are believed to go through a menopause but a 90 year old individual was identified that appeared to still be breeding) their numbers are increasing and the Pacific Bowhead is doing well, having never been exposed to the full might of factory whaling. The Svalbard population is very fragile but appears to be increasing.
Bowheads are a right whale and float when they die, so it’s common for Bowhead carcasses to wash up on shore. This is almost certainly an example of this, but oddly it is 40m above sea level.
During the last glacial the vast weight of ice on the land caused it to sink into the viscous magma beneath. With the recession of the ice the land has rebounded, slowly rising from the sea. Carbon dating of Bowhead skulls on the beaches that are now far above sea level indicate that the highest ones are approximately 10,000 years old. In the Canadian Arctic Art Dyke, among others, has done fascinating work using the presence or absence of Bowheads on high raised beaches to reconstruct the extent of sea ice throughout the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.
Arctic Foxes living a timeless lifestyle inside 10,000 year old skulls of a whale that is so emblematic of the Arctic, the whale whose migration routes drew the Inuit across the Arctic. These skulls are providing evidence to scientists of great continental movements and of changes in our climate…this is why the Arctic is such an incredible and mysterious place and why I can go back to the same place several times and look around in wonder and curiosity, unable to imagine the many events that have taken place as bears, foxes and whales went about the exact same lives they live now.