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.
So here we go, to the Pole!
Photo by my friend and the MS Expedition’s newest Photographer in Residence, Reuben Hernandez.
I’m not carrying yet, but nearing my NRA certification to carry a rifle for polar bear protection. As someone who did not grow up around guns, and grew up in a very anti-gun family, it is beyond bizarre to spend a day at a firing range once a week shooting a 30.06 rifle. But you know, SKILL SETS, y’all.
While travellers landed several hundred metres away in the high Arctic archipelago of Svalbard I was standing on bear sentry duty.
My job is to continuously scan the hillsides and (especially) the water for Polar bears that may be approaching the landing site, so that I can either deter the bear with flares or warn better-placed sentries.
On nights like this, with the sun getting lower in the sky (this was taken at about 22:00) it is naturally very tiring on the eyes. But with bears never far away (a mother with two cubs was seen here by us just three hours earlier) it’s a necessary task!
The sea is seen by many as a natural barrier that does not need to be paid attention to, but bears are just as likely to come from the sea as from the land and they are much harder to see in the water. By the time a bear is obvious, it’s amongst your group and you’ve left it too late.
Most bears are travelling through and not really interested in people. In fact many will purposely avoid people. But there is a minority of hungry bears (often adolescents with lots to learn about hunting) who pose a real risk to us. Maintaining a perimeter involves not just being able to spot bears but also be in a position to deflect them from our group and, in the very worst of circumstances, be in a position to open fire with rifles without endangering our travellers and kill the bear.
It’s a sometimes-tricky role and it’s easy to let your mind wander, but it does afford an opportunity to be alone with your own thoughts, and be able to focus on a task without distractions. Being alone in the still silence of the high Arctic is an experience I chase and treasure and a couple of times a season I get to really experience it. This photo sums it up.