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Welcome to the Arctic: Day 3

Up close to the second largest icecap in the world in Greenland. Dirt covers the lower parts of the glacier. (Courtesy: Mark Robinson)

Up close to the second largest icecap in the world in Greenland. Dirt covers the lower parts of the glacier. (Courtesy: Mark Robinson)


By Mark Robinson
Meteorologist
@StormhunterTWN
Monday, November 18, 2013, 5:37 PM



SEE ALSO: Storm Hunters Artic expedition, Day 2: Those crazy Weather Network guys


Waking up to bright lights when you know it's 6 a.m. takes a bit of getting used to, but on this day, the bright light was somewhat damped down by the massive fog bank that we were sailing through. George crawled out of bed when I mentioned that we were officially stuck in the fog.

His reaction?

"Hey, chance of a fog bow!"

My reaction?

"What the heck is a fog bow and why is bright already?!"

George kicked me out of bed and I grabbed my cameras while trying to remove the fog from my own head. We headed up the stairways to the top deck and we arrived just as the sun began to burn a hole through the mist at the front of the ship. Towards the back, a rainbow, circular and faint began to appear. It looked like a massive multi-coloured halo hanging onto the back of the ship and was so big that both of us had to shoot multiple shots just to get it in. Not quite a tornado, but it would do for now.

Courtesy: Mark Robinson

Courtesy: Mark Robinson

Breakfast time rolled around and we headed into the dining room to grab food and hear what was up for the day’s expeditions. We were just clearing the head of Frobisher Bay and Boris expected to find some interesting wildlife on some of the islands in the area. There was even the slight chance of seeing a polar bear. They’re relatively rare on the rocks of an island, but they had been sighted there before. The biggest problem was going to be the fog. It was lifting, but didn’t really look to clear out until late in the afternoon. Nevertheless, we were all determined to head out and see what we could find.

The Zodiacs dropped into the water while George and I grabbed gear, bundled up, waterproofed cameras and generally over-prepared for the trip. By the time we got back down to the gangway, there was a line up, but thanks to our “special status” as filmmakers, Aaron put us on the lead boat with another couple of guys who happened to be filming as well, Mattias Breiter and his cameraman Steffen. Little did I know, but these two would end up being our constant companions for the rest of the trip.

I carefully stepped onto the first step of the gangway the whole thing swayed slightly. This was the first time I’d had to go down the stupid thing while maintaining what I would call a death grip on my cameras. If a camera went over the side, I was going with it. And that water looked cold.

Surprisingly, I made to the bottom of the gangway and stepped onto the boat. And was promptly told by Aaron that I’d forgot to grab the Russian sailor’s arm in the correct grip while doing so. Strike one for me. Sailors have a lot of rules and most of them are for a good reason. This was one of them. One missed step and I was going to find out exactly how cold that water actually was.

I sat down and tried to look suitably chastened while everyone else piled into the boat and Aaron got us out and away from the side of the ship. That’s when he told us what was really going on. One of the scout boats that had already been out to the island had spotted a polar bear right on the rocks exactly where we were going. The fog was lifting just a bit and we would have a perfect view of the bear if we hurried.

We turned toward the island, Aaron opened up the engine a bit, but we didn’t race towards the island. We just barely see it through the fog and it looked more like a dark haze on the horizon. Somewhere in there was our bear.

The ice was solid, bluish white and surreal. It didn’t look like what you’d expect if you’d just pulled a giant ice cube out of the world’s biggest freezer. Instead, it was a giant triangle, with odd projections and sheer walls. Shallow scoops of mottled white covered areas that projected above the water and bluish ice shone beneath. The cold water lapped against the berg with little slapping noises when Aaron killed the engine. We made a couple of passes to get some good shots and then continued back to sea.

That’s when we met the iceberg’s big brother. Aaron was trying to find us one of a few walrus pullouts but with the mist building in more and more, we could barely see a few hundred feet in front of us. It was only through luck that we managed to see the dark bulk of the iceberg in the white. I jumped up excitedly when I saw it and Aaron immediately steered the rubber boat towards the iceberg. As we got close, we could see the sheer whiteness of the surface, but running through it were lines of deep blue.

The waves gently splashed against the sheer surface of the ice, but we didn’t dare get too close because there were dangers that I had no idea of. All I wanted to do was go racing right up to it and start climbing. What I didn’t know was the icebergs tend to flip over and/or shed large parts of themselves at random intervals. Just as scary, huge bits of ice can break off underneath the water and explode upwards. This made me slightly … nervous.

Sort of anticlimactic, but nothing really happened other than me shooting a whole pile of stills, way too much video, and a bit of jumping up and down from excitement. This was my first true iceberg so a bit of excitement is totally warranted. Maybe not much with the jumping, but still, I’d wanted to see one all my life. That was number one. We made our way back to the ship and after a bit of stumbling up the gangway and trying not to drop my cameras, we managed to get on board. After a few hours of capturing video, backing up still pics and congratulating each other on getting the first polar bear shots, we headed down for dinner. And once again it was an insane amount of awesome food. What didn’t go over so well was that we had moved out of Frobisher Bay and into open water.

Welcome to big swells. George gets sea sick in the middle of a puddle, so he’d been dreading this part. Right after dinner he headed back up to the cabin, slapped on a seasickness patch and laid down. I headed for the bar. Now, most people going to the bar would get involved with figuring out how many beers they can get through and still be able to figure out which end to point at the toilet.

I nerded out completely and ended up spending the next two hours quizzing Mathias about polar bears. And photography. And wildlife biology. When I finally did head back to the cabin, I was stumbling more out of sheer exhaustion than beer. Stupid Arctic midnight sun. It was just setting when I got back to the room and that meant that it was close to 3 am. Not good when I had to get up at 7 am. One last adventure awaited me. As weary as I was, I wanted to get a shot of the sun as it set so I grabbed my camera and tripod and headed up to the top deck. And, of course, by the time I got up there, the sun had disappeared. I groaned, but shot a few shots off anyway. I thought I’d gotten nothing too special, but in my sleep deprived state, I’d failed to realize, until the next day, that I’d captured rare nocticulent clouds. Even better, they were spectacularly good examples of them. So pretty much an awesome first serious day of filming on board the Academic Ioffe.

Courtesy: Mark Robinson

Courtesy: Mark Robinson

We were moving slowly for two reasons; one, Aaron didn’t want to spook the bear and two, he wanted everyone to get a chance to see it so racing ahead would be, well, rude. So, moving in slowly was making my stomach do flip flops in anticipation, but it was our best shot at getting a sighting of the bear.

As the other boats pulled in behind us, Matthias explained a bit about polar bears. He didn’t normally expect to see them on the rocks of the island, but it wasn’t totally unheard of. Polar bears much prefer the edges of the sea ice where they can hunt seals and are close to the water. Matthias told us that polar bears are actually a more aquatic than land animal. Evolution has shaped the bear’s body towards a more marine form. A long neck allows them to lift their head out of the water to breathe easily, huge front paws act as paddles to allow fast motion through the water and the back legs act as rudders. The fur and thick layers of fat keep the bear warm in the cold Arctic conditions and in fact, they often overheat in the brief summer.

The island drew closer and we began to make out a yellowish smudge high up on the rocks. It looked like a slightly old lump of ice or snow, but Matthias pointed it out calmly and simply said, “There it is. Looks like maybe a young male or maybe a female.” I just stared at the lump and tried to figure out which part was the bitey end. This is why he’s a bear biologist with 20 years experience and I managed to get through a Wildlife Biology undergrad by the skin of my teeth.


SEE ALSO: Endangered Species: The polar bear 

Aaron cut the engine way down as we drew closer and closer to the dark red rocks and as he did, the lump suddenly resolved itself into a massive body topped with a thickly muscled neck and head. The jaws of the great animal dropped open and for the life of me all I could see was my old dog Kasper standing there. I suppose it was appropriate as Kasper was an American Eskimo, but he was just a BIT smaller than this great bulk of a bear.

“Ahhh," Matthias exclaimed, “It’s a young female, but she’s big.”

I had to take his word for it because I was suddenly very aware that we were sitting in a rubber boat with nowhere to go and that bear had teeth the size of broadswords. Matthias and Steffen were clicking away and filming excitedly. George was doing the same. Aaron was idly watching the bear as if it wasn’t the world’s largest land carnivore only a few hundred feet away.

And then she hauled herself to her massive feet and started down the rocks towards us, casually sniffing the air. Kind of like a dog. A really, really big dog.

I’m just happy that I had no control over the boat. I think if I did, I would have cleared out just about as fast as I possibly make the engine move the big rubber thing. There’s something deep in your brain that goes off when something that big and hungry looks at you with an expression of, “Well, you don’t look like a seal, but I’m willing to try some southern food.”

Gah.

Courtesy: Mark Robinson

Courtesy: Mark Robinson

Matthias looked over at me and grinned, “You’re not a seal. Don’t worry about it. She’s not interested in you as food. Polar bears don’t eat people. Besides, they like stripping the fat out of a kill. You wouldn’t be worth her time.” I’ve never been so happy to be skinny.

The polar bear moved down towards us and took up a position right on the top of an outcropping of rock over the water. Aaron backed us off a bit and put the boat in neutral so that we’d just be drifting slowly past her.

“She’s a bit nervous,” Matthias observed. “They’re more comfortable near the water so that if a situation looks bad they can just jump in and swim away. They can get up to a significant speed in the water. A good kayaker would have trouble getting away from them even he or she was paddling at full speed. If she gets worried, she’ll jump in and we’ll have to move so that she can get away in whatever direction she chooses.”

We didn’t want to disturb her so Aaron pulled us away a little further and we filmed, shot and observed from a vantage point that was still so close that we could see her pupils of her eyes. I don’t think I’ve ever had that close an encounter with a bear, let alone one with one that size. It was the most incredible wildlife encounter I’d ever had. The bear sat there watching us, really not all that nervous, just curious. Her head went back and forth taking the sight of all of us, but never really looking scared. More curious than anything else.

I was mesmerized. This was one of the largest land carnivores in the world, just 50 feet from me. Not a care in the world and this was my first encounter with true Arctic wildlife. This massive creature had been around for years, living, hunting, eating here in what was to me, a frozen wasteland. And yet, she was healthy, uninjured and likely doing very well. This was an animal of the far north and I was just a brief spectator to her life. It’s surprisingly hard to put into words how that encounter made me feel. It was a moment of realization of how far out in the wilderness I really was.

Even better, I wasn’t likely to be eaten!

We filmed the bear for a little longer and Aaron made the decision to check out the rest of the island. There was a large walrus pullout spot on the far side and he wanted to see if we could nab some of them on the trip as well. The fog was so thick at this point that we could barely see the rocks unless we were right up to them so as we set off around the island, we stuck close to the island so we didn’t get lost.

There were numerous little bays that cut into the rocky shoals that made up the island. The island seemed to be all up. What I mean is that the island just seemed to go up and up. Rocky cliffs towered high into the mist above and we could only get a general idea of some sort of huge behemoth of stone that squatted in the ocean beside us. There were a lot of small inlets and crevasses that cut into the rocks and we moved into a few of them, searching for wildlife. Unfortunately all we found was a few tiny jellyfish in the water.

Aaron took us around the backside of the island as the other Zodiacs buzzed through the water near us. A deep crevasse appeared in the island inviting us to try and move through. The watercourse was tight and barely allowed us to get through, but Aaron steered carefully and just as we hit a point where the rocks reared up high around us but close enough to touch, he said, “I guess we’d better watch for polar bears, one could easily jump into the boat.”

I looked at him in horror and he grinned back. No bears jumped into the boat, but at the end of the little canal, we had a sudden surprise. Coming into a little bay, we saw something I’d wanted to see for years. A blue white iceberg, not all that big lay jammed into the rocky ground beneath the waves.

The ice was solid, bluish white and surreal. It didn’t look like what you’d expect if you’d just pulled a giant ice cube out of the world’s biggest freezer. Instead, it was a giant triangle, with odd projections and sheer walls. Shallow scoops of mottled white covered areas that projected above the water and bluish ice shone beneath. The cold water lapped against the berg with little slapping noises when Aaron killed the engine. We made a couple of passes to get some good shots and then continued back to sea.

That’s when we met the iceberg’s big brother. Aaron was trying to find us one of a few walrus pullouts but with the mist building in more and more, we could barely see a few hundred feet in front of us. It was only through luck that we managed to see the dark bulk of the iceberg in the white. I jumped up excitedly when I saw it and Aaron immediately steered the rubber boat towards the iceberg.

As we got close, we could see the sheer whiteness of the surface, but running through it were lines of deep blue. The waves gently splashed against the sheer surface of the ice, but we didn’t dare get too close because there were dangers that I had no idea of. All I wanted to do was go racing right up to it and start climbing. What I didn’t know was the icebergs tend to flip over and/or shed large parts of themselves at random intervals. Just as scary, huge bits of ice can break off underneath the water and explode upwards. This made me slightly … nervous.

Sort of anticlimactic, but nothing really happened other than me shooting a whole pile of stills, way too much video, and a bit of jumping up and down from excitement. This was my first true iceberg so a bit of excitement is totally warranted. Maybe not much with the jumping, but still, I’d wanted to see one all my life. That was number one.

We made our way back to the ship and after a bit of stumbling up the gangway and trying not to drop my cameras, we managed to get on board. After a few hours of capturing video, backing up still pics and congratulating each other on getting the first polar bear shots, we headed down for dinner. And once again it was an insane amount of awesome food.

What didn’t go over so well was that we had moved out of Frobisher Bay and into open water. Welcome to big swells. George gets sea sick in the middle of a puddle, so he’d been dreading this part. Right after dinner he headed back up to the cabin, slapped on a seasickness patch and laid down.

I headed for the bar.

Now, most people going to the bar would get involved with figuring out how many beers they can get through and still be able to figure out which end to point at the toilet. I nerded out completely and ended up spending the next two hours quizzing Mathias about polar bears. And photography. And wildlife biology. When I finally did head back to the cabin, I was stumbling more out of sheer exhaustion than beer. Stupid Arctic midnight sun. It was just setting when I got back to the room and that meant that it was close to 3 a.m. Not good when I had to get up at 7 a.m.

One last adventure awaited me. As weary as I was, I wanted to get a shot of the sun as it set so I grabbed my camera and tripod and headed up to the top deck. And, of course, by the time I got up there, the sun had disappeared. I groaned, but shot a few shots off anyway. I thought I’d gotten nothing too special, but in my sleep deprived state, I’d failed to realize, until the next day, that I’d captured rare nocticulent clouds. Even better, they were spectacularly good examples of them.

So pretty much an awesome first serious day of filming on board the Academic Ioffe.

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