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Insider Insights: Articles

Only 300 left in the entire Arctic

Courtesy: Mark Robinson

Courtesy: Mark Robinson

By Mark Robinson
Tuesday, November 26, 2013, 2:51 PM

Breakfast ended in the usual groaning and loosening of belts, but it wasn’t long before we had donned the foul weather gear and once more lined up at the gangway, cameras in hand. Across an expanse of water to our south a vast field of ice floes bobbed and dipped on the slowly rolling waves.

We clambered into the Zodiac and headed for the ice field. Steffen and Mathias, our companions from the first day of polar bear shooting, were on board our boat. That meant that there was a pile of cameras and a pile of cameramen all trying to get the good shot. Things were going to get funny.

Oh, and Huw smuggled a bottle of gin on board.

We bounded across the water towards the ice floe field that was just a white line on the horizon and I marveled at how much ice was in front of us. As we got closer, chunks of ice began to appear in the water beside the boat and Jeff (our driver today) slowed down and began to maneuver around them. As tough as a Zodiac is, bouncing off a big chunk of ice would either send us all flying or rip a big hole in the boat. Or wreck the engine. Pretty much all bad all around.

As the ice began to get more and more numerous, the whole scene around us began to take on a look of some sort of surreal ice themed water park. I’d been to a waterpark that was set up as icebergs and sea ice to hide the slides and make everything kind of fun (if a bit chilly looking), but what I remember most is the colours. It had been all white with colours that ranged from almost black to sky blue underlining everything. I’d though at the time that it was ridiculously over exaggerated and that there was no way the actual Arctic had colours like that.

Courtesy: Mark Robinson

Courtesy: Mark Robinson

I was wrong. Completely wrong.

The aquamarine blue of ice below the waterline was offset by the brilliant white of the mass above. Warm seawater had carved the ice into shapes that were both surreal and wonderful. Indigo blues reflected from underneath the water as the brilliant sunlight bounced off the mass of ice below. The field of ice grew more and more packed and Jeff slowed to a crawl. The boat wake was bouncing off the massive ice chunks and reflecting back at us in weird wave patterns that rocked the boat in odd ways. Jeff had to be careful not to rock us too hard or cameras might go sploosh.

I’d never been in a sea ice field before so I couldn’t stop looking around and imagining what each piece of ice resembled. I could see gravestones, water slides, cityscapes, turtles, bridges, the list went on and on. There was just so much ice and every time I turned around and shot footage, the scene was totally different than moments before. The slap and gurgle of the ocean off the underside of the ice pieces was almost the only sound other than the engines of the boat.

Because we on a boat with no one but filmmakers, Jeff took us away from the rest of the Zodiacs so that we could get clean shots with no interference. That also meant that we could try things they weren’t strictly … allowed.

Jeff maneuvered the boat up to the edge of one of the floes and George and I instantly asked if we could make a little excursion onto the ice. Jeff grinned and George I pretty much leapt off the ship to the ice. Ok, I actually stepped kind of gingerly as I really had no idea how thick the ice was going to be and whether or not I was going to be underwater in a few seconds. Amazingly, the ice held and actually, it felt more like there was a layer of snow on top of the floe. It wasn’t slippery at all, which was a good thing. An ocean filled with what was a essentially a fleet of giant ice cubes was not somewhere I wanted to go swimming.

And that’s when Jeff pushed off and left us to die on the ice floe.

No seriously, they left us on the ice floe and Jeff backed off just enough to get some good shots of us on the ice. What amazed me was that the floe felt so solid. I don’t think there would have been any way for us to flip the mini berg even if we’d tried. Mathias and Steffen yelled at us that they were leaving us behind, but Jeff informed them sadly that he was required to bring everyone back. That was the point that I suddenly realized that I’d forgotten to bring The Weather Network flag! I couldn’t claim this little chunk of ice for The Weather Network.


Courtesy: Mark Robinson

Courtesy: Mark Robinson

Then a bunch of kayakers came to our rescue! Actually, there was a group from the ship had chosen to boat around the ice in a bunch of kayaks. They’d already been out a few times before, so they had all a pretty good handle on how to work with the slim boats. As George and I stood there firing off pictures, the whole group of kayakers sailed up and asked us if we wanted a rescue. I was seriously tempted to jump on the boat and see what happned, but I thought that this might be a bit of an issue if I ended up at the bottom of the Arctic waters. Still, maybe it would be kind of like a Captain America scenario? You know, get frozen, wake up 70 years later and be a super soldier?

Luckily for the world of the future, Jeff rammed the Zodiac back onto our temporary home and we clambered on board. Huw broke out his smuggled gin and we took a bunch of shots of him with the ice behind. What he didn’t tell us until then was that he wasn’t allowed to open it until later that night. He had brought it only to please his sponsor (i.e. the gin company) with some pictures of it in the ice. Aaaargh! Still, at least he did promise to open it up late that night as long as it was chilled with Arctic sea ice. And that meant that we had to grab a chunk of it as we went by.

So, there we were, hanging on to Huw’s legs as he hauled a big chunk of sea ice in the middle of massive ice field on the waters of the Davis Strait. So that our gin later that night would be cold. I have an interesting job.

By the time we’d hauled a big chunk of ice on board, it was close to noon and Jeff decided that it was time to head back to the ship for lunch. I was feeling a little tired but I thought maybe I could go for a bit of lunch. Behind us, the kayakers and the other Zodiacs made their way back towards the ship, but we were back first and up the gangway before anyone else was anywhere near the gangway. That meant that I had a little time to flake out on my bunk before food.

So, as you might have guessed, I passed out and slept right through lunch. Actually, I slept right up to the point where Boris came on the PA and announced that yet ANOTHER bear had been sighted on the ice. I groaned, realized I’d missed lunch and grabbed my cameras, slapped new batteries and tapes in, and then stumbled out of the cabin.

By the time I made it out to the front deck, only a few people had beaten me there. Must have been at lunch and didn’t want to rush out. That just meant that I could get right to the edge of the deck and shoot the bear up close. At least, that’s how it would have gone had the bear not been a light year away.

I was learning a lot about filming wildlife in the Arctic; the main lesson being, “Bring a long, long, lens because everything is stupid far away.” And yet, as the ship drifted closer to the bear, I was able to make out a red area beneath and around him. This bear had recently made a kill! Did he still have it?

The bear looked up as the ship drew closer (close is a relative term here – I think we were still about 500 metres away) and in his massive jaws were the fresh remains of some sort of seal. Looking though the viewfinder, I could see that the chest fur of the bear was matted and stained with red. He dropped the remains back down on the ice and sat on his haunches, watching us. Moments later, a bird fluttered down to the ice beside him. Jacque, our resident biologist pointed excitedly and burst out, “That’s an Ivory Gull! There’s only 300 of them left in the entire Arctic! What an amazing sight!”

One issue that many of the animals in the Arctic are facing is habitat loss due to climate change. The fastest climactic and ecosystem changes are occurring in the Arctic and Antarctic. In the northern hemisphere, the polar bear is the land apex predator and they feed on seals, an aquatic species. Given the disparity between predator and prey, the polar bear uses ambush to hunt its prey and the best way to do so is on sea ice. As climate change increases the heat in the Arctic, there has been a shift of the edge of the solid ice pack towards the north. The edge of the ice is a very dynamic area and that attracts fish, which in turn attracts seals, and finally attracts polar bears.

Courtesy: Mark Robinson

Courtesy: Mark Robinson

Thus, if the sea ice is retreating, it’s not necessarily a bad thing for the polar bears. What they really need is a sea ice edge and there’s evidence that the edge is getting longer as the ice moves north. Or at least, there’s a greater amount of edge exposed to the ocean. That may continue to increase and then eventually lessen as the ice disappears faster and faster. At the moment, some sub populations of polar bear are stable and in some cases, increasing. Others are decreasing at various rates. The dependent variable is the area in which the population is. The Alaskan sub-population is decreasing as are at least 8 other groups. Given the lack of data from the Russian areas of the Arctic, the real number of polar bears is still unknown.

As we watched, the bear nibbled at his kill, occasionally looking up at us to see what was going on. He didn’t change his position all much and really didn’t look all that concerned that we were close to him. And yet, his head kept coming up more and more as we got close. It was obvious that he really wasn’t all that keen about having us too close. Maybe he thought we were after his lunch, but he decided he’d had enough and he plunged off the ice, seal in his mouth just as we got within about 200 m of him.

He swam for a bit and eventually dragged himself onto a large icepack a lot further away and in a location that we couldn’t get to. So, we filmed a bit more as best we could but all I was seeing was a little butter coloured blur in the viewfinder. We eventually gave up and headed back inside, pleased that we’d managed to get a polar bear with a kill on camera, but I couldn’t help being a little upset that it wasn’t a bit closer. Without a really good long range lens, getting the realty good shots was going to be tougher than I thought.

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