To coldly go into history: Major scientific project in the Arctic Ocean
If it wasn’t for the bracing arctic breeze, it would be easy to forget we’re but a stone’s throw from the North Pole.
Cloudless skies of brilliant azure and mirror-like, metallic waters are almost Caribbean, tempting the foolhardy aboard the SV Linden to take the polar plunge. On the northern tip of the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard it’s a rite of passage for the brave few.
Despite the September temperature registering a balmy and unseasonable 9°, any tropical notion melts away as the frigid depths of the 80th parallel swallow me whole before mercifully spitting me out with teeth chattering.
It marks the high point, geographically speaking, of the maiden Ocean Warrior sailing expedition to measure how a changing climate is impacting extreme environments.
Ocean Warrior is the brainchild of British polar explorer Jim McNeill, who has decades of experience operating in the harshest of conditions. More comfortable on land-based missions, he admits to being “a fish out of water” on the high seas.
“You’ll probably see me puking my guts up overboard,” he says, “but my heart is in this part of the world.”
His latest endeavour will sail 10,000 nautical miles next year from Plymouth through remote northern waters all the way to the fabled Northwest Passage and Resolute Bay in high arctic Canada.
“It’s never been more important to put a more immediate finger on the pulse of the planet in these seldom-visited places,” he adds.
In preparation, McNeill has brought a team of scientists, naturalists, filmmakers, and novice explorers to the top of the world for a foundational factfinding journey.
Located above the Arctic Circle, some 1,000 miles north of Oslo in the Barents Sea, Svalbard is a land of extremes. A land of ice and snow. And a land of polar bears – lots of polar bears – which are estimated to outnumber the fewer than 3,000 human inhabitants of the islands.
The Linden – a wooden replica of a 1920s cargo ship of the same name – sits in striking contrast to modern tourist boats in the harbour, its three masts projecting 50-metres skywards.
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Danish captain Rasmus Jacobsen, a lean, bespectacled seadog, tells us in a welcome briefing that we’re heading north. “This is the way the wind is blowing and what awaits us, we do not know,” he says with a conspiratorial smile. “Everything is possible. We’re on the backside of the moon and no one is watching.”
The mini arctic metropolis of Longyearbyen slips away in our wake as we leave the everyday stresses behind for a simpler, and altogether slower, existence.
As the wind picks up, the captain’s mellifluous voice booms from stern to bow with the spine-tingling call to ‘raise the main sail’. All hands are required for the hoisting, professional sailors and amateurs alike. It’s a wheezing endurance test as my lungs empty and muscles begin to burn in seconds, with no choice but to continue heaving until the job is done and the rope is made fast. The blister-inducing experience is repeated twice more for the other two sails before calm resumes.
A deep, hypnotic silence surrounds us as we ride the swell in the wide-open waters of Isfjorden. Penetrating the quiet, the Linden is alive with creaking and groaning as the wooden frame of gleaming pinewood and larch timber shifts and adjust to the waves.
A small number of Ocean Warriors haven’t quite found their sea legs and are forced to retreat to bunks below deck, slightly green around the gills, as we round Deadman’s Cape.
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Jagged, violent peaks of rock drift by under a cerulean sky as the Linden heads ever northwards through a vast, inhospitable and unforgiving landscape – deep into polar bear country.
Svalbard, seemingly desolate at first glance, is teeming with life, from great flocks of seabirds to reindeers and a host of marine mammals.
White-beaked dolphins joyously race alongside the ship, just for the fun of it, easily beating the 250-ton vessel for pace, while a tantalising spurt of water in the distant end of Liefdefjord signals the presence of a humpback whale to add to the collection of minke already spotted so far.
We leave the safety of the Linden for the first time, taking the Zodiac over to the hamlet of Smeerenburg – literally translated as Blubber Town – a 17th-century Dutch whaling outpost located 79 degrees north on Amsterdam Island. The key thing to remember on all shore visits we’re told is “stay behind the man with the rifle”, a necessary deterrent and legal requirement in case of polar bear encounters.
A startled arctic fox retreats a safe distance as we make land, constantly checking over her shoulder at the team of armed intruders dressed head to toe in neon orange smocks and salopettes. A huddle of walruses has also taken residence on the shore. A ludicrous spectacle out of the water. These huge granite blocks of blubber snort, bellow and slobber while jostling for prime position.
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Another excursion to visit the Idabreen glacier is interrupted when a creamy white rock on the distant hillside starts to move and is identified as a hulking male polar bear. A long look through binoculars confirms the apex arctic predator’s nose is held high, sniffing in our general direction. Even a mile away, hairs on my arm stand to attention on goose-pimpled skin. It’s a relief to be back in the safe embrace of the Linden.
As the endless days of polar summer draw to a close, the weather takes a turn for the gloomy. The Linden transforms into a ghost ship, sailing at glacial pace through mist and fog, surrounded by the last remaining chunks of melting seasonal sea ice. Frozen bergs fizz and crackle in the water as air bubbles trapped for thousands of years pop.
Most nights are spent anchored at the base of awe-inspiring glaciers with magnificent names such as Monacobreen, Esmarkbreen and Lilliehookbreen. These great walls of ice stand hundreds of feet tall and shimmer a sliding scale of impossible blues. Fresh frozen slabs calve away from the face with a thunderous crack, echoing through the valleys like cannon fire.
All the glaciers we encounter are already showing visible signs of retreat as temperatures get warmer. It’s a poignant reminder of the serious mission behind Ocean Warrior to raise the alarm on the health of the arctic world.
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