Under the Arctic Sun
“The silence was born somewhere here!“ comes to my mind when standing on the front deck of the ship Plancius. I am trying to see through a thick fog. It is three o’clock in the morning and the sun looks like a fuzzy light in the middle of big grey NOTHING. An ice block rubs the side of the boat and the wind draws aside the curtain of the fog. A fulmar flies just above the level of the sea. An Arctic day is just at its end. Or is it beginning?
It is a strange feeling to get used to saying “Good night”, when the midnight sun is just above your head. The expression “midnight sun” sounds like science-fiction at our geographical altitude. “A man can get used to anything,” says my dad with a smile. So I am getting used to a quaky movement of the ship and a strange rhythm of life of the polar day in the framework of this proverb. When I boarded the ship in a sleepy mining town of Longyearbyen (I cannot pronounce the name even now) to sail around the isles of Svalbard, I did not expect anything from what happened to me during following days. Icebergs, deserted Arctic tundra, grey hills, and a landscape with almost no life. The Arctic only laughed at my imaginings, because I found it as a beautifully coloured country full of creatures able to live in its rough arms.
Jump and you can survive
If you are born on a ten-meter-high cliff sprinkled by icy water of the sea and exposed to northern winds, you would not imagine there could be better places to live. Well, you should be a Guillemot, a bird living in the northern parts of the planet. You sit on a narrow rocky cornice using your short hands with a body resembling a penguin and wait for your parents to bring your daily ration of fish. You rather do not look down from the cliff, because you would get dizzy from the height. And how about flying? You do not know how to fly yet. Even adult birds look funny when using their short wings for flying. When you grow, you need more and more food and your parents are not able to feed you anymore. And then it comes. An adulthood test for Guillemots. A jump to dark deep waves …
guillemots (father takes care of his baby shortly after jump)
It was just before the midnight when we came to the cliff. The sun gave a strange colourful touch to the cliffs with nesting birds. We came close to the rocks growing from the sea in our zodiac boat made of rubber. The unquiet sea required a great focus and skill in handling the boat from the pilots, because there was danger that the waves could bring us to the rocks. We are slowly sailing around a colony of thousands of nesting Guillemots. I have to bend backwards a lot when I want to see the top of the cliff. I grab ropes in the boat to not lose balance. The sun is hidden behind clouds brought by the wind. There is not much light. The cliffs get dark and edges of dark violet clouds are brightly orange. We are all watching the steep rock above us. “It is jumping!” the guide is trying to shout down noises of the bird colony. A small black spot comes away from a cornice below the top and falls down to waves only few meters far from us. It emerges from the water and it is pushed towards the open sea by a male. It is not a spot any more; it is a young Thick-billed Guillemot, which has just successfully passed the adulthood test. It is only one of first steps to the life. It must learn to fly, submerge to the depth of up to 80 meters and fish. Then it returns to some of rocky cornices to raise next generation of small jumpers.
Zodiac close to cliffs
Pet a walrus!
Walruses have only few enemies in the nature. Actually, they have only two enemies – orcas and polar bears. However, even such a big predator like a polar bear usually dares to attack only young or seriously injured animals. Sometimes bears hunt walruses by raising a panic in the colony of walruses. Walruses are trying to escape to the sea and they can injure young ones or weaker animals in the panic. Even the biggest terrestrial beast of prey does not dare to face an adult male walrus, which can reach the weight of up to two tonnes and can have up to one-meter-long tusks. So humans with firearms had to come and start killing walruses for their fat and tusks. At present, a massive glacier melting is a new factor threatening this huge sea mammal. Hundreds of these animals then appear at places, where they used to be only rarely or never. Latest news about new colonies of walruses are for instance from Alaska, where the local government tries to divert some air routes and prevent thus a mass hunt for these strange creatures.
It is not easy to recognize a walrus lying among rocks on the shore. Its brown colour perfectly blends with the environment. Our guide found a lonely walrus in the viewfinder of his binocular when we were looking for some signs of life on the shore. He headed the front of the boat towards the resting animal and moved it slowly to the walrus. We could recognize the walrus was not alone from a shorter distance. It was a female walrus with a young one. They did not let us move closer and disappeared in the sea. We could see only two heads slowly disappearing in the distance. And then something unexpected happened. Both animals changed their direction and started to swim towards us. The cub was pushed by its mum for a while, then it rode on her back and finally it left its mother and swam directly to our boat. I was trying to take pictures of the cub from the water level, but suddenly it was so close that I was not able to take pictures of it with my long lens. I quickly took my second camera with a wide-angle objective from by bag. The cub touched the boat at the moment and curiously watched the crew. “Are not you too close, buddy?” came to my mind when its nearly-one-tonne mum emerged about one meter from the boat. The young walrus apparently did not think so. It started to “take a shower” under the stream of warm water coming from the kicker. The young walrus decided on continuing in the show and was trying to please also crews from other boats. The female was trying to push it to some other direction several times, but the cub liked the game. I thought several times that it would try to board some of the boats. It was amazing to see smiling and shining faces of people in the boats. It was not just us, Arctic novices, but also experienced guides, who spent many years in these parts of the world. The moment was not strange and special for the curiosity of the young walrus but for the calm behaviour of its mother, who tolerated our proximity.
There are many stories about walruses “falling in love” with a zodiac. They either followed the boats for hours or tried to climb up on them, but nobody ever heard about a similar behaviour by a female walrus. Taking pictures of a walrus from tens of centimetres was the strongest experience I enjoyed at this part of the world. It is a small miracle to have a big wild creature so close that one can only stretch their hand to pet it. It is an Arctic miracle.
The phrase “polar bear” is the most frequent phrase when sailing at the Arctic. Everybody deserves to see it. It is a symbol of this geographical latitude, a tramp of freezing distances and the biggest terrestrial beast of prey. Its size can be compared only with the biggest specimens of the largest subspecies of brown bear living at the island of Kodiak.
polar bear on the bloody stones
It is a great swimmer. It is a perfect hunter. It manages the life here. We could not get ashore three times due to polar bears. We got lucky at places where rescuers were saving rescuers during the efforts to find the legendary red tent with part of the crew of the wrecked airship Italia at the beginning of the 20th century. The watch at the stageplank found a polar bear with its prey. A female bear in perfect shape was feeding on a seal it just hunted. She completely ignored our presence and she expressed it by moving her back towards us. She was not the only polar bear in the area. She was watched by a smaller saw with a cub from a long distance at a rocky cornice. Hungry bears tried to move closer to the prey several times and find out if there were some leftovers. The fear from the bigger female, which was not leaving the dead seal, always made them to run. The scene repeated several times. It is possible that the seal was hunted down by the smaller female and the stronger one just made her to run away. We had to return to the board of Plancius after several hours of bear watching. A fast meal, hot tea and back to the boats – everybody was curious about the situation around the killed seal. The nature decided otherwise. Ice blocks came and made it impossible for the rubber boats to move on the sea. The northern wilderness kept the end of the story as a secret. I did not see what happened to the stolen seal and the hungry mother with the cub; however, I had many other opportunities to admire this wild and untouched part of the world. Grazing reindeers with an iceberg on the horizon, small violet flowerets in the tundra, iceberg coloured pink by the low sun. This was something the Arctic showed me only to cover it with fog after a while.
reindeers with an iceberg on the horizon
Conquerors of the North
Umberto Nobile(1885–1978) was Italian general, aeronaut, design engineer, and explorer. In 1928 he organised a polar expedition in the airship Italia. The expedition was supported by Italian leader Mussolini. The crew had 16 members including two foreigners. Czech František Běhounek was one of the two foreigners.
The airship crashed northern of the Svalbard during its return from the North Pole. An international rescue action was launched and Mr. Nobile was saved by Swedish pilot Einer Lundborg, who was reportedly ordered to save Mr. Nobile as the first one.
Nobile was fired from the army after the expedition. Some current studies claim that Nobile, as the captain, wanted to leave the expedition as the last one and did not cause the crash as it was claimed. The bad success was reportedly caused by the politics, because Mr. Nobile supported the development of the aeronautics, while the fascistic party was supporting the development of the aviation.