Whenever I open up an issue of National Geographic magazine, I immediately flip though the pages to preview the photographs. Though I later return to each article to read the text, the images are most powerful in telling the stories. One of the most exciting aspects of the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship is the opportunity to learn from the expert photographers associated with National Geographic.
I am a totally inexperienced photographer myself and, armed with a hand-me-down Canon Power Shot, was determined to gain some skills. At our pre-voyage workshop in April, naturalists and Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic certified photo instructors Michael S. Nolan and CT Ticknor presented a session on expedition photography that was very inspiring. I was fortunate enough to have both Michael and CT on my Lindblad-National Geographic expedition through Svalbard, where I continued my learning. They both have the technical skill to help the most sophisticated photographers but also the heart to help novices like me.
These following expedition photography tips are not my own and must be credited to Michael and CT. However, I will provide my interpretation and examples of my own photos taken on the expedition. Still daunted by settings and white balance, I shot in Auto mode but I did try and pay attention to composition and create images that would help me tell a story.
1. Take an establishing shot.
Each landing we made, I tried to take a photo that broadly captured a sense of place--usually with the ship in the background. The establishing shot provided useful context for the other photos. This is a shot of the beautiful isthmus at our last landing. The white sky and muted colors were otherworldly.
2. Leave space in the frame.
With the polar bears, it was temping just to zoom in and bulls-eye the animal in every frame. However, when I pulled back and left some space, I got powerful images of the bear in its vast landscape of pack ice.
3. Rule of thirds.
When shooting landscapes, think of the frame as divided in horizontal thirds and group elements by thirds instead of halves. So, in this shot of water and sky, instead of half water and half ice, I aimed for two-thirds water and one-third sky.
4. Light sets the mood.
Both the midnight sun and the silvery light in the high latitudes were like nothing I have ever seen. I looked for reflections and shadows. I tried to get up at different times, like this shot at 2am, to capture the mood.
5.Get in close.
Though I did not have a powerful zoom lens, I did try and get in close where I could. One of the ways I could reasonably do this was by taking macro shots of the vegetation. I often lay down on the spongy tundra to get at ground level. Another way was to zoom in on a glacier face to capture the ice texture.
6. Use continuous shot to capture action.
Get to know your continuous shot setting! When capturing action, it is a great way to ensure you don’t miss the look of the arctic fox, the take-off of the guillemot, or in this case, the yawn of the polar bear!
7. Consider the angle of your shot.
I tried to get the ship itself and other guests in some of my shots not only for scale and to establish the scene but to find new angles. During a visit by a curious polar bear, I went up a deck to get this shot.
8. Layer your images.
I would often hear CT remind us of this when we were on hikes ashore. One easy way to accomplish this is to place something dominant in the foreground with an interesting background like this whale vertebra with hikers and the ship behind it.
9. Get a sense of scale.
It can be much more powerful to know how big or how small a subject. After photographing tiny vegetation for several days, it finally occurred to me to occasionally put my finger in the shot for scale! Another example: I took a lot of shots of the bird cliff but this one with the Zodiac in it offers scale.
10. “Don’t Point and Shoot— Aim and Create”
This is a motto that Michael and CT shared at our April meeting that resonated for me while on my expedition. I did not want to come back having snapped thousands of pictures but not really capturing the landscape, the wildlife, and my shipmates in a creative way. I am definitely more mindful of how to aim and create interesting images that tell a story. I am inspired to continue my own journey with photography. And one of these days, with a successful Arctic expedition behind me, I might even venture out of Auto mode.
All photographs by Cristina Veresan unless otherwise indicated.
Back to Port in Longyearbyen
This morning, we ate breakfast, said our goodbyes, and began to disembark the ship. I cannot believe we are leaving the Land of the Ice Bears! It was hard to leave my shipboard home and all my new friends with whom I have shared this great adventure.
I have a flight to and overnight in Oslo, a flight to and overnight in Newark, and a long flight to Honolulu before I am back home. Though school is not in session until August, I am already thinking of lessons that draw upon this rich experience. I hope my Arctic adventure will foster a more global perspective, encourage environmental stewardship, and inspire a passion for discovery among my students!
Lessons from Svalbard
Gaining a sense of place in the high Arctic was a powerful take-away: feeling the tundra sponge beneath my feet on a hike, smelling the freshness of a massive ice cap, hearing the snow bunting sing its solo in the vast Arctic landscape, and seeing a polar bear navigate from ice floe to ice floe in a seemingly endless scramble of sea ice. It was a sparse, harsh, and beautiful environment, and it has left an indelible impression on me. I now have a first-hand experience in the region, and my biggest take-away is not only a sense of place but also a sense of urgency to protect it.
I have renewed passion about combating climate change and specifically about conserving our polar regions. In Hawaii and elsewhere in the Pacific islands, negative effects of climate change are already being experienced. I scientifically understood how climate change is a worldwide concern, but my Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic expedition gave me first-hand knowledge of its global reach.
As longtime Maui-resident, naturalist CT Ticknor shared in our April workshop, the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship is a heavy kuleana. Kuleana is a rich, nuanced native Hawaiian word meaning both privilege and responsibility. Now that I have returned from my Arctic voyage, it is my duty to tell the story of my expedition but it is also my honor.
I feel incredibly fortunate to have been awarded a Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship. My voyage through Arctic Svalbard has enriched my teaching and changed my life.
Hiking the Arctic Desert
It is hard not to mark this day with lasts: Oh, this is our last hike, our last lunch, our last reindeer, etc...But it is a fact that this is our last full day in Svalbard. And I am not ready to leave. This windy morning, the ship entered Bellsund and was finally able to find a suitable anchoring spot so we could go ashore. The staff reported not often landing in this particular place, but I think it was a happy accident. The scenery was breathtaking. Ellen, Aimee, and I had a good long hike in this Arctic desert, and for a last hike, it was amazing.
Guests were piling into Zodiacs and heading back to the ship. As Karen kept watch on the hill for bears, Brian finally got his interviews with Aimee and myself. We had to duck down to get out of the whipping wind. Before he could complete Ellen's interview, Karen announced we had better get going. I think Ellen was relieved!
Below is the segment of the VER about the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship that Brian filmed today. It was difficult to be articulate in a spontaneous interview out in the cold, but I was excited to share my appreciation for the program!
Last night on the Explorer...
In some ways, Svalbard is exactly as I had pictured and imagined, but my experience has no doubt been full of lovely surprises. Over 60% of the archipelago is glacier-covered, and I certainly have seen plenty of ice in various forms. However, I have also hiked on the spongy green tundra dotted with colorful wildflowers. Svalbard's geology is also quite varied and has rich occurrences of fossils; in fact, there is bedrock from almost every geologic period present here. I was prepared for the cold temperatures but taken aback by the dryness of this climate. People generally associate deserts with heat, but this region is technically an Arctic desert due to lack of precipitation. Arctic deserts are defined as being located above 75 degrees north latitude and receiving less that 10 inches of precipitation annually, an amount comparable to the Sahara.
Tonight was also the last nightly recap in the lounge. Lucio explained the disembarkation procedures in detail before our last delicious sit down dinner. People used the shared computers to upload photos from yesterday's polar plunge and share photos for a guest slideshow.
Tonight, we enjoyed a bit of social time in the lounge with crew and guests. Aimee, Ellen and I spent time packing and reviewing our journals and photos. Tomorrow our voyage ends where it begins back in Longyearbyen, where the ship will dock and we will disembark. My Lindblad-National Geographic expedition is coming to an end. However, my missions of incorporating all my new learning into my curriculum and of sharing my Arctic story with as wide an audience as possible is just beginning.
A Very Wet Hike
Overnight, our ship had begun to retrace its path along the southern coast back to Longyearbyen, and in fine weather, we were able to make a landing after breakfast at Ardalsnuten. This morning's hike made it clear why every staff member I talked to pre voyage stated the most essential piece of expedition gear in two words: rubber boots. Knee high rubber boots are so important because when we go ashore, we travel by Zodiac boats; when we jump out of the boats, it's often into about six inches of frigid Arctic water! Today's hiking conditions were also particularly soggy, and on our long hike, Ellen and I were both thankful we had our rubber boots and waterproof pants. Temperatures had warmed, and there was lots of sunshine and plenty of meltwater.
On our wet walk we encountered many bones of the great whales: ribs, vertebrae, and a moss-covered skull. The bones were settled on what was
once a beach terrace but is now far from the current shoreline. The earth is slowly rebounding from when it was covered by ice. Svalbard's land, remember, was shaped by glacial activity.
This area used to be an important area for early hunters, and we saw a weathered trapper's cabin that had a decrepit beauty. We saw lots of piles of reindeer scat but only a few actual reindeer. I had hoped we would be approached by reindeer, for I have not yet had a close encounter.
A Polar Plunge!
Climate Change in the Arctic
Lindblad Expeditions provides guests high quality, engaging interpretation through its naturalist staff during voyages. Additionally, they invite a Global Perspectives Guest Speaker familiar with the region to explore with guests and provide informal and formal commentary. On our expedition, we were fortunate to have polar ecologist Dr. Andrew Clarke with us to share insight into climate change and its impacts in the polar regions.
This afternoon, as we cruised across Storfjorden, headed for the southernmost tip of Spitsbergen, Dr. Clarke gave a compelling lecture in the lounge. He made sure to distinguish between climate and weather at the start of his talk. Weather refers to short term conditions while climate reflects the long term average conditions for a region. Simply put: climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.
Dr. Clarke outlined how our modern climate is not what we would expect. That is, our global climate is experiencing a pronounced warming trend beyond the range of natural variability. Sea levels have risen in the last century. And the scientific consensus is that the major cause is an increase in atmospheric CO2, predominantly due to the burning of fossil fuels. Climate change is real; let's not debate it's existence, let's work on solutions.
The effects of climate change in the Arctic are quite dramatic. Data presented indicated that the Arctic is warming rapidly, ice is forming later and melting faster, and the melting surface layer of the permafrost is getting deeper. I thought of the underweight polar bear we had seen. The glacier calving we witnessed. The tidewater glaciers with newly exposed land beneath them, evidence of retreating. This Arctic ecosystem is threatened, and I have a newfound sense of urgency to protect it. I have observed evidence of climate change in Hawaii and now more evidence on the other side of the world. Global change is truly an issue that connects us all. But combating it can, too!
Later in the afternoon, the weather turned cold and the wind picked up a bit. Just before our evening recap, two fin whales were spotted and the captain positioned the ship closer to them. The two whales were feeding and surfaced periodically to breathe. There's something so powerful about being in the presence of great whales. So much of the animal is unseen under the surface but you can sense it's immensity.
It was difficult to get a great photograph, but the experience is unforgettable and, like many times on this voyage, I just tried to be fully present and enjoy the moment. I was one level up from the bow and it was fun to watch everyone move from port to starboard and back again, shutters clicking, as the whales silently repositioned themselves underwater.
Yes, the wind has picked up and we are getting a lot of ocean motion tonight. After another fabulous dinner, everyone gathered in the lounge for a preview of our Video Expedition Report (VER).
On each Lindblad Expeditions voyage, an expert videographer shoots the amazing moments along the way and by the end of the expedition, presents a complete, edited short documentary VER. Talented artist and adventurer Brian Christensen joined us on our Svalbard expedition and created our VER. As I expected, he beautifully captured the stunning scenery, documented diverse wildlife, and conducted interviews with guests and naturalists.
Goodbye to another awesome day in Svalbard!
The Bird Cliff at Kapp Fanshawe
I hate to admit this, as curious as I am about the natural world, I have never really considered myself a bird person. I have a tough time using binoculars, and I feel like I can never see what birders get that excited about-- literally. Unless it's a big wading bird, I cannot even get a good look and certainly not a good picture. My Mentor Naturalist Karen talks about birds with such passion, though. When I see her on the bridge early this morning, she tells me, "We saw an ivory gull!" and I want to share her excitement as she relates how these birds often follow bears to scavenge their kills. When another naturalist explains how the little Arctic tern migrates from the high Arctic all the way down to Antarctica and back again in a year, I can appreciate this record-breaking accomplishment. And when I am hiking out on the tundra, I love straining to hear the snow bunting sing out its solo tune. But birds still leave me feeling kind of ambivalent.
That all changed at the Kapp Fanshawe bird cliffs.
I dare anyone to spend some time cruising right below these towering cliffs crammed with a quarter million nesting murres and not be in complete awe of bird life. That's how I spent this morning. Once we sailed out of Bear Sound and through the Hinlopen Strait, we had made our way to this amazing point of land in Eastern Spitsbergen. As we approached the cliffs, I was dwarfed by the sheer rock cliffs rising hundreds of feet from the sea lined with shoulder-to-shoulder murres. I was deafened by bird noise. Oh, and did I mention the acrid guano smell?
That is, until the chicks are ready to leave the nest. At this point, usually at night, the father will call the chick down from the ledge for what might be a free fall into the sea. Selection at work! Surviving chicks swim away with their father, and he continues to provide food for them as they develop.
I took my attention away from the cliffs for a second and looked down at the sea. There were a few ice floes that shone white above the water but glowed with a blue hue below the surface. Suddenly, two of the ice floes began moving. Fast. I turned to naturalist Doug Gualtieri, pointed down, and (foolishly) asked "Doug, why is that ice moving?"
Plank-ton of fun!
I participate in plankton outreach with a local non-profit back in Hawaii, Kahi Kai ('one ocean' in native Hawaiian). For my voyage, they have given me a unique tool we use in our outreach for mobile microscopy: the Cell Scope. The Cell Scope contains powerful optics but easily connects to an iPhone in order to observe and photograph plankton. I facilitate an annual plankton lab with my students at Star of the Sea, but I never imagined I would get the chance to do one in the high Arctic!
As excited as I am to observe the macro life up here in the Arctic, I am also interested in the micro life drifting undetected in these frigid waters. The base of this Arctic food chain, tiny plankton, was on my mind, and today I finally got a chance to conduct a plankton tow. The first officer Piers took me out in a Zodiac after shuttling guests, including Ellen, to shore for a hike. With us were Aimee to observe and photographer Sisse Brimberg to capture the action.
The plankton net is a funnel shaped, fine-meshed net connected to a plastic bottle. When the plankton net is towed through the water for awhile, you get a concentrated sample of plankton in the bottle.
As we cruised by Idunbreen glacier and I gripped the tow line as the plankton net streamed behind us in the icy water.
Enjoy this slideshow of plankton tow images taken by the amazing Sisse Brimberg, and graciously provided to me for use on my blog.
When I got back aboard the Explorer, I could see lots of organic matter suspended in the sample and, thankfully, some swimming plankton! I took a cursory look at my sample in the Zodiac landing area but quickly realized I needed to find a more suitable spot.
So I took my sample and the Cell Scope up to the Observation Deck where I could interact with guests and enjoy the majestic alpine scenery. Over and over, I used a plastic dropper to draw up a small amount of water to put on a slide, put the slide on the Cell Scope, and tried to find as much plankton as possible. I was happy to explain to guests what I was doing and share my passion for plankton.
Some guests put their iPhones in the Cell Scope and attempted to find and photograph plankton themselves. I let them know that we all depend on plankton not only for supporting marine food chains but also for the oxygen they release during photosynthesis.
Considering how much of the Earth is covered with seawater, does it surprise you that plant plankton provide us with about 60% of the oxygen we breathe?
While I was playing with Plankton...
Ellen had a fantastic hike on the rocky coast adjacent to Idunbreen Glacier and shared these images with me. Lindblad Expeditions provides guests the opportunity to explore pristine and remote places, and the company is guided by a strict set of Governing Principles that really sets them apart in their field. The principles outline the commitment to guest safety and the high level of service. But one that really sticks out for me is "Positively impact the areas we explore and in which we work." One of the ways we do that is to leave only footprints and take only photographs. When we are ashore, we do not take anything with us: artifacts, fossils, rocks, specimens, bones etc...However, Ellen's hiking group made an exception to the no-take rule when they cleaned a small area of plastic trash. Now that's a positive impact!
It was an awesome experience to once again observe a polar bear in its natural habitat. This large male bear appeared healthy and fat. We watched him walk across the ice with his huge paws, stopping every once and awhile to look up at our ship. Often, polar bears will roll on the ground after they swim to get the salt off them. But this bear in one amazing moment sprawled out on his belly!
He came near the ship only once before lumbering away.
I got thinking about a lecture that Magnus had given about polar bears. Polar bears diverged from brown bears in their evolution about 300,000-500,000 years ago and have adapted to their extreme conditions in both physical and metabolic characteristics. Because polar bears and brown bears can mate, there has been discussion in the scientific community about whether or not they are each different species, but recent genomic evidence confirms they are in fact unique species that have intermingled and interbred at various times. In fact, Magnus reported that due to climate change causing habitat to overlap, brown bears are again mating with polar bears in some parts of the world, and a few hybrid bears had been identified.
The Day Winds Down...
The silvery light in the high latitudes continues to amaze me. A group of us is gathered on the bow, taking in the scenery. When the water is this calm, the light so silvery, and the sky this full of wispy clouds, is it even possible to take a bad photograph? Gorgeous subject matter.
I try not to think about the days of my voyage counting down, for I do not want this experience to end. Life aboard a ship has a sense of shared initiative and camaraderie like nothing else, and this ship is filled with such capable, fun, and interesting shipmates. Two of them are in my cabin right now. Aimee and Ellen are having another rich discussion tonight, dissecting our day and brainstorming all the ways we can incorporate our new learning into our curriculum. Oh, and there also might have also been some girl talk.
Cruising the Pack Ice...
In the bridge, expedition leader Bud and first officer Piers studied the most recent ice charts in order to plan our day. Naturalists and crew scanned the horizon with their binoculars. Yes, today will be spent cruising in and along the pack ice looking for wildlife and taking in the icy scenery.
Before lunch, there was also a presentation on Svalbard's natural and cultural history by naturalist Carl Erik Kilander. His presentation outlined the human uses of Svalbard in the 1600-1800's and their impacts on the wildlife: from the Dutch whalers who decimated populations of the blue and bowhead whales to the Russian hunters that would spend all winter hunting and trapping polar bear, arctic fox, birds, and reindeer. He spoke about the rise of coal mining and founding of Longyearbyen, and the fact that mining is currently being phased out and replaced by tourism and scientific research.
98% of Svalbard is wilderness, making it one of the world's last great wild places, and 65% of it is completely protected. Conservation of wildlife and habitat has allowed the Arctic animals of Svalbard to thrive in recent years. However, Svalbard's ecosystems are still vulnerable to more long-range threats like global climate change, radioactivity and other pollutants, and resource depletion and mismanagement in the Barents Sea. Carl Erik's talk was not only concerned with the history but also with future of this region he loves so much.
Seals, Seals, Seals!
It was a great day for pinnipeds (seals)! The two seals that make up the bulk of a polar bear's diet are ringed seals (Pusa hispida hispida) and bearded seals (Erignathus barbarous), and we were fortunate enough to see both species today. The ringed seal gets its name from the spots that mottle their light brown coats. And the bearded seal is named for its long, white whiskers used to feel for prey on the muddy sea bottom (this feeding behavior also gives its face a characteristic coppery hue). Both seals have thick layers of blubber to insulate themselves from the cold and thick nails on their flippers to grip the ice when resting. They are streamlined, fast swimmers and can usually evade polar bears when underwater. On the ice, however, they are vulnerable to attack.
The photos below represent two different survival strategies of the seals that naturalist Michael Nolan shared with me.
The smaller ringed seals are generally found in the center of large ice floes, next to their breathing holes. For a polar bear to attack, it would have to pull itself up on the far edge of a floe and run across the ice. The ringed seal would hear the bear and be able to quickly slip down the hole and swim away. The only danger would be when the seal returns to its hole, perhaps after hunting some fish, and can be surprised by a waiting bear. It is said that polar bears can even smell which breathing holes are most frequented.
The larger bearded seals most often hang out on the edges of smaller ice floes, looking downward to keep watch for predators. They keep to the edge so they can quickly roll into the water if there is any sign of a bear. Once in the water, the bearded seal can swim away, provided the seal has reacted quickly enough. The relationship between seals and polar bears is, as Michael told me, a dance over time of each species trying to outwit the other.
Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) are seals that do not often fall prey to polar bears, for males and females have ivory tusks with which to defend themselves! Our excellent spotters saw a walrus on a far off floe, and we cruised closer to get a good look. These large seals can weigh up to two tons! We got close enough to see the vibrissae (whiskers) lining its snout. The whiskers are used to search out invertebrates like clams and sea cucumbers from the muddy sea bottom. Sometimes walrus haul out on land and pile in large groups in order to retain heat and protect their young from the ice bears. But this walrus was all alone on a small ice floe.
Ice Caps and Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Hats
This afternoon, the ship made its way to Austfonna, a formidable tidewater glacier that is actually the third largest ice cap in the world by area (after ones in Antarctica and Greenland). The total area is over 3000 square miles! The sheer face above water is incredible, but most of the ice is underwater. We learn that it is about 1800 feet thick in places, though on average about 900 feet thick. As we approached the face of the massive ice cap, Ellen, Aimee, and I were humbled by its beauty. The air was incredibly fresh and we swore we could hear the ice pop and tremble. On the ice face, the creamy white glazed over the vibrant blues like a confection. The slideshow below has some great shots of the Austfonna ice cap...and us Grosvenor Teacher Fellows rockin' our GTF hats!
Enjoy this slideshow of Austfonna portraits of the Grosvenor Teacher Fellows taken by the amazing Sisse Brimberg, and graciously provided to me for use on my blog.
Breakthroughs and Reflection
This evening, we cruised by the edge of the last remaining fast ice in Bjornsundet. There were times when the Explorer had to ram drifting pack in order to push forward. It was so cool to watch from the bow as the ship broke through. Alone on deck, I looked out at the fractured surface of the sea and reflected on the ice. Birds dipped and dived in our wake, for we had uncovered food sources below. All Arctic life truly depends on the ice to survive: these birds, the seals we saw today, and the polar bear we had observed yesterday.
The high Arctic is a place of relatively simple beauty.
Of breakthroughs and reflection.
A Morning Kayak
After another sleepless night, my morning coffee on the bridge, and breakfast with my fellow Fellows and our naturalist mentor Karen Copeland, I was ready for a morning excursion!
We were anchored at Rosenbergdallen, a broad valley at the northwestern corner of Edgoya island. Hikes promised to be quite scenic with the chance of reindeer encounters. However, the waters were calm enough for kayaking, and I could not pass up the chance to paddle in the high Arctic. Ellen decided she wanted to hike, but Aimee was game to share a kayak with me.
It was amazing to be inches above near-freezing water in our kayak. I had on enough layers to keep me warm, though I felt a bit awkward holding my paddle with thick gloves. There was not much wind, and the frigid water was quite glassy. Aimee and I enjoyed the vast Arctic scenery as our paddle blades sliced through the still water and propelled us forward in a wordless rhythm. On the gentle slopes of Rosenbergdallen, was both snow, melting with summer's warmer temperatures, and swaths of tundra vegetation. Reindeer ambled along the hillsides, stopping to feed on new grasses.
An Accidental Nap
After lunch, the ship began making the passage between Barentsoya and Edgoya, and I spent some time talking to guests up on the observation deck. In the late afternoon, I retreated to my cabin to do some journaling. However, as soon as I was in my bunk, I fell fast asleep! Sleep, which had eluded me for two nights, had finally arrived and my body shut down. In fact, I slept through dinner but awoke soon after. Ellen had just crept into my bunk with a plated sandwich for me when the intercom crackled and Bud's soothing voice announced, "For those of you who might not have heard, a polar bear has been spotted. You'll want to make your way up on deck." Ellen and I frantically donned our coats, neck gaiters, hats, gloves, and cameras. Yes, I needed some sleep, but this was worth waking up for!
Leader of the Pack (Ice)
Most guests shared with me that the reason they chose this particular expedition was to see the polar bear/ice bear in its natural habitat. The prospect of observing this iconic Arctic animal was thrilling to me as well, but I knew that there was no guarantee. Arctic wildlife is very spread out, especially the polar bears, and our experienced staff and crew was working so hard to spot them. The bear we had seen at a distance the other day foraging seaweed was so underweight, and I hoped that this bear would be more healthy.
I stepped out on deck on the port side and looked out. It was truly like I had woken up in a different world. In every direction, ice floes of all sizes dotted the sea surface like scrambled white puzzle pieces. I crossed to the starboard side and looked down. An ice bear looked up at me and I was too stunned to grab my camera. The bear's dark eyes held my gaze for a moment and then scanned the ship. By now, the bow below was filled with guests, who pointed lenses of all sizes at the bear. Our ship was not moving, but I watched as the bear moved closer to us. This bear was curious!
For the better part of an hour, we were able to observe this bear. The naturalists explained that she was most likely a younger female who had not seen a ship before. It was one of the greatest joys of my life watching the bear behavior: rolling around in the snow, hugging a chunk of ice, yawning, and jumping in and out of the water in between floes. People stared in reverence, silent except for their camera shutters clicking. Mine was clicking, too; here are some of many images captured of this beautiful animal.
This bear appeared fat and healthy. Eating mainly a diet of blubber-rich seals and occasionally walrus, beluga whale, great whale carcasses, and even birds/bird eggs, polar bears are top predators in their environment. They can weigh up to 1500 pounds and up to 50% of their body weight comes from fat. These carnivores get their water from the chemical reaction that breaks down fat, so they do not even need to drink water.
This polar bear's coat appeared bright white, though a yellowish coat is most common. This color obviously camouflages the animal on the ice, and I can attest that the bears are very difficult to spot! The hair follicles of the coat are actually clear and hollow. Hollow fur transmits the sunlight (much like a fiber optic thread conducts light) to the black skin underneath, where it is absorbed as heat.
Polar bears do not hibernate, but they are able to adjust their metabolic rates depending on the availability of food. However, female bears do slow down for pregnancy, birth, and nursing in the cozy confines of a winter den they dig in the snow. Generally, females mate on the ice during the early spring but can delay implantation until they successfully den.
Perhaps this female bear has already mated and will give birth in the winter. Maybe, as the sunlight returns, she will nudge her cubs, now large enough to trek, out of the den and begin teaching them about life on the ice and how to hunt seals. I can only hope this and other bears continue to have the ice they need. Their survival depends on it.
What an incredible day! Though my expedition doesn't seem that long on a calendar, my time is filled with so much learning (and light) that days seem to last longer than expected. Amazingly, after my nap, I still get some sleep at night. And I am pretty sure I had some Arctic dreams...
All photographs by Cristina Veresan unless otherwise indicated.
Read the Lindblad Naturalist Daily Expedition Report (DER) here.
First full day begins...
After breakfast, everyone gathered in the lounge. Before an important briefing by expedition leader Bud Lehnhausen, us Grosvenor Teacher Fellows were given a chance to introduce ourselves. When I addressed the guests, I explained the purpose of the GTF program and I made it clear "we are teachers, but we are here to learn."
Bud delivered his briefing on Svalbard rules and regulations. Then, Lucio, the Assistant Expedition Leader, explained zodiac operations and the protocol for shore excursions. Naturalist Jason Kelley also shared information about Polar Bear Safety. The takeaway message: Bears will kill you; we do NOT want to see bears when we are on land, only from the ship! All the naturalist guides carry flares and a rifle as polar bear deterrents when they are leading groups of hikers.
The ship was at the entrance of the southernmost fjord system along the west side of Spitsbergen known as Hornsund. The plan was to go ashore in the afternoon but the staff had to determine the best spot based on wind conditions and snowfall.
We navigated the fjords and enjoyed the gorgeous scenery!
Our first polar bear...
Animals in the Arctic are quite spread out and, at all times in the bridge, naturalists and crew members are constantly scanning for wildlife. When Bud comes over the intercom and reports that a swimming polar bear has been spotted, the ship buzzes with excitement as people gather extra layers, binoculars, and cameras. We all scrambled to the deck to get a look at the ice bear/isbjørn (Ursus maritimus). The latin name translates to "sea bear" and the animal is actually classified as a marine mammal. Polar bears are excellent swimmers and swims of over 400 miles have been recorded. Unfortunately, due to climate change melting ice, longer swims might be becoming more common. We could just see the snout poking out of the surface but could imagine the large, paddle-like paws surging underwater and propelling it forward.
We were able to see the bear in the water and then track it as it left the sea and walked along the shore. According to the naturalists, this bear was an older but underweight male and he was most likely quite hungry. This would be a very dangerous bear to encounter! At one point, the bear began eating seaweed that was piled on the beach. To see this large carnivorous bear foraging seaweed was quite a sad moment. Polar bears usually hunt seals from fast ice (sea ice attached to land), and there is no fast ice in Hornsund at this time of year. Observing this bear was witnessing a very tangible negative effect of climate change. Without ice from which to hunt, the ice bears go hungry.
After lunch it was decided we would anchor and be able to take Zodiacs ashore for hiking. A good landing spot had been identified and naturalists scanned the area carefully to make sure no polar bears were present. Getting ready for an excursion is quite the ordeal! First, I had to put on a base layer of long underwear. Then, I add some thermal pants and a lightweight fleece shirt. Two pairs of thick socks for warmth. Next, I don a down parka and knee-high rubber boots. And I can't forget the accessories: a neck gaiter, hat, gloves, and shades!
Our first landing...
We were stoked about our first chance to hike on the tundra and explore life on land. Wearing all our layers and carrying cameras with fully-charged batteries, we boarded Zodiac boats that would carry us to to shore at Gnålodden.
Our time ashore was amazing. We walked the rocky shoreline and took in the dramatic Hornsund scenery with Jason as our guide. Once we got up onto the green tundra, I felt the ground sponge beneath my feet. I knew that only the top layer was thawed and below it was the permanently frozen permafrost layer. Tiny, low-growing plants, lichen and moss were growing everywhere--even bare rock--and the purple saxifrage was in bloom! Ellen noticed that my purple parka was the same color of the flowers.
An arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) appeared before our group, and we were able to watch it start feeding on part of a bird carcass. I was surprised how mangy it looked-- its bright white coat was so patchy. Jason told me that it was in the process of losing its thick winter coat. We also got to stand at the bottom of the large seabird colony that Gnålodden is known for. The air at the top of the cliff was thick with black-legged kittiwakes and thick-billed murres and the noise coming from the birds was deafening. In fact, the noise is how the cliffs get there name: “gnål” means “nagging” in Norwegian. The Arctic fox is adapted to feed on birds during the summer, and he obviously had many a meal in his future!
The evening brought a lovely welcome reception hosted by Captain Kruess and, unfortunately, another sleepless night! Perhaps the midnight sun is upsetting my system. I can only imagine how much sleep I would get during the polar night in winter.
All photographs by Cristina Veresan unless otherwise indicated.
Read the Lindblad Naturalist Daily Expedition Report (DER) for yesterday and today here.
This morning, we took a bus to the Oslo airport and boarded a flight up to Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean! I was so excited to get up to the high Arctic and embark on our voyage aboard the National Geographic Explorer. I took a bit of fine Norwegian chocolate on the plane, but I opted out of the many salty black licorice treats that are so popular there!
In fact, Longyearbyen has the northernmost airport (permanent, with regularly scheduled flights) in the world. The city boasts many "northernmost" records: post office, church, restaurant, blues festival, cinema etc...
In the winter, the region is cloaked in darkness day and night and temperatures are often below zero, but this time of year, the town is bathed in sunlight at all hours and temperatures range in the 30-50 degrees F. The climate in Svalbard is moderated by the warm North Atlantic current that continues the Gulf Stream northeast.
We visited the Svalbard Museum and got introduced to the local arctic ecology, as well as the human history of the region. Though there were no indigenous people in Svalbard. In 1596, Dutch expedition led by Wilhelm Barentsz arrived in Svalbard and named the region "Spitsbergen," a name that meant "sharp, pointed mountains." Today, Spitsbergen is the name of the largest island.
During the 400 years after its discovery, Svalbard was a whaling and hunting ground for the Dutch, English, Russian Pomors, and Norwegians. Whales, walruses, arctic fox, and polar bears were hunted in large numbers. Longyearbyen has been used as a whaling base, a mining town, a polar research outpost and, most recently, an Arctic tourism destination. The homes are almost exclusively owned by companies, which provide housing to workers and their families.
On the bus, Ellen and I sat near a Lindblad Expeditions legend, a very sweet (and sharp!) elderly woman named Grace. She has been on over 30 voyages all over the world with the company! She was familiar with the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship and after congratulating us for being there told us, "Don't pretend to know anything about polar bears. It really detracts from the experience of others." Ha! We assured her we wouldn't.
Exploring the Explorer...
Finally time to board the ship and begin exploring our new home. Our teacher cabin was quite comfortable: two attached staterooms, a single and a double, and a bathroom with walk-in shower. We began unpacking our gear and settling into our shipboard home. Karen, our naturalist mentor, gave us a tour of the ship and I quickly began to memorize the stairways.
Everyone gathered in the lounge for staff and crew introductions, as well as a mandatory lifeboat drill. We had to learn what do in case of an emergency. We had not even left port yet and Captain Oliver Kruess spotted a walrus and calf swimming near the ship. I quickly grabbed my camera and headed out on deck to check it out!
I was stunned by the silvery light as we pulled out of Longyearbyen. The pointed peaks seemed to glow in the afternoon sun. We set sail for Hornsund, the southernmost major fjord along the main island of Spitsbergen.
We were treated to some gorgeous scenery. We cruised up close to our first tidewater glacier, ones that terminate in the sea.
I can already tell that my fellow Fellows Ellen and Aimee and I are going to be lifelong friends and professional colleagues. I know we have an incredible adventure ahead of us, and I cannot think of anyone better to share it with.
We enjoyed the first of many sumptuous meals this evening. During this and other meals, us teacher fellows tried to separate and dine with different guests. What a well-travelled and interesting group!
Unfortunately, I did not get any sleep. I am not sure if I was still on Hawaii time or perhaps coursing with adrenaline, but I was up writing and wandering the ship most of the night. I saw the midnight sun, and the 1am sun, and the 2am sun, and the...well, you get the idea.
Looking forward to the journey ahead...let's explore the Land of the Ice Bears!
All photographs by Cristina Veresan unless otherwise indicated.
When I got the call from National Geographic back in February that I had been chosen as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, it was quite a shock. I was congratulated on my selection and informed I would be exploring "the land of the ice bears." Wow, I thought, I am going to the Arctic! Then, "You will be on an expedition of Svalbard in June." After saying thank you repeatedly, crying uncontrollably and finally hanging up the phone, I looked at my laptop in front of me and promptly googled "Svalbard."
Svalbard is an archipelago that has been part of the Kingdom of Norway since 1925, and the islands are about halfway between continental Norway and the North Pole in the Arctic Ocean. Svalbard compares in size to the state of West Virginia or the country of Scotland. About 60% of Svalbard is covered in ice, but there are areas of low-lying and very well-adapted vegetation. In fact, I can expect to see some exotic Arctic flowers since it will be the summer season.
During my summer expedition, I can expect variable temperatures ranging from 30-50°F and a lot of daylight! Though some areas are untouched wildness, Svalbard has been used over the years by hunters, fishers, mining companies, and scientists and actually has the northernmost permanent settlements in the world.
This blog contains occasional dispatches from my science classroom and professional learning experiences. Thank you for reading!