When it comes to field trips (wait, scratch that, ‘arctic expeditions’), it’s safe to say that UiT’s department of Arctic and Marine Biology cuts few corners. This March, a small group of bachelor and master’s students set sail across the Greenland Sea to reach the West Ice off Greenland’s east coast, carefully navigated by the experienced crew of the university’s largest research vessel, the Helmer Hanssen. The trip is compulsory for members of Erling Nordøy’s bachelor’s course in Arctic Biology, and costs an estimated one million NOK to run. As such, it’s only fair that I share with you the highs and lows of this incredible experience, dear reader.
Kitted out like pack horses with all the things you (definitely don’t) need on a ship, the air of anticipation was tangible as we climbed from the dock to the main deck of the 63 metre, ex-trawler we would call home for the next three weeks. The Helmer Hansen was purchased by the university in 2011 and kitted out with a selection of high-tech equipment purpose built for researchers across the fields of geology, biology, chemistry and fisheries.
The first three days were decidedly tricky for the majority. Eight metre waves had us confined to our cabins, picking out every detail of the ceiling as we passed the hours in a consistently horizontal plane. Embrace sea-sickness and it will tend to pass; try and get the better of it, and it will seek revenge at the most inconvenient of moments. On the plus side, any personal boundaries you thought you might maintain with your cabin mate quickly dissipate: sharing is caring, right? Nonetheless, bouts of sea-sickness soon subsided, after which most students could be found up on the bridge staring bleary-eyed through binoculars, on the look-out for all manner of sea creatures.
After two days of travelling, the sea fog lifted to reveal Jan Mayen, home to the world’s northernmost active volcano: ‘Beerenberg’. Several meteorologists inhabit a weather station on the island for lonely six-month periods; our hitch-hiking seabirds representing some of the few visitors they get! Despite the fact that we were soon treated to a glimpse of rare bottlenose whales, there is one site permanently etched into my memory: our first glimpse of ice on the horizon. When the distant sky shifts from grey to white, it’s a sure sign there’s ice ahead, reflecting sunlight and turning the clouds an ivory hue. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve heard David Attenborough’s dulcet tones describe barren landscapes of drifting ice floes; nothing compares to sailing through them in total silence as the brisk winter air stings your cheeks and your eyelashes become laden with crystals. Erling, an experienced polar research scientist who has successfully handled leopard seals (Google them) in Antarctica, gave a half-hour lecture on the highest and most exposed deck; a baptism of fire if you will. Heat flowed out from a shivering huddle of students like lava.
It took us an extra day patrolling the ice edge before we began to happen across sporadically situated family groups of hooded seals. Mothers nursed new-born pups as they barked aggressively to deter males lingering in the vicinity. The hooded seal has the shortest lactation period of any mammal, leaving their pups pumped full of milk after just four days, immediately after which she accepts the advances of the male – if you know what I mean….
We spent around 10 days conducting a series of long and exhausting practicals, though copious amounts of cake kept our blood sugar sufficiently high to see the days through with relative ease. Indeed, this cruise was no vacation, and students could be found typing up project reports well into the evening. Tired yawns, creaking ice flows and the hum of the coffee machine were the only sounds to break the relentless tapping of keyboards and turning of pages. Finally, as each day turned to night – silent and pitch black as it was – students slowly disappeared from the bridge until all that remained was a coffee stained paper cup and a pair of abandoned binoculars. I often wonder about what sorts of things happened on the ice at night as we lay blissfully unaware, dreaming of tomorrow’s adventure.
On one very memorable evening, as we indulged ourselves in the chef’s fish of the day, one student came full throttle into the mess room where he slid to a halt and paused, breathless, clutching his camera in one hand and steadying himself with the other. ‘You guys want to see a polar bear?’ he asked, beaming from ear to ear, chest heaving. There was a sharp intake of breath and a brief pause in the room, before cutlery clattered to the floor and we raced to the bridge like a stampede of wild animals.
There it was, yellowish in colour and magnificent in every way, leaning over a seal pup atop a jagged ice flow, entirely focused and ignoring us entirely as we approached. Expecting this to be a fleeting glimpse and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, cameras flashed and students jostled to get the best view. One thing’s for sure, no one anticipated that we would spend the next three hours watching this young bear play with its prey in a distinctly macabre manner, keeping it alive as it practised its hunting techniques and threw the pup around like a ragdoll. It was only when darkness fell that we lost sight of the bear, never to find out the fate of the pup but pleased to see such a healthy individual given it’s that this species is the icon of climate change. We headed to bed feeling all sorts of emotions yet sharing a common realisation: nature is very, very cruel.
After 2.5 weeks at sea, it was time to head home. Much like our outbound trip, the open ocean took no prisoners. Students were flung across rooms and water cascaded in through poorly sealed windows as waves smashed into the ship, the ocean holding us firmly in its wrath. The calm waters surrounding Tromsøya brought some light relief as we passed under Tromsø bridge and gazed out at the shoreline, anticipating the feeling of solid ground beneath our feet and watching tourists stare back at us. I remember the eerie silence during these last few minutes on the water, as we relived every moment of the expedition and wondered how on earth the next months might live up to it. Safe to say it would be a challenge.
Special thanks go to the crew of the Helmer Hanssen, who never once let us see them sweat, and to Erling and Lars, for a wonderfully orchestrated introduction to Arctic field research. I think I can say on behalf of all the students, that this was an unforgettable and truly unique experience for which we are extremely grateful.
Text: Sophie Scotter