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6/18 Here vs There

Which is which

overcast 45 °F


I am now where I--and maybe you--have never been: at the top of the world, scene of the midnight sun, home to ice and those who call it home and who we can see and visit as it is daytime here. It is nighttime at the bottom of our planet, winter to my summer. This is my final day at sea. I am up before Elke’s announcement for my coffee in the lounge where Miguel makes a few preparations for our day.

We sail just a bit south in Nordfjorden to Yoldiabukta for a glacier cruise.

Arriving there, aboard our Zodiac,I get lucky with an iPhone video and capture a calving event. There were three ice-shedding events like this one while we were here, one larger chunk and one smaller. This is but one more example of The Russell Luck; most visitors never see the ice fall and many many fewer are lucky enough to capture one on with their outstretched ungloved very cold hand carefully clutching an iPhone that they surely do not want to drop overboard.

When you can hear the wind, know that you can feel the cold. Icebergs, relatively small here, are the uncut diamonds of the north.

The water is deep here so there is no risk of a large wave coming from the ice fall. In shallower water, we would keep a greater distance. It is explained that we use the “rule of thumb” to gauge our limit of approach to the glacier. You hold your thumb up at full arm’s length and if the top of the glacier’s front is less than the length of your thumb, you are too close.

Later on, at Nordenskjoldbreen, the temperature is much, much warmer—47 degrees—but the wind is brisk and it vaults over the glacier so, onboard Zodiacs, we are colder today than before. There is a bit of ocean spray to get us wet; waterproof clothing is the rule here. I am lucky to have packed the correct wardrobe. If anything, I have more than I require.


After lunch it is Billefjorden with a landing at Brucebyen. The sun is bright and the temperature has risen to about 50 degrees.The birds here are mostly oblivious to us as they dash here and there in search of food but occasionally are curious at these humans in their rubber boats who, while offering no threat, do represent an encroachment.

The temperature warm up, coupled with virtually no wind, means I dress light knowing the risk of change that is always afoot. We set off for the pack ice in front of still another glacier and spot scores of beluga whales surfacing at breaks inside the ice pack. Belugas are not photogenic but you get the picture from the picture.
From time to time a seal spies upon us and we are constantly surrounded by birds feeding on nearby fish. large_64a3e030-926e-11e9-9831-c5b1467153ea.JPG
Elke works her Zodiac further into the ice than Malenthe will venture so we get to watch her become enmeshed among ice flows. She extracts herself but only with a strong effort.

Since the dawn of the internet, and my adoption of all it has to offer--and exploit--I have not been so separated from the world as I have been during this week above the Arctic Circle. There is no web site for research, no news sites to know the state of the nations on our planet and, most critically, no email or text to keep, while far away, emotionally close to the ones I love. B4 has been so truly missed. There is no way, given all that happens with her each day, that I can ever completely catch up.

What adventures have occurred among my children and grandchildren? Have Mandy and Ryan yet welcomed Simon to the world? I know nothing of everything. I am ready to retreat from the end of the earth to occupy, once more, its more hospitable midsections. Contradicting myself, however, I am pondering a trip south this winter. Penguins anyone?

The ends of the Earth, south and north, are similar in some ways: There is complete darkness at the crux of winter; they contain large unexplored regions; and only certain wildlife survive in such extremes.

However, for all the similarities these two regions of the world are actually quite different. Aside from Miles’ and Elliot’s awareness of Santa’s North Pole hereabouts, there are pronounced distinguishing features of the two polar regions, one from the other. The origin of the word “Antarctic” stems from the Greek antarktikos meaning “opposite to the north,” from ant- ‘against’ + arktikos.

First, there are no Penguins here in the Arctic. Here, they would be eaten en mass. Penguins are only seen in Antarctica. In the Antarctic, penguins are safe on land because there are no predators; in the water seals await, their source of danger.

Second. Polar bears only exist here, not there.

Third. Antarctica is a continent surrounded by oceans; the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents. Oh, and humankind make their homes around the Arctic in North America, Europe and Asia. There are no humans making their homes around Antarctica. To be clear, Svalbard is on solid earth, albeit frozen. North of here is only ice.

Fourth. Arctic winter runs from October through March; Antarctica’s winter is from March through September.

Fifth. There are over 900 flowering plant species here. The Antarctic has very little vegetation, mostly lichens and algae with only two flowering plants.

Sixth. There are over 40 different indigenous populations (not just scientists) living in the Arctic such as the Inuit in Alaska, Northern Canada, and Greenland, the Saami in the "circumpolar" areas of Finland, Norway, Sweden and Northwestern Russia, and the Chukchi in Siberia and the Russian Far East. There is no indigenous population in Antarctica; actually no permanent population at all other than seasonal workers and small settlements at research stations.

Seven. There are lots of regional seals seen in Antarctica and nowhere else. They include Leopard seals, Weddell seals, Crabeater seals, and Elephant seals which do not exist here.

Eight. Here there are walrus, narwhals, Arctic fox, wolves, Arctic hares, reindeer, oxen and puffins. None of these exist in Antarctica. Note that I have seen no narwhals, hares, wolves or oxen.

Nine. Lands here are claimed by and belong to specific nations: Alaska is the US, Canada has a lot of Arctic regions. Seven nations have made territory claims far from "home" in Antarctica. A Treaty System set up in 1961 mandates collaboration on scientific and environmental preservation however.

Ten. Antarctica is much colder than the Arctic. That is because Antarctica is a high solid land continent covered by a very thick layer of ice. The Arctic is ice atop ocean water. That water, even as cold as it is, moderates the air temperature.

We were tied to the pier back in Longyearbyen even before dinner ended at 9:00pm when we were serenaded by the wonderful kitchen staff (our chef is Jamacian). After dinner we retired to the lounge. Bittersweet announcements by Elke and a slide show (quite good) by Rutger finished the evening. Then it is back to the cabin to pack all the cold-weather gear, get a good night’s sleep and be prepared to begin a long and perhaps arduous travel day tomorrow followed by still another the next day.

After sleep and disembarkation from M/S Quest--the first time the gangway has been needed for that purpose in a week--there is time to meander up the Longyearbyen main street for the coffee shop that PolarQuest has persuaded to open early so we expeditioners, needing to leave M/S Quest early so it can be prepared for the next group of adventurers--all German speakers this trip--can take up residence. The shop boasts great internet connectivity so I can read the news, upload and download and eavesdrop on a very nerdy local guide explain to his newly arrived and wide-eyed client about not wandering out of town without a rifle.12HomeInLongyearbyen.JPGIMG_8587.JPGIMG_8586.JPGIMG_8588.JPGIMG_8590.JPG

Svalbard aboard M/S Quest hosted and led by Polar Quest’s Elke Lindner comes highly recommended by a man who is both discerning and critical. Bravo.large_IMG_8311.JPG

This is the final episode describing this journey; I'll not bore you with news of flights home.

I would, however, like to leave you with this commentary as the summation of all that has happened to me these few days. Unlike many of my political leaders, I believe that climate change is caused by human activity, is real and it will touch us all. The ocean is warming. Scientists tell us that there is less oxygen in the water. Sea ice is provably and observably waning (now at the lowest level in four decades). Algae grows on and within sea ice. Amphipods eat that algae. Whales and fish eat those amphipods. Seals and birds eat the fish. Polar bears eat the seals.

Climate change equals a disruption of the food chain. That, my friends, means that our world is changing and, I submit, not for the good.

I have seen during this journey what my grandchildren may be unable to see when they are old enough, wealthy enough and in possession of free time enough to follow in my footsteps. When polar bears can be observed only in zoos, we will have lost a bit of what makes us earthlings.

Normally one to embrace change, I relish the unknown. This unknown, however, I fear. Post a comment if you will. I'd be interested to hear your take on that and on all we shared during this week at the top of the world.

Posted by paulej4 16:08 Archived in Svalbard

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What a phenomenal adventure, but my heart breaks at your last post....
Safe travels home.
Mary Lee & Ed

by Mary Lee Schneider

I have loved your travel commentary!! We went to the Arctic about 5 years ago. Your experience was so fascinating compared to ours!! We were on the Silver Sea Explorer. Certainly not as challenging as your experience!! We did see polar bears and whales—plus had an incredible sighting of two blue whales!! Amazing place and I am so glad you shared your experiences with me.

by Jan Sharry

Your posts, pics, videos are magnificent! Climate change is real. More real now for us than we had known before. Thank you for sharing your journey. We look forward to the next one. We're in calm waters now, enjoying NYC. At this reading, we hope you are safe and sound with your beloved B4. Until next time..
Steven and Gena W.

by Steven and Gena Williams

So many questions. How do you know when glacier is about to calve? How so plants grow if no land? Why are belugas not photogenic? Was your heart breaking at the beauty and tragedy the entire trip?

by Theresa

How do you know when glacier is about to calve? You don’t. Even when you see an outcropping leaning precariously you are told by guides or ships crew that “it hasn’t changed since our last visit here.” My capture of a calving event is an example of what Beryl and I call, simply, “Russell Luck.”

How so plants grow if no land? There is land in Svalbard where I was. There is only ice as you move farther north.

Why are belugas not photogenic? Their anatomy is such that they breathe through their blowholes by surfacing with an arched back without revealing their heads (as killer whales do) or their tails (as grey whales or humpbacks do). It’s just an anatomy thing.

Was your heart breaking at the beauty and tragedy the entire trip? Yes and no. I’m not convinced that it’s too late unless our politicians continue to reject what, to me, is obvious: that climate change is real and that human activity contributes to that. If they accept that changing human activity can impact climate change then maybe it’s not too late. I guess along with Russell Luck there also exists Russell Hope.

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by paulej4

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