Polar Bears International

Arctic Documentary Project: A Strange-looking Iceberg

8/17/2011 7:29:03 PM

Arctic Documentary Project: A Strange-looking Iceberg

This morning is even more tranquil than the day before. We eat breakfast and shortly thereafter head into Liefdefjorden, the glaciated, submerged valley where we photographed the polar bear mother and cubs two weeks earlier. It's a beautiful morning, the sun is shining, glaciers in every direction, the water beneath our bow peppered with chunks of ancient ice as far as the eye can see. 

Almost everyone is on deck, binoculars raised in search of anything - mostly bears -until Sarah spots a strange-looking berg floating calmly amongst the others. "It's a polar bear!" she cries out in an English accent barely audible above the droning engine. Captain Mark pulls the throttle back and turns the boat in the direction she's anxiously pointing. There, drifting amid the berg bits, bobs a piece of white ice with edges too round and a snout too black to mislead us any further. It really is a polar bear and he's doing what all polar bears have done so well for nearly 250,000 years: gliding quietly through the water hunting for seals.

A well-camouflaged polar bear swims among the ice bits
A well-camouflaged polar bear swims in the open waters of Liefdefjord, Svalbard, Norway.

The captain gets us headed in the right direction then suppresses the engine to nearly idle. The bear is swimming slowly and we maintain a respectable distance of 200 yards, watching. As he paddles among the smaller bits of ice there's a larger piece the size of a small house. We're all hopeful he may climb up and pose for our cameras—but that's our desire, not the bear's. He gives the berg a serious look, then passes it quietly. At one point a seal comes into view, it swims towards the bear, they make eye contact at about twenty five yards and confirm the other's presence. The seal knows all too well the danger just ahead and prudently slips beneath the water, vanishing instantly. The waters within the deep fjord are as still as glass and equally reflective. Such calm allows the captain to maneuver the ship with precision, slowly shadowing the bear until he finally pulls himself out of the frigid waters onto an island. We stay back and give him room, watching him make his way onto the ridge, terns scattering in all directions. Here he may find a snack of tern eggs or maybe even a chick, but most likely anything he finds will be all too small to satiate the appetite of an animal that can reach nearly 1,500 pounds.

Glacial ice in Svalbard, Norway.
A piece of glacial ice from Monocobreen glacier in Liefdefjordan, Svalbard, Norway

Three hours of great photography end as we pull back out into the main channel of the Liefdefjorden. At the head of the fjord are glaciers so massive it's hard to believe. Everybody on this trip is excited to visit and photograph these massive walls of ancient ice. Almost every valley between mountain peaks has its own version of a frozen river, and it's hard not to be impressed by these gargantuan sheets of frozen water. When viewed from a distance you can easily see the patterns of motion, many glaciers meeting at a third way of the way down from all summits. Here they come together to form an even larger block, the walls reaching hundreds of feet in the air. At ocean's edge the ice stops, that is until the forces of nature splits and then sheds smaller pieces of ice, ejecting them into the frigid waters of the fjord by what is known as "calving." Calving is an volatile event or so it seems from our perspective. When the ice breaks, it most often does so with a huge explosive rumbling like that of bomb or the clapping of thunder from a prairie storm. It can be heard from miles and miles away. As the ice drops from the frozen cliffs it piles into the liquid seas, often times the brutal force creates waves that attack the glacier's base causing further degradation and additional calves. It's a hard thing to photograph since you never know where to point the camera. Sometimes the process can be so huge you hear the sound before the event is over giving you time to quickly swing your lens to capture the final stages.

Gulls flying over a fjord in Svalbard
Kittiwakes and gulls feeding on nutrients provided by the unseen river beneath the glacier.

On the east side of the fjord we see a huge flock of gulls. They appear to be feeding on something. As we approach it's obvious that they are working the waters of what seems to be a channel of moving water. From what we can tell there is most likely a river of melt-water streaming out from under the glacier and the nutrients being flushed are what they are after. You could see the current by watching the gulls. Many were sitting on the water while others circled overhead. The birds on the water would continually drift further out into the fjord. Eventually, they would take to their wings and fly back to the base of the glacier, repeating the process over and over again. It was spectacular to watch and document. The snow white birds against the shadows of the dark blue ice made for dramatic and beautiful imagery. It was another fabulous event to behold.

Photos by Daniel J. Cox/Natural Exposures.

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