In a way our long trip from pole to pole just started today. On a sunny afternoon with light playing over the ranks of white peaks to our south and a slick open sea we gently nudged over the line marking 80°N. Considering that the reciprocal latitude in the south lies either atop the Antarctic ice sheet or beyond the Ross Ice Shelf that defied the advance of polar exploration for so long, the far north offered balmy weather. As I write we lie at anchor at the pleasant harbour of Virgohamna in Danskgattet – the starting point for several failed expeditions into the ice of the north seeking the pole; across the fjord from here is Frambukta where Amundsen anchored during his exploration of the north. So many that went before perished or were turned back by the ice that lies to the north… yet we have seen no sea ice here. Looking north from 80°N we were met by a boundless horizon that seemed to beckon us to explore just that little further towards the pole. Perhaps the same clear seas called to the early explorers but it is unlikely. The northern coast of Svalbard is experiencing extremely low sea ice this year and things here have changed since the first charts were penned. Many glaciers have retreated from the touch of the warming waters that once lapped coolly at their feet. Bays once blocked all year by fast ice now offer cosy anchorages to the many small yachts that, once rare in these forbidding waters, are now common.
For us we now begin the long journey south – first to Longyearbyen to resupply and then the long haul across the North Atlantic towards Greenland. We leave behind us a startling wilderness, albeit one that holds the scars of a long era of exploitation. In addition to the abandoned whaling stations and trappers huts that de-populated the region from much of its wildlife, the signs of modern usage are also all around us. The area buzzes with ships and frequently we stumble over accumulated litter on these remote beaches. Most worrying of all are the many discarded fishing nets that float through these waters. Silent killers, they entangle and kill birds and mammals before washing up on the beach to display the bleached bones of their grizzly cargo. Just yesterday we hauled one of these nets out of the water to find several guillemot carcasses entwined in the coarse net.
The Admiralty Pilot Guide for this area declares that:
“There were formerly large herds of reindeer, but these, along with the arctic fox and polar bear, have now been practically exterminated by trappers. Whales have left the vicinity and seals, which formerly abounded, have almost disappeared; only vast swarms of sea-fowl of various kinds remain.”
Clearly the land is starting to recover since such a bleak outlook was penned. Life is slowly returning to the north following historical exploitation – on this trip we have already met with whale and seal species that have been hard to find since the whaling fleets abandoned these waters. As we set our sails for the south we hope to focus on examples of how humans can live in balance with these wild places and how coastal communities are changing to ensure that wild-places and wild animals survive into the future. Here in Svalbard for example, most of the animals are now protected and the Governor’s Office of Svalbard is a very real presence in the region constantly checking on sailors and tourist operators to ensure that modern activities do not impact upon the natural and cultural heritage of the islands. Life in the poles is certainly precarious but it seems there is a growing commitment to retain and nurture wild places at the end of the Earth.