Life in the fragile, frozen Arctic
During the summer, the low ice levels make it difficult for polar bears to hunt seals. (Chris van Hove)
In the European Arctic, there is an etiquette to wildlife watching. And unfortunately, it requires something most humans lack: patience.
“Animals are wary of new things. They’re curious, but cautious,” said Dr Gary Miller, an expedition leader on the Polar Pioneer, a 54-passenger ice-strengthened expedition vessel that travels between the Svalbard archipelago in Norway, the east coast of Greenland and Iceland. “You don’t want to come at the animals directly, because they’ll think you want to eat them.”
It was sage advice for passengers during the ship’s first landing at Alkhornet in Spitsbergen, the largest island in Svalbard. In a strategic attempt to lure the ship’s passengers away from its den, an arctic fox dashed out from a rocky outcrop and then disappeared across the tundra. But just 15 minutes later, when the fox was satisfied the group was not a threat, it returned to investigate the strange herd of two legged creatures, running in circles around the group and scent-marking the small parcels of food it had previously stockpiled in the ground nearby. Bold and inquisitive, at times the Arctic fox came so close that his long tail almost brushed up against the passengers’ legs.
Unlike Antarctica, which is protected by an international agreement, numerous countries lay claim to parts of the Arctic, which makes it hard to pin down exactly how many tourists visit the region each summer, when the sun does not set below the horizon and the ice melts enough to allow expedition ships passage to the remote wilderness. However, according to the United Nations, numbers rose from about one million travellers in the early 1990s to more that 1.5 million in 2007, and the number continues to grow.
Luckily, Arctic tourism remains sustainable. A 2010 report by the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) found that operational emissions had a relatively minor impact on the Arctic marine environment, and that environmental awareness was high among ship personnel, expedition crew and tourists.
Since the Artic does not have a unified set of environmental policies, the AECO published a discretionary set of guidelines for visitors and operators that are aimed at protecting the environment, ensuring safety and promoting cultural sensitivity and social interaction with locals.
Most boats employ a team of highly-educated polar and Arctic specialists to lead expeditions. On the 14-day Jewels of the Arctic cruise operated by Aurora Expeditions, for example, passengers on the Polar Pioneer had access to a naturalist, geologist, an assistant expedition leader and Miller, an expedition leader who has spent 14 seasons in the Arctic and 20 in the Antarctic.
On board the Polar Pioneer, precautions to protect the environment are taken in simple but effective ways. Passengers wear boat-issued rubber boots on most landings, which are washed and disinfected once back on board. This keeps the boat clean, and more importantly, avoids cross contamination between sites, like the delicate spongy paradise of Alkhornet, an authorised landing site made up of hundreds of species of lichen and moss..
Dotting some landing sites are former trapper’s huts. The first visitors were hunters who came in search of whale blubber, walrus and the white fur of the Arctic fox. Old fox and partially collapsed polar traps still surround the ramshackle huts. Long abandoned, these relics are protected as part of the region’s cultural heritage.
Old Paleo-Inuit archaeological sites are also common, and are usually ideal landing spots to see both terrestrial and marine wildlife. Early settlers chose places that were favoured grazing or resting spots, to ensure they had enough animals to hunt. Today, the wildlife at these sites are shot not with guns, but with the eager click of expensive camera gear as passengers attempt to snap spectacular wildlife photos.
But there is more than just wildlife to entice visitors to the Arctic. The stunning landscape is filled with frozen glaciers, icebergs and ice floes. Best viewed from Zodiacs, passengers can watch as 10-storey high chunks of ice intermittently calve from the glacier facades and smash into the water below. It is a spectacular performance that is unfortunately indicative of a bigger problem: the Arctic is warming up, the ice is melting and glaciers are receding.